Culture shock! Leaving Skeleton Bay after decades in solitary

by Daryel ‘Ifoma’ Burnett

Please accept my apologies for being negligent in not writing much sooner about my transfer out of Skeleton Bay. I could give you a bunch of reasons, but they would probably sound like lame excuses. I’m still decompressing from being warehoused inside that pathological incubator for over 25 years while slowly making adjustments to this new environment.

CSATF offers college courses to Level IV prisoners.
CSATF offers college courses to Level IV prisoners.

After decades of being subjected to a state-sanctioned penological experiment in behavior modification, I was transferred out of Pelican Bay – beginning the journey of a thousand miles with the first steps. Initially my journey out of Pelican Bay caused a mixed range of emotions: relief on one hand and on the other hand a profound sense of emptiness in leaving behind relationships born out of shared respect, fortitude, self-respect and strength in surviving the crippling effects of prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation.

I’ve learned over the years that it is the moments of uncertainty and difficulty that provide the greatest clarity, thoughts and choices. Nothing is ever permanent except change. It’s always in these critical moments, one way or the other, that shape and define who we are as men or women.

On May 2, I left Pelican Bay, arriving at this new joint, California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran, four days later. This will become my first experience in 37 years living on a general population mainline.

In some aspects, this experience is similar to my first days and weeks in prison. The most glaring difference is the impact of 37 years of being unable to socially or culturally interact with people in any meaningful and productive way.

Living inside an artificial bubble for decades requires a whole new type of relearning and readjustment to deal with the circumstances of today’s realities – which is far different from what I ever imagined. My perception of things was way off the mark.

On the bus ride to this new joint, I was surrounded by elders who changed their personal insights on various cultural changes and different comings and goings within the new prison construct. In some ways they were preparing me on what to expect in 21st century culture.

The first stop on the bus ride was New Folsom. From a short distance away, I could see the old granite walls of Old Folsom. It looked like an old 17th century castle built to warehouse and shackle to walls the living dead.

A few people were dropped off at New Folsom, and I continued the bus ride to Duel Vocational Institution. All of the elders shared in a common experience.

We were to begin our first prison years at DVI in the early ‘70s. We were taken to Ad Seg in K-Wing and were to spend the next three days in this prison. It was a rude awakening to today’s new prison environment.

After spending decades in the Bay, the first thing that you notice is the qualitative change in climate. Coming from an environment that is always cold and rainy into a climate where it’s hot as hot requires some major readjustment. The heat never lets up and at times it is unbearable.

Coming from a serene, quiet environment, the noise level was shocking and maddening. The endless hollering, screaming and yelling all during the day and night made me initially think I was mistakenly placed on the prison’s psych ward, but clearly I was wrong. Maybe I had become over sensitive to loud noises.

In some ways a lot of that noise can be attributed to the lack of appliances (radios and TVs) to pass the time and their inability to socially interact with each other in any meaningful way. Human contact is restricted.

The yard in K-Wing has been transformed into a bunch of individual cages. It looked like a human zoo. It’s mind boggling how society can talk about the ethical treatment of animals but yet when it comes to human beings our worth is no more valuable than a chimpanzee or other captive species imprisoned at the local zoo.

The yard in K-Wing at Duel Vocational Institution has been transformed into a bunch of individual cages. It looked like a human zoo. It’s mind boggling how society can talk about the ethical treatment of animals but yet when it comes to human beings our worth is no more valuable than a chimpanzee or other captive species imprisoned at the local zoo.

I try not to make general characterizations or judgments based solely on observation, but clearly something in that environment just ain’t right. It seems like DVI was left to cripple or rot in the sum. Raccoons, cats and other vermin roam the prison grounds as if it is a federal protected sanctuary.

The majority of prisoners seem to be unaware of any prison houses outside of their immediate environment. Hopefully, change will come, because a lot of those men have been stuck in that place for over a year pending transfer.

I was moved to another Ad Seg in J-Wing. The cell light wasn’t working. Broken windows – and the mattress wasn’t fit to sleep on. I didn’t mind the windows being broken because not only did it mean fresh air but I could begin to use all of my natural senses to perceive people and nature. Our perception of people and nature at the Bay was primarily perceived through the prism of a rectangular concrete cage. Inside the cell I could hear all the sounds of night life.

Since I was unable to talk to anyone from my cell, I decided to catch a couple of hours of sleep in anticipation of the morning’s bus ride. I dozed off and was literally shaken out of my bunk by a loud rumbling that was shaking the ground as if it was an earthquake. The noise level was so loud that I thought an airplane was about to crash. The noise triggered in my mind some pending doom or disaster.

It was not until I heard a whistle from a passing train that I realized all was clear. I guess my mind was playing tricks on me.

That morning we left DVI. A couple of miles down the road, the bus began to experience mechanical problems. It was announced that if the problem wasn’t corrected, we would be returning to DVI. There was a collective “damn.” Luckily the problem was corrected and we arrived at this place (California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran) three hours late.

This prison complex is enormous. Today’s prisons are far different from what most people in Pelican Bay can imagine, especially the old-timers. These mainlines are much like management control units with the exception that all races go to the yard together. We are fed in our cells and canteen is delivered to our cell.

The mainline construct has definitely changed. We go to yard only twice a week and with people only in your building. These new types of prisons are more restrictive and controlling. Jobs are scarce in these types of facilities.

This place is not petty. You can do your time without being sweated on small stuff. None of the stuff we read or heard from the rumor mills was true. There are no journals or programs of any nature related to the step down program. While I know I’m being monitored, the staff here doesn’t go out of their way to mess over you. This environment is a good fit for folks who need to decompress.

In some ways I had to learn how to walk again, especially being restricted for decades to walking inside a rectangle box no bigger than a dog run. Being in this prison you become aware of space both from the area of your surroundings and looking towards the sky.

The very next day I was told to report to medical without having a clue where the hell is medical. This prison is so big, we rode on a cart to get from the property room to this facility. One of the guys who came with me reported to the mental health building instead of medical. He too didn’t have a clue. It’s safe to say I found my way without wandering.

The following week I was let out to the big yard. Culture shock! The majority of prisoners here are young enough to be my sons.

Arriving here, I’ve been treated with the highest of respect and reverence. I have probably shaken hands with more people in a couple of days than I have in my entire life. It was a welcoming experience to say the very least.

Send our brother some love and light: Daryel Burnett, B-60892, CSP CSATF/SPC, C3-218, P.O. Box 5246, Corcoran, CA 93212.