San Diego Otay Mesa is part of a vast sweep of scrub that stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border as far as Texas. Donovan State Prison State Prison is located there, a huge complex of buildings 25 miles southeast of downtown San Diego.
Built to house 2200 men, today 4636 prisoners are held under a bristle of antennae, guard towers, enclosed walls, and barbed wire. The foreboding stillness is like a mountain that kills all sound. Just a mile away stands a medium-security county jail. When compared to the state prison, the George F. Bailey Detention Facility is as benign as an elementary school playground.
I turn in to the parking lot, which is almost full in early afternoon. Men and women are lounging in their cars, windows down and doors open, their faces greasy with the heat, clothing loosened. Children are listless and cranky. I park and lock the car, whose temperature inside, an hour later, will be over 120 degrees.
Racing to get out of the sun, I make for a sandstone-colored building, Number 4 (all buildings are numbered), the jail's registration area. Inside, clerks move about behind thick, bullet-proof glass. On my side, the place is jammed. People are talking to clerks, in line, or planted on plastic chairs bolted to the floor. They are here to speak to some of the 1600 inmates held inside George F. Bailey; I am here to talk to those who wait to talk.
It is estimated within two years that those incarcerated in the U.S. prison system will number more than 2,000,000, according to a recent NPR news report. In San Diego there are six other county jails besides George F. Bailey, as well as a federal and a state prison, two juvenile halls, and a few probation camps. The seven county jails hold a total of approximately 5300 men and women. On the day I drove out to George F. Bailey, 11,567 individuals were incarcerated in the San Diego facilities mentioned above.
From news reports, television, and movies, I know some of what their lives are like inside prison. What I don't know is what it's like for the prisoners' families. How do they make do while their loved ones serve time? What are their daily lives like? How often are they able to visit the jail? What is incarceration doing to their family, to their marriage?
A thick red line has been painted on the floor. A sign says to stand behind it while waiting for a clerk. One of the women behind the glass motions me forward.
"Hi," I say, and then raise my voice, talking through glass. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes, I can hear you fine." Her voice comes out a little muffled.
"Good. I'm doing an article about families of prisoners..." I drop my voice.
The clerk wears dreadlocks, which comes as a surprise, and a nametag that I cannot read. While the entire building is air-conditioned, with so much activity in the lobby, the door opening and closing so often, it is much warmer on my side. The clerk looks comfortable.
"I'd like to interview families of men incarcerated here and wondered if I needed to get permission."
"To do what?"
"To talk to them," I say, indicating those moving about the lobby.
"It's better if you speak with my supervisor," says the clerk, and slips off her chair.
"Are you the one from the newspaper?" I whirl around. It's a minute later and a dark-haired man has stepped up behind me. We shake hands and introduce ourselves.
"Are you a supervisor?"
"No, I'm the principal clerk."
I ask for the spelling of his name. "For my article," I say. He suggests we go outside. I follow him past the glass doors. "You have to understand," he says, turning to face me and squinting against the glaring sunlight. "We have more than a couple of dozen clerks..."
"Exactly how many?"
"I'd rather not give exact numbers, but our clerks move hundreds of people through the registration process every day." He went on to explain that clerks made sure money and letters were routed; they functioned as a telephone service, answering all outside calls; and when the men were ready to leave, they processed them out. "And all this is done under conditions of potential hazard."
I didn't understand.
"For example, none of us, the clerks and myself, are trained in the use of firearms. We don't carry weapons. Suppose one of our names appeared in the papers, and somebody with a gripe tracked their address down? The clerk and their family might be placed in danger."
Okay, no names.
"Could I ask you some questions?"
"Sure, but let's do it in my office."
He leads the way next door. We gain entrance to the building only after he punches in a code that unlocks the doors. His office is small. He sits on one side of the desk. I am snug on the other side. "What is it like for these families?"
"Many of them find it a hardship to visit. Sometimes they have trouble finding a babysitter and have to bring the kids. Or they have no transportation and have to wait until a friend can drive them out."
"Do you think it's a financial hardship?"
"For the families? I'd say, yes it is. When the man is in jail, he's not working and bringing home a paycheck."
"So what happens when they get out? What is the prognosis?"
"You'll have to ask them or the parole people." His tone is not unkind. "My job ends when they leave here."
"Can I talk to some of them, the visitors?"
Talk to who you want, he says, only his clerks will not be able to help me. "Visitors must wait 45 minutes between registering and when they get to speak to an inmate. You can talk to them then. Just keep things down."
"Is today a good time?"
Prison visits take place Friday through Monday from 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. "The earlier you get here, the better," he says. "Tomorrow is Saturday, and it's pretty busy after eight."