In 1977, when mandatory sentencing laws were enacted, the California Institution for Women was the only prison in California that housed women exclusively. There are now two others, both in Chowchilla, and women are also incarcerated in rehab centers and conservation camps and community-based facilities.
Since 1987, the number of women in California facilities has risen around 300 percent — at the beginning of 1987, that population totaled 3564, while today it numbers about 10,753. According to recent Department of Corrections statistics, 34 percent of the state's incarcerated women are imprisoned for property crimes and 30 percent for drug crimes. Today, on average, women's facilities are occupied at 176 percent of capacity. The California Institution for Women was designed to hold 1026 prisoners. At this writing, it houses 1963.
Dee was processed into the prison system at the Central California Women's Facility, in Chowchilla, a six-hour drive north of San Diego. Valley State Prison for Women is built just around the corner on an intersecting road, and a lot of first-time visitors end up standing in long lines at the wrong prison only to be sent packing with a shrug and a "whoops, try again tomorrow." I was lucky and took the right turnoff. I found myself showing my ID at the guardpost of a serious-looking facility with rifle-toting sentries manning the watchtowers, miles of barbed wire, and an entry room crowded with forlorn-looking family members and friends, filling out the visit paperwork and being searched and x-rayed before entering the facility.
Central California Women's Facility is the only prison that has x-rayed me, and I understand the machine works sporadically. Most institutions settle for using metal detectors, having you empty and pull out your pockets and remove your shoes. For x-raying, they make you stand in funny positions, with your arms out as if you're flying and with legs lifted one at a time in a strange bunny-hop ritual. We could carry in only $40, all in ones, plus a single vehicle key, a photo ID and, at that time, a sealed pack of cigarettes, which they'd open, inspect, and mark.
I went to see Dee as soon as she was allowed visits. She was being kept in a wing where we had to talk through Plexiglas with boxy old phone receivers. These little talk booths were set up around the rim of a large circular room, and on the day I showed up, I was the only visitor. A guard had to open the building, go find Dee, and bring her down, and then he sat at a desk right in front of Dee as we tried to converse about what this prison was proving to be like for her. Her accommodations were a double cell among two tiers of identical cages placed around an atrium, all overlooked by a second-story control-room tower they called "the bubble," from which guards watched inmates' every movement 24/7. This included showers that could be observed by any male guard in the bubble.
She's tough, my babydoll, and she'd been going through the correctional-facility wringer for a while at this point. I knew she'd soon be released into the general population, but she was plenty strong enough to fight off unwelcome advances from both guards and amorous inmates. Though, it should be said, she and I had already allowed that, sooner or later, another inmate's attentions would indeed be welcomed. It's just an inevitability of the faux-family units that women in prison set up -- for support, for supplies, for survival. I was emotionally preparing myself for Dee's having a female lover (not her first, not even her first since I met her), so I told her, "As long as I'm your number one, and the person you're with is good for you and good to you, I'm okay with it." She even gave me license to help her choose potential hookups, half-jokingly; but you can be sure we were both checking out the other female inmates in the visit rooms.
I gave Dee final approval over girls I dated too. This arrangement seemed perfectly natural, and certainly necessary. We were looking at around a 20-year sentence -- at best. If we were going to be in each other's arms at the end of it, that was gonna take a lot of improvising re our other relationships and lovers in the meantime. Reality check -- we weren't planning to be celibate or vacuum-sealed in Baggies between her conviction and parole.
Of course, talking such smack and making it work are two different things. Luckily, we're both choosy about whom we bump naughty bits with. In her case, with HIV, TB, and three kinds of hepatitis running rampant in California prisons, it pays to be picky.
After a few weeks' processing, the state moved Dee down the road to Valley State Prison, where we could now spend face-to-face time in the visit room. I was driving my LeBaron convertible six hours each way over the Tehachapi Mountains, just south of Bakersfield, two or three weekends a month. The endless drives were rewarded with a six-hour visit on Saturday and again on Sunday. I grew to enjoy the trek up -- playing Pink Floyd and Badfinger CDs, growing increasingly excited as I got closer to Chowchilla, counting the miles, knowing that soon I'd be kissing the woman I loved (something we were allowed to do only at the beginning and end of each visit).
The trip home always seemed longer, beginning with that endless walk out of the visit room and across the prison grounds, leaving her behind as armed guards ushered me through the automatic barbed-wire gates and I returned to my car, where I was rarely in the mood for music until well into the interminable drive home. The worst mountain-pass weather always seemed to hit on the way home. Or maybe I just didn't notice storms on the way to Chowchilla.
Weather along that Bakersfield stretch could be brutal. One night, driving through rain and thick fog, I got lost on a gas exit and couldn't even spot signs leading back to Highway 99. After about a half hour of driving who knows where, in who-knows-what direction, all evidence of life and industry were lost in the haze and I could barely see the road. When a car appeared from nowhere and turned onto the street in front of me, I followed its taillights in hopes that it would lead me to civilization. After about ten minutes of follow the leader, the car came to a stop and the driver opened his door. Even through the fog, I could see his quizzical expression as he approached my open driver's side window.