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Paying a call on R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility

Everyone who comes here has a tragedy

Loading the bus at Su Casa - Image by Paul Stachelek
Loading the bus at Su Casa

Early Saturday morning, five women and four children share seats on the San Ysidro trolley. The children sit primly, staring out windows at the emptied weekend city slipping by. Three women are black, one is Hispanic, one white. The black women talk quietly. One tells the others, “I come down from L.A. last night and stayed over with my cousin,” and then another sighing, says, “I was at my work till midnight.” The Hispanic woman jostles a fussing infant. The white woman, blonde, slumps under an overlarge wool suit and is already sweating; she talks to no one, stares down in her lap, where she grips a purse made of clear plastic. The children do not talk; they seem sunk deep in thought, they are not smiling.

All five women have dressed carefully, as for a daytime party, and perfumes (rose, musk, a metallic citrus) waft off shoulders, from crevices of bosom, from the black women’s intricately braided and lustrous hair. Closer study shows the suited blonde is not the only one carrying a clear plastic purse; each woman clutches or grasps or clasps or cradles in a lap such a purse.

Ana Quiñonez

The trolley picks up speed, the car rattles. The baby cries. Its spine abruptly arches backward, its face reddens, and an unmistakable odor enters the air. “He dirty his diapers,” the woman from L.A. says to the infant’s mother.

The mother’s eyes widen. She reddens.

"Discúlpame, pero no hablo ingles..”

As Iris Street station nears, the children, without prompting, stand, swaying as the trolley slows. The Hispanic woman reaches down and grabs her diaper bag, her plastic purse. The women push themselves up from seats and out the car, down steps onto the platform.

A white van marked Su Casa Visitors Center, R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility waits trackside with open doors. The women and, children and an elderly black man hurry toward it. A 60ish man, in sport shirt and slacks, greets the group and helps them up into the van’s back seat. The black man climbs onto the front passenger seat, and as the van heads to Beyer Boulevard and then turns onto 905 east bound, the driver asks him how his week’s gone. “Fine,” he says, and then talk turns to toothaches and the weather, which both men prophesy will “turn off hot.”

The women and children are pressed tightly together along the van’s two benches. Windows remain rolled up. The odor of the diaper and women’s perfume intensifies. The children stare grimly ahead into the seats in front of them. A stomach rumbles. Only the blonde, nervously rubbing her purse and sweating profusely, looks out the window toward the green hills, which spread out before the eye beneath a yellow haze of blooming wild mustard. Brown Field, runway dotted with Cessnas and Pipers, approaches. Then the van turns onto Otay Mesa Road, and soon the correctional facility’s gun towers come into view.

The women open the see-through purses, fish out drivers’ licenses. The driver steers the van through the main gate, slows behind two cars halted at a booth painted light brown. Correctional officers in army green peer into the vehicles, wave on their drivers, then approach the van. The elderly man and each of the women hold up licenses for the CO’s inspection. No one speaks.

The driver heads the van farther into the prison grounds, stopping at the edge of a vast parking lot on which perhaps 30 cars gleam under bright sunlight. The driver helps out the elderly man, the women and children. They walk toward a brown building fronted by a wide porch: Su Casa Visitors Center. Ana Quiñonez, Su Casa’s director, cheerfully greets them.

Quiñonez, dressed in cream trousers and beige jacket, explains the building’s (and her) presence here. A state law passed in 1982 requires that each state prison maintain a visitor’s center. This center, Su Casa, is funded by Centerforce, a private nonprofit organization that contracts with the State of California to encourage inmate visiting and is operated by Lutheran Social Services. The building, about a quarter-mile from the main prison, has a childcare room with television and VCR, nursery, bathrooms with showers, shelves stacked with clothing, a dressing room with ironing board, kitchen, offices, and a spacious waiting room fitted out with couches, easy chairs, coffee tables.

Donovan, a medium-security prison, open four years and housing almost 5000 inmates, has the highest visitation rate of any California prison: three to four thousand visits per month. “During Christmas,” Quiñonez says, “we had 7000 visitors. And when it rains,” she gestures toward the waiting room with its long blue sofa, blue chairs, rag rugs, “we’ve got wall-to-wall people.” Voice lowered, Quiñonez adds, “Everyone who comes here has a tragedy. They have uncles, husbands, brother, father, son, a friend — someone who made a mistake.”

Quiñonez indicates the older black man who’d been on the van. He leans against the kitchen counter, drinking coffee from one of the polystyrene cups stacked on the counter. “He comes to visit his son. Every Saturday. From L.A. He has two jobs.

“It is very expensive to come here. People who come from L.A. — and many of our visitors do — must spend 60 to 80 dollars. A bus ticket is $24 round trip from L.A. Then the meals. They can eat in the prison cafeteria. If you have two children and a husband and a wife, you spend $30 in one meal.

“Many are really tired. They got up very early. And the stress starts the night before, maybe in the morning when you are taking the shower. If they come from up north and take Greyhound and then the trolley and then the van, that is exhausting. And then you have to get on the bus here and make the line and be processed. Most people, on weekends, they stay the entire day, until 8:30 at night. And it’s very difficult for children to sit there for eight hours.

“We have local people who visit five days a week. Some, if they can, relocate, but the majority cannot afford to relocate. Some are on welfare, some work part time, some live with family. Many children who visit here on a daily basis spend an average of ten hours a day in the prison.

“We have one visitor, he comes every Thursday — he brings a child with him to visit her father here, and then he takes her to Las Colinas to visit her mother. We have another lady, she has two sons here. She says. At least they are safe, they have a place to stay, they are in drug- and alcohol-treatment programs, they have three meals a day.’ ”

Quiñonez can always guess who’s here for the first time. “I look for distraction, a lost look. First-time visitors are not used to the system. The first visit is always shocking, difficult. Newcomers, especially to visit a loved one with a first-time offense, they are very depressed and they don’t know how to deal with their feelings, but they still try to overcome that anxiety and fear of the institution and the system. There is a lot of anger toward the system.

“It takes a while for visitors to get used to rules and regulations. Dress, for instance. Donovan as well as every institution in the state has a strict dress standard. Visitors are not allowed to wear denims, no plain white T-shirts, no army green, no blue, nothing Spandex that would be revealing and sexually suggestive. Nothing that could resemble the inmates’ attire, like bright orange. In case of emergency, there wouldn’t be time to know inmates from visitors."

The see-through plastic purses that the women on the trolley carried and that many women coming and going, now, from Su Casa’s bathrooms, are carrying? Women who are regular visitors, explains Quiñonez, tend to carry these purses because the clear plastic makes it easier for guards to search them before they enter the prison.

As the room fills, Quiñonez moves about quickly, answering questions. “You can keep car keys with you,” she tells a nervous mother, here, with two grown sons, to visit their brother. “You should lock up your purse in your car. You can take in $30. In fives and ones only. No twenties, no tens ." Quiñonez takes a plastic bag off a stack of plastic bags, hands it to the mother, suggests, “You can put your ID and money and keys in this."

Mid-morning, the parking lot has filled with cars. The long navy-blue bus that every 20 minutes circles between Su Casa and the prison interior, ferrying visitors behind prison walls and bringing visitors back to Su Casa, has come and gone many times. Quiñonez has dispensed myriad cups of coffee, directed women to the room in which infants’ diapers can be changed, rustled through shelves of clean clothing to locate proper attire for those whose dress does not meet prison code, helped newcomers fill out papers they need to enter the prison.

Gorgeous, big-eyed, coffee-colored, round-bodied Nickie wears black leather pants, black silk blouse, black angora sweater embellished with pearls and trimmed along the collar with fur. In three-inch heels, she stands a half-hand under six feet. Ducking down to look into the mirror in one of Su Casa’s bathrooms, she draws in black pencil lines on her eyebrows and talks to Ella, a sturdy, dark-skinned woman in her mid-40s, wearing leopard-print leggings and black top.

Ella came on Greyhound from L.A. to visit her husband, who has been incarcerated at Donovan six months. Ella idly combs at her hair and listens as Nickie says, as much to herself as to Ella, "I got bags under my eyes. Why? Because I get off of work at one in the morning and be at the bus station in L.A. at three. You can’t get no good sleep on the bus." Ella agrees and Nickie goes on to say she’s here to visit her boyfriend Willie, who’s been at Donovan seven months. Nickie, in her early 40s and mother to a grown daughter and stepson, met Willie after Jerome, her husband, died. Willie, she says, “helped me to overcome that hard time when my husband died.’’ Willie wants to marry. Nickie’s not sure. Her daughter disapproves of Willie. As does her stepson.

Visitors waiting for the bus at Su Casa

Never taking her eyes from the mirror, Nickie talks. “My kids think I have been losin’ my mind. ‘Look, Mom,’ they say, ‘you be goin’ to a prison to visit a man. You are losin’ your mind.’ My daughter ask me, ‘Mama, why don’t you find your boyfriend out here on the outside?’ I told her, and it’s the truth, ‘He’s safe. Willie’s safe.’ Also, I tell her. ‘If somebody loves you even once a week, you got it good.’ ”

Ella nods agreement. Says plaintively how much she misses her husband.

Nickie puts her face closer to the mirror, with a steady hand applies a thin black line beneath her eyes. “But my daughter tell me, ‘You are makin’ a mistake.’ I said, ‘Let me make my own mistakes. I am not a china doll.’ "

“No, no," says Ella, watching Nickie brush powdered mascara onto the stubby lashes fringing her eyelids.

Only when Nickie has put away the mascara brush and blinked, repeatedly, and with the long scarlet nail on her pinky finger removed a pinhead-sized mascara bead from an eyelash, does she resume speaking. “I was married to Jerome for 18 years. I didn’t know nothin’ but Jerome, and Jerome didn’t let me make mistakes. He prevented me. I told my daughter. ‘Well, Jerome is gone. I am gonna make mistakes.’ ” Nickie smiles at her reflection in the mirror, then turns, faces Ella, says, “That’s what I tell her.’’

Ella and Nickie take out zippered plastic pouches that hold cash and drivers’ licenses, check their purses with Quiñonez and walk together toward Su Casa’s front door, out onto the porch (its benches filled with women and children), down the steps. Squinting under bright sun, Ella and Nickie take places at the end of a line of some 20 men, women, teenagers, children, all waiting for the bus that will take them into the prison’s interior. Those who talk, speak quietly. Faces are solemn. Many eyes are lifted almost reverently, as if gazing at a work of art or wonder of nature, toward the double 14-foot-high fences topped with razor-edged wire and behind the fences at the gun towers and cell blocks with their narrow slot windows.

In line are Loretta and Kyle, sister and brother, in their mid-20s, San Diego residents. Their father has been at Donovan since mid-November. It’s his first time in prison and the family’s first encounter with the criminal justice system. “It was a shock to him and to us, the imprisonment,” says Kyle. “He was supposed to get a work furlough, and the judge went up against the probation officer and changed the whole thing. He will be here until December 16, 1991. It wasn’t supposed to be very long. It wasn’t supposed to be in the first place. We have some lawyers trying to do something to get him out, but in general, they haven’t done much.” Kyle tries to come every Saturday. Loretta didn’t have a driver’s license, and it took four weeks to get her California ID card, so this is her first visit to her father since he left county jail. “It was hard there,” she says, pushing blonde bangs off her forehead, “because I couldn’t touch him.”

“It's hard, period.” says Kyle, squeezing his sister’s hand.

Carolina stands in line with her three-month-old infant and eight-year-old daughter. Her baby sleeps. Carolina, in halting English, says she was born in Mexico. She lives, now, in Escondido. “For the money, we have welfare. No work.”

Carolina’s oldest child refastens one of the yellow duck barettes that holds her long braids. She looks toward Donovan’s towers. Her father has been here, she says, for 20 days. “He’s going to be three years in here. In Vista we used to go to see my dad, and we visited him also in San Diego. This is not our first time to be here. Every time he’s had to go to jail, we all cry. He always cries, and I always cry when we have to leave him in a jail.” She doesn’t know how many times her father’s been in jail. “He has been in jails as long as I know.”

Nickie lights a cigarette, tells Ella she’s worried about today’s visit. “I said to a girl last night at work, ‘Willie is goin’ to blow it tomorrow.’ Well, tomorrow’s come. I wonder what’s going to happen now."

Ella assures Nickie. Everything will be fine. Then says, sighing deeply, “I never thought one day I’d visit a prison, ’cause I always knew I was not goin'.’’ She looks across the parking lot toward the razor wire glittering atop the double fences. She holds her bare arms and shivers. “Just the idea of being locked up gives me the creeps. I can’t stand to be closed in." She turns, gazes away from the prison out across the green hills, “This is sure quiet after Los Angeles "

“Too goddam quiet," Nickie says loudly enough to draw eyes toward her.

Visitors' clear purses

Behind Nickie and Ella, a chubby, perspiring young black woman carrying a plastic bag filled with dollar bills and keys asks a pale, apocalyptically thin woman in her mid-30s if this is her first time at the prison. “No," the woman sputters. “Since August 1990 I’ve been coming here. Got a lot, lot more years to go." The young woman asks how many years. “Seventeen," the woman says and scuffs the asphalt. And then, bitterly, “Look, I don’t want to talk right now, okay? I do not want to talk."

The younger woman shrugs, asks Nickie if she's been here before. Nickie laughs harshly. “Too many times!" The woman draws closer to Nickie, asks if she’ll be searched. Nickie says, “You go through a metal detector. And they pat you down sometimes. They lookin' for drugs." Nickie adds, “The guards here, they treat you like you a convict as much as who you’re visiting. My stepson, he’s in prison too. At Tehachapi, they nice there. The guards."

“They don’t go in your pants, do they?” the woman asks Nickie, who scowls and turns her back, leaving Ella to answer. “No," Ella says. “Nothing like that. When we get inside, you just wait in line, you tell the guard who you want to see, then they check to see if you are approved and on the list. After that you go into a room like a big rec room, with tables and chairs, and you can sit next to the person you’re visiting."

The bus has started out the prison gate and begun to move down the road toward the line of now some 30 people. The bus, faces at each window, circles the parking lot and, wheezing, pulls to a stop at the head of the line. The door whines open and women — wiping away tears, biting lips — and bleary-eyed men and stone-faced children step down onto the asphalt. Those waiting search the faces of those who return; but the returnees, seemingly dazed with grief, are oblivious to this curiosity. No eye contact is made.

Inside Su Casa, a big wall clock shows the time as a few minutes past noon. Two men followed by two women walk to Quiñonez’s desk. The older man, white-haired and bluntly muscular, speaks in Spanish-accented English. “We are here, my wife and daughter and son-in-law, to visit my grandson.” He fumbles in the pocket of his brown trousers and pulls out a folded application form that must be filled out by visitors and hands it to Quiñonez.

“Only three of you will be allowed to visit,” says Quiñonez.

“They didn’t tell me when I call them at the prison that only three can visit,” says the grandmother, who stands behind her husband, the top of her head only grazing his shoulder. Without the high-heeled shoes (out of which flesh of her swollen feet rises puffily), she is less than five feet tall. Her dark-blue rayon dress, a dress for funerals, has wrinkled across her ample belly. A bit of black petticoat lace droops below the dress’s hem. She wobbles unsteadily in the heels, around whose heel tips leather has peeled away. Lines marking the round face suggest that pain and patience and suspicion are old friends. And now suspicion comes to the fore. “ ’Don’t bring no drugs, don’t bring no weapons,' that’s all they tell me. I swear. That and ‘Don’t wear no blue jeans.’” She nods toward her daughter and son-in-law, both of whom wear jeans.

“I told you,” the grandmother looks up into the younger couple’s faces, “they wouldn’t let you wear those. I told you.” She is wringing her hands. The daughter and son-in-law, feces worn into middle-age, hang their heads.

Quiñonez looks to them, says, gently, “They are not going to let you go in, in jeans. You will have to change your clothing.” Quiñonez says again that only three of the four can visit today, suggests they decide who wants to go in and then come back to her, that she has slacks they can borrow to wear while they visit.

Then, while more women and men walk through the door, fill out forms, ask questions of Quiñonez, get change for $20 bills, use bathrooms, the family decides: the grandmother is too tired to stand under the glowering sunlight to wait for the bus, too tired for a now-reported hour-long wait inside prison walls for processing, too tired to sit several hours at the cafeteria table. She brushes away her family’s protests — “It’s hard for me to walk,” she says. “I am almost blind” — and totters uneasily to the blue couch and settles into one of its corners.

“Not her,” the grandmother nods toward Quiñonez, who is reaching into shelves to get out slacks for the daughter and son-in-law, “but those people at the prison don’t give you good information on the phone about clothes. I try to talk to them on the phone, but all they tell you is, ‘Don’t bring no drugs, don’t bring no weapons.’” She shrugs, laughs. “Who, who is a grandmother, is going to bring drugs and weapons to a prison?”

Her name is Maria Jesus. She and her family live in Long Beach. Her husband, who waits for his daughter and son-in-law to change into slacks, works at the harbor in San Pedro. They have been married 37 years. They own their two-bedroom home. They grow vegetables in the back yard. Tomatoes, she says, squash, many peppers. They have one son and two daughters. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren.

Maria Jesus’s husband worked until four this morning. When he got home, the sun had not risen. Maria Jesus fixed his breakfast and then went into the other bedroom and shook her daughter awake. “She kept pretending to be asleep there, next to him, the stepfather of my grandson, who is her son. Then my daughter sat up in the bed and said ‘Shhhh’ to me, said, ‘Don’t wake him up,’ the stepfather; and I said, ‘I don’t care if he wakes up. He hates my grandson, your son.’ I tell her right there, ‘You’ve only got one kid. A husband you can pick up in any comer. You should look out for the child, and if the husband does not like him, you should leave the husband.’ ”

She and her husband, she says, have always felt sorry for their grandson. “When his mother divorced his dad, my grandson in there got a rotten deal. He was 12. His stepfather didn’t like him. I kept him all these years because he was rebellious against them. When I raise him, I wash his hair, bathe him, fix his sack lunch, send him to all the schools. When he graduated from high school, he was in the state youth camps. I sent him to the camps myself because he was getting too much out of hand. He was in camp until he was 18, Gonzalez Camp over there in front of Santa Monica. We used to go every Sunday to visit him. I wanted them to keep him more because I know he was not ready, I know the streets would get him.

“He’s a good boy. When he was out from the camp, he stayed with us. We love him, we treat him nice, his grandfather and me. He never cursed us, he did what we asked, he helped around the house. At night he and I would sit, and we would laugh and talk and gossip and drink hot chocolate.

“He was good for about six months. No drugs, none of that rock. That’s why this happened, the rock. He went and stole three cars, and then he sold $20 worth of drugs to an undercover, and because he had that prior — ” She sighs. “I said to him the first day I visit at L. A. county jail, I say, ‘I was glad they caught you. I would rather see this than that you were dead in the streets.’

“He is beautiful, he is six three, about 200 pounds. But when he came in to jail in L.A., he weighed only 130 pounds. From the drugs he lost all that weight.

“He’s been in jail since last summer. He was stabbed in the county, in L.A. County jail, nine times, one time for every month he was there.

“We went to all his hearings on his case. I wanted to hear every word the state said, every word the lawyer said, every word the judge said. I wanted to hear it all. He didn’t get sentenced until March 27th. At the sentencing, when they try to take your kid away, that’s the hardest part. It nearly killed me. What makes me sad is when they bring him into the courtroom with chains on his arms and chains on his legs and when they sentence him”

She moans, pushes herself up out of the couch, walks outside to the porch. She looks past the high wire fence toward the watchtowers, moans again, wrings her hands. “He’s just turned 20. Now he’s gotta make five years.”

A family loading the bus at Su Casa

Maria Jesus, standing on the porch, narrows her eyes, spots the convicts in white shirts and bright orange pants moving in the distant yard, follows them for a while with her eyes. “This visiting the prisons is not new to us. I visited my son in Tracy. Bonnard Ranch. And the prison over there by Monterey. My son tried to kill his wife. He caught her in bed with another man, and he got real annoyed because the kids were there with all that business in the bed going on around them. He didn’t want no help with his case, he just got a public defender, and they railroaded him. He got 20 years. My husband and I, we fought and fought the case. Cost us $10,000. But we got him out. He did only five.

“The mother run off after that happened. And I raised all four of the kids, kids from 3 to 11, for the five years. When my son got out, his oldest son was in the Army.

“I was young and I wasted all my days taking care of grandkids. But I get lots of love from them. I go to bingo on Fridays, and they walk me from our house to the bingo parlor every week.” She smiles. “They say, ‘Win us lots of money. Grandma.’ ”

Back on the couch, Maria Jesus rubs her swollen ankles. “He wrote me a real pretty letter with a little clown printed on the paper, the clown smiling. He wrote, ‘I love you a lot and I don’t know why I do what I do. Grandma.’ What I think is, he is going to be more rebellious when he gets out.”

After two o’clock now, and hotter. Women and children climb down out of the blue bus and wearily walk up Su Casa’s wooden steps and go inside for water. Among them is Ella, returned after two hours with her husband. She lights a cigarette, sits hunched over on Su Casa’s porch. “He was real glad to see me. He don’t have no family here in California but me.” She wipes back a tear with her hand. “I sure hate it when I hear that gate close.”

He has 18 months more to go, with good time. Until his arrest, they’d never been separated. She’s been terrifically depressed, so depressed she’s been unable to work. “I do nothin’ right now.”

She had this dream a few nights ago about her husband. “He came into our bed in the night and put his head on me. It was just like he was there, talking to me and telling me. ‘Everything is going to be all right.’ He says he dreams about me.” She wipes away another tear. “If I can just make it until he gets out, huh?”

Chuey’s white T-shirt pulls tight across his chest, and his arms fill his sleeves. He flexes and rolls his thick neck. His dark-lensed sunglasses reflect the prison towers. He’s standing against the wall on the porch at Su Casa, waiting for a woman he drove here from L.A. to visit the father of her child. “She’s a longtime friend; but I've met the person inside, a real good guy, he just has his hangups every now and (hen. She was in the county jail in L.A. a while back and I went to visit her. It was real sad. Her pregnant and all. It's been a couple months since she saw him. He came from the county jail in L.A. too.

“L.A. County,” he says dreamily, “is a machine. It's more violent” — “vi-lent,” he says — “than anything you can think of.”

He speaks with exaggerated gestures, as if telling a story to a child. “Lots of blind spots there.” He twists his hand at the wrist, as if twisting a knife into a soft spot of flesh. “Easy to get hurt there. And L. A.’s worn down, the physical plant. It's the constantly using it. Constantly wearing down the facility. So many people coming through, people under lots of strain.” Twenty-eight, Chuey’s been out of prison one year. “I started out life in the criminal justice system. Last 15 years, until this year. I'd had three months’ freedom. Last eight years, I spent four in Quentin and four in New Folsom.”

Chuey hisses, a low-pitched sibilance. “I could sit and tell you how my dad beat my mother and how we all eight of us kids had to go live in these places because Mom couldn’t handle it, but that's just something in life.

“This prison life is bred in guys like me since we were little kids. Our society breeds it and the department [of corrections] breeds it, from juvenile detention centers to juvenile halls to California Youth Authority to county camps to the county jail, onto and onto, you know ... it’s all stepping stones.

“Eight years I did, good ones too. I made them worth my while. I don’t regret it. I would probably be dead now if I hadn’t done that time. I was wild.”

Has he been working out since he left prison? “No. I carried this weight with me everywhere. I was huge, from the start. I had almost 19-inch arms. I was just a natural big Mexican. I was bred like that ever since McClaren Hall, I’d say. But I did work out, in prison. Burned off a lot of anxiety. Just lose track of everything.

“New Folsom, it’s just like Donovan, it’s a carbon copy. I bet those are real roomy, those cells. Ones I’ve been in, only one person could stand up at a time in those.

“Quentin, Quentin,” he looks toward Donovan, was Chuey’s favorite prison. “Because it was more vi-lent. Yeah. More vi-lent. Because it was tough. If you were gonna do time, you were gonna do time. If you wanted to learn something, that was the spot to put a guy in. I was in Quentin when it was rockin’, when the war jumped off between the Black Guerrilla family and the Mexican Mob. I caught the end of it.

“What people outside think is prison is an illusion. It’s an evil world going on in there. My first three months in Quentin, I was already shot eight times on the north block yard, and before that year was up, I was already beat down twice by guards. One time it was four sergeants and three lieutenants and one regular CO, and the only reason they used the CO was that he was 280 pounds, so he was the shield man. That was the type of person I was in Quentin.

“So I’ve slowed down a lot.

“But I feel no different because I never changed. I still think the same, but I don’t do the same.

“People came and visited me, friends. People you surround yourself with that you can call family, because those people visit you, they grow on you, you end up loving more than your own family.

“When you have visitors, you get strip-searched coming in and strip-searched going out, and piss-tested going in and piss-tested coming out. While you’re visiting, you know you will have to go back in there and be disgraced, that when visiting’s over they strip-search you again and they put you through hell. To hear shit from the guards after a visit, when you’ve been with someone being nice to you, it’s real humiliation. It doesn’t have to be what they say, it’s their attitude, the way they snatch your shirt out of your hand, the way they look at you as if ‘You ain’t goin’ to do shit, boy, you ain’t.’

“It’s a trip, because this guy’s got this mask on because he’s bein’ real tough in front of this lady, and the lady’s gonna leave, and he's tryin’ to act like he don’t care, but he does. Some of ’em go back to their houses and cry. Bury their heads. Cry like kids. It's like they ain’t tough no more. A visit can do that.

“But guys really look forward to the visiting. They live for those days when they get to see a loved one, and when they have a hassle and something hurts mentally, a lot of them think of their loved ones. This keeps violence down, letting these loved ones in.

“I looked forward to visits. I didn’t get full visits from this one girl, I'd get, like, just an hour; and I’d tell her, if you are just going to come for an hour, don’t come.’ She’d say, ‘How are you going to tell me not to come? What how about what I feel?’ I’d say, ‘How can you sit with me for an hour, and long before I get over the excitement of the visit, it’s all over? It’s easy for you to turn around and walk out the doors knowing you can come back out to all this, and I got to go back to my cell with no peace of mind and try to hold it together there.’"

Chuey introduces Jaime, blunt-faced, broad-shouldered and a head taller than Chuey. The men met in prison. They were together quite a few places. Folsom. Chino. Now they do carpenter work, scaffolding, $17.50 an hour. Jaime's 26, has been in and out since he was 10. “I didn’t do any long stretches. My longest stretch was two and one-half years. I did a year there, two here, and one there. I’ve got only my mom, my dad passed away, so no family came to visit me. Just friends. It didn’t really bother me.”

Chuey: You were short-timin’ anyways.

Jaime: I didn’t want my mom to travel that far, and I didn't have a girlfriend at that time.

Chuey: You know what makes me mad? When guys in there know their parents don’t have nothin’ out here, and they’re in there beggin’ their parents for money or for things. He knows mom is out there collectin’ welfare, she’s barely supportin’ all the kids they got, and he’s sweatin’ her; he knows she’s gonna figure out how to get it for him and send it to him, because that’s her baby in there.

Jaime: I never asked my mom for nothin’. I just told her. Send me stamps.

Chuey: Ladies sometimes will come to visit and say they want to break up. When that happens, some of these guys go back to their house and swallow light bulbs and razor blades. They do that because when they go to the hospital, the prison’s got to inform whoever the guy has on his list that he's been in an accident; and sure enough, it’s probably the lady, and she races down here and begs, “Oh, don’t do it, baby, don’t do it.”

Jaime: Most of the time, if that happens, their buddies gotta take their sheets from them and put themselves on suicide watch ...

Chuey: And make sure the guards don't give them no razor blades to shave.

Jaime: If you’ve got a marriage license, they will give you 48-hour family visits. The inmates call them boneyard time. I coulda got married about six times, and I told them all no. I didn’t see no logic between this world out here and that one in there. I thought, “How in the hell could this pretty little lady come in here and visit me and tell me she loves and hold me and try to kiss on me and then go out there and live?” And I said, “No, that ain’t right.”

Chuey: If a lady’s with a guy in prison and she wants to go out. I say let them go out. Nine times out of ten they are. Doesn’t common sense tell you, she’s out here, there are sharp men everywhere?

Jaime: If you have a good woman, and you been with her, and you know her style, the way she was brought up —

Chuey: Beautiful heart and mind —

Jaime: — then that’s a different story. A lot of them here [he indicates two young black women walking out Su Casa’s door], they come from the projects.

Chuey: They come from the same place he come from. He’s just in here and she ain’t. It just happened he went in there and she didn’t have to go.

Interior of Su Casa

Chuey watches Carolina gather her children for the van’s trip back to the Iris Street station. Chuey wouldn’t take children to visit here. During his years in prison, he watched girls visit fathers. “And as time progressed. I saw these girls get older, and I thought, ‘That sucks. This is the only playground these kids have. The mothers love the man so much that they bring those kids in with them all the time.’ ” Jaime agrees, and Chuey continues, “Kids ain’t dumb, and some of them image their fathers as ‘My daddy’s tough, hard.’ ”

“Yeah,” Jaime says. “Yeah.”

“So,” Chuey says, “you think maybe that kid's growing up and will be looking for men in prison. For some reason that pattern gets set in some women. I have known a lot of ladies who always end up with a guy who ends up in a place like this.”

“Which is sad," says Jaime. “Sad."

The bus, gears grinding, stops again outside Su Casa, discharging passengers. Kyle and Loretta climb down. Loretta, smiling, shows a Polaroid snapshot of herself and her father, a bulky, white-bearded man. “It was good to see him. He’s been growing his beard since he’s been here. He’s usually more attractive than that. He looks mean in this picture, but he’s not really mean. He’s going to be out by Christmas, and he’s going to play Santa."

Kyle isn’t smiling. “He said last week there were a lot of different fights between South Mexicans and North Mexicans and blacks and whites and that all the Mexicans were fighting with the blacks and all the people were fighting with the whites. There are five yards, and just on yard four and yard five alone, he said they had eight stabbings last week. And outside we never hear about it."

“There’s a lot," Loretta says, downcast now, “that goes on inside that we don’t know."

Angrily, Kyle says, “The criminal justice system is the same inside and outside prison. You have to be able to pay people off. A lot of judges in San Diego, if you pay a lawyer enough, he can maybe get to one of those judges. In prison you have to be able to pay this person and that person off if you want anything, if you want even to keep what you have. You have to pay the biggest, baddest killer in there to protect your stuff. You have to pay a guard a pack of cigarettes to apply for a job. Everybody will say that isn’t true. But it is, it’s the system."

Nickie, frowning, climbs slowly down out of the bus and up Su Casa's steps and sits down on a bench on the porch next to Ella and two other women. Ella offers her a cigarette, scratches a match to light it. Nickie inhales deeply, then addresses Ella, “I was lookin’ around the visiting room, and the room is filled with men and women, and they sit close and they talk. But he was sittin' here and I was sittin’ there, and he was bitchin’. A bitchin’ man is the worse thing on the planet.

“He told me in there, ‘I don’t like your hair today. Don’t wear it like that no more. Wear it like you know I like it.’ And then he say to me, ‘You claim you don’t go out with no man, so why do your hair have to be any way different?’ And then he wants to know how I get home from work. ‘Were Mexicans driving you home from work?’ I tell him, ‘I supposed to wait for you to come home and do these things? Drive me?’ ” Ella points toward the prison. “He needs to check a psychiatrist out in there.”

Nickie agrees. “Me, myself, if I was in prison and somebody come visit me once a week, spend 100 dollar a month on the book so he can go to the store, I would appreciate that person, but he is unappreciative and ungrateful.

“I dealt with him seven months now. If you give somebody seven months, they oughta show you something. You can bring out the good in a man. When I met my husband, he was a gambler. By the time we got married, I had cured him. I thought, ‘I brought out the good in that man. I can bring out the good in this one.' My husband was willing to work with me. But this man isn't.

“I told him, ‘You helped me overcome that hard time when my husband died. But you also opened my eyes to you that you care so little for your own life that you do what put you in that prison.’ Then I said, ‘There ain’t gonna be no marriage. How many years you gonna be behind those bars?’ You think I gonna be runnin’ down here all these years? No,’ I told him, ‘there ain’t that much love in the world I come down here all those years.’

“You know, love is walkin’ on the beach and holdin’ hands. Love is bein’ there when you need it. That’s love. What he wants from me, I don’t know what it’s called. If it’s called obsession, well, Icannot be obsessed.

“So things started gettin’ a little loud in there between him and me. He said, ‘I am gonna get up out of here.’ I said, ‘I am the one who is gonna get up out of here. You go back to your home.’ He said, ‘Nickie, wait. If you walk up outta here, it’s over.’ I said okay. Then I said I was leavin’, because the next sound you woulda heard was, ‘Who in the fuck do you think you’re talkin’ to? I ain’t her.'

“And when I turned to leave, he come toward me, ‘So, Nickie, you gonna give me a hug and a kiss?’ I thought. ‘For what? You don’t need no kiss or no hug. You need to go in there in your motherfuckin’ cell and dig a hole and bury yourself and think about what you done lost.’ ”

One of the other women says, “He knows he blew it.”

“But I am so glad he blew it. Because I wasn’t gonna marry him noway. Tomorrow when he calls is goin’ to be fuck-you day. I tried nice-nice. What’s wrong between him and me is he never got to meet the ugly part of me. He gonna meet her tomorrow when he call me. Call me, collect!

“And what am I going to do come Monday morning? I’m gonna call the telephone company and tell them. ‘I been having crank calls. Will you please change my number?’ I will remedy his collect-calling of me. I am the one paying $259, $312 phone bills. I don’t want to talk no more to this n*gger. He’s not making me happy. And he’s not going to make me happy.

“I waste my money comin’ up here to the motherfuckin’ prison, being humiliated. You are not goin’ to walk on my pride and self-respect. That belongs to me. That’s mine. He got those bars. He don’t need me.

“Oh, my daughter is going to fall over today. I am gonna go home and tell her, Remember what I told you? That I wasn’t gonna quit him for you? That I was only gonna quit him for things he done to me?’ She will go. ‘Yes. I remember.’ And then I will say, ‘Well, he done done it.’”

Ella lights a cigarette. “He's gonna look for somebody to come see him, he’s gonna miss your visiting.”

“It won’t be me. I have done degraded myself enough.”

One of the other women says, “I bet you’ll change your mind."

“Naw,” says Nickie. “He told me back before he pulled his crime he got caught on. ‘We could have all this money if you weren’t so scared, Nickie. You a coward.’ Well, I told him. ‘Me behind bars? Me in the women’s prison and you in the men’s prison? What good would that do us?’ And I told him back then, ‘So what we don’t have money. That’s life. Sometimes you can’t buy no shoes, sometimes you can buy three pairs of shoes.’ But he did what he did, and now it’s not only him getting punished, he makes me be punished too, because he gives me the blues. I can do better than him. If he were such a superior person, he wouldn’t be behind those bars in there.”

The women chorus, “Yes, yes.”

“He talks about killin’ my stepson, my stepson talks about killin’ him. My stepson say, ‘What do you want with him? You don’t need him.’ So I lied to my stepson, said, ‘He ain’t my man. He’s only my friend.’ But I don’t want one to hurt the other. Both of them sittin’ in the penitentiary. Both of them criminals. I don’t want both of them to have to watch they backs for the other.

“Now it’s not gonna be a lie that he ain’t my man. I have woken up to this thing. I am thinkin'. ‘I will take peace of mind anytime over a piece of ass.’ ”

“You bet.” says Ella, grinning, “peace of mind over piece of ass. You bet.”

On the way back to the Iris Street trolley station, women and children sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the van. The wool-suited blonde, eyes closed, rests her head on the back of the seat; her plastic purse sits in the hollow of her lap. Two young women squeezed in next her talk. One acquaints the other with papers she will need to file with the prison chaplain so she can marry her inmate boyfriend and then the papers required to get on the list for behind-the-walls, 48-hour conjugal visits. She says that after her first conjugal visit, she couldn’t walk. “I had to be helped, my legs was so sore, in back and in front.” Everyone laughs. On the seat behind them, Nickie is telling Ella she plans to go out tonight on Wilshire and get drunk. “That’s life,’’ she says, “that’s life.”

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Loading the bus at Su Casa - Image by Paul Stachelek
Loading the bus at Su Casa

Early Saturday morning, five women and four children share seats on the San Ysidro trolley. The children sit primly, staring out windows at the emptied weekend city slipping by. Three women are black, one is Hispanic, one white. The black women talk quietly. One tells the others, “I come down from L.A. last night and stayed over with my cousin,” and then another sighing, says, “I was at my work till midnight.” The Hispanic woman jostles a fussing infant. The white woman, blonde, slumps under an overlarge wool suit and is already sweating; she talks to no one, stares down in her lap, where she grips a purse made of clear plastic. The children do not talk; they seem sunk deep in thought, they are not smiling.

All five women have dressed carefully, as for a daytime party, and perfumes (rose, musk, a metallic citrus) waft off shoulders, from crevices of bosom, from the black women’s intricately braided and lustrous hair. Closer study shows the suited blonde is not the only one carrying a clear plastic purse; each woman clutches or grasps or clasps or cradles in a lap such a purse.

Ana Quiñonez

The trolley picks up speed, the car rattles. The baby cries. Its spine abruptly arches backward, its face reddens, and an unmistakable odor enters the air. “He dirty his diapers,” the woman from L.A. says to the infant’s mother.

The mother’s eyes widen. She reddens.

"Discúlpame, pero no hablo ingles..”

As Iris Street station nears, the children, without prompting, stand, swaying as the trolley slows. The Hispanic woman reaches down and grabs her diaper bag, her plastic purse. The women push themselves up from seats and out the car, down steps onto the platform.

A white van marked Su Casa Visitors Center, R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility waits trackside with open doors. The women and, children and an elderly black man hurry toward it. A 60ish man, in sport shirt and slacks, greets the group and helps them up into the van’s back seat. The black man climbs onto the front passenger seat, and as the van heads to Beyer Boulevard and then turns onto 905 east bound, the driver asks him how his week’s gone. “Fine,” he says, and then talk turns to toothaches and the weather, which both men prophesy will “turn off hot.”

The women and children are pressed tightly together along the van’s two benches. Windows remain rolled up. The odor of the diaper and women’s perfume intensifies. The children stare grimly ahead into the seats in front of them. A stomach rumbles. Only the blonde, nervously rubbing her purse and sweating profusely, looks out the window toward the green hills, which spread out before the eye beneath a yellow haze of blooming wild mustard. Brown Field, runway dotted with Cessnas and Pipers, approaches. Then the van turns onto Otay Mesa Road, and soon the correctional facility’s gun towers come into view.

The women open the see-through purses, fish out drivers’ licenses. The driver steers the van through the main gate, slows behind two cars halted at a booth painted light brown. Correctional officers in army green peer into the vehicles, wave on their drivers, then approach the van. The elderly man and each of the women hold up licenses for the CO’s inspection. No one speaks.

The driver heads the van farther into the prison grounds, stopping at the edge of a vast parking lot on which perhaps 30 cars gleam under bright sunlight. The driver helps out the elderly man, the women and children. They walk toward a brown building fronted by a wide porch: Su Casa Visitors Center. Ana Quiñonez, Su Casa’s director, cheerfully greets them.

Quiñonez, dressed in cream trousers and beige jacket, explains the building’s (and her) presence here. A state law passed in 1982 requires that each state prison maintain a visitor’s center. This center, Su Casa, is funded by Centerforce, a private nonprofit organization that contracts with the State of California to encourage inmate visiting and is operated by Lutheran Social Services. The building, about a quarter-mile from the main prison, has a childcare room with television and VCR, nursery, bathrooms with showers, shelves stacked with clothing, a dressing room with ironing board, kitchen, offices, and a spacious waiting room fitted out with couches, easy chairs, coffee tables.

Donovan, a medium-security prison, open four years and housing almost 5000 inmates, has the highest visitation rate of any California prison: three to four thousand visits per month. “During Christmas,” Quiñonez says, “we had 7000 visitors. And when it rains,” she gestures toward the waiting room with its long blue sofa, blue chairs, rag rugs, “we’ve got wall-to-wall people.” Voice lowered, Quiñonez adds, “Everyone who comes here has a tragedy. They have uncles, husbands, brother, father, son, a friend — someone who made a mistake.”

Quiñonez indicates the older black man who’d been on the van. He leans against the kitchen counter, drinking coffee from one of the polystyrene cups stacked on the counter. “He comes to visit his son. Every Saturday. From L.A. He has two jobs.

“It is very expensive to come here. People who come from L.A. — and many of our visitors do — must spend 60 to 80 dollars. A bus ticket is $24 round trip from L.A. Then the meals. They can eat in the prison cafeteria. If you have two children and a husband and a wife, you spend $30 in one meal.

“Many are really tired. They got up very early. And the stress starts the night before, maybe in the morning when you are taking the shower. If they come from up north and take Greyhound and then the trolley and then the van, that is exhausting. And then you have to get on the bus here and make the line and be processed. Most people, on weekends, they stay the entire day, until 8:30 at night. And it’s very difficult for children to sit there for eight hours.

“We have local people who visit five days a week. Some, if they can, relocate, but the majority cannot afford to relocate. Some are on welfare, some work part time, some live with family. Many children who visit here on a daily basis spend an average of ten hours a day in the prison.

“We have one visitor, he comes every Thursday — he brings a child with him to visit her father here, and then he takes her to Las Colinas to visit her mother. We have another lady, she has two sons here. She says. At least they are safe, they have a place to stay, they are in drug- and alcohol-treatment programs, they have three meals a day.’ ”

Quiñonez can always guess who’s here for the first time. “I look for distraction, a lost look. First-time visitors are not used to the system. The first visit is always shocking, difficult. Newcomers, especially to visit a loved one with a first-time offense, they are very depressed and they don’t know how to deal with their feelings, but they still try to overcome that anxiety and fear of the institution and the system. There is a lot of anger toward the system.

“It takes a while for visitors to get used to rules and regulations. Dress, for instance. Donovan as well as every institution in the state has a strict dress standard. Visitors are not allowed to wear denims, no plain white T-shirts, no army green, no blue, nothing Spandex that would be revealing and sexually suggestive. Nothing that could resemble the inmates’ attire, like bright orange. In case of emergency, there wouldn’t be time to know inmates from visitors."

The see-through plastic purses that the women on the trolley carried and that many women coming and going, now, from Su Casa’s bathrooms, are carrying? Women who are regular visitors, explains Quiñonez, tend to carry these purses because the clear plastic makes it easier for guards to search them before they enter the prison.

As the room fills, Quiñonez moves about quickly, answering questions. “You can keep car keys with you,” she tells a nervous mother, here, with two grown sons, to visit their brother. “You should lock up your purse in your car. You can take in $30. In fives and ones only. No twenties, no tens ." Quiñonez takes a plastic bag off a stack of plastic bags, hands it to the mother, suggests, “You can put your ID and money and keys in this."

Mid-morning, the parking lot has filled with cars. The long navy-blue bus that every 20 minutes circles between Su Casa and the prison interior, ferrying visitors behind prison walls and bringing visitors back to Su Casa, has come and gone many times. Quiñonez has dispensed myriad cups of coffee, directed women to the room in which infants’ diapers can be changed, rustled through shelves of clean clothing to locate proper attire for those whose dress does not meet prison code, helped newcomers fill out papers they need to enter the prison.

Gorgeous, big-eyed, coffee-colored, round-bodied Nickie wears black leather pants, black silk blouse, black angora sweater embellished with pearls and trimmed along the collar with fur. In three-inch heels, she stands a half-hand under six feet. Ducking down to look into the mirror in one of Su Casa’s bathrooms, she draws in black pencil lines on her eyebrows and talks to Ella, a sturdy, dark-skinned woman in her mid-40s, wearing leopard-print leggings and black top.

Ella came on Greyhound from L.A. to visit her husband, who has been incarcerated at Donovan six months. Ella idly combs at her hair and listens as Nickie says, as much to herself as to Ella, "I got bags under my eyes. Why? Because I get off of work at one in the morning and be at the bus station in L.A. at three. You can’t get no good sleep on the bus." Ella agrees and Nickie goes on to say she’s here to visit her boyfriend Willie, who’s been at Donovan seven months. Nickie, in her early 40s and mother to a grown daughter and stepson, met Willie after Jerome, her husband, died. Willie, she says, “helped me to overcome that hard time when my husband died.’’ Willie wants to marry. Nickie’s not sure. Her daughter disapproves of Willie. As does her stepson.

Visitors waiting for the bus at Su Casa

Never taking her eyes from the mirror, Nickie talks. “My kids think I have been losin’ my mind. ‘Look, Mom,’ they say, ‘you be goin’ to a prison to visit a man. You are losin’ your mind.’ My daughter ask me, ‘Mama, why don’t you find your boyfriend out here on the outside?’ I told her, and it’s the truth, ‘He’s safe. Willie’s safe.’ Also, I tell her. ‘If somebody loves you even once a week, you got it good.’ ”

Ella nods agreement. Says plaintively how much she misses her husband.

Nickie puts her face closer to the mirror, with a steady hand applies a thin black line beneath her eyes. “But my daughter tell me, ‘You are makin’ a mistake.’ I said, ‘Let me make my own mistakes. I am not a china doll.’ "

“No, no," says Ella, watching Nickie brush powdered mascara onto the stubby lashes fringing her eyelids.

Only when Nickie has put away the mascara brush and blinked, repeatedly, and with the long scarlet nail on her pinky finger removed a pinhead-sized mascara bead from an eyelash, does she resume speaking. “I was married to Jerome for 18 years. I didn’t know nothin’ but Jerome, and Jerome didn’t let me make mistakes. He prevented me. I told my daughter. ‘Well, Jerome is gone. I am gonna make mistakes.’ ” Nickie smiles at her reflection in the mirror, then turns, faces Ella, says, “That’s what I tell her.’’

Ella and Nickie take out zippered plastic pouches that hold cash and drivers’ licenses, check their purses with Quiñonez and walk together toward Su Casa’s front door, out onto the porch (its benches filled with women and children), down the steps. Squinting under bright sun, Ella and Nickie take places at the end of a line of some 20 men, women, teenagers, children, all waiting for the bus that will take them into the prison’s interior. Those who talk, speak quietly. Faces are solemn. Many eyes are lifted almost reverently, as if gazing at a work of art or wonder of nature, toward the double 14-foot-high fences topped with razor-edged wire and behind the fences at the gun towers and cell blocks with their narrow slot windows.

In line are Loretta and Kyle, sister and brother, in their mid-20s, San Diego residents. Their father has been at Donovan since mid-November. It’s his first time in prison and the family’s first encounter with the criminal justice system. “It was a shock to him and to us, the imprisonment,” says Kyle. “He was supposed to get a work furlough, and the judge went up against the probation officer and changed the whole thing. He will be here until December 16, 1991. It wasn’t supposed to be very long. It wasn’t supposed to be in the first place. We have some lawyers trying to do something to get him out, but in general, they haven’t done much.” Kyle tries to come every Saturday. Loretta didn’t have a driver’s license, and it took four weeks to get her California ID card, so this is her first visit to her father since he left county jail. “It was hard there,” she says, pushing blonde bangs off her forehead, “because I couldn’t touch him.”

“It's hard, period.” says Kyle, squeezing his sister’s hand.

Carolina stands in line with her three-month-old infant and eight-year-old daughter. Her baby sleeps. Carolina, in halting English, says she was born in Mexico. She lives, now, in Escondido. “For the money, we have welfare. No work.”

Carolina’s oldest child refastens one of the yellow duck barettes that holds her long braids. She looks toward Donovan’s towers. Her father has been here, she says, for 20 days. “He’s going to be three years in here. In Vista we used to go to see my dad, and we visited him also in San Diego. This is not our first time to be here. Every time he’s had to go to jail, we all cry. He always cries, and I always cry when we have to leave him in a jail.” She doesn’t know how many times her father’s been in jail. “He has been in jails as long as I know.”

Nickie lights a cigarette, tells Ella she’s worried about today’s visit. “I said to a girl last night at work, ‘Willie is goin’ to blow it tomorrow.’ Well, tomorrow’s come. I wonder what’s going to happen now."

Ella assures Nickie. Everything will be fine. Then says, sighing deeply, “I never thought one day I’d visit a prison, ’cause I always knew I was not goin'.’’ She looks across the parking lot toward the razor wire glittering atop the double fences. She holds her bare arms and shivers. “Just the idea of being locked up gives me the creeps. I can’t stand to be closed in." She turns, gazes away from the prison out across the green hills, “This is sure quiet after Los Angeles "

“Too goddam quiet," Nickie says loudly enough to draw eyes toward her.

Visitors' clear purses

Behind Nickie and Ella, a chubby, perspiring young black woman carrying a plastic bag filled with dollar bills and keys asks a pale, apocalyptically thin woman in her mid-30s if this is her first time at the prison. “No," the woman sputters. “Since August 1990 I’ve been coming here. Got a lot, lot more years to go." The young woman asks how many years. “Seventeen," the woman says and scuffs the asphalt. And then, bitterly, “Look, I don’t want to talk right now, okay? I do not want to talk."

The younger woman shrugs, asks Nickie if she's been here before. Nickie laughs harshly. “Too many times!" The woman draws closer to Nickie, asks if she’ll be searched. Nickie says, “You go through a metal detector. And they pat you down sometimes. They lookin' for drugs." Nickie adds, “The guards here, they treat you like you a convict as much as who you’re visiting. My stepson, he’s in prison too. At Tehachapi, they nice there. The guards."

“They don’t go in your pants, do they?” the woman asks Nickie, who scowls and turns her back, leaving Ella to answer. “No," Ella says. “Nothing like that. When we get inside, you just wait in line, you tell the guard who you want to see, then they check to see if you are approved and on the list. After that you go into a room like a big rec room, with tables and chairs, and you can sit next to the person you’re visiting."

The bus has started out the prison gate and begun to move down the road toward the line of now some 30 people. The bus, faces at each window, circles the parking lot and, wheezing, pulls to a stop at the head of the line. The door whines open and women — wiping away tears, biting lips — and bleary-eyed men and stone-faced children step down onto the asphalt. Those waiting search the faces of those who return; but the returnees, seemingly dazed with grief, are oblivious to this curiosity. No eye contact is made.

Inside Su Casa, a big wall clock shows the time as a few minutes past noon. Two men followed by two women walk to Quiñonez’s desk. The older man, white-haired and bluntly muscular, speaks in Spanish-accented English. “We are here, my wife and daughter and son-in-law, to visit my grandson.” He fumbles in the pocket of his brown trousers and pulls out a folded application form that must be filled out by visitors and hands it to Quiñonez.

“Only three of you will be allowed to visit,” says Quiñonez.

“They didn’t tell me when I call them at the prison that only three can visit,” says the grandmother, who stands behind her husband, the top of her head only grazing his shoulder. Without the high-heeled shoes (out of which flesh of her swollen feet rises puffily), she is less than five feet tall. Her dark-blue rayon dress, a dress for funerals, has wrinkled across her ample belly. A bit of black petticoat lace droops below the dress’s hem. She wobbles unsteadily in the heels, around whose heel tips leather has peeled away. Lines marking the round face suggest that pain and patience and suspicion are old friends. And now suspicion comes to the fore. “ ’Don’t bring no drugs, don’t bring no weapons,' that’s all they tell me. I swear. That and ‘Don’t wear no blue jeans.’” She nods toward her daughter and son-in-law, both of whom wear jeans.

“I told you,” the grandmother looks up into the younger couple’s faces, “they wouldn’t let you wear those. I told you.” She is wringing her hands. The daughter and son-in-law, feces worn into middle-age, hang their heads.

Quiñonez looks to them, says, gently, “They are not going to let you go in, in jeans. You will have to change your clothing.” Quiñonez says again that only three of the four can visit today, suggests they decide who wants to go in and then come back to her, that she has slacks they can borrow to wear while they visit.

Then, while more women and men walk through the door, fill out forms, ask questions of Quiñonez, get change for $20 bills, use bathrooms, the family decides: the grandmother is too tired to stand under the glowering sunlight to wait for the bus, too tired for a now-reported hour-long wait inside prison walls for processing, too tired to sit several hours at the cafeteria table. She brushes away her family’s protests — “It’s hard for me to walk,” she says. “I am almost blind” — and totters uneasily to the blue couch and settles into one of its corners.

“Not her,” the grandmother nods toward Quiñonez, who is reaching into shelves to get out slacks for the daughter and son-in-law, “but those people at the prison don’t give you good information on the phone about clothes. I try to talk to them on the phone, but all they tell you is, ‘Don’t bring no drugs, don’t bring no weapons.’” She shrugs, laughs. “Who, who is a grandmother, is going to bring drugs and weapons to a prison?”

Her name is Maria Jesus. She and her family live in Long Beach. Her husband, who waits for his daughter and son-in-law to change into slacks, works at the harbor in San Pedro. They have been married 37 years. They own their two-bedroom home. They grow vegetables in the back yard. Tomatoes, she says, squash, many peppers. They have one son and two daughters. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren.

Maria Jesus’s husband worked until four this morning. When he got home, the sun had not risen. Maria Jesus fixed his breakfast and then went into the other bedroom and shook her daughter awake. “She kept pretending to be asleep there, next to him, the stepfather of my grandson, who is her son. Then my daughter sat up in the bed and said ‘Shhhh’ to me, said, ‘Don’t wake him up,’ the stepfather; and I said, ‘I don’t care if he wakes up. He hates my grandson, your son.’ I tell her right there, ‘You’ve only got one kid. A husband you can pick up in any comer. You should look out for the child, and if the husband does not like him, you should leave the husband.’ ”

She and her husband, she says, have always felt sorry for their grandson. “When his mother divorced his dad, my grandson in there got a rotten deal. He was 12. His stepfather didn’t like him. I kept him all these years because he was rebellious against them. When I raise him, I wash his hair, bathe him, fix his sack lunch, send him to all the schools. When he graduated from high school, he was in the state youth camps. I sent him to the camps myself because he was getting too much out of hand. He was in camp until he was 18, Gonzalez Camp over there in front of Santa Monica. We used to go every Sunday to visit him. I wanted them to keep him more because I know he was not ready, I know the streets would get him.

“He’s a good boy. When he was out from the camp, he stayed with us. We love him, we treat him nice, his grandfather and me. He never cursed us, he did what we asked, he helped around the house. At night he and I would sit, and we would laugh and talk and gossip and drink hot chocolate.

“He was good for about six months. No drugs, none of that rock. That’s why this happened, the rock. He went and stole three cars, and then he sold $20 worth of drugs to an undercover, and because he had that prior — ” She sighs. “I said to him the first day I visit at L. A. county jail, I say, ‘I was glad they caught you. I would rather see this than that you were dead in the streets.’

“He is beautiful, he is six three, about 200 pounds. But when he came in to jail in L.A., he weighed only 130 pounds. From the drugs he lost all that weight.

“He’s been in jail since last summer. He was stabbed in the county, in L.A. County jail, nine times, one time for every month he was there.

“We went to all his hearings on his case. I wanted to hear every word the state said, every word the lawyer said, every word the judge said. I wanted to hear it all. He didn’t get sentenced until March 27th. At the sentencing, when they try to take your kid away, that’s the hardest part. It nearly killed me. What makes me sad is when they bring him into the courtroom with chains on his arms and chains on his legs and when they sentence him”

She moans, pushes herself up out of the couch, walks outside to the porch. She looks past the high wire fence toward the watchtowers, moans again, wrings her hands. “He’s just turned 20. Now he’s gotta make five years.”

A family loading the bus at Su Casa

Maria Jesus, standing on the porch, narrows her eyes, spots the convicts in white shirts and bright orange pants moving in the distant yard, follows them for a while with her eyes. “This visiting the prisons is not new to us. I visited my son in Tracy. Bonnard Ranch. And the prison over there by Monterey. My son tried to kill his wife. He caught her in bed with another man, and he got real annoyed because the kids were there with all that business in the bed going on around them. He didn’t want no help with his case, he just got a public defender, and they railroaded him. He got 20 years. My husband and I, we fought and fought the case. Cost us $10,000. But we got him out. He did only five.

“The mother run off after that happened. And I raised all four of the kids, kids from 3 to 11, for the five years. When my son got out, his oldest son was in the Army.

“I was young and I wasted all my days taking care of grandkids. But I get lots of love from them. I go to bingo on Fridays, and they walk me from our house to the bingo parlor every week.” She smiles. “They say, ‘Win us lots of money. Grandma.’ ”

Back on the couch, Maria Jesus rubs her swollen ankles. “He wrote me a real pretty letter with a little clown printed on the paper, the clown smiling. He wrote, ‘I love you a lot and I don’t know why I do what I do. Grandma.’ What I think is, he is going to be more rebellious when he gets out.”

After two o’clock now, and hotter. Women and children climb down out of the blue bus and wearily walk up Su Casa’s wooden steps and go inside for water. Among them is Ella, returned after two hours with her husband. She lights a cigarette, sits hunched over on Su Casa’s porch. “He was real glad to see me. He don’t have no family here in California but me.” She wipes back a tear with her hand. “I sure hate it when I hear that gate close.”

He has 18 months more to go, with good time. Until his arrest, they’d never been separated. She’s been terrifically depressed, so depressed she’s been unable to work. “I do nothin’ right now.”

She had this dream a few nights ago about her husband. “He came into our bed in the night and put his head on me. It was just like he was there, talking to me and telling me. ‘Everything is going to be all right.’ He says he dreams about me.” She wipes away another tear. “If I can just make it until he gets out, huh?”

Chuey’s white T-shirt pulls tight across his chest, and his arms fill his sleeves. He flexes and rolls his thick neck. His dark-lensed sunglasses reflect the prison towers. He’s standing against the wall on the porch at Su Casa, waiting for a woman he drove here from L.A. to visit the father of her child. “She’s a longtime friend; but I've met the person inside, a real good guy, he just has his hangups every now and (hen. She was in the county jail in L.A. a while back and I went to visit her. It was real sad. Her pregnant and all. It's been a couple months since she saw him. He came from the county jail in L.A. too.

“L.A. County,” he says dreamily, “is a machine. It's more violent” — “vi-lent,” he says — “than anything you can think of.”

He speaks with exaggerated gestures, as if telling a story to a child. “Lots of blind spots there.” He twists his hand at the wrist, as if twisting a knife into a soft spot of flesh. “Easy to get hurt there. And L. A.’s worn down, the physical plant. It's the constantly using it. Constantly wearing down the facility. So many people coming through, people under lots of strain.” Twenty-eight, Chuey’s been out of prison one year. “I started out life in the criminal justice system. Last 15 years, until this year. I'd had three months’ freedom. Last eight years, I spent four in Quentin and four in New Folsom.”

Chuey hisses, a low-pitched sibilance. “I could sit and tell you how my dad beat my mother and how we all eight of us kids had to go live in these places because Mom couldn’t handle it, but that's just something in life.

“This prison life is bred in guys like me since we were little kids. Our society breeds it and the department [of corrections] breeds it, from juvenile detention centers to juvenile halls to California Youth Authority to county camps to the county jail, onto and onto, you know ... it’s all stepping stones.

“Eight years I did, good ones too. I made them worth my while. I don’t regret it. I would probably be dead now if I hadn’t done that time. I was wild.”

Has he been working out since he left prison? “No. I carried this weight with me everywhere. I was huge, from the start. I had almost 19-inch arms. I was just a natural big Mexican. I was bred like that ever since McClaren Hall, I’d say. But I did work out, in prison. Burned off a lot of anxiety. Just lose track of everything.

“New Folsom, it’s just like Donovan, it’s a carbon copy. I bet those are real roomy, those cells. Ones I’ve been in, only one person could stand up at a time in those.

“Quentin, Quentin,” he looks toward Donovan, was Chuey’s favorite prison. “Because it was more vi-lent. Yeah. More vi-lent. Because it was tough. If you were gonna do time, you were gonna do time. If you wanted to learn something, that was the spot to put a guy in. I was in Quentin when it was rockin’, when the war jumped off between the Black Guerrilla family and the Mexican Mob. I caught the end of it.

“What people outside think is prison is an illusion. It’s an evil world going on in there. My first three months in Quentin, I was already shot eight times on the north block yard, and before that year was up, I was already beat down twice by guards. One time it was four sergeants and three lieutenants and one regular CO, and the only reason they used the CO was that he was 280 pounds, so he was the shield man. That was the type of person I was in Quentin.

“So I’ve slowed down a lot.

“But I feel no different because I never changed. I still think the same, but I don’t do the same.

“People came and visited me, friends. People you surround yourself with that you can call family, because those people visit you, they grow on you, you end up loving more than your own family.

“When you have visitors, you get strip-searched coming in and strip-searched going out, and piss-tested going in and piss-tested coming out. While you’re visiting, you know you will have to go back in there and be disgraced, that when visiting’s over they strip-search you again and they put you through hell. To hear shit from the guards after a visit, when you’ve been with someone being nice to you, it’s real humiliation. It doesn’t have to be what they say, it’s their attitude, the way they snatch your shirt out of your hand, the way they look at you as if ‘You ain’t goin’ to do shit, boy, you ain’t.’

“It’s a trip, because this guy’s got this mask on because he’s bein’ real tough in front of this lady, and the lady’s gonna leave, and he's tryin’ to act like he don’t care, but he does. Some of ’em go back to their houses and cry. Bury their heads. Cry like kids. It's like they ain’t tough no more. A visit can do that.

“But guys really look forward to the visiting. They live for those days when they get to see a loved one, and when they have a hassle and something hurts mentally, a lot of them think of their loved ones. This keeps violence down, letting these loved ones in.

“I looked forward to visits. I didn’t get full visits from this one girl, I'd get, like, just an hour; and I’d tell her, if you are just going to come for an hour, don’t come.’ She’d say, ‘How are you going to tell me not to come? What how about what I feel?’ I’d say, ‘How can you sit with me for an hour, and long before I get over the excitement of the visit, it’s all over? It’s easy for you to turn around and walk out the doors knowing you can come back out to all this, and I got to go back to my cell with no peace of mind and try to hold it together there.’"

Chuey introduces Jaime, blunt-faced, broad-shouldered and a head taller than Chuey. The men met in prison. They were together quite a few places. Folsom. Chino. Now they do carpenter work, scaffolding, $17.50 an hour. Jaime's 26, has been in and out since he was 10. “I didn’t do any long stretches. My longest stretch was two and one-half years. I did a year there, two here, and one there. I’ve got only my mom, my dad passed away, so no family came to visit me. Just friends. It didn’t really bother me.”

Chuey: You were short-timin’ anyways.

Jaime: I didn’t want my mom to travel that far, and I didn't have a girlfriend at that time.

Chuey: You know what makes me mad? When guys in there know their parents don’t have nothin’ out here, and they’re in there beggin’ their parents for money or for things. He knows mom is out there collectin’ welfare, she’s barely supportin’ all the kids they got, and he’s sweatin’ her; he knows she’s gonna figure out how to get it for him and send it to him, because that’s her baby in there.

Jaime: I never asked my mom for nothin’. I just told her. Send me stamps.

Chuey: Ladies sometimes will come to visit and say they want to break up. When that happens, some of these guys go back to their house and swallow light bulbs and razor blades. They do that because when they go to the hospital, the prison’s got to inform whoever the guy has on his list that he's been in an accident; and sure enough, it’s probably the lady, and she races down here and begs, “Oh, don’t do it, baby, don’t do it.”

Jaime: Most of the time, if that happens, their buddies gotta take their sheets from them and put themselves on suicide watch ...

Chuey: And make sure the guards don't give them no razor blades to shave.

Jaime: If you’ve got a marriage license, they will give you 48-hour family visits. The inmates call them boneyard time. I coulda got married about six times, and I told them all no. I didn’t see no logic between this world out here and that one in there. I thought, “How in the hell could this pretty little lady come in here and visit me and tell me she loves and hold me and try to kiss on me and then go out there and live?” And I said, “No, that ain’t right.”

Chuey: If a lady’s with a guy in prison and she wants to go out. I say let them go out. Nine times out of ten they are. Doesn’t common sense tell you, she’s out here, there are sharp men everywhere?

Jaime: If you have a good woman, and you been with her, and you know her style, the way she was brought up —

Chuey: Beautiful heart and mind —

Jaime: — then that’s a different story. A lot of them here [he indicates two young black women walking out Su Casa’s door], they come from the projects.

Chuey: They come from the same place he come from. He’s just in here and she ain’t. It just happened he went in there and she didn’t have to go.

Interior of Su Casa

Chuey watches Carolina gather her children for the van’s trip back to the Iris Street station. Chuey wouldn’t take children to visit here. During his years in prison, he watched girls visit fathers. “And as time progressed. I saw these girls get older, and I thought, ‘That sucks. This is the only playground these kids have. The mothers love the man so much that they bring those kids in with them all the time.’ ” Jaime agrees, and Chuey continues, “Kids ain’t dumb, and some of them image their fathers as ‘My daddy’s tough, hard.’ ”

“Yeah,” Jaime says. “Yeah.”

“So,” Chuey says, “you think maybe that kid's growing up and will be looking for men in prison. For some reason that pattern gets set in some women. I have known a lot of ladies who always end up with a guy who ends up in a place like this.”

“Which is sad," says Jaime. “Sad."

The bus, gears grinding, stops again outside Su Casa, discharging passengers. Kyle and Loretta climb down. Loretta, smiling, shows a Polaroid snapshot of herself and her father, a bulky, white-bearded man. “It was good to see him. He’s been growing his beard since he’s been here. He’s usually more attractive than that. He looks mean in this picture, but he’s not really mean. He’s going to be out by Christmas, and he’s going to play Santa."

Kyle isn’t smiling. “He said last week there were a lot of different fights between South Mexicans and North Mexicans and blacks and whites and that all the Mexicans were fighting with the blacks and all the people were fighting with the whites. There are five yards, and just on yard four and yard five alone, he said they had eight stabbings last week. And outside we never hear about it."

“There’s a lot," Loretta says, downcast now, “that goes on inside that we don’t know."

Angrily, Kyle says, “The criminal justice system is the same inside and outside prison. You have to be able to pay people off. A lot of judges in San Diego, if you pay a lawyer enough, he can maybe get to one of those judges. In prison you have to be able to pay this person and that person off if you want anything, if you want even to keep what you have. You have to pay the biggest, baddest killer in there to protect your stuff. You have to pay a guard a pack of cigarettes to apply for a job. Everybody will say that isn’t true. But it is, it’s the system."

Nickie, frowning, climbs slowly down out of the bus and up Su Casa's steps and sits down on a bench on the porch next to Ella and two other women. Ella offers her a cigarette, scratches a match to light it. Nickie inhales deeply, then addresses Ella, “I was lookin’ around the visiting room, and the room is filled with men and women, and they sit close and they talk. But he was sittin' here and I was sittin’ there, and he was bitchin’. A bitchin’ man is the worse thing on the planet.

“He told me in there, ‘I don’t like your hair today. Don’t wear it like that no more. Wear it like you know I like it.’ And then he say to me, ‘You claim you don’t go out with no man, so why do your hair have to be any way different?’ And then he wants to know how I get home from work. ‘Were Mexicans driving you home from work?’ I tell him, ‘I supposed to wait for you to come home and do these things? Drive me?’ ” Ella points toward the prison. “He needs to check a psychiatrist out in there.”

Nickie agrees. “Me, myself, if I was in prison and somebody come visit me once a week, spend 100 dollar a month on the book so he can go to the store, I would appreciate that person, but he is unappreciative and ungrateful.

“I dealt with him seven months now. If you give somebody seven months, they oughta show you something. You can bring out the good in a man. When I met my husband, he was a gambler. By the time we got married, I had cured him. I thought, ‘I brought out the good in that man. I can bring out the good in this one.' My husband was willing to work with me. But this man isn't.

“I told him, ‘You helped me overcome that hard time when my husband died. But you also opened my eyes to you that you care so little for your own life that you do what put you in that prison.’ Then I said, ‘There ain’t gonna be no marriage. How many years you gonna be behind those bars?’ You think I gonna be runnin’ down here all these years? No,’ I told him, ‘there ain’t that much love in the world I come down here all those years.’

“You know, love is walkin’ on the beach and holdin’ hands. Love is bein’ there when you need it. That’s love. What he wants from me, I don’t know what it’s called. If it’s called obsession, well, Icannot be obsessed.

“So things started gettin’ a little loud in there between him and me. He said, ‘I am gonna get up out of here.’ I said, ‘I am the one who is gonna get up out of here. You go back to your home.’ He said, ‘Nickie, wait. If you walk up outta here, it’s over.’ I said okay. Then I said I was leavin’, because the next sound you woulda heard was, ‘Who in the fuck do you think you’re talkin’ to? I ain’t her.'

“And when I turned to leave, he come toward me, ‘So, Nickie, you gonna give me a hug and a kiss?’ I thought. ‘For what? You don’t need no kiss or no hug. You need to go in there in your motherfuckin’ cell and dig a hole and bury yourself and think about what you done lost.’ ”

One of the other women says, “He knows he blew it.”

“But I am so glad he blew it. Because I wasn’t gonna marry him noway. Tomorrow when he calls is goin’ to be fuck-you day. I tried nice-nice. What’s wrong between him and me is he never got to meet the ugly part of me. He gonna meet her tomorrow when he call me. Call me, collect!

“And what am I going to do come Monday morning? I’m gonna call the telephone company and tell them. ‘I been having crank calls. Will you please change my number?’ I will remedy his collect-calling of me. I am the one paying $259, $312 phone bills. I don’t want to talk no more to this n*gger. He’s not making me happy. And he’s not going to make me happy.

“I waste my money comin’ up here to the motherfuckin’ prison, being humiliated. You are not goin’ to walk on my pride and self-respect. That belongs to me. That’s mine. He got those bars. He don’t need me.

“Oh, my daughter is going to fall over today. I am gonna go home and tell her, Remember what I told you? That I wasn’t gonna quit him for you? That I was only gonna quit him for things he done to me?’ She will go. ‘Yes. I remember.’ And then I will say, ‘Well, he done done it.’”

Ella lights a cigarette. “He's gonna look for somebody to come see him, he’s gonna miss your visiting.”

“It won’t be me. I have done degraded myself enough.”

One of the other women says, “I bet you’ll change your mind."

“Naw,” says Nickie. “He told me back before he pulled his crime he got caught on. ‘We could have all this money if you weren’t so scared, Nickie. You a coward.’ Well, I told him. ‘Me behind bars? Me in the women’s prison and you in the men’s prison? What good would that do us?’ And I told him back then, ‘So what we don’t have money. That’s life. Sometimes you can’t buy no shoes, sometimes you can buy three pairs of shoes.’ But he did what he did, and now it’s not only him getting punished, he makes me be punished too, because he gives me the blues. I can do better than him. If he were such a superior person, he wouldn’t be behind those bars in there.”

The women chorus, “Yes, yes.”

“He talks about killin’ my stepson, my stepson talks about killin’ him. My stepson say, ‘What do you want with him? You don’t need him.’ So I lied to my stepson, said, ‘He ain’t my man. He’s only my friend.’ But I don’t want one to hurt the other. Both of them sittin’ in the penitentiary. Both of them criminals. I don’t want both of them to have to watch they backs for the other.

“Now it’s not gonna be a lie that he ain’t my man. I have woken up to this thing. I am thinkin'. ‘I will take peace of mind anytime over a piece of ass.’ ”

“You bet.” says Ella, grinning, “peace of mind over piece of ass. You bet.”

On the way back to the Iris Street trolley station, women and children sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the van. The wool-suited blonde, eyes closed, rests her head on the back of the seat; her plastic purse sits in the hollow of her lap. Two young women squeezed in next her talk. One acquaints the other with papers she will need to file with the prison chaplain so she can marry her inmate boyfriend and then the papers required to get on the list for behind-the-walls, 48-hour conjugal visits. She says that after her first conjugal visit, she couldn’t walk. “I had to be helped, my legs was so sore, in back and in front.” Everyone laughs. On the seat behind them, Nickie is telling Ella she plans to go out tonight on Wilshire and get drunk. “That’s life,’’ she says, “that’s life.”

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