Lockdown blues

It’s the California prison model: If treated badly enough for long enough, inmates will correct their behavior.

a Sacramento native serving a 26-to-life sentence on a “three strikes” nonviolent drug offense. He is currently incarcerated at the California Correctional Center in Susanville.

Sirens blare. There’s a stampede down the hall and acontingent of correctional officers converge, wielding batons and pepper spray.

“Get on your stomachs!” they scream. “Don’t move a muscle!”

The officers zip-tie our hands behind our backs, using plastic flex-cuffs that are much stronger than the twist-ties they resemble. A few feet away, an inmate presses a shirt against his slashed throat. He stanches the wound while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. After he’s whisked away, inmates begin to complain.

“My hands are turning blue!”

To take my mind off the pain in my hands—the tingle rapidly turns to a sting, then to pinpricks of fire—I listen to the officers’ talk. Some snap photos and write notes.

I’ve run out of distractions, and my gaze is transfixed by the solid steel door: I imagine the lid to my casket will look much like it.

Lockdown has become the norm in the prisons of my native Golden State. When a racial incident occurs, inmates are “slammed”—sorted based on gang, race and geographic considerations. While prison managers determine what tactics to employ, all prison activities come to an abrupt halt. Since California’s prisons are racially segregated systems prone to chronic violence, there are no simple solutions to the conflict.

After a series of ethnic disturbances at the California Correctional Center in Susanville in the spring of 2006, there was a riot on July 31. Just a few days later, a number of white inmates had their throats cut—allegedly by members of their own race. In the vernacular, “Susanville is rocking and rolling.”

If correctional settings intend to emphasize rehabilitation, drug treatment and “marketable” job training, lockdown is counterproductive. Since 80 percent of the inmates in state prison have substance-abuse issues, treatment and training seem like a more logical approach. But decades of draconian sentencing mandates and diminished civil liberties have made lockdown the main staple on penology’s diet. It’s the California model: If treated badly enough for long enough, inmates will correct their behavior.

What a monumentally misguided prescription.

In addition to lockdowns precipitated by violence, institutions like Susanville are sometimes placed on “rolling lockdowns.” Whenever staff shortages stretch correctional officers’ ranks too thin—or sometimes for less legitimate reasons—the administration will simply lock the place down.

This approach results in mind-bending isolation. Sequestered 24 hours a day, inmates are allowed to live, if not much else. While those “involved in” or “suspected of” institutional transgressions are carted off to administrative segregation (that’s “the hole” in movies), the rest are left to fester. Cut off from outdoor exercise, educational programs, and the ability to obtain basic amenities—like envelopes to mail letters to loved ones—the thin grasp even the strongest have on sanity is challenged by the conditions of untreated addiction (no recovery meetings), and many have co-occurring mental ailments. California’s prison suicide rate is the highest in the nation. The human mind can only take so much, and the lockdowns create new problems even as they exacerbate old ones.

The loss of most civil liberties is part of punishment, but separation from loved ones is heart-wrenching. While some institutions allow visiting during lockdowns, Susanville takes a harder line. Family photos become the only solace. My cellmate, a young man from L.A., stares at pictures of his wife for hours to counteract the pressure of being locked up with me 24 hours a day.

Or maybe he’s just lonely as hell. I’m not qualified to make a diagnosis, but I don’t need a doctorate in psychology to recognize the damage he’s enduring because of severed family ties.

Education, like visitation, is known to lower rates of recidivism, but it’s low on the hierarchy of correctional priority, and suffers even more during lockdowns. I’m a clerk in the education department, and can see for myself the advantages for inmates continuing their studies.

Institutions generally return to normal at some point—but not always. Even when the lockdown is lifted and we temporarily escape the confines of our two-man asylums, we know peace is always temporary. Once incidents begin to compound, the response by staff is predictable. But it’s even worse when the lockdown is the result of staff shortages—inmates are being additionally punished for sins we haven’t committed, crimes with which we were never charged.

A few weeks later, lockdown released, I’m finally given the privilege of a breath of not-so-fresh air—but I once again end up cuffed in the dayroom.

Though we’re no longer in the middle of an emergency, “search teams” of correctional officers are ripping through our belongings. They confiscate books, clothes and small appliances. There’s a policy about excess property—but it seems more about the constant pressure of correctional managers, who use policy to draw the walls of an already-restricted environment even closer.

As I wait the completion of this stripping—materially, physically, emotionally—I see again the solid steel door, so like the lid of a coffin in shape and form.