Matthew Suárez 11 a.m., Nov. 28
Meet the Mansonites, plus Loving The Inmate: Law & Order It Ain’t
Prison Encounters with Charlie’s Angels, plus Loving the Inmate
Prison Encounters with Charlie’s Angels, Loving The Inmate,
1 Meet The Mansonites: Prison Encounters With Charlie’s Angels
2 Loving The Inmate: When Your Love Is Locked Up
3 Prison Visit Photo album (under construction)
- MEET THE MANSONITES: PRISON ENCOUNTERS WITH CHARLIE’S ANGELS (OF DEATH)
Some of you may be aware, from my past Reader features, of my girl Danielle Barcheers (aka Dee), convicted in Vista for being an accessory to an Escondido murder and currently serving a life sentence in Chowchilla prison. At the time, she was the youngest female ever convicted of a capital crime in CA state history – she was just a couple of days past her 15th birthday when the incident occurred that landed her in prison.
Seeing a loved one on trial for her freedom – losing – and then choosing to stick by that loved one, you can’t imagine what this is like just by reading what some reporter writes or from watching TV courtroom and prison dramas.
The first women’s prison I had occasion to visit was CIW, California Institution for Women, just under two hours north, in Corona. A lot of longtime lifers are interred there.
I was startled the first time I turned around in the visit room to find myself face to face with Manson family killer Leslie Van Houten, whom I recognized from a TV special I’d seen just a few weeks before (when a loved one is imprisoned, you watch a lot of documentaries about prisons).
Van Houten’s mom visited often and I talked to the small, fragile woman a few times. Inmates aren’t allowed to handle money and the old lady had arthritis and couldn’t get coins into the vending machines, so I’d help her out. We’d chat while the inmates lined up for periodic restroom breaks (taken all together, under a watchful guard’s eye).
Van Houten’s mom fascinated me – what must it be like, I wondered, to live every day knowing the rest of the planet thinks of your loved one as a notorious murderer, a monster?
Van Houten’s mom never revealed much insight into anything other than the best bus station cafeterias, but we had commonality and instant rapport as if we were kin in a big cozy clan, attending these weekly family funerals.
The first time I saw Susan Atkins at CIW, I was displeased to find myself sitting across from her as we ate our hot lunches. I kept recalling the unspeakable bloody crimes committed in the name of her onetime god Manson - I did not pass her the ketchup.
Atkins (now 52) claimed to become a "born again Christian" in 1974 and has since married a Harvard-schooled lawyer, often seen in the visit room with her, and she even has a website where supporters (??) and admirers (?!?!?) can email her.
She’s been turned down for parole ten times (her lawyer-husband represented her in 2000). In June 2003, Atkins petitioned the state to reduce her sentence because over the years she’s become a “political prisoner.” Her petition was denied. Van Houten has had fourteen parole denials.
Remind me to tell you some other time about my encounters in the prison visit room with husband/mistress killer Betty Broderick ------
- LOVING THE INMATE: WHEN MY LOVE WAS LOCKED UP FOR LIFE
During the two days that the jury deliberated, the rest of the world seemed on freeze-frame, and I spoke with no one besides Dee's mom. We spent the time on uncomfortable wooden benches outside the doors to Department 17. Through the Vista Courthouse windows, we could see the TV news trucks raising transmitters and the makeup flunkies prettying up local newscasters, who never failed to grandstand for the final moments of a high-profile murder trial.
Few of these "journalists" had attended any of the trial itself. Informed that the grim couple sitting on the bench were the mother and the fiancé of the accused, reporters would approach us every few minutes to ask for an interview, and we became skilled at polite denials.
Whenever one of us moved away from the other, the horde of paparazzi would attack en masse, five or ten at a time surrounding me, the same number surrounding her, with others standing between us, as if one of us would relent if not buoyed by the strength of the other. Their strategy was military-like in precision -- I never dreamed so much fanfare could accompany my every visit to the bathroom..
The bailiff told us to keep an eye out for Dee's lawyers and the prosecutors going into the courtroom; this meant the jury had reached a verdict. In the meantime, we searched for clues to pin positive hopes on. We studied the demeanors of jurors as they came from and went on breaks. We strained to hear what anyone in earshot was saying. Silently and out loud, we went over the evidence presented in Dee's defense, things that surely no clear-thinking individual could know about and still think her guilty of killing someone.
But then we'd hear in our minds, unbidden, the inflammatory and emotionally charged final statement by the prosecutor. Through a small glass partition dividing the court seats and the defense table, I had watched Dee's heels digging furiously into the carpet while the sickening fiction was spun about her. I was the only person who could see this, and I've never in my life wanted and needed so badly to put my arms around someone and hold her.
The woman I planned to marry was accused of first-degree murder. She'd (uncharacteristically) taken part in a home robbery in which someone had ended up being killed. Someone else had already been convicted of wielding the murder weapon and sentenced to life without parole. Dee was brought to trial afterward, where it was established she hadn't been spattered with blood and her fingerprints hadn't been found on the weapon or near the murder scene. She had, however, stolen belongings from another room. The jury was instructed on California law, which states that when a murder takes place during a robbery, everyone taking part is equally guilty of first-degree murder. They were also told they could opt instead for a second-degree conviction if the defendant hadn't planned to commit murder, which was the case in Dee's impulsive presence that night. A teenager at the time, she'd been coerced (under the influence of prescribed psychotropic medication mixed with alcohol) into participating in the robbery, with no idea that someone would die.
The second day of deliberations was identical to the first, and I have no recollection of how or where I spent the time between the two. It was nearing five o'clock on the second day, and the news trucks were packing up to leave, when I saw Dee's lawyer and the prosecutor push past the media throng and enter the courtroom. I felt a bipolar rush of dread and exaltation.
Dee's mom and I made our way toward the doors, gripping each other tightly for fear of stumbling, microphones thrust in our faces ("Is this it?" "How do you feel?" "Has the jury reached a verdict?"). The judge was already seated at the bench, nodding in our direction, and Dee's mom's grip loosened slightly as we numbly took the lonely seats closest to the defense table. They brought Dee in seconds later, I think, but it could have been an hour or more. She was dressed in street clothes, a luxury allowed only in the jury's presence, so we knew the jury was on its way.
I was struck by how brave and lovely and vulnerable and terrified she looked. I silently mouthed to her that I loved her and kissed the ring I wore that was engraved with her name, our signal of love in the courtroom, where we were generally not allowed to communicate at all. She nodded and touched her heart, and in seconds (perhaps hours) the jury was filing in.
I was so acutely attuned to the moment that I seemed to have panoramic vision. I could hear and feel reporters filling the room behind me to an overcrowded capacity that for many reasons made me think of a tiny circus car stuffed full of clowns. The judge had allowed only one video camera and one still camera in the courtroom, and both operators were visible in the corner of my eye, pointing their lenses at Dee, then at her mom and me, then back at Dee, and so on. Reporters scuffled for the seats right behind us and slowly, and none too discreetly, pushed an array of microphones within inches of us, hoping, I guess, to catch some audible reaction to the verdict's being read.
Dee's mom and I examined every line on every juror's face as the note was passed to the judge. The judge was saying something that sounded to me like the adult voices in the Peanuts cartoon -- "whaaahh whaaaa whaaa whaaaaaaaaaaa." A millennium seemed to go by as the judge folded the note and passed it to the court reporter to read aloud. Sometime in the middle of this bottomless, horizonless moment, I found I was holding my breath, as was Dee's mom, and we were holding on to each other so tightly that both our pulses pounded together.
The cliché "time stood still" never had much literal meaning to me until that moment. I relived my entire love affair with Dee as that flimsy piece of paper that contained the fate of several lives flitted in casual silence to the woman who would read aloud its contents. I saw myself from outside my body, arms around Dee's mom and in shameless tears, fighting to keep my lips from trembling out of control as I stared at my lover and tried to will into reality the words "Not guilty."
The moments after hearing "Guilty of first-degree murder" are a violent haze. Over the din of reporters running from the room, cell phones beeping on, I heard the judge say that the jury had ruled that Dee did not wield the weapon to participate in the murder, and so this charge against her was dismissed. We were at least dazedly aware that this would be of huge importance later, in appeals and, eventually, parole.
All three of us -- Dee, her mom, and I -- managed to keep our faces turned from the cameras, so the cameramen switched them off, hurriedly packed them up, and followed their fellow scurrying rodents out into the noisy hall.
The bailiff led Dee off to a side room, and I saw her turn and mouth "I love you" to her mom and me before she blurred indistinctly on the other side of my tears.
The jurors were allowed to leave through the judge's chambers, but Dee's mom and I were refused this courtesy. A line of sheriffs formed a sort of cop tunnel out of the courtroom and into the hall. At first I thought it might be a cordon to protect us from the pressing media, but the line ran out after 40 feet, and beyond the line, about 40 reporters and camera crews gathered in a tight, anxious clutter. It was a static moment. The well-trained troops didn't move toward us. The TV army simply waited there, poised between us and the elevators around the corner.
I don't think I imagined that several of the cops were grinning, like those mean neighborhood kids who love feeding mice to snakes, but I'm way too biased to be sure.
I gave Dee's mom the same drill I'd run when I played bouncer and bodyguard to strippers and porn stars, before I met Dee. It wasn't hard to equate the twitchy reporters at the end of the hall with a bar full of drunk, horny Texans who think that every time a centerfold winks, they've been invited backstage with her. We stop for nothing; keep your head down; don't look back; if I get stopped, you just keep going -- I'll catch up, and if I knock somebody down in front of you, don't trip over him.
As she covered her face, I draped one arm over her shoulder and put my other elbow out, assuming full defensive block position. There was no real opening in the crowd. We moved slowly down the hall, beyond where the cop line ended, before where the reporters began, listening for the ding of an elevator opening. Camera lights came on, flashbulbs popped, reporters began shouting. Once we heard the ding, we were off and running.
Some of the reporters and crews attempted to move aside, if only to save equipment, but I still bumped and elbowed a few things and people along the way. The brief footage that ended up on the news looked a lot rougher than it felt. Rounding the corner tightly, we got through the final flank of about 20 reporters in front of the elevators and into the open car. I hit the button and told Dee's mom to keep her back to the doors, but just as they closed, one reporter ducked through them. I put one arm out to reopen the door and used my other arm to block him from stepping any farther in. I told him we wanted to be alone. All of this was videotaped, but as shot from the hallway (and aired on TV with no sound), it looked as though I were shoving him out of the elevator.
The doors closed and we were alone, but just as Dee's mom turned, they opened again -- one of the reporters had hit the button -- and more photos were hurriedly snapped. This gross behavior still stuns me. Finally the doors closed again and we made good our escape, leaving the reporters to sniff out the prosecutor, who never seemed to tire of hearing his own voice and seeing himself on TV.
I was too numb to be surprised that two vanloads of reporters followed my car down Highway 78, honking and waving past the first few exits as if they thought I'd suddenly pull over for a press conference. It felt like a Wacky Races cartoon. Eventually, I was home and alone, in a house Dee would not likely share with me for a very long time.
Dee was sentenced to 25 years to life in a California women's maximum-security prison.
Seeing a loved one on trial, seeing her lose her freedom, and then choosing to stick by her, you can't imagine what this is like just by reading about it or watching TV. Law and Order it ain't.
Dee's first parole hearing will likely be around 2016. We know she won't get out on her first or second try. The California parole board has a history of refusing to release inmates convicted of capital offenses, no matter the individual circumstances. According to current law, those convicted of murder can be denied parole for up to five years at a time, although denials for shorter periods are also granted.
The governor gets a yea or nay in the parole process as well, hence my newfound interest in who's governing this state. Between 1998 and 2002, according to Parole Board Survey 2002, the California parole board decided to grant parole to 225 people convicted of murder. The governor reversed all but 5 decisions.
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.
"Um...why did you follow me into my driveway?"
After the fog cleared, I found my way back to the highway. I'd added an extra hour to my trip home.
The prison staff told Dee that Valley State Prison was where she and other recently convicted "lifers" would likely spend their entire incarceration. I.e., this was her new home. That's how her family and I referenced it from that point on, in an attempt to deal with the finality of her situation, never failing to call it "Dee's pad" and referring to Chowchilla as "Dee's back yard."
Chowchilla is a funny little town of around 11,000 people, with much of its economy dependent on the nearby prisons. Not that residents seem happy about this. I quickly learned that the townspeople dread weekends, when family and friends of prisoners -- outsiders -- fill up the town's two motels and apparently scare the p-ss outta the locals.
The first time I pulled into Chowchilla, I drove around looking for the Star Motel, which turned out to be a seedy little multibuilding dive, akin to those along El Cajon Boulevard that cater to hookers, bail jumpers, and like-minded reprobates either detoxing from or binging on their preferred recreational mind-bender. It was daylight, the convertible top was down, my long hair was flying in the breeze, and as I passed an intersection, a police car fell in behind me and hit the siren. I'd been in Chowchilla less than five minutes.
The officer came up to me, hand hovering over gun, and announced that I hadn't broken any traffic laws but "I wanted to warn you about these intersections. There's no stop sign, and sometimes people come really fast from the other direction, so you have to look both ways. Have you ever been in prison?"
Not even a pause between telling me he had no reason to pull me over and "Have you ever been in prison?" (I hadn't.) He shook me down pretty good, fiddled through my car, had me empty my pockets, and didn't seem to listen or care as I explained that my fiancée was at Valley State Prison and I was thinking about buying a house in Chowchilla. He finally cut me loose, and I checked into the funky little motel, where $45 got me a single room.
I found a well-used crack pipe hidden in the air conditioner as I was settling in, so I crunched it up, put it in some fast-food trash, and took it to a gas station garbage can. I just had an instinct this extreme distancing was a good idea.
Sure enough, that night I walked out of my room and found the police officer from earlier squatting outside my motel room window. He told me he thought he smelled marijuana smoke coming from one of the cottages, flat out admitted he was secretly sniffing any and all odors emanating from my room. Welcome to Chowchilla.
Along the main drag, Robertson Boulevard, there's a Chinese restaurant where I saw only Caucasians working. My first meal there, a boy about ten years old sat nearby with his parents, staring at my ponytail and the multiple tattoos sneaking out from under my shirtsleeves. He had one of those frightened, disgusted, "I swallowed a bug" expressions, and I heard him ask loudly, pointing at me for dramatic punctuation, "Mommy, is that one of the bad men?" At least this place served me.
A pizza joint up the road literally chased me out one time when they realized I was waiting for the shuttle van to pick me up and take me the additional several miles out to the prison. "We don't serve you people," an old Hispanic man yelled at me as he snatched my paid-for, half-eaten pizza from the table and routed me out the door under threat of violence. Town full of criminals, indeed.
Of the few hundred visitors cycling through Valley State Prison each weekend, about 25 percent arrived via Greyhound buses that pulled into Chowchilla around sunup on Saturday. That was as close as public transpo went to the prisons, so visitors had to catch the aforementioned shuttle van to travel the other ten or so miles, and it came through town only once, around 8:30 a.m. The shuttle was run by a group of volunteers, who also maintained a service trailer just inside the prison grounds, as I discovered when my car was in the shop and I looked into busing from San Diego.
In lining up the trip, I found that no cab companies existed in Chowchilla, and taxis refused to come from nearby towns like Madera. They claimed they'd been robbed or stiffed too often by "those people" visiting the prisons. The only way to get cab service was to get off the bus or train in Madera or Fresno and hire a cab to drive you out and drive back to pick you up after visit hours. The one time I did this, the cabbie made me pay in advance -- $40 for his trip each way (drop-off and pickup), hoovering $160 from my pocket to get the last 30 miles to and from the prison, when I'd paid only $55 for the other 650 miles of the round-trip.
In truth, some of the folks visiting prisoners had clearly been on the wrong side of a pair of handcuffs from time to time. Some weekenders couldn't even afford to stay at the decrepit Star Motel, let alone at the more expensive Days Inn, just off Highway 99. I'd see people camping under the overpass where Robertson split off the highway. They were visible from the back corner of the Days Inn parking lot, but you wouldn't notice the squatters unless you looked real close; they kept a very low profile (wise, given the cop I'd met). I saw only glimpses of them, walking to the corner store or catching a prison shuttle at the motel. I walked down there once during the daytime and found a littered shooting gallery under the highway, with needles, cotton balls, burnt spoons, and torn plastic bags among the spread-out cardboard flats, newspaper blankets, and torn pages from a hard-core porn magazine. I had to suppose that Chowchilla residents had good reason to fear and mistrust the weekly invasion of nonlocal locusts, seeing as how some arrived clearly evincing narcotic eyes, heroin physiques, and methamphetamine sweats.
At Valley State Prison, some prison staff seemed to like visitors even less than townsfolk did. In summer 2001, I was handing my Doc Martens over the counter to be inspected when I saw a guard telling a tiny old woman next to me -- she had to be in her 70s -- that her driver's license had expired so she wouldn't be allowed in to visit her daughter. The woman started crying and stammering; "But...I rode a bus all the way from Utah! I haven't driven in years. I don't need a driver's license, so I didn't renew it." She pleaded with the guard that the photo ID clearly proved who she was and she'd visited many times in the past; she was on an approved visitor list and had been for years.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but your ID is expired and we can't allow you entry. You'll have to update your identification. Now please step aside," and the stone-faced creep called the next person to the counter, leaving the poor old lady sobbing and heaving her shoulders as she scuffled away and out the swooshing entry doors. If she'd indeed ridden a bus, that meant she had to sit in the visitor's trailer for about six hours until the shuttle took her back to Chowchilla, and it would be the next day before she'd be boarding a bus back to Utah -- without having actually seen her daughter. As she left, there was a round of chuckles from all half dozen or so of the guards running the visit entry that day, and you could practically, but not quite, hear boos and hisses coming from everyone on the other side of the counter who'd witnessed this sad scene.
A few people are turned away most days, usually for not having pre-applied to visit a specific prisoner. The prison does a background check, and if you have so much as an unpaid ticket, they turn you down until taken care of. The visit aps have to be renewed from time to time. Once I was sent packing after the six-hour drive because of a ripe parking ticket that cropped up on their 'puter as they checked my ID on the way in. My visit rights were revoked until I paid the ticket off, sent proof of this to the prison, and reapplied to visit Dee, which took nearly two months.
Others aren't admitted because they're wearing forbidden colors, which is just about every color except gray and black, the safest and most common choices among frequent visitors. When I was first visiting, if you wore disallowed colors, they'd let you go outside to the volunteers' trailer, where approved clothes in all sizes were kept in dressing room closets. You signed in, ideally put a donation in the desk jar (they were self-funded), and left your offending togs on a shelf, returning the borrowed duds at the end of the visit. That is, provided you didn't keep the borrowed duds and forfeit your own clothes, which volunteers told me happened surprisingly often. They'd get stuck with lousy used rags they had to throw out.
The volunteers' trailer even had snacks, couches, a TV, and a bathroom (where I once found another used crack pipe, which someone had tried to flush, presumably after one final hit just a few feet away from prison guards). However, around late 2002, they ran out of money and closed the trailer down. That also shut down the shuttle service to Chowchilla, meaning anyone without a car could get to town via bus or train but couldn't get the additional miles to the prisons. It was a long walk through the desert, with only one pit stop along the way -- a Jack in the Box and gas station convenience store.
I found out how long the walk was while the trailer was still open, after my LeBaron exploded going back home over the Tehachapi Mountains one hot July afternoon. The water pump blew, and the engine started smoking and died as I sped down the mountain, my power steering doing a quick fade. I managed to wrestle the hurling mass of steaming metal off an exit ramp, through a stop light that luckily had no cross-traffic, and into a gas station parking lot, where two other smoking vehicle remnants were also cooling down, the occupants dealing with the respective ramifications of their enormous new paperweights. It cost $475 to have my car towed back to San Diego, where it served as shade for the neighbor's dog for several weeks while I rounded up $3500 for a new engine.
Once again turning to Greyhound, I arrived in Chowchilla on a Saturday, checked into the motel, and showered, taking so long that I missed the volunteers' shuttle. With little other choice, I packed some water and hoofed it down the desert road toward the prison. This was apparently suspicious behavior, because I was shadowed the entire walk by Chowchilla police cars that'd park a quarter mile up the long straight road ahead of me, wait until I was walking nearly abreast of the car, and then pull away while another prowler parked down the road to wait for me again.
I tried to hitchhike, but no one would stop, and I swear one guy in a jeep swerved as if to hit me. After three solid hours of trekking through the desert, a truck finally picked me up, only to drop me off a half mile later at Jack in the Box before turning off onto the highway. In the restaurant, I offered money to people to drive me the last few miles. I pleaded with them, saying I feared for my survival in the heat, but everyone either said they were taking the highway or ignored me like a leper (one announcing a new terror alert; it was that kind of existence denial).
I took my pleas to the parking lot, where people rolled up their windows and one person even refused to let me hop on the back of his produce truck that was already going past the prison. One lady in a sedan made a cross with her fingers as I approached, holding her forefingers together as if warding off a vampire.
I trudged the final brutal stretch, trying to look past all the animal corpses on the roadside, avoiding several snakes that jumped in and out of dirt holes, and keeping a close eye on the buzzards circling overhead, as if waiting to make me the walking punch line of a Charles Addams cartoon.
A Chowchilla police car was parked just outside the prison gate when I finally stumbled up about 1:30, with only a half hour left to check in. The two cops shook me down, searched me, and pored over my ID, acting incredulous that I didn't have my own criminal record. I still got into the visit room in time to be processed and see Dee for about an hour before it was time to leave again.
In the prison parking lot, I saw a guy who visited often and prevailed upon him for a ride back to the motel. I was optimistic because he was a priest, one who drove a pickup truck with a camper shell converted into a sort of portable church with faux stained-glass windows, and as I found out on the short drive back to Chowchilla (so-o-o-o much shorter on wheels!), the interior had its own full-fledged altar and a surfboard on which was painted a reproduction of Da Vinci's Last Supper. I told him he was literally answering my prayers by giving me a ride and unfolded my woeful tale of nearly becoming buzzard bait getting to the prison.
I grew to dread that weekly busload of the damned, going from San Diego to Chowchilla. It took upwards of ten hours, beginning before midnight Friday on Broadway, with a layover in L.A., where about half of the bus's occupants who were going to the prisons got on. I soon recognized those heading for the prisons, a population of inmate loved ones that grew steadily as we approached Fresno. By the time we arrived in Chowchilla, almost everyone aboard was there to see a convicted criminal, and I daresay you could tell. I got to know most of the prison people over the next few months, not liking all of them; but everyone operated under a kind of unspoken truce -- we were all on the same mission of love and support.
People who normally wouldn't have any interaction (other than maybe fighting) would be playing cards, swapping tapes and CDs, comparing personal hardware -- knives and guns, mostly -- and doing a little drug trade here and there. One guy got caught smoking something in the bathroom, crack or meth. He squawked like a bird getting its feathers pulled as the angry driver put him off the bus at a closed gas station somewhere just outside Fowler, in the middle of the night. The guy showed up in the visit room the next day, telling everyone he hopped an Amtrak train, hid in the bathroom to avoid paying, and got off close enough to walk to the prison. The proof was in his presence; he sure as heck didn't fly there, the glass pipe I'd seen him lend other bus riders notwithstanding.
While saving for an engine -- and then after my car was stolen (long story for another day) -- my budget was low enough that I was sometimes known to sneak a ticketless ride myself. I also filched the occasional AM/PM burrito and once slipped out on paying for a Denny's meal on the way home from Valley State Prison. At least I never stiffed a cabbie or had to sleep under the Robertson Boulevard overpass. I justified such hitherto uncommon behavior (honest! I just wasn't used to being broke) by telling myself that getting to Dee's side as often as possible was the number-one priority. I was already falling off to only once or twice a month, causing a strain in our relationship that eventually contributed to a rift.
Among my less larcenous ways to save ducats was to buy a $6 ticket to the multiplex theater in nearby Fresno and spend most of the night napping in the seats rather than paying for a motel room. I'd stay awake to see a few movies first, but then I'd lie across the seats and saw logs for hours at a time, waking up to the same scenes onscreen again and again (explaining why and how I'm able to recite nearly every word of Jim Carrey's Grinch movie without having actually seen the film -- the dialogue insidiously seeped into my subconscious).
The Greyhound run shrank to almost nobody once there was no more shuttle going from Chowchilla to the prison and back. Sadly, this meant a lot of individuals and families without their own transportation could no longer visit loved ones, and many of Dee's roommates no longer received visits. I eventually got my car running, but I began budgeting myself so I could instead rent cars to drive north, saving wear and tear on my wheels, while ensuring my ability to get all the way to the prison gates (and the car often provided my sleeping quarters).
Family members and lovers often seem to abandon women inmates. Women prisoners have a scandalously low percentage of supportive outsiders; the visit rooms are often half empty or more except near holidays, unlike at male prisons, where the visit rooms are routinely packed.
The same several dozen women seemed to get the majority of frequent visits; some women I'd see in the visit room only a handful of times or just once. Most inmates getting a lot of visits seemed to be white, for whatever that's worth by way of observation. According to current California Department of Corrections statistics, 30 percent of women in prison in California are black (only 6.5 percent of women in the state are black); 40 percent of women behind bars are white (versus 47 percent of the state's female population); and Latinos constitute 26 percent of California's female prisoners (but 31.5 percent of the women in the state).
About 3691 inmates are presently interred with Dee at Valley State Prison, although the prison was built to accommodate 1980. Her cell was designed for four, but currently eight women live among the tightly packed bunk beds and lockers.
For a while, Dee shared her cell with a pet frog too, a tiny guy she and a friend picked up in the yard and adopted. When I visited, Dee was adorable to watch as she told me how she had taught the frog to do tricks, like sitting up for a fly. She'd beam almost like a proud mom or at least a happy dog owner whose Lab can bring in the evening paper. A froggie (necessarily kept secret from the staff) was one of the few options for critter company. Dee had always lavished love on pets before her incarceration.
During visits, Dee and I could hold hands while sitting at our assigned, numbered table or walking in the outdoor courtyard, but we couldn't hug or kiss, other than hello and good-bye. She had to wear prison-issue clothes in the visit room, usually baggy dark pants and a white T-shirt with long dark sleeves, but she had the option of wearing a dark sweatshirt on cold mornings. She used to be able to wear her long hair down, but then they started requiring inmates with tresses past shoulder length to tie the hair back or up. Dee always had to sit facing the guard's desk, and we were watched closely by staff and by a multitude of cameras.
We could order food from a service cart that offered dishes she rarely or never got inside the prison, like shrimp, pepperoni pizza, and chocolate milk shakes.
I'm told that at some California women's prisons, the cafeterias don't serve hot dogs or zucchinis or anything else phallic-shaped. Prisons don't want food used as sex toys, so all suggestively shaped fruit, vegetables, and meat-based products are sliced several times in order to disabuse this whimsical application.
Yes, I've seen women at Valley State Prison who look as though they carry their own phalluses, some being particularly, um, masculine, a few sporting facial hair. Inmates and visitors. Dee told me about the ones she knows but advised me early on not to make eye contact, stare, point, and especially not to talk to anyone, as this was bad etiquette. Such a social faux pas in this closed-circuit live-wire lesbian inner society could get Dee in trouble later, not to mention getting me kicked out of the visit room for fraternizing with prisoners other than the one I signed up for. Dee had to be careful about acknowledging friends at nearby tables; our visit could be shut down for this too.
We could loosely hug while having Polaroid photos taken ($2 each) by inmate trustees, though a guard had to inspect each picture to make sure we weren't touching inappropriately, in which case they'd tear up the print. Dee and I split up approved pics (stamped with a bear paw -- hah hah) so we could each take away a few from the visit. These too-rare time capsules that show us smiling and hugging and enjoying our precious moments together are among my most treasured possessions.
When you're in love with someone locked away from you, each shared moment is special and intense in a way that's hard to convey. You cling to, cherish, and live for those scarce moments spent on the phone together or looking into each other's eyes.
There's not a wasted, blah second in a relationship like that; it's always tip-of-the-nerve-ending stuff. Perhaps the tragedy adds to the romance. I suspect few married couples outside newlyweds, no matter how close, spend as much pure quality time together as a couple maintaining their relationship through a prison sentence.
Sure, sometimes we just shoot the breeze, gossip, or play Scrabble, occasionally we even argue (though you'd better believe we save that for only the biggest issues), but neither of us has ever said, "You know, this is boring. Let's wrap this up early so we can do something apart for a while." Just never happens. If you want every moment spent in love with someone to truly feel like love, try having those moments restricted by the state.
At first, I could bring cigarette packs in to Dee, but then the prison began requiring us to buy them -- at $5 a pack -- from the inside concessionaire. I could buy extra packs for her to take back to her room after the visit, but around 2002 they stopped allowing this.
Then they forbade cigarettes and smoking altogether in the visit rooms, which is the current rule. You can be sure that the six-hour visits end with nicotine fits on the part of many "guests" and inmates, creating an even more tense atmosphere than already exists with the inevitable crying couples and clinging children and inmates lining up to be strip and body searched on the way back to their cells.
Many inmate privileges, and basic human rights, have been taken away since Dee went in. In late 2003, Valley State Prison began allowing male guards to do pat-down searches of clothed female inmates that include touching their breasts and crotches, a practice that had been banned at the facility since 1998 after documentation surfaced of complaints about groping and outright sexual abuse by guards during intrusive "cross-gender pat searches" (as they're called in a state prison training video).
Amnesty International, which conducts human rights investigations at Valley State Prison and other California prisons, is petitioning the state and the California Department of Corrections to again restrict such pat-downs. In an October 2003 press release, Amnesty stated that the practice is "inherently degrading and inconsistent with international standards and constitute a form of violence against women.... Research has shown that pat-down searches and other intimate contact involving male guards can be particularly traumatizing for women prisoners, many of whom have histories of being physically or sexually abused before their incarceration." According to an April 1998 Department of Justice Statistics report, 48 percent of women in United States jails reported being sexually or physically abused prior to their detention; 27 percent reported being raped.
A 2002 study of Valley State Prison conducted by California Prison Focus, a group that monitors human rights in prisons, stated, "Last year we learned that the man who was responsible for some of the worst physical and verbal assaults on women...was up to his old tricks on the general population yards. CO Ross had been transferred out of the SHU [mental and physical disability unit], but prisoners on the C yard reported that he was harassing and intimidating prisoners there. A guard named Venemma was reported to have assaulted a prisoner who was just having a conversation with another staff member. He also does room searches in an illegal way. He is reported to break up property, mix up and trash prisoners' legal materials and Court documents, and has failed to allow prisoners to view a random room search as is required. He is known for making sexual comments to prisoners and reported to get nasty if they don't flirt. CO Lucas is reported to be very aggressive toward the women with provocative yelling and demeaning and profane language."
The women at Valley State Prison have virtually no privacy. Male and female guards can observe them at all times -- as they're dressing, going to the bathroom -- and sometimes male guards walk in on inmates being strip searched in the reception area. Searches are frequent, from post-meal pat downs to strip and full-body searches after leaving the visit room. Male officers are allowed to assist in cell extractions, where women are forcibly removed from their rooms, and these often involve strip searches conducted or witnessed by the men.
In researching this article, I discovered that Rule 53 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states, "Women prisoners shall be attended and supervised only by women officers."
Dee says she's never had a major problem with a male guard coming on to her. "The girls who have that happen to them usually invite it, at least after the first time," she told me. Female staffers are just as likely to sexually or verbally abuse prisoners, she says. She also mentions that an alarming percentage of girls who've been incarcerated at California Youth Authority, where most inmates are underage, say they had sex with and were even impregnated by male staffers, including psychiatric and medical personnel and volunteers, like instructors and even religious counselors.
At Valley State Prison, inmates may keep only as much personal property as can fit in a six-cubic-foot space, with only two electrical appliances allowed. Regarding space for books and electric typewriters, no exceptions are made for women in vocational training programs or taking self-study courses. Few education or job-training programs are offered to women with the word "life" in their sentences, though many of these women may eventually be paroled back into society.
Pregnant women (around 80 percent of the state's female population are mothers) are shackled to their closed-ward hospital beds while giving birth -- as are other prisoners, including the terminally ill -- and their babies are handed over within days to the inmates' families or, most often, to social services.
Dee has to apply to see a doctor. The request has to be reviewed and approved, and then she's charged $5 per health problem that she seeks diagnosis or treatment for (prisoners indigent for the previous 30 days don't have to pay). Prescriptions are provided at no cost. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and volunteer counselors are available but difficult to see during their limited hours, especially for inmates holding down weekday jobs. In the health-care center, a padded strip cell is used for women prisoners deemed suicide risks or mentally erratic, and sometimes they're kept there for upwards of 72 hours.
Lately, prisoners have had trouble getting diagnosis and treatment for hepatitis C. Inmates who volunteer as peer educators try informing about hep C, but the materials are years out of date. There are only certain hours and locales (no offices) to meet with prisoners, and educators receive no pay or good-time credits. The Department of Corrections has steadfastly refused to fund peer-education efforts about hepatitis at Valley State Prison, saying that it authorizes such programs only in prison populations where HIV is rampant, suggesting that hep C doesn't overly concern them.
"There are women who have it, and the doctors diagnose it but then don't tell [the inmate]," Dee told me. "Meanwhile, they've been getting tattoos and maybe spreading it around. There's a lot of instruction about AIDS but nothing about hepatitis. It's really scary."
Inmates must take jobs at the prison to get basic privileges like phone rights, though they're paid as little as eight cents an hour, with minimum-wage gigs paying less than $6 per month. Yet the prices charged at monthly commissary trips are often twice as high as those charged outside, especially for basic hygiene products.
The high prices versus low wages make women dependent on outside aid, which is often not forthcoming. This leaves many vulnerable to exploitation, and some end up bartering sex or other acts just to keep themselves in necessities.
I can send Dee money via postal money orders only, and this goes into her inmate account. The state takes restitution as part of her sentence, 44 percent, of every dollar I send. She can get four packages a year containing personal property, under strict guidelines and weighing no more than 30 pounds per box, but beginning in 2004, the women must order from a prison-issued catalog, and we pay for the prepacked shipment via credit card or money order, rather than personally shopping for our loved ones.
I really miss choosing perfume and shopping for Dee's panties, nighties, and everyday clothes, even if only certain colors with no lacy frills were allowed. She acted almost embarrassed to ask me for intimate girlie stuff -- I think she thought it sucked for me to buy lingerie for one of the most gorgeous women on earth when all I'd get to see of it was the occasional flash of a bra strap in the visit room. But it comforted me to select intimate apparel to be warmed by her skin.
Her 34C bras were required to have no underwire, a style I could usually find only at Victoria's Secret, always a pleasant place to shop for a lady. Even prison visitors aren't allowed to wear bras with underwire, as these have apparently proven deadly weapons in the past, much as that sounds like a bad Russ Meyer movie.
Dee can also get quarterly "special purchases" from catalogs other than the prison-issue one, most recently a JCPenney order where she chose personal clothing with far more flair than was otherwise available (yes, JCPenney fashion is their high-water mark -- my poor babydoll!). Last year, I finally managed to buy her a TV set, which has really brightened up her bunk. More than half of her roommates have TVs, and she can finally program her own viewing choices and hours. The TV even came with headphones, though the antenna was deliberately broken off -- another potential weapon, dontcha know.
As far as phone calls go, MCI has established a monopoly in California prisons. The inmate can use only the MCI hookup. I pay around $75 monthly to receive four or five 12-minute phone calls. The fee is $1.50 just to connect, and per-minute rates and surcharges for someone living out of state amount to over a dollar a minute for the rest of the call, which is abruptly terminated after interruptive two-minute and one-minute warnings. The $26 million annual franchise fee that California receives from MCI goes directly into the state's general fund and not into the Inmate Welfare Fund.
Dee has used her time so far to go to school; learn a couple of trades; read countless books, including classic literature, which she first discovered in a Youth Authority class years ago; and, most promisingly, to blossom into an exceptional writer. Our relationship has drifted somewhat due to enforced distance, as I've been required to stay near faraway family members for health-related reasons. For a while she had a lover, as did I, and we were nearly settling into separate albeit parallel grooves, writing and talking to each other on the phone constantly, being part of but separate from each other's day-to-day lives.
I'm working on getting to her side more often. I plan on standing by her and greeting her with open arms on her release, no matter what circumstances occur between now and then. It's not as though she needs me -- she's tough enough to not actually need anything or anybody. But I daresay we'll always want each other's company, now and forever, no matter what or when. That's just how love works. At least for us.
More like this:
- On the Diamond, in the Hoosegow — March 28, 2012
- When Kids Go To Prison, plus 100 Rockin' Lawsuits — July 30, 2008
- 25 to Life: In Prison Since She Was 15, plus I Fought the Law: 100 Local Music Lawsuits & Busts — June 13, 2008
- R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility (Kairos Prison Ministry) — March 10, 2005
- When Your Love is Locked Up — Feb. 10, 2005