"I wonder if it’s harder to live with killing someone on purpose, or by accident?” Ashley Maya asks, the first time I meet her.
We are at the Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee. A thick sheet of Plexiglas separates us, and Maya is speaking into a telephone receiver balanced between her ear and shoulder. I hear the hum of another prisoner’s conversation faintly through my handset.
An hour ago, I was sliding my driver’s license through a slot in a jail clerk’s window.
In return, the clerk pushed out a printout with Maya’s name, jail ID number, and a window assignment. Motioning toward an open door, the lady jailer said, “That’s the visiting room.”
It resembles what you see in the movies — beige walls and a tile floor. Nineteen booths feature 38 black phones. On the wall hangs a poster explaining how to deposit money into a prisoner’s account. A sign on another wall forbids the use of cameras.
I take a seat in the waiting room among a handful of people. A toddler in pink footie pajamas uses an enormous teddy bear as a pillow. She’s curled up in a plastic blue seat next to her older sister, who appears to be six or seven. At one point, their mother encourages the girls to fold their hands. In Spanish, they pray together.
On the other side of the room, a large bleached blonde in smeared black eyeliner, red lipstick, and eyebrows plucked into permanent surprise, speaks frantically into her cell phone. She wears baggy, worn-out sweatpants that reach only to mid-thigh, a ribbed tank top with oversized arm holes, and fluffy slippers. On her right bicep is an elaborate peacock tattoo.
“You did what you had to do,” she assures the person on the other end on the line. “You should see me, I’m all black and blue, and I’m starving. All I ate today was a bologna sandwich.”
A few inmates are released while we wait. Two women stand up and clap when a spiky-haired redhead is ushered through a thick sliding glass door. The redhead is given a bag; it contains the items she had on her at the time of her arrest.
“Please tell me someone has a cigarette. For the love of God, someone, anyone.” The redhead looks around the waiting room. “I can smell it! I know someone in here is holding out!”
The man next to me shifts in his seat. His face is sliced up, as if someone had taken a broken bottle to it. He turns to me and says, “I’ve been waiting here forever for my girl. She’s getting out tonight. We got arrested in the Gaslamp. I did eight hours in the drunk tank. She’s been in here for three days. Can you believe that? Just for disturbing the peace and possession of some weed.”
A group of women are gathered across the room. Most are gray-haired. One holds a white boom box in her wrinkled hand.
“How’s you night?” a clerk asks the women.
“Blessed,” someone responds.
The women, who are with the El Cajon Pregnancy Care Center, speak with urgency about an inmate they are about to visit. Eventually, a Las Colinas employee escorts them through a sliding door, into the recesses of the correction facility.
At 8:05 p.m., people begin to filter into the visiting room. I follow them. I take a seat on a metal stool in front of window number 16. Most of the visitors seem to be familiar, greeting each other with nods and handshakes. Some discuss Christmas plans. A professionally dressed man plays Angry Birds on his iPhone.
Moments later, the prisoners shuffle in.
Ashley Maya takes a seat across from me. She is five-foot-three and around 110 pounds, and, at 22, she could pass for 15. Her hazel eyes are large and saucer-like. Her dishwater hair is long and wavy. She wears beige prison clothes that wash out her already pale complexion.
Maya was a 21-year-old Marine stationed in Yuma when she was convicted and charged with two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter and a DUI resulting in bodily injury. Due to overcrowding in California’s prisons, she was given the option of doing local time.
In October 2011, AB 109 — known as “realignment reform” — was triggered by Governor Jerry Brown when the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its inmate population. In 2011, California’s 22 prisons stood at 185 percent capacity, but by June 2013, they must be at 137.5 percent capacity. If they remain above that percentage, convicts will be released early without supervision.
Maya’s accident occurred during the early hours of February 12, 2012. Her Chevrolet HHR flipped while transitioning to I-8 from the 163, ejecting two passengers. Vasty Castillo suffered from a broken back and other serious injuries, while Pedro Conceicao, Maya’s best friend and fellow Marine, was killed. A front-seat passenger, Bryan Salcido, escaped with minor injuries.
At the scene Maya blew a .11 blood-alcohol concentration.
She is four months into an 11-month sentence.
Fifteen miles away, Cassie Briscoe sits on a couch in her Mission Valley apartment, charging her ankle bracelet. Briscoe is on house arrest.
“I have to charge this twice a day, for an hour each time. I haven’t taken a shower since getting it put on.” She chuckles. “I have to take baths and hang this leg out the side of it, so my monitor doesn’t get wet.”
Briscoe was released from Las Colinas on September 11 after serving only 16 days of her six-month term. Her felony arrest was for the sale and transport of crystal meth. The remainder of her sentence will be spent on house arrest under the same bill, AB 109, that sent Ashley Maya to jail instead of prison.
On July 9, 2012, the county’s Parole and Alternative Custody (CPAC) unit began selecting inmates for electronic monitoring. Briscoe qualified. She may leave her home only to go to work and a rehab program.