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Is this a funeral? Visiting California’s Salinas Valley State Prison

July 23, 2012

by Otis Stillwell

Damon Shuja Johnson, seated, is surrounded by visiting loved ones – his daughter Zakiya holding her baby daughter, her son Zahir, 7, and his mother, Otis Stillwell – in a photo taken last year.
I’ve visited most of California’s state prisons over the last 26 years, but Salinas Valley (SVSP) takes the cake! All state prisons in California say their mission is to encourage family visits, for good reasons – mostly to help achieve a healthy and healing environment for both the family and the inmate, who will eventually reenter society.

But at SVSP this is an absurd statement that is far from the truth. They treat family as though you have committed a crime when you visit your incarcerated family member. Remember most visitors are women and children, and certainly we love our fathers, husbands and sons. We suffer greatly because our loved one is away from us. We miss our men and really need them, and they need us. Most folks don’t get it. They think, “Oh well, those low lifes belong behind bars. Too bad, they should have not committed a crime.” Folks are so heartless!

As I said, I’ve had to visit several prisons over these long years to see my only son. I raised my granddaughter visiting her dad since she was 5. Now, her 7-year-old and 2-year-old visit their grandfather. This may be the only way they will know him. It seems he can’t get paroled, like so many others.

When visiting SVSP, there are dress codes for inmates and visitors. The inmates wear blue jeans and solid light blue shirts. However, visitors are limited to certain colors. You cannot wear white, blue, green, brown or orange. Not even small children can wear any of these colors. The guards wear a dirty greenish brown outfit and inmates who work around the prison wear orange. So most visitors end up wearing all black. The visiting room looks like a funeral hall. Does this make any sense? Just crazy, madness!

I once wore a white ruffled front blouse and a green skirt with flowers of every color. I could not visit in this nice, pretty outfit. I had to change. My little grandson had a shirt of white and blue plaid; he had to change. He could wear an undershirt, even in winter. Little children need extra clothing; many, like my grandson, suffer from asthma. Families, including children, have to stand in the rain without a hat or umbrella. They send you to a place called the “Welcome House”; it has used clothes to choose from, and most of those clothes cannot be worn inside. What’s the point?

A photo of this beautiful painting by Otis Stillwell’s son, Damon Shuja Johnson, is a treasured gift he sent to the Bay View. Shuja is severely and permanently disabled by the scandalous medical neglect and abuse common in California prisons.
I spoke to a young woman one day who was crying her eyes out. She said, she had been sent back to the Welcome House three times and was eventually turned down for the visit because the Mexicans were on lockdown. She could have been told that when she first applied to visit her husband. I held her in my arms and told her not to cry, because these people do everything they can to discourage visiting, but you must suffer the indignity for your loved one’s sake. We cannot give up!

They have a bunch of other stupid rules. You can’t wear a ring unless it is a wedding ring. You can’t wear a necklace unless it is a crucifix or it is a religious symbol. You can’t wear a bracelet or a watch. You can’t wear a wig or head covering unless you have a doctor’s note, or for religious reasons. Your blouse sleeve has to be a certain length and your blouse has to be cut within two inches of your collar bone. So you guessed it. Most folks just put on black t-shirts, trousers and skirts.

This is humiliating, especially to the elderly and anyone with any sense of individuality or freedom of expression. It harms the little ones. They grow up with these memories that infiltrate their little minds. We, the families, are not criminals and our children don’t understand! My grandson wants to know why he can’t wear his undershirt and my 2-year-old wants to know why she can’t bring her baby doll.

This is all so cruel and unnecessary. There ought to be a law against this level of harassment – and there is, only it is just not employed at Salinas Valley State Prison. They make up their own rules. It is degrading and just mean! They say it is all for our good and protection. Come on!

By the time they take you through all these changes, your visiting time is just about up. You are lucky to visit for a couple of hours after you have driven 200 miles.

Ms. Stillwell can be reached at Enjoy her son’s painting, and send him some love and light: Damon Shuja Johnson, E-20385, SVSP B5-122, P.O. Box 1050, Soledad CA 93960.


28 thoughts on “Is this a funeral? Visiting California’s Salinas Valley State Prison

  1. Jo Ann

    Reading these comments posted by an inmate's family member gives a feeling of dome and sadness.
    Sure the person incarcerated know that they did something wrong and they are there "doing the time.' Is all of this necssary? Instead of humiliation show love and concern.

  2. svsp inmate wife

    I visit every weekend here and you can not wear a white t-shirt but can wear white pants as long as they are not see thru. you can wear one article of Brown, so a brown top or brown pants not just bot at the same time.. you can wear one ring, it doesn’t have to be a wedding ring.. and you can wear a watch or 3 bracelets.. children under 36 inches (I believe its 36 inches) can wear any color… If they are taller they have to follow the dress code.. kids are allowed a toy to take in.

  3. newsome

    i can relate to what these family member is saying. and it is the truth people in society look at inmates as something awful and the families get treated with disrespect. the state talks about family visit and i feel that if your love one in person has been free of write up's and has been on the best behavior. why can't they have family visits. i also feel that if everybody shouldn't have visits in that case. its not right for some prisoner's to have visits and others don't. but the only way this gone change is if families, wives, and mother's of prisoner's come together and strongly voice there opinion to the victim of rights and let them know how we really feel about the no family visits.

    1. the 56%

      Thats because inmates in prison are terrible people. Prison isn't a hotel, it's not supposed to be fun. If you violate this countries law or take another persons freedom then we take your freedom.

      1. familymember

        inmates in prison are not terrible people they are just people who got caught .so u are not perfect either so don't judge them.

  4. B. Cayenne Bird

    In 2007 about 100 family members protested that prison for the first time ever in its history. The prison guard training facility is right next door so they were just itching for someone to make a wrong move. The place is run like a Nazi prison camp and there are a number of lawsuits filed against prison official and guards for torture but it takes a few thousand people raising hell about this treatment to get a voice. The state officials think everyone is too stupid to really organize. We need to recall Jerry Brown for running this fascist, police state in this manner.

  5. B. Cayenne Bird

    Help us to recall Jerry Brown who took $2 mil in donations for his campaign from CCPOA, immediately gave them hundreds of millions in raises under SB151 and fired 22,000 teachers. A recall requires 6500 people who are actually going to work. We have about 1800 so far but that isn't enough yet.

    3 million Californians related to a state prisoner, why are we putting up with this abuse?

  6. Free Bird

    They deserved to ve locked up- we have laws for a reason. You only have your incarcerated loved one to blame for putting you in the position of having a limited choice in wardrobe. Suck it up, youll be back in the real world after a few hours. A black shirt now and then wont kill you.

    1. caro

      Free Bird you're an idiot… and a heartless one at that. What this lady is talking about is not even the tip of the iceberg. Guards at this prison and other prisons in the state (not all of them) think they rule the world. They make up rules all the time and some of these people are just plain sadists. You can tell they enjoy the pain they inflict on people, for example when they deny visits on people who ask questions. Somehow visitors are not allowed to ask questions about the rules… If you do, you're told you're being "confrontational" or "disruptive" and, just like that, your visit is cancelled! Some of these guards are constantly rude… It's a violation of their own rules (they're supposed to be courteous and professional), but they get away with this behavior and their supervisors always cover up for them…. They just treat inmates' family like sh*t.

  7. caro

    When you put a uniform on an idiot (gee, I wonder what that would do to you… or are you already a prison guard?), it just amplifies they natural tendencies…. If they are already "power trippers" before they enter the profession, then they become true little dictators once they start wearing green… They're supposed to go through thorough psychological testing before they get hired, but apparently many sociopaths fall through the cracks. I'm sorry Free Bird, I don’t know what planet you live on, but I live in a democracy (you might want to check the etymology of that word), and if my tax dollars are going to be used to build prisons or hire and train prison guards, I have a say in the process and I'll question it if and when I damn well please. This is my prerogative as a citizen of this state.
    Prisoners were sentenced to deprivations of freedom. Nothing else, and certainly not a life of humiliation and harassment for they loved ones at the hands of prison guards.

  8. TheReality

    I think the people that claim they broke laws so therefore their families should suffer are ignorant! The FACTS are that not all people who are convicted are truly guilty! There are innocent people sitting behinds bars, so their rights are taken without just cause and their families who support them in their fight are then persecuted by DOC employees who only know charge/conduct. I think some of the restrictions go a little too far and do strip people of their individuality however what I find more troubling is the disrespect some show towards visitors/inmates. The visitors keep the incarserated in a positive mindset. Vistors help the staff by maintaining the value of those privaleges. Yes there are visitors that come for other reasons, however that’s not all and since profiling is supposed to be discouraged. I would suggest all DOC employees carry a level of respect/professionalism at all times.

  9. real

    These people dress in uniform this their god they treat like shit and it makes them happy they no heart no soul no forgiveness in their heart they make me sick…its hard to believe god made people like them.

  10. Miykah

    Some of the negative posts here really make me wonder where the educational level resides. Educate yourselves before you comment, there are more than 25-35% of inmates both male and female, which are wrongfully accused and then over sentenced. When families of these persons visit they are ridiculed with disdain for loving a member of their families. It's not about the crime nor the clothing but a human right to feel safe and to a certain degree comfortable when visiting that loved one. Families and not even the inmates should not have to be treated less than an animal just because of a societal label such as “criminal,” can be applied to a situation. Some inmates very well may be in there for a reason, but they are serving the time and makes their self-worth no less than those who are free just because a lapse in life’s judgment. Freedom and an ability to live within its comforts are already taken away from the inmate, there is no need to demoralize, and physically and mentally abuse the inmate or their families.

  11. r u a victim

    All I can say is…. wow. The rules regarding clothing are in place to not allow people to escape prison. Unfortunately these rules are not convenient. Also it needs to be brought up that there are drugs and other contraband being brought into the prisons by the visitor(s). The fact is there are dangerous and violent people incarcerated in prison. Some inmates use their visitors, even loved ones, as mules and continue the behavior that got them into prison. Hopefully you can appreciate the rules and understand the mission of the prison to keep inmates in and drugs etc. out .

  12. Basilia

    The rules are inconsistent, if these officers read the DOM, they would know that even blue shirts are allowed as long as you are not wearing blue pants, you may wear an orange shirt as long as you are not wearing orange pants. Inmates punishment for their crime is being incarcerated, the family members that visit should not be punished, yet we are humiliated by most C/O's when we visit. It is not because they enjoy humiliating us, it is because they have control issues so sad that their personal relationships are also affected. The divorce rate for C/O's is very high. Another issue is that if an officer is perforimg his or her duties correctly, they are looked down on by coworkers and it creates a hostile work environment for them so most just go along with the rest to fit in and avoid conflict, even supervisors.
    We the family did not commit a crime but are also punished for it by these controlling non peace officers.

  13. miykah

    Thank you Basilia, that is the thing everyone who is prison does NOT need to be there, never-the-less many are/ Families should not have to be prescuted to satisfy God complexes of CO’s

  14. miykah

    Thank you Basilia, that is the thing everyone who is prison does NOT need to be there, never-the-less many are/ Families should not have to be prescuted to satisfy God complexes of CO’s.

  15. miykah

    Thank you Basilia, what some people tend to forget is not everyone in prison actually belongs there, even if some inmates are paying for their crimes, it does not give CDCR or any other prison the right to riducule and persecute the families. Yes, some and very few are still trying to traffic but have you ever thought that a lot of that revenue and aid to contraband are actually brought in by officers/workers themselves "R u a victim??" With all the safety precautions and screening they have, family members and friend bringing things in are on a very low spectrum than that which takes place behind the walls.

  16. Nurse

    Just recently a woman visiting her husband was caught bringing drugs.most inmates come to the ER and hospitalized due to drug overdose.I understand why the prison is very strict with the rules because it's for security purposes.People who come and visit sometimes bring weapons that can endanger both the staff as well as other inmates.I hope they also explainedto you the reason why you can only wear certain colors because those colors mentioned are the colors the inmates usually use.Again,it's for security purposes.Just in case something happens while you are visiting like a big riot, they can easily identify you and protect you.

  17. Pam

    I went to see my son at this facility and was turned away because they would not accept my "Passport" and wanted my CDL. You have to put up with so much attitude from the police there-its kinda sad and the very reason they are not very well liked unless you need them…

  18. Terence

    The rules are inconsistent, if these officers read the DOM, they would know that even blue shirts are allowed as long as you are not wearing blue pant

  19. Joyce

    My family and I have enjoyed numerous visitswith my son @ Soledad State Prison. Granted, the guards don't smile a lot but we have not encountered any really rude comments. We have asked questions and we have received answers, not long involved answers, but enough to satisfy us. As far as the color of clothing, we are there to see our loved ones, not to put on a fashion show. There are rules and there are boundaries and I am more than willing to abide by them in order to visit my son. We have never felt ridiculed, we have never felt that we were the inmates. Maybe it depends on the visitor's attitude that determines how they are treated. Respect gains respect. When I can spend five hours visiting with my son in a family like atmosphere, that is a plus and I discard all of the negativity. When we look for the negatives, we will find them. A pleasant visit is our goal and thank God we have been fortunate enough to achieve that each time.


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