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

by Otis Stillwell

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?

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 otisstillwell@gmail.com. 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.