Prison Blues

Visiting time at Wasco State

Talk about tough doormen. You show up in denim. "No denim," they say and send you back to change in the car. You return in blue slacks, and they turn you away again: "No blue pants." You come back in borrowed black slacks that ride up your ass and won't button in front. These pass muster, but, "No sunglasses. No shower slippers." Finally, you come back again; they check your ID and keep it. They rubber-stamp your right inner wrist with the cartoon image of an ant flexing its muscles. You empty your pockets, remove your shoes and pass through a metal detector.

Then it's just a few heavy doors, electrified razor-wire-topped security gates and guard stations later, and you're inside Club Wasco.

Wasco State Prison sits north of Bakersfield, with grim, sun-baked concrete walls and electric fences. It looks like the ultimate prefab budget warehouse, made for warehousing humans.

My wife and I are visiting a friend who went in a year ago for possession with intent to sell, which is what they call it when you have enough marijuana to be throwing bags of it out your car window when you realize you're the object of a sting operation. I don't recall the whole story, except that Norm, let's call him, had arrived unexpectedly at his Costa Mesa cul-de-sac bungalow in time to notice it was being ransacked by police. He turned tail and started tossing. Not his finest moment, he says now, and it has been seen nationwide, thanks to a film crew from the Discovery Channel that was riding in one of the pursuit cars. I don't watch Discovery much. Is there an America's Most Hapless Criminals program on it?

Norm will turn 60 behind bars in a couple of months. He has a couple of more years to go before he gets to stop sharing a 12-foot-by-6-foot cell and stainless steel toilet with another inmate.

The hall where you visit has an institutional DMV vibe. Junk-food vending machines line one wall, with a yellow line painted on the Formica floor in front that inmates can't cross. You, who are allowed to bring $30 in change and $1 bills in, can buy microwave burritos or Fritos for your inmate.

You sit at round tables that are low to the ground so you can't pass contraband under them. Along with the guards in the room, you are watched through video cameras and one-way mirrors. Nonetheless, says Norm, there's no shortage of drugs inside, with heroin and speed being the most popular. "I can understand guys doing the heroin, to escape in their heads," he says. "But speed? What, are they trying to make sure they don't miss a minute of this?"

You read the same in newspapers, that drugs are readily available in prison, which raises a point I've mentioned before: If authorities can't keep drugs out of the most locked-down, unfree places we have, just how repressive will America have to become for the prigs in Washington to achieve their goal of a "drug-free America"?

Some inmates make wine out of grated apples, famed for its hangovers. Norm's staying clear of it all, wanting no blemish on his record that could slow his path out of Wasco. It's hard enough staying out of trouble. Racial tensions run high—a great many of the whites are skinheads—and a lot of the population has gang affiliations. It's not easy being a loner there, and sometimes it's impossible. When the inmates called a work strike to protest their smoking privileges being curtailed, the word went out in the yard that if you didn't go along, you'd take a beating. So you don't show up for work and take a demerit instead.

On the outside, Norm wasn't a drug lord. He made his living doing carpentry, and he was as good a man as I've met when it came to lending a hand to friends and neighbors. Whether you view the pot dealers in our midst as the scourge of youth or the succor of age, for a lot of them, it's just a sideline, like selling Amway.

He loved working outdoors. One could easily lose one's affection for the outdoors in Wasco's blast-furnace weather, but Norm signed up for a landscaping job so he could be outside more, and he wears a permanent sunburn. He's learning a lot, he says, and is allowed a small vegetable patch to grow tomatoes and peppers in.

He exercises. He's learning to draw and paint sport fish. He counts the days and is trying to make the best of it.

Looking at the other blue-clad convicts in the room, you have to wonder about their stories. Hard cases, mental cases, sweet-faced kids: Who was a predator? Who just had the wrong friends? Who had been hungry? Who is greedy or violent? Who was handy—like OC's Arthur Carmona—when the cops needed a perp? Who was there because he gouged us all for billions while creating an energy crisis that could have easily cost lives? Sorry, the last one was a trick question. You won't see that scum in this sort of place.

My heart doesn't bleed for all criminals. A friend recently paid another kind of visit to neighboring Corcoran prison, to a parole hearing, where he had to breathe the same air as the man who cold-bloodedly murdered his stepdad in Anaheim two decades ago. Behind bars, he has only continued committing mayhem upon his fellow man since then. They could flush his ilk down a toilet for all I care, if it weren't that our system also has a proven talent for sticking innocent men on death row.

Innocent or guilty, they're in there at our expense. We're paying $26,894 per year to incarcerate Norm and each of his neighbors (not counting the costs of law enforcement, prosecution, prison construction, settling lawsuits over guards shooting and raping inmates, and sundry expenses). That amount's going up, as our Gray Governor, in the same season in which he slashed a billion from the state budget, has pushed through a heaping pay hike to the rank and file of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, boosting the average guard's annual pay of $55,000 to an estimated $74,000 by 2008, plus higher retirement benefits.

It is here that we leave my friend Norm—he'll stay put for a couple of years—to ponder briefly why we have so goddamned many people in prison. The guards' union spent $2.3 million to help elect Davis last time and already has $660,000 invested in him this election cycle. (They play both sides, previously raining similar largesse upon Pete Wilson.) They have opposed reforming drug laws, supported three strikes laws and fight their needed repeal or reform. In short, they oppose anything that threatens the steady flow of raw material to their human warehouses.

"We're just blue-collar guys getting our voices heard," they argue, and their work is certainly less pleasant than the prison builders and others who get rich off crime. Being a guard is probably like working on an alligator farm: boring as snot because all alligators do is sleep and feed, and nerve-shattering because if you get sloppy and the mood hits him, the alligator will chomp your knee off.

But they are spending millions influencing what should be above influence: justice. And they're raiding the coffers of our greatest hope for keeping kids out of prison: education. The state spends about $6,000 per year educating a student, nearly 4.5 times less than it spends imprisoning him once he screws up. Seventy-three percent of our classrooms are more than 25 years old. Statewide, teachers average $48,000 per year. Even in upscale Newport Beach, the starting pay for a teacher is $34,528, which after 25 years tops out at $47,519. (If you've got a master's and 75 units of additional education, the pay starts at $41,500.)

Most teachers work their asses off in the classroom and put in countless unpaid hours. Some spend thousands of dollars of their own money on classroom supplies because schools have no funds for them. And if you think a teacher's job is much less dangerous than a prison guard's, you haven't been to a school lately.

There's a lot more to ponder about prisons and schools, but for the nonce, what does it say about us as a civil society that the only time we're willing to spend decent money on a kid is after we've tried him as an adult?

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