We bide time until 6:30, the hour the guard walks out to the kiosk and hands out numbers to cars snaking by in single file.
  • We bide time until 6:30, the hour the guard walks out to the kiosk and hands out numbers to cars snaking by in single file.
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Calipatria State Prison sits on 200 acres of fallow lettuce fields in the Imperial Valley, two and a half hours east and north of San Diego. The prison is barely two years old, but it is neither the newest maximum-security prison in the California system, nor the second newest. Designed to house 2000, it was home to 3900 inmates before its first anniversary.

In Calipatria $95,000 will buy you a new four-bedroom, three-bath house with a decent-sized backyard and safe schools.

In Calipatria $95,000 will buy you a new four-bedroom, three-bath house with a decent-sized backyard and safe schools.

The prison sees anywhere from 300 to 400 visitors on a typical weekend. Long before sunrise on any Saturday or Sunday, dozens of cars filled with wives, girlfriends, children, parents, and friends line the desolate country road that runs along the prison’s main gate. Those coming from San Diego will have to hit the freeway by 3:00 a.m. if they hope to see their man by a decent hour.

Chamber of Commerce's Carmichael: “There’s no pollution and no traffic to speak of.”

Chamber of Commerce's Carmichael: “There’s no pollution and no traffic to speak of.”

To get to Calipatria, you drive east on Interstate 8, exit at El Centro, and head north on a two-lane strip of asphalt that cuts through farmland and darkness. You see the prison — or at least something — on the horizon miles before you’ve arrived. It glows like a spectral vision, dousing the sky with light, a blaze of floodlights dimmed by distance but nonetheless startling, like maybe the Padres are playing a night game at lack Murphy Stadium. Except you’re in the middle of nowhere, and it’s the middle of the night.

“Lit up like a Christmas tree,” says one Calipatrian of the nighttime view of the prison that has put his town on the map. Perhaps. Though someone seeing the place for the first time might choose a less festive analogy, like maybe Dante’s Inferno. Each of 12 guard towers is wrapped with a necklace of floodlights; several more large spotlights shine on each of the facility’s 20 housing units. Lights blaze inside the cell blocks.

Nowhere is segregation as pronounced as on the prison yard. Every player on the basketball court is black. The soccer field seems as if it’s designated “Hispanic only.”

Nowhere is segregation as pronounced as on the prison yard. Every player on the basketball court is black. The soccer field seems as if it’s designated “Hispanic only.”

Old hands among the prison’s visitors — the stalwarts for whom the trek to Calipatria is a weekly ritual — know to pack blankets, gloves, and other armaments against the cold. The first timers, among whom I count myself, learn the hard way. We shiver in our cars in the pre-dawn chill, bleary-eyed and dreamy. Finally the sun rises over the Chocolate Mountains and casts a reddish glow upon this expanse of whitewashed cell blocks and steel-mesh fences. We bide time until 6:30, the hour the guard walks out to the kiosk and hands out numbers to cars snaking by in single file. I arrived at 4:30 and was given number 46.

Outside in the yard it’s the prison’s policy to fire a single warning shot.

Outside in the yard it’s the prison’s policy to fire a single warning shot.

We stand in another line (to check in) and then waste another couple of hours outside, waiting for visiting hours to begin at 8:45. By that time we’ve emptied our pockets of virtually everything we’ve brought with us. The less experienced among us pray that we’re wearing no clothing that violates some unforeseen regulation, and then, after we’ve been scrutinized several times and walked through a metal detector, we wait some more while the guards fetch the inmates we’ve come to see.

Virtually everyone stays until 2:45, the official end of visiting hours. It’s as if people want their money’s worth after enduring so much. The inmates return to a holding area where they are strip-searched before they’re released to their cell blocks — or escorted “back home,” as the inmate I’m visiting puts it. The rest of us pile into our cars and head west to San Diego or Los Angeles or north to San Bernardino or Riverside counties. Virtually no one stops in the town that has lent the prison its name, except maybe to buy a Coke at the Circle K in the center of town.

The prison at night. Each of 12 guard towers is wrapped with a necklace of floodlights;

The prison at night. Each of 12 guard towers is wrapped with a necklace of floodlights;

This quick exodus preoccupies me as I sit in an otherwise empty Chinese restaurant on the highway that runs through Calipatria. I had spent much of the previous few days talking with the locals about the prison in their midst. They didn’t fight the idea of a maximum-security penitentiary in their backyard but instead lobbied hard for the state to build it here. This giant prison on the outskirts of this tiny town was to be their economic savior, its opening the start of their regeneration. The day prison officials finally broke ground was a joyous occasion in the life of this hamlet just east of the Salton Sea. The people of “Cal-pat” greeted the prison the way another small town might welcome a new General Motors plant. School kids and local workers were given the afternoon off to attend. More than 500 stood around as a high school band serenaded the visiting dignitaries and a color guard team performed its best drill. They beamed as the director of the state’s prison system said this was his best reception ever, and just about the friendliest, too.

World's tallest flagpole. The flagpole now doubles as the town Christmas tree during the holidays.

World's tallest flagpole. The flagpole now doubles as the town Christmas tree during the holidays.

Calipatria has seen some benefits since the prison opened, to be sure. A new city hall stands as one; the half-million dollars the state invested to upgrade the town’s ancient sewer lines is another. Yet the residents were hoping the prison would have an economic impact similar to that of a whale bellyflopping in a bathtub. Instead, it’s caused barely a ripple. “California’s fastest-growing city in 1992,” the local burghers will tell you with a firm nod of the head and a smile. But that’s more a statistical quirk than a sign that theirs is a boomtown in the making. Calipatria more than doubled in size in 1992, but that’s because the prison opened that year, adding 3900 incarcerated newcomers to an area whose population had hovered around 2900.

Flournoy was Calipatria’s mayor throughout the prison campaign. “We went after a prison because the town was dying.”

Flournoy was Calipatria’s mayor throughout the prison campaign. “We went after a prison because the town was dying.”

When you stand in the center of Calipatria at noon, there’s no hint that a couple of miles away lies a marvel of high-tech incarceration, the first prison in the state to be surrounded by an electrified fence that kills on contact. The penitentiary is not like the Chocolate Mountains that loom in the distance. Its presence is virtually invisible by day. To catch even a glimpse, you need to walk out past the town’s main drag, and even then the prison looks more like an industrial park, a clustering of low-slung, whitewashed buildings among the alfalfa fields.

Calipatria’s main street is two blocks of storefronts and roadside stops on either side of a blinking red light along route 115. The buildings are in various states of wear, ranging from decent enough to boarded up and falling down. Vacant lots dot the strip, each representing a failed business torn down long ago. A visit to Calipatria’s closest approximation of a big-city supermarket reveals row upon row of empty shelves. Maybe the most handsome building on the strip stands beneath a sign advertising the Imperial Store—a store that is now closed. Next door are the darkened offices of the Calipatria Herald, which put out its final paper in the mid-1980s. The town’s lone doctor left around the same time, as did a Bank of America branch office. In 1990, when construction on the prison began, the closest bank and nearest doctor were a dozen miles away in Brawley.

Jim Flournoy was Calipatria’s mayor throughout the prison campaign. “We went after a prison because the town was dying,” says Flournoy. “Half the place looked like it was ready to fall down, the other half had already fallen down. I guess you could say we were desperate.”

Flournoy is a friendly fellow in his 50s with a quick smile and smoker’s raspy laugh. For an interview with an out-of-town journalist, he wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt, a blue baseball cap promoting a Brawley trucking company, faded blue jeans stained with oil, and a scuffed pair of boots. His home was Long Beach until 23 years ago, when he moved his family to Calipatria to take over Unocal’s Imperial Valley franchise. Since then, Flournoy has built himself something of a mini-empire along Highway 115. His holdings include a gas station, an automotive parts store, a corrugated shed that he rents out for storage, and a mini-tank farm. He no longer serves as the town’s mayor, but he still sits on the city council and also is a member of the prison’s citizen’s advisory board.

We meet at the town’s new city hall, where we are joined by Dan Carmichael, a 78-year-old retiree who was the president of the chamber of commerce when Flournoy was mayor. Built by the Department of Corrections to serve as its temporary Calipatria headquarters, the building was a gift to the town once the prison was built. The town decided it would be the new city hall, Flournoy says, “mainly because the old one was about ready to fall down.” The building has the feel of a hand-me-down suit that the town hasn’t quite grown into. In San Diego, the large open area that dominates the center of the building would be jammed with clerks, desks, and filing cabinets, but here four desks grace an area that could fit 20.

“Believe it or not, there was a time when we were really thriving here,” Flournoy says. As he and Carmichael describe it, in its day, Calipatria on a Saturday night was a bit of Bourbon Street in the desert. At the height of the picking season, as many as 10,000 people jammed the town’s main drag. “We had 15 bars, all of which would be packed on the weekends,” Flournoy says. “We had a movie theater, too. But that all changed about 20 or so years ago. Now there’s no theater. Had to close up because of lack of business. Now we don’t have any bars, let alone 15 of them.”

In its heyday in the ’40s and ’50s, Calipatria boasted two hotels, two doctors, a dentist, six filling stations six grocery stores (including a Safeway and a Piggly Wiggly), two furniture stores a haberdashery, two barbershops, four real estate agents, and even an attorney. The town still sustains a single real estate agent, but no hotel, no supermarket, no doctor, no dentist, and certainly no lawyer.

Alfalfa, cotton, tomatoes, sugar beets, barley, cauliflower, corn, cantaloupes, onions — everything that grows in the ground, it seemed, could be grown in and around Calipatria. The number-one cash crop was peas. Every year thousands of braceros crossed the border to harvest peas in Calipatria. “But this was back in the days when vegetables were picked seasonally,” Carmichael says. “Now they’re machine picked. Now people can eat Bird’s Eye frozen year-round.” Time was, though, when business was so good that Calipatria was home to the region’s busiest airport.

When hurricanes hit the town two years running, in the late 1970s, the bracero program was extinct and the family farmer was an endangered species. Things had gotten so bad by the time of the hurricanes that Flournoy and Carmichael wonder if they weren’t a one-two knockout punch from which the town has never really recovered. The 1980s brought even more austere times across the entire Imperial Valley. Long before the rest of the state was ravaged by recession, Imperial County’s unemployment rate was near 20 percent. By 1990 Imperial ranked dead last among California’s 58 counties in per capita income. A whitefly infestation in 1990 added to the bad times. This area that advertises itself as the nation’s “winter salad bowl” lost much of its crop two years in a row (many farmers didn’t even bother planting that second year). The warehousing of the state’s most incorrigible citizens on fields that used to produce two crops a year may not have struck anyone as a pleasant notion, but you can’t afford to be choosy about your savior when the county’s unemployment rate is approaching 30 percent.

Calipatria is not the first town to seek salvation through the California Department of Corrections. Since 1982 the department has broken ground on 16 medium- or maximum-security prisons around the state at a cost of $5.15 billion. Most have been built in rural counties, far from the urban centers that produce the vast majority of the prison system’s inmates (39 percent come from Los Angeles County, home to 30 percent of California’s residents; San Diego County, with 8 percent of the state’s residents, ranks second, contributing 7 percent to the inmate population).

The story is the same in each rural area that has solicited a new prison — desperation born of tragically high unemployment rates, more typically from declines in the lumber, mining, and fishing industries than from the prolonged agricultural slumps and infestations plaguing the Imperial Valley. Del Norte County, a wooded paradise at the California-Oregon border, suffered unemployment rates three times the state average when officials there made a successful bid for the infamous Pelican Bay State Prison. In recent years, majestic Kings County has become home to a pair of penitentiaries (at Avenal and Corcoran), as has Kern County (at Wasco and Delano).

One would be hard-pressed to identify a component of the California economy that has grown as vigorously as the prison industry. In 1982 the state housed about 35,000 inmates; only 12 years later, that figure stands at 120,000. (That doesn’t include the 71,000-plus inmates in county jails, nor the state’s 6000 federal inmates.) In 1982 the Department of Corrections employed roughly 10,000 people. Today the fastest-growing unit of state government employs more than 32,000. “Prisons provide a strong economic base and create hundreds of jobs,” says a Department of Corrections promotional brochure. “A prison is a clean, stable, recession-proof industry.”

In the Imperial Valley, the fight for a prison turned ugly. Once the idea had been broached, it seemed every elected official wanted it built in his backyard. “It came down to a north-south, Mason-Dixon Line battle,” Flournoy says. A county supervisor named lames Bucher led the charge on behalf of those living in the southern part of the valley, who backed a new facility for Mt. Signal, near El Centro.

“You bring correctional officers in from the Los Angeles area,” Bucher said at an Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting in 1988, “which is a pretty nice living area, and you set them in the north end, in Cal-pat, and that housewife comes down and says, ‘You want me to live there?’ Come on, let’s be real.... Those wives are gonna come down into El Centro, the county seat, where they got some shopping, the only place in the whole Imperial County where we have a movie theater, that kind of thing.

“I sure as hell wouldn’t live there,” Bucher continued. “If a guy gave me a house, I wouldn’t live there. So I don’t blame [Calipatria officials] for trying to sell the state this property. Hell, I’d sell it, too.”

Fighting words, to be sure, but there was so much at stake in a county suffering through Depression-era unemployment rates. The prison held the promise of an estimated 1200 state jobs, most of them as correctional officers. A guard starts at $27,600 a year, which might not sound like much given the obvious dangers involved, but life in Calipatria costs much less than in San Diego. There, $95,000 will buy you a new four-bedroom, three-bath house with a decent-sized backyard and safe schools. Even the clerical jobs that start at around $17,000 annually mean a lot more money for the local economy than, say, the $8000 the town school district pays its new clerks. Officials from around the valley were also eyeing the 1000-plus visitors a month that a 4000-bed maximum-security facility would draw.

Calipatria, for its part, set aside no money to underwrite the costs of convincing the state that the town was a prime place to build. The same sorry situation that prompted the townspeople to entertain the idea of a prison in the first place (the closing of so many businesses that sales tax revenues had dwindled to $60,000 a year) meant that stalwarts like Flournoy, Carmichael, and a man named Bill Sorenson (who had first broached the idea of a prison) spent thousands of dollars out of pocket because the city couldn’t reimburse them. Area newspapers referred to Sorenson (now deceased) as the Calipatria city planner, but that was merely a symbolic title for a man who didn’t get paid a dime for his services. He was the publisher of the Calipatria Herald and became the town’s de facto planner because he was always spinning fanciful ideas and because he had a newspaperman’s knowledge of the right people to call. When the Department of Corrections tentatively chose the Mt. Signal site, Sorenson, Flournoy, and a couple of others caught a flight to Sacramento to convince the chief administrator to change his mind. The men donated the price of the plane tickets, along with the work and money it took to produce the reams of studies and statistics they carried with them.

“We basically told the Department of Corrections, you tell us where you want to build this thing, and it’s for sale,” Flournoy says. Back in Calipatria, about 350 people attended a town meeting to talk about the prison proposal. Not one spoke against the idea, according to City Clerk Margaret Hatfield, unless you count the farmer who said he was all for the idea unless they built it directly across the road from his house. In contrast, in the southern half of the county, a small group calling itself STAMP (Southenders Totally Against the Mt. Signal Prison) threatened to sue if the state built a prison on the site that James Bucher had proposed.

No one can be certain why the Department of Corrections ultimately chose Calipatria. Flournoy and Carmichael would like to think officials were impressed with this gung-ho town and its well-documented studies. Perhaps it was the threat of a lawsuit that scared them off from the southern site. The correctional officer’s union reportedly opposed the building of another prison in the middle of nowhere, and especially in Calipatria, which had little in the way of amenities. So perhaps the department’s bottom line was that the Calipatrians were so compliant that it outweighed any labor headaches the facility might cause.

(In the ensuing months, Imperial Valley officials tried to convince the federal government to build a new INS detention center in the southern half of the county, to no avail. Later, the state Department of Corrections, perhaps as a peace offering after reneging on an oral commitment to the Mt. Signal prison, announced it would build a 4000-bed medium-security facility in Seeley, just south and west of El Centro. And in Calipatria, not two weeks after the first inmates were assigned there, the town fathers were talking about another 4000-bed maximum-security prison just across the road from the first. “As far as the town’s concerned, the only question people ask is when are they going to build the thing,” Flournoy says. “Nothing’s been determined yet, but the state tells us we’re in line and that it’s just a matter of waiting our turn.” The governor’s proposed 1994-95 budget includes money for six additional prisons, so construction there might begin sooner rather than later.)

And why not two prisons, or three or four? Flournoy asks rhetorically. “It’s not like we’re associated with the prisoners in any way. They’re locked up there and ain’t going anywhere. We’re over here. It’s not like we ever see them.”

Actually, there was a brief opportunity for the curious to catch a glimpse of life on the other side of the prison walls. Just before the official opening of Calipatria State Prison, officials there hosted an open house for anyone interested a tour. Eight thousand locals, including Flournoy, took them up on their offer. Flournoy describes himself as a card-carrying conservative whose family knows better than to disturb him when Rush Limbaugh is on the tube. “Before seeing the place for ourselves, I think the picture most of us had in our head was of these inmates living the life of luxury,” he says. “We pictured them on a reclining chair in the TV room, watching a big old TV. But they sit on steel benches. There’s no reclining chairs or big-screen televisions. There’s nothing in the way of comforts.

“I think everybody who walked into a cell was struck by how small it actually was,” Flournoy says. “It’s something like five feet by ten feet. You’d be in there with somebody else and you’d wonder how two people could survive in such a small place.”

Standing just outside the prison gate, the view is memorable for its starkness. Virtually nothing grows on the expanse of land between the perimeter fences and the prison’s outer walls. Not a tree, not a shrub, just small tufts of grass that somehow defy the parched desert soil.

The prison’s main administration building sits just on the other side of the facility’s outermost perimeter fence. It has the look of a doctor’s waiting area, except that the reading material here includes the Corrections News, the medical brochures concern TB and AIDS among prisoners, and the pictures on the wall are photos of recently opened penitentiaries. Another difference are the guards uniformed somewhat like policemen. Those dressed in the dark green jumpsuits and mid-calf combat boots are members of a “cell extraction team.” Each team has five officers. When called to action, the first barrels in behind a shield. The second guard follows with a heavy baton cocked above his head. The third carries handcuffs, the fourth leg irons. The fifth is like a nickel back free to assist where needed.

Daniel Paramo — Danny, as everyone seems to call him — is the prison’s community resources manager, public information officer, and tour guide. He’s a smooth-faced, affable man in his early 30s who last year was elected to the Brawley City Council. Two in every three residents of Imperial County are Hispanic, but Paramo is the sole Hispanic I would encounter in a position of authority in the prison. I initial a waiver form declaring that I understand the prison’s policy of not negotiating for hostages, and our tour begins.

Our first stop is the 4000-volt, 500-amp electrified fence — the “death fence,” according to newspaper accounts appearing around the country. It’s not a fence, really, so much as strands of wire in a cat’s cradle pattern, sandwiched between a pair of 12-foot-high perimeter fences topped with razor wire. For years prison officials in Sacramento promoted the electrified fence as a cost-cutting measure (fewer guards are needed), but legislators always rejected the proposal as inhumane. The state’s fiscal problems, however, caused them to rethink their opposition, and a couple of years back a bill was approved designating Calipatria as the test site. “You touch the fence, you die,” Paramo says. It’s that simple.

Calipatria cost $208 million to build. Operations cost about $62 million annually. Paramo figures that at least half the prisoners, perhaps as many as 70 percent, have been found guilty of murder. He guesses that the average term for the average inmate is 15 to life. More than 200 are there on a “life without” sentence — life without the possibility of parole. L-WOPPs, they are called. The L-WOPPs are trouble because they have no reason to feel beholden to a biennial parole board hearing.

The guards who roam the prison yard and housing blocks don’t carry guns. Those who do are perched above the inmates, either on rooftops or the lofty command area in each housing unit. (Five housing units make up one cell block.) If this were a lower-security level-two or level-three facility, a single gunner would patrol each housing unit. But because Calipatria is level four, there are always two guards in each housing unit armed with an H&K model 24, a high-powered 9mm assault rifle, with a banana clip. The Department of Corrections uses the type of bullets that “basically explode on impact,” Paramo says. Another pair of gunners patrols a command center that overlooks the prison yard. “There are no warning shots fired in the housing units,” according to the orientation guide the prison provides every inmate. “The first round will be for effect.” Outside in the yard. Paramo says, it’s the prison’s policy to fire a single warning shot. “The next shot is intended to disable.”

Each of Calipatria’s four cell blocks has its own “SHU” — security housing unit — best described as a jail within jail, built for those who break a law (an assault on a guard or fellow prisoner, say, or a drug bust) while incarcerated. It’s not part of the official tour, so Paramo does his best to describe life inside the SHU. The inmates wear nothing but their underwear. They are monitored by 24-hour video surveillance. They can spend about an hour a day in a tiny exercise yard designed solely for the SHU inmates.

The rest of the time, however, they are confined to a cell. There are only two differences between the security units at Calipatria and the infamous SHU at Pelican Bay, Paramo says: the size (Pelican Bay’s SHU unit can house as many as 2000 inmates) and the mingling Calipatria allows when giving inmates their hour in the exercise yard.

Each of the regular housing units is lined with two tiers of cells. Because the California prison system is at 180 percent of capacity, virtually every prisoner here is doubled up in a cell designed for one, it measures seven feet by ten feet. That includes space taken up by two steel slabs bolted to the wall (the bunks), a toilet, a sink, a desk (another steel slab), and a stool. Inmates sleep on mattresses that provide roughly the same comfort as a sleeping bag on top of a backpacker’s mattress pad. Being locked in a cell feels akin to being trapped in the corner of a basement or maybe a boiler room. Prisoners are confined to their cells from 8:30 each night until 6:30 the next morning. They’re also confined for an hour before lunch and for two hours before dinner. When a cell block is on lockdown — rare, but not so unusual that the prison hasn’t had three of four cell blocks on lockdown simultaneously — the inmates are confined to their housing units virtually around the clock. They eat in their cells and are denied yard time (and also school time and vocational classes) until lockdown is over.

The prisoners eat well, depending on your definition of good eating. The food is terribly bland, Paramo confesses, but it’s nutritionally balanced. The kitchens don’t use much in the way of spices, but they adhere strictly to the dictates of the department’s dieticians in Sacramento. “I bet you the inmates eat a much healthier, better balanced meal than most people do,” Paramo says. Perhaps, though the typical lunch, as he describes it — a bologna sandwich, chips, a piece of fruit, and Kool Aid — makes one wonder if that’s true.

The cell doors are opened and closed electronically from the central command station in each housing unit. When a cell door slams shut, the sound is ironically similar to the reverberation that follows the firing of a .45 pistol. There is no latrine area. Shower stalls are nothing but sets of bars in plain view as you enter the housing unit. Freedom, of course, is the number one thing you lose when incarcerated, but privacy runs a tight second. Inmates who attend high school equivalency classes are strip-searched at the end of each day, as are those who take vocational training (computer repair, cabinet making, and the like). Incarceration means constantly stripping down and allowing a guard to stick a gloved finger up your ass and showering and defecating and peeing in plain view of everyone else.

Sometimes Paramo resorts to parroting the official line, like when I ask about inmates from Northern California whose families must drive 10 or 12 or 14 hours to visit (“It’s the intent of the Department of Corrections to make it as easy as possible on visitors”). But mainly he speaks frankly, especially once I tell him I’d prefer touring a filled prison yard rather than an empty one when he presents me that choice. For about an hour, we stand on the edge of the running track that rings the yard in cell block B, people-watching and shooting the shit. He says he’d have to look long and hard to find a job as interesting as this one.

“You meet guys in here,” Paramo says, “and it’s like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I mean, they’re reasonably intelligent, but they screwed up this one time and screwed up big.”

Paramo points to a white guy with a Rip Van Winkle beard. He carries a manila folder under his arm as he walks with two prisoners. Real popular among the other inmates, Paramo says, because he was a lawyer on the outside. “He’s here for killing one of his clients and then attempting to kill his wife when she threatened to tell,” he says. “Don’t know if he was successful on the outside or what, but you have to ask yourself what went wrong, what’s he doing in a level-four prison.”

Ours is a segregated world, but nowhere is that division as pronounced as on the prison yard. Every player on the basketball court is black. The soccer field seems as if it’s designated “Hispanic only,” as does the handball court. Only the weight-lifting pit mingles people of all races, but use of the equipment is strictly prescribed by race. The blacks have their weight-lifting bench, the Hispanics have theirs, as do the whites. Blacks from Oakland work out with Bloods; unaffiliated blacks make their alliances as they can. Not a soul — not anyone among the pairs and threesomes walking the track, and not those sitting on the grass — fraternizes with someone of another race.

“It’s our policy not to fight that,” Paramo says. “We let people choose their own cellmates. If they choose not to, we assign them someone of their own race.” If two people of different races are housed together in a cell somewhere in Calipatria, they are the grand exception rather than the rule.

Calipatria’s inmate population is about evenly split — 30 percent black, white, and Latino, Paramo says. The remaining 10 percent is Asian and native American. Prison administrators try to balance each cell block by race and by gang affiliation.

Virtually everyone belongs to one prison gang or another. Paramo says. Inmates don’t have much choice. “You either join up or pay a price. It will be like, ‘Give us things or our partners on the outside know where your family lives.’” Join a prison gang and you’re protected from that kind of coercion; defy your natural affiliations in a gang and you’re easy prey. The lucky ones are imposed upon for food and cigarettes; the unlucky ones end up raped, if not worse.

In one corner of the yard, an inmate and guard talk casually. They look as if they might be chit-chatting about the wife and kids. “I can’t be sure that they’re not talking about something personal, but I’ll bet the guard is talking to him one-on-one about something that happened earlier in the day, now that he’s not with his buddies,” Paramo says. “That happens a lot. A group of guys are hanging out, and one of them gets smart with a guard. But you just suck it up, or at least that’s what we hope a guard does. You give them the okey-doke, like they say.

“It’s just common sense. There’s 1000 inmates in a cell block and 60 guards, so you don’t want to incite something. You pull him aside later, when you’re with your homies. Nine out of ten times we’ll elicit an apology. Just showing off in front of their homies, they’ll say....

“We have strict rules about the correctional officers fraternizing with the inmates,” Paramo continues. “You don’t give an inmate anything — not a cigarette, not a match. You don’t mail a letter for him even when he tells you it’s an emergency and he’s missed the mail call.” You approach every inmate as if he’s trying to set you up, Paramo says. “You can’t afford to trust any of them.”

We talk a bit longer, mainly, I think, because Paramo’s favorite moment inside the prison walls occurs at the close of yard time. That’s the most worrisome moment of the day from the administration’s point of view, he says. You have 500 inmates going every which way as they head toward their particular housing units. All that movement is the perfect cover for a shanking — a stabbing — which Paramo says occurs about once every two or three weeks.

On those rare occasions when there is trouble. Paramo says, the ensuing scene is something to behold. “A warning shot is fired, and like that, boom, every inmate hits the dirt. I mean, 500 inmates who one second are standing and then the next moment every one of them is lying face down in the ground.” Anyone still standing after a warning shot is considered a provocateur and thus needs to be “disabled.”

In anticipation of the end of yard time, Paramo tells me, each housing unit sends one of its gunners to the roof to overlook the area. We hear the call go out for the inmates to return to their cells and, on cue, a sentry appears atop each housing unit, his or her weapon at the ready. We hang out for another 20 minutes or so, until there are only a few stragglers waiting to be patted down. There has been no trouble on this watch. It’s almost as if Paramo is sorry to leave.

To visit an inmate in a California prison, you need to fill out CDC form #106, the “visiting questionnaire.” You’re asked a list of questions, but mainly the Department of Corrections wants to know if you’ve ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. (Convicted felons are automatically rejected, though the warden can grant a spouse or blood relative a special exemption, at his discretion.) Once approved (the whole thing takes about a month), you can visit as often as you like on approved visiting days, as long as your inmate remains in privilege group A. Those who fall to B (for hitting another prisoner, say) are permitted one visit every six months. Those who are designated a C or D can have no visitors.

The prison parking lot on any Saturday or Sunday morning is a congenial place to be. Old pros share advice with newcomers; the regulars — the wives and the girlfriends who rarely miss a weekend — cluster in small groups that defy the racial segregation that dictates life inside the prison walls. Newfound friends commiserate with each other (“’Three times last week, three times, that man’s calling me so he can remind me to put money on his books. I told him, ‘Fool, you keep on making me pay for these damn collect calls, I’ll never have no money to give you.’”) and keep each other abreast of news of other members of their little crews (“Jamie, she just had her baby so she won’t be out; and Emma, shit, she ain’t comin’ no more ’cause her man’s finishing out his time in the federal pen”).

Trunks are popped open, boom boxes blare; teenaged girls bop to the latest rap hits, while toddlers waddle about wearing only diapers. Meanwhile, the women undergo a transformation. Wearing bulky sweatshirts, stretch pants, and tennis shoes, they head for a trailer the prison has set up at the back of the parking lot. They emerge wearing outfits that range from churchly floral print dresses to slinky outfits more typically worn at night than at eight on a Saturday morning in the middle of the desert. Back at their cars, the women perform their final grooming, using the rearview mirror to primp their hair and to apply eye shadow.

You enter the prison with nothing but your driver’s license, a single car key, and no more than $30 in one-dollar bills. You’re allowed ten photographs, a comb or brush (“non-metallic, no pointed ends, and no detachable parts”), baby items (two jars of unopened baby food, diapers, two plastic baby bottles, and wipes), but no bandanas and no food. The rules delineating what people are permitted to wear is strictly enforced. No denim material, says the sign announcing Calipatria’s dress code; but when you arrive at the desk you learn that the prison doesn’t allow dark blue pants of any kind. (Another rule states that you can wear “no clothing similar to that of the inmates and or officers”; the institution interprets this to mean that because inmates wear blue jeans, all darker shades of blue are forbidden.)

“No blue pants allowed,” a guard nonchalantly tells a man appearing to be in his 50s.

“Now, do these look like blue jeans to you?” he asks the guard. The man had left the Los Angeles basin at around 1:30 that morning with his mother and daughter in tow. They’re here to visit his son, who has not seen them in more than a month. He tries to plead his case, at the same time a creeping feeling of panic seems to be overtaking him.

“Go back to your car, sir, and —“

Hopeless. Like trying to convince an armed robber to leave without taking your wallet. The man looks suddenly exhausted, as if standing there he had been stricken. In an exasperated voice that is both pleading and angry, he says, “But I didn’t bring no change of pants.”


Tan and khaki-green slacks are forbidden, because those are the colors the guards wear. No shorts or skirts above the knee (nor high slits”); no tank tops, no halter tops, “no strapless, spaghetti straps, or bare midriff clothing”; no camouflage material, no transparent clothing, nor any “offensive writing or drawing on clothing.”

You’re told none of this in advance. It’s posted on the wall in the visitors’ waiting area, but of course, by then it’s too late. In the prison parking lot, people share stories of visitors who’ve flown to San Diego, rented a car, splurged on a motel room, set the alarm for 4:00 a.m., only to learn that they’re out of luck because they’ve packed the blue pair of pants and not the black ones. Those of us for whom visiting an inmate isn’t a weekly routine sweat it out as we await our turn standing before an unforgiving judge, unsmiling in her khakis, unilateral in her judgment.

At least 30 minutes but more often an hour or more pass between the time you arrive at the visitors’ center and the time your man is finally escorted in. You’re free to ask the guard on duty about the holdup, but why bother? He’ll only tell you (sitting like an expressionless, round-bellied Buddha behind an elevated desk, wearing wraparound sunglasses designed for the ski slopes) that it’s on account of the inmate himself, who he imagines combing his hair for the tenth time that morning because that’s the way they get. Meantime, you stare into space because you’re forbidden from bringing in with you reading materials of any kind.

The inmate I’ve come to visit is named Tony Davis. Tony is a 22-year-old black man with a stocky build, a full face, and almond eyes. He sports a goatee and wears his prison-issued blue jeans in the fashionable style: oversized and dragging one-quarter of the way down his butt. There’s an overbearing sadness in Tony’s voice on the telephone that never fails to get under my skin. And now, in person, much of the time he sits slumped forward, as if the weight of his deeds causes his entire body to sag. He’s forever shaking his head and harshly rebuking himself for the mistakes he’s made in his life. He’s been incarcerated since April 1991, when the police picked him up for a murder he admits he committed in July of 1990. His victim was a 13-year-old innocent bystander named Kevin Reed.

Tony was two days old when his mother gave him up to be raised by his grandmother. Back then the problem was heroin, though today her nemesis is crack. Tony’s grandmother, Vera Clay, had already given birth to eight kids when she was forced to make room in her family for a ninth. Four of Vera’s kids were ten or younger when Tony was born; another two were still attending public school. In the 1950s and 1960s, Vera was a forerunner of that miracle woman who somehow manages to work full-time while raising a family. She worked a variety of lower-paying jobs, mainly as a cleaning woman. But then the nursing home where she was a custodian laid her off in 1968, and it was as if she had tendered her resignation from life. She never worked again. By the time her grandson Tony came along, in 1971, Vera had moved her family into public housing and was living on the disability pay she began receiving after a doctor diagnosed her dangerously high blood pressure. Tony’s mother gave birth to two more kids, and Vera made room in her household for them as well.

Tony’s first memories of his grandmother are of a sweet lady who had her Bible, her bingo, her cigarettes, her television, and little else. She was always tired, the way he remembers it, as if God had granted her a finite reserve of energy that she had exhausted by the time he came along. She meant well, he says, but it was as if she neither physically nor mentally had it in her to raise three more kids, especially three kids saddled with the feelings attendant to growing up with no father and a mother suffering through a bad drug problem.

Tony can remember no heart-to-hearts with his grandmother. He received little in the way of guidance or advice. Their most meaningful conversation, as Tony tells it, came when he was 17. She had heard from one of her kids that Tony might have gotten his girlfriend Tonette pregnant, and she confronted him about it.

“Tonette pregnant?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you better find out, boy, whether it’s yours or not.” And that, he says, was the beginning, middle, and end of the only intimate conversation he can ever recall having with this woman who served as his surrogate mother. Tony shared a bedroom with two uncles and his brother Troy. And yet, though he never had a moment’s peace in a three-bedroom apartment that was home to as many as 11 people, it was as if he grew up pretty much alone in the world.

Tony thanks God for his Aunt Paula. Paula served as the confidante with whom he could talk while growing up. She was only seven years his senior, but she assumed duties that normally fall on a parent. She made sure Tony readied himself for school each morning and drew him out when he looked sad. Family legend has it that she had talked Vera out of giving Tony and her sister up to foster care. But Paula herself was a smart-mouthed teenager very much living the teenage life. She couldn’t be both a mother and father to Tony when, mainly, she was thinking about boys and figuring out her own place in the world.

Tony would often go months without seeing his real mother. Sometimes she was in jail; sometimes she was off on a binge. When she was doing well enough, she’d stop by once every other week or so. “I’m trying, baby. I’m trying,” she’d tell Tony when he would ask her about giving up the drugs. Once he began dealing crack in front of his apartment building — just as the two uncles with whom he shared his room had done before him — she would hit him up for drugs and for money. He never gave her drugs, but he was always good for a twenty, if not more. Tony’s friend Junebug says his mother’s visits embarrassed Tony, but Tony says Junebug is wrong. The only thing her visits made him feel, he says, was sad.

Tony was sentenced to serve his time at Old Folsom, but that prison, built in 1880, was recently ratcheted down from a level-four to a level-two facility. So he was among the hundreds of prisoners transferred from Folsom to Calipatria. He arrived here three years to the day after killing Kevin Reed. He hadn't been at Calipatria a week when he learned that his grandmother was dead. He found himself overwhelmed by grief and memories, but there was no one to confide in. Talking with his cellmate was impossible. Tony hailed from Oakland, his cellmate was a Crip, and by conventions determined long before either had arrived at Calipatria, they were natural enemies. Tony lay on his hunk feeling physically ill from grief, but silent, reminiscing about the good times and the bad, thinking of the countless occasions on which he accompanied his grandmother to the store to help her with the packages and of her broken heart when she learned he, too, was dealing drugs.

Those few days after his grandmother died made Tony think about the brief time he lived with his mother back when he was 12 or 13. He wanted out almost as soon as he moved in. There was a lot he didn’t like about his stay there, but the worst parts were the beatings his mother endured at the hands of an abusive boyfriend. The walls were so thin that it was as if she were in the bed next to his, pleading for her boyfriend to stop, sobbing when he wouldn’t. He winced with every blow and silently pleaded for it to end. He dreamed of protecting his mother, but of course, he was only a boy. The nine months he lived with his mother and the days following the news of his grandmother’s death, Tony says, were the two worst times in his life.

Tony still dreams of protecting his mother. As hard as it may be for an outsider to believe, Tony reveals nothing but loving feelings for this woman who gave him up at so tender an age. When he learned I would be seeing his mom, he wrote in his next letter, “Please let her know that I’m praying for her and I love her and I think about her all the time.... I worry about my mother so much. I know she need [sic] help, and I know if I was out I could help her. My mother mean [sic] so much to me.” Sitting in the visitors’ room at Calipatria, he says, “I don’t blame my mother or my grandmother for what happened to me. I brought everything on my own self.”

I’ve never had a conversation with Tony in which he didn’t embrace the tragic stupidity he displayed on that night in July of 1990. He was 18, a reckless young man who viewed himself as impervious to harm. He and his friend brazenly sold crack on a street comer, but he says he rarely bothered himself with distressing thoughts about the cops, rivals with guns, or other perils. He certainly never pictured himself catching a murder rap. He and his friends looked on themselves as leading the life. They smoked pot day and night (but never touching crack; the wise dealer never dips into his product) and swigged bottles of Hennessy or malt liquor or whatever else was being passed around. They had thick wads of cash stashed away — enough to buy a car, to splurge on girls, and to buy whatever clothes they wished. They also bought weapons from the gun dealers who drove up with their trunks full.

Tony’s inclination is to shift some of the blame for what’s happened to him onto Junebug. Junebug is a sweet-faced, skinny kid who lived in Tony’s building in Oakland. Two years his junior, Junebug was really bright, though he was dumb enough to chuck his honors classes when he was in the eighth grade so he could better fit in with Tony and his crowd. The day before the murder, Junebug was jumped by a pair of kids who hit him with a pipe. He sought out his oversized friend Tony to help exact his revenge. Yet whenever Tony hears himself blaming Junebug, he feels compelled to tell me that he held the gun that night and that he alone pulled the trigger. During our conversation, he refers to the murder as an “incident.” He interrupts his sentence to correct himself. “The night I killed that young man,” he says carefully. He then goes on to give this little speech.

“I know I did a murder. It wasn’t an incident. I killed a boy. I know that. I’m not going to try and hide it by calling it an incident, because it was a murder and someone lost their life.” When talking to me at least, he seems incapable of mentioning the murder without tacking on a heartfelt mea culpa.

Tony claims he was aiming over the heads of the kids he fired upon. He intended to scare them, he insists, not kill them. But he was drunk and stoned and wasn’t wearing the glasses he needs to see distances. He was shooting from a moving car. The gun just got away from him, he says. He used a .45 semiautomatic, which jumps around in your hand if you’re holding it one-handed (as Tony was) and if you haven’t had much experience shooting it (as he hadn’t). The fatal bullet ricocheted off the pavement before hitting Kevin Reed in the iliac artery, in the groin, causing him to bleed to death. But Tony fired five or six times. Another bullet struck a 14-year-old girl in the mouth, a third landed in the thigh of the 14-year-old boy who had hit Junebug with the pipe. Of course, it’s a moot point where Tony might have been aiming. He stuck a gun out of a car window and fired on a group of 13- and 14-year-olds innocently flirting on a street corner. For that there’s no possible explanation.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked myself how I could have been so dumb,” Tony says. “Like every day. It’s like I was always asking myself that question growing up. I was always getting into trouble by doing stupid shit.”

Tony eluded capture for nine months, but never for a moment did he think he would get away with murder. Within hours of being arrested, he confessed to the murder and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which carries an automatic 15 to life, plus three years for using a gun.

I’m Tony’s first visitor since he entered the state prison system in June of 1992. His eyes blink in wonder as he scans the visitors’ room. There’s a sameness to life within the prison walls: men in prison blues, guards in khakis or olive green. There are no children, of course, and the only women are uniformed guards who know better than to flirt with an inmate. The children everywhere around the room draw his attention as much as the young woman wearing a leopard-print bodysuit and spiked heels. Sitting here is disorienting, he says, simultaneously awkward and exhilarating.

At other times, memories, not the sights, transport him to someplace far away. The visitors’ room is a small dose of the outside, and some of the time he is not sitting with me but is thinking about his life beyond the prison gates.

The visitors’ room at Calipatria State Prison, contrary to what you might think, is a happy place to be. Some of its denizens have no doubt committed unspeakably violent crimes, but for five hours each Saturday and Sunday, the room’s mood is dominated by the warm cheer of good feelings. There are couples in love, fingers interlaced, beatific smiles on their faces. Parents play cards with their son; families sit and chat around square cafeteria tables, munching on the offerings from a bank of vending machines. The unrestrained laughter of children reunited with their fathers, horseplaying over in the play area, causes inmates and visitors alike to glance over and grin. Couples are permitted one kiss at the start of the visit and one at the end, but that’s one infraction the guards routinely overlook.

There are feelings less sweet and cuddly infecting the room, to be sure. At the table next to ours, a woman visits a San Diego Crip who, for most of four hours, slumps silently in his chair, gazing stonily ahead. Occasionally he offers a few words through clenched teeth — loud enough so that Tony and I can make out that he’s heard that she’s been fooling around on him. The longer he sits there, the more he seems to compress his anger, which makes me think of the movie I caught on TV the previous night. Fat Man and Little Boy. A nuclear bomb first implodes before exploding, according to this movie about the two devices dropped on Japan during World War II. The atoms are squeezed tighter and tighter until they burst. Only then does it unleash its full fury.

Tony claims to have had few troubles with his fellow inmates.

His first rule of survival is mind your own business; his second is confront every challenge as it comes. Shortly after Tony arrived at Old Folsom, a Crip cut the line when Tony was next for a shower. Tony protested and the Crip upped the ante, calling him a “broken-assed nigger.” Tony reacted without allowing himself time to think. “I hauled off and hit him as hard as I could right in the face,” Tony said. He risked a write-up, which hurts you when you go before the parole board, but he instantly calculated that a write-up is preferable to a reputation as a punk who buckles when challenged. That’s the one thing you can’t afford to obtain in prison — the reputation as someone who can be taken advantage of. “Anyone tries to rape me, man, I end up at Quentin,” Tony tells me. That’s a common expression within the California prison system. San Quentin is where all death row inmates await their fate, including those sentenced to death for killing a fellow prisoner.

Tony has never seen the town of Calipatria. The bus carrying him and 37 other inmates arrived in the middle of the night. From the moment he awoke inside the prison gates, he missed Old Folsom. There you get six hours in the yard. In Calipatria you’re granted three hours a day. (Actually, Tony gets far fewer hours than that. The high school equivalency classes he attends run concurrently with his yard time, so he pretty much gets no outside time during the week.) At Folsom he could eat dinner with whom he pleased. In Calipatria they seat you in groups of four as you come up the line. “So, like, three Mexican Mafia can eat with a Blood, which isn’t a problem except you want to eat with who you want,” he says.

“In Folsom, they had it together. Everybody knew the rules. This here’s like a new facility. It’s like they’re figuring things out as they’re going,” Tony says. One guard will tell you that what you’re doing is okay, but the next day a different guard is on your case for the very same action. He diagnoses the problem as too many inexperienced guards concentrated in one facility. Dan Paramo wouldn’t confess to any bugs in the system, though he did say that consistency among the correctional officers is something they’re still working on.

Another big difference between Folsom and Calipatria is the weather. The housing blocks are kept at 78 degrees during the brutal summer months, but there’s nothing the prison authorities can do to lower the 115-degree daytime highs that are routine throughout July and August in the Imperial Valley. There’s nothing a prisoner appreciates more than yard time, unless that time is under the midday sun in one of the hottest spots on earth.

Tony has been out in the yard when the guards — or “the police,” as he calls them, because to him there’s no difference between a cop on the outside and a guard inside — opened fire. Even though he’s witnessed two stabbings, he says he fears the guards far more than he does his fellow inmates. Wherever you are, he says, whether outside in the yard or inside your cell, you notice the armed sentries patrolling above you. His one recurring fear, he says, is that he’ll end up shot because he happens to be near two guys in a fight. Which of course is ironic, for it was his random shot that killed innocent bystander Kevin Reed.

More than stray bullets or the brutal summer sun, the affliction that eats away at Tony like nothing else is the indefinite nature of sentence. He can’t cross the months off a calendar in anticipation of his release date because he has no idea whether he’ll be getting out in 15 years or in 50. Your first appearance before a parole board on an 18-to-life charge comes 12 years into your sentence — the year 2003, in Tony’s case. If past practices are any guide, he'll end up spending from 18 to 20 years in jail, meaning he’d be released sometime around the year 2011. He’s young, which may help, but he killed a 13-year-old, which will hurt. Another factor is family ties, which, since his grandmother’s death, have been tenuous at best. The parole board will view that negatively. And who knows how a parole board will be thinking ten years hence? Given the current mood of the country, this one strike may be enough to keep Tony in jail until he’s old and gray.

I know Kevin Reed’s family and have deeply conflicting thoughts about Tony’s sentence. Kevin was the baby of the family and the most promising of the bunch. He was a good student with a bright future and also a sweet kid that everyone seemed to like. Kevin’s death devastated the Reeds, both emotionally and financially. Mrs. Reed fell apart, lost her job, and the family was forced to sell their home of 15 years. Mr. and Mrs. Reed are now divorced. Mr. Reed has spent some time in jail, and Mrs. Reed finds herself on general assistance for the first time in her life.

Kevin’s brother Dermmell was nearly another casualty. Somehow, he and his brothers found out that Tony was the gunman long before the police arrested him. Dermmell learned where Tony lived, and though he had never touched a gun in his life, he bought one to exact his revenge. He went so far as to walk over to Tony’s house with the gun hidden in his backpack. That was when he saw the redundancy of the act he was about to commit. “I could’ve been the one you were visiting in there,” Dermmell says. “I could’ve been there for 18 to life.” Today, Dermmell is a second-year student at a community college, awaiting word of his fate from several four-year colleges.

Before meeting with Dermmell, I had concluded that Tony should be locked away through his 20s but should be released sometime in his early 30s. That struck me as about the right time for a second chance. Incarceration through his 40s seemed a tragic waste and excessive for a mistake (albeit a fatal one) made when someone was only 18. I broached this topic with Dermmell, but he didn’t want to hear any of it. “I’ve lost my brother for life,” he said. “He should get life.”

“But that could’ve been you —”

He cuts me off. “Ain’t nobody got the right to take somebody else’s life. Fifteen or 20 years just isn’t enough. He should be there for life.” He says this in a way that lets me know it isn’t to be discussed any further.

Tony, for his part, believes he deserves serious time for what’s he done, but not life. “In my cell, I’ll be thinking about people on the TV talking about someone doing a murder and how they should never get out,” Tony says. “I understand that. There’s no excuse for what I did. I’m really sorry, but I know that sorry doesn’t help because it won’t change the fact that the boy died. I know I deserve to spend time here. I made a significant mistake. But don’t some people deserve a second chance?”

Considered from afar, a town that actually fights with its neighbors to lure a prison into its borders seems a strange beast indeed. But standing in town on a hot afternoon, when the wind’s blowing the wrong way, you get an important perspective that would otherwise be missed. Superior Cattle Feeders is located a few miles to the south. On a good day, the ranch and its hundreds of heads of cattle emit a faint odor that nonetheless is everywhere with you in Calipatria. On a bad day, when the thermometer tops 100 degrees and the winds blow north, the air is filled with a stench so strong its source could be just below your nose. In contrast, a prison is a relatively innocuous employer.

Despite its hardscrabble history, there’s something altogether quaint about Calipatria. It seems the unlikeliest of places to build a maximum-security prison. It’s the sort of town where people complain about the lack of stores and other botherations, but then quickly add that they couldn’t imagine a better place to raise a family. A flyer around town advertises a Tupperware sale to raise money for a leukemia victim named Kristol Barros. “Pigs for sale,” reads another handwritten sign, “80 to 100 pounds, just right for the holidays.” The curio case at city hall has exactly three mementos in it: a trophy from the 46th annual Carrot Festival Parade in Holtville, a trophy marking the town’s participation in the 1992 Brawley Cattle Call, and a citation from the American Automobile Association for the town’s 1992 Pedestrian Protection Program. The people of Calipatria still have no home mail delivery (at least for those living outside the prison gates; the town’s incarcerated citizens receive their mail in their cells each evening).

Yet the town of Calipatria has always harbored big dreams, dating back to its inception in 1912. That was the year a syndicate of rich businessmen (among them, Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times and Max Ihmsen of the Los Angeles Examiner) put up a reported $1.7 million to purchase 47,000 acres in the Imperial Valley, including the land on which the town sits. “Sagebrush and jackrabbits constituted the sum total of living things when we arrived,” according to an investor named John Reavis. But Reavis and his fellow money men saw the potential for a central trading post in the burgeoning Imperial Valley. Somehow they convinced homesteaders to purchase plots of land even before a cement tributary could be built to siphon water from the main irrigation ditch that diverted water to the region from the Colorado River. By 1919, the year Calipatria was incorporated, the town was already home to the hotels, the bank branch, the newspaper, and the other businesses that later vanished like a desert mirage.

Perhaps Calipatria's biggest dreamer was a man named Harry Momita. The town druggist, Momita somehow got it into his head that he should raise enough money to build a 184-foot flagpole. Legend has it that Momita was born in Hiroshima and intended the pole as an offering to brotherhood among nations. The flagpole, completed in 1958, was dedicated to “Good Neighborliness.” The town advertises that it’s the tallest in the world. Momita and his flagpole (according to a postcard they sell over at city hall) has gotten (Calipatria mentioned in Time magazine, on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, and on Ralph Edwards’s This Is Your Life. The flagpole now doubles as the town Christmas tree during the holidays.

The town limited its claims about its elevation (184 feet below sea level) to our half of the world. “The Lowest Down City in the Western Hemisphere,” the city dubbed itself long ago. But these days, elected officials grimace when asked about the slogan. It gives Calipatria the unfortunate ring of a modern-day Tombstone, crawling with the lowest-down varmints you’d ever want to avoid. The nickname, of course, has assumed an unintended irony now that more than half the population lives in a level-four prison.

Even with the building of the prison that has again put Calipatria on the map, listing what the town doesn’t have takes far longer than listing what it does offer. You can’t buy a washer or dryer in town, or a tractor or much of anything in the way of farming supplies. El Centro (“Where the Sun Spends the Winter”), 40 minutes to the south, offers much of what people need in a week-to-week way, but shopping for a special dress or Christmas presents usually means a trip to San Diego or Palm Springs. There’s still no doctor in town, no dry cleaner or supermarket. Driving any road except the main highway is like motoring across set after set of train tracks. Virtually every street needs to be rebuilt, but the town is broke.

The Department of Corrections is required by law to fill 40 percent of the jobs at its Calipatria facility with valley residents, but it’s come nowhere close to matching that number. Only 24 percent of the 1200 jobs inside the prison is staffed by locals. Prison officials point to a limited labor pool in a county that has only 120,000 residents, a fact Flournoy and Dan Carmichael can’t dispute. Maybe 20 Calipatrians in all have found jobs at the prison. The majority of the jobs were filled by transfers who, as County Supervisor lames Bucher had predicted, grumble about the lack of amenities in this remote place. “Maybe we’d get the COs [correctional officers] shopping at our stores if we had any,” Flournoy says.

Technically, the prison was built outside of town. But Bill Sorenson came up with the smart idea of annexing the land on which the prison sits. The state pays each municipality an annual $50 a head for each inmate. The 3950 inmates mean nearly $200,000 a year for a town with no money. The state also pays Calipatria $ 120,000 a year in sewer fees. Taken together, that’s more than five times what the city collects in tax receipts. “There’s no pollution and no traffic to speak of,” Dan Carmichael says. “There’s this ten-minute stream of cars at around 5:00, and that’s about the long and the short of the inconvenience.”

They will come if you build it, it could be said; but whether that has occurred in Calipatria is open for debate. A 90-unit apartment complex was completely rented before construction was completed. Another 90 units are being built. Nearby, a subdevelopment of 67 houses was built. Still, people around town are disappointed. “We were expecting a whole lot more building than that,” Flournoy says.

The Borrego Springs Bank has opened a branch office in town. And a sign announces that Cinnamon Express will be opening soon. The big news late last year was the groundbreaking for the Calipatria Inn, a 40-unit motel with a pool and spa. Flournoy is among those hoping the motel is the big break the town has been waiting for. “The biggest trick is to get the first few projects going, because construction leads to more construction,” Flournoy says. Lots of others have called the town expressing interest in establishing a business there, but most were speculative ventures that haven’t panned out.

“One thing we learned from talking with people from other prison towns is that it doesn’t happen overnight,” Flournoy says. “It’d be interesting for you to come back in a year or two to see all the changes. The motel will be built, and hopefully we’ll have a grocery store here. Hell, by then we may even have a McDonald’s.”

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