Eva Contreraz: San Quentin Adjustment Center from my perspective

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by Eva Contreraz

I was in the San Quentin Adjustment Center (SHU) for four years in the early to mid-1980s. We called it AC. San Quentin was all holes except one block. AC was the deepest hole in San Quentin. It is a short, three-floor, windowed building with two rows of roomy, single-bed cells on each floor, facing the windows.

Tyniehsa Stephens
A transgender woman in a Texas men’s prison

The cells were barred in front. There were three AC yards of chain link and asphalt, where we had group recreation three times a week – basketball, handball, chin-up bars, weights – with a water fountain, toilet and open showers.

In those days, there were no classification categories of A1A, A2B etc. that determine your privileges and program access as is in effect today. AC could max out on canteen just like the GP, buy canned food, get four 50-pound packages a year from home. We could buy cigarettes, lighters, matches, and the cops gave out boxes of free state tobacco. We were given televisions with antennas. The prison channel showed movies with nudity; there was no rating system as today. Porn was everywhere. We could take pictures on the yard any time. It was just like being on the GP.

I was there when the first group of Death Row inmates was moved in as overflow. They could go to their own yard or one of ours.

The AC of today is a far cry from that bygone era.

Solid doors have been installed on the cells, and a front wall. In the old days, anyone could get hit with anything – spear, blow dart, arrow shot with a bow, slingshot, boiling water, and grease, fragmentation bomb, improvised shotgun, excrement, spit, or just shot with a zip gun with real or improvised ammo – through the bars. AC was maddos, a war zone.

Constant tension and paranoia. If you weren’t paranoid, you weren’t going to make it. Bombs going off in the middle of the night, shocking everyone awake. Gunfire, by inmates, shocking everyone awake. Gunfire, by inmates – there are no gunners in AC. Fires – in the cell, on the tier, burning a neighbor’s property through the bars. Cutting out bars with hacksaws, squeezing through them to stab someone being escorted handcuffed on the tier. Stabbings on the AC yards, single or group, shot by two gunners at the same time, which barely stopped it. Lockdowns. The hole within the hole, where I nearly lost my mind.

I was in the San Quentin Adjustment Center (SHU) for four years in the early to mid-1980s. We called it AC. I was there when the first group of Death Row inmates was moved in as overflow. The AC of today is a far cry from that bygone era.

Ten years earlier, an inmate had gotten a real gun in AC and killed cops and other inmates. He was shot dead after leaving AC and trying to escape. All the fighting going on there and throughout San Quentin in my time was a continuation of that incident and that period. Ten years is not a very long time for those doing hard time, a snap of the fingers. Nothing had changed. The same hostilities and war mentality prevailed.

In 1985, a sergeant was killed in a different hole, stabbed in the heart with a spear – through bars. It was after this incident that all cops in the hole had to wear protective vests, beginning in 1986. The bars had mesh welded over them, darkening the cell, blocking the view, making it more depressive.

These scenarios combined and more were the run-up to Pelican Bay SHU, which did not yet exist.

Today, most of AC is Death Row. The AC yards now have individual tiger cages to recreate in, no more group yard. Most of the holes and all Ad Segs in the men’s prisons have installed tiger cages, about 10 feet by 15 feet by 12 feet. One cell per cage, three times a week. There is only a toilet and sink, though of recent some cells have had exercise bars added.

In Ad Seg, there are two rows of 10 cages next to each other. Only a T-shirt, boxers, socks and shoes can be worn. The impression is one of a human zoo. There are civilian tours, where free people, including women, file by to gawk at the half-naked prisoners. We have no say in this type of insult to our dignity. To be sure, we have enough insult and degradation to deal with as it is. But the Prison Department has an endless repertoire of insults for us, degrading treatment.

These scenarios combined and more were the run-up to Pelican Bay SHU, which did not yet exist.

There is a cacophony of voices as the guys in the tiger cages talk and shout over each other. Those exercising as a group yell cadence back and forth. Doing over 100 burpies nonstop, even in the rain. Pen holders are stuck into the sink spout to make the water arch out over the toilet for a shower. Clotheslines are strung up to hang washed clothing. Kites and food and coffee and anything else are passed across the cages through fish lines. Guys take out bread to feed the birds, which the cops try to prevent because the birds excrete on their cars in the parking, the very reason some guys feed them.

Through the years, the Department has taken to feeding us less food and food that is really just empty calories, fodder. The holes are most notorious for this. We are served far less food than is required by the menu, which is not even fulfilling enough as it is, and the cops suppress Form 22s and 602s over the food, refusing to sign or accept them. “I won’t sign it?” “No no no.” The forms that get out are never returned with a reply.

I lost 20 pounds in six months in Ad Seg. I was amazed that guys could even spare bread to feed the birds, while I licked my fingers and tray. Even on the yards, the quality and quantity of food has been drastically reduced. In the hole, the cops put the food on the trays. On the yards, inmates do, but are told how much to put on by the cops. Instead of a potato like the menu says and we’ve always gotten, we get a half of a potato. Instead of a regular piece of cake, a half a piece. Often, dinner is a tiny prison-made cookie, smaller than an Oreo. Where we were to get an actual cinnamon roll for breakfast, now it’s just a regular, small biscuit with cinnamon sprinkled on it.

I couldn’t believe it. It was a poor imitation, ridiculous, sometimes the main serving for breakfast is just a cupcake. At times, the hot cereal – which is never hot – is watered down to soup. When the menu says “SOS and potatoes,” we get only a few dices of potato and a small splatter of SOS [in military slang, shit on a shingle is ground beef and gravy on toast – ed.]. Often the serving of potato is replaced with an extra prison-made biscuit, which is a big, heavy clump of flour and lard. No one eats them.

Through the years, the Department has taken to feeding us less food and food that is really just empty calories, fodder.

Sometimes lunch is just a hot dog and graham crackers, maybe a palm of tiny carrots, a tiny pack of mustard. Or the usual two extremely thin slides of baloney. Or a prison-made pita, heavy on the flour and lard, with a miniscule portion of meat inside, about a spoonful. There is frequently a food item missing from the lunch bags. Some cops openly pilfer the lunch bags, in front of us, taking and eating the cheap prison-made cookies of flour and sugar, and then tossing the bag back into the lunch rack. I’ve wondered why they don’t buy some healthy, nutritious cookies from a store, instead of eating low-grade junk food made in prison.

Some things I’ve spoken to here do not present a pretty picture of prisoner relationships with each other. But when I write about reality, I keep it on the straight, objective, the real picture, however unpleasant it may look. It is educational. Objectivity is a writer’s independence. It is a fact that the yards are largely comprised of group structures that have influence among the inmates, and they don’t always treat people right. At the same time, the cops often create and contribute to the conflicts in the open and subtle ways they know best.

In reality, you can never suppress any kind of tribal structure, whether social or penal. They are like water; they will find a way around anything. They are typically an aspect of cultural affinity and identity, which run very deep. Whatever the case, you cannot treat them like animals and expect any good out of it – putting them in extreme isolation and lockdown, tiger cages, starving them, no sunshine or real human contact, degrading them physically, and mentally deranging them, insulting their dignity, criminalizing their cultures and sense of identity.

This kind of persecution resembles shades of genocide: the isolation, breaking up their families, killing them, not letting them procreate, heavily policing their communication and censoring it, harassing their families and loved ones, requiring them to be informants against their culture and communities, denying them political initiatives of criminalizing them, such as a prisoner union that can strike, punishing them and prolonging their imprisonment for political conduct while refusing to acknowledge and treat them as political prisoners.

Some things I’ve spoken to here do not present a pretty picture of prisoner relationships with each other. But when I write about reality, I keep it on the straight, objective, the real picture, however unpleasant it may look. It is educational. Objectivity is a writer’s independence.

The archetype is all too consistent, on a smaller scale, perhaps, but present all the same, and just as damaging. There is a streak of tyranny, whether supported or not by law. Prison is government: By acting tyrannically, prisons perpetrate a never-ending burden on themselves and everyone else – inmates, families, cultures, the tax-payer, courts. Prisons may not go away any time soon, but they can be improved a great deal where humanitarianism is concerned.

One sure way to get a grip on everything and start producing real solutions is for the inmates to have a formal, independent union through which they can dialogue and work with administration, with the option to strike. This is currently against the rules. The Prison Department can very easily undo the rule and unlock many possibilities to improving the quality of prison life – the way its human charges are treated, fed, administratively adjudicated and maintained. The iron hand is not the solution, not in 21st century democracy. It is the problem.

As for me personally, I prefer to stay home alone. I’ve been single-cell with men because of my gender identity as a woman, with female breast development. I didn’t ask for it; a committee noticed and did it on its own. I’ve appealed to have another transgender only as a cellmate but it was denied. I appealed to transfer to a women’s prison, but it was also denied.

I avoid crowds, don’t go to the yard. I am more content in isolation. When I’m around people, I don’t notice them directly but through my peripheral vision. I detest eye contact, make very little, even in one-on-one discussions with psychs or anyone. I am largely suspicious of people; especially men, and those in positions of authority. I no longer attend my committee hearings, ignored my last parole hearing. I no longer care if I ever get out of prison, though I’d like to and am eligible. But state politics prevent it (the old hand of tyranny), and the parole process is rigged against it. I’ve resigned myself to dying in prison.

The Prison Department can very easily undo the rule and unlock many possibilities to improving the quality of prison life – the way its human charges are treated, fed, administratively adjudicated and maintained. The iron hand is not the solution, not in 21st century democracy. It is the problem.

At times, I talk to no one in particular in my cell, vocally, laughing. Or I talk to a long dead friend or loved one I imagine sitting next to me on the bed, gesturing. Guys and cops notice, think I’m losing it. I feel embarrassed, question my sanity. I have depression episodes in which I become lethargic, don’t keep up my hygiene or grooming, can’t even get up to shower.

I am generally pessimistic about things and real surprised if a meager good comes my way. There are times in which I don’t speak a single word all day, alone in my cell. I notice it, talk, sing. Yet and still, I prefer to be quiet. In the 34 years I’ve been in prison, I’ve spent half that time in five SHUs.

I lost my sleep in AC. Shortly after I left, I realized I could sleep only four hours a night straight or two at a time, separated by hours. I toss and turn, glance through the window to see if it’s turning daylight yet. When it is, I feel relief that the night is over. I thought my body needed time to adjust to a new daily life, drastically different from AC, peaceful, but after a year, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I began to have ghoulish dreams, jerk awake. There are other things that were not right with me.

I went through too much in AC to be normal again. Any SHU is always a bad spot to be in, but no others impacted me like AC. I read about soldiers returning from war and recognized with all the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The AC of the ‘70s and ‘80s was a hot war you went to, madness. I’ve never experienced anything worse, not even Pelican Bay SHU.

I went through too much in AC to be normal again.

I ask for treatment for PTSD, but none is given. I was able to help myself for a while with meditation, Hatha Yoga, from books. But really, they produce only temporary relief, and then everything is haywire again. Sleep meds either zonked me out or were temporary solutions, because the body eventually overcomes them. The only way to really beat everything is to be doped up on psych meds 24/7. No thank you.

I put my sleepless hours to use reading and writing. It suits me OK, because I enjoy learning and discovering, and I always have an idea. I began to write short stories, then novels. In this kind of circumstances, imagination becomes a close ally. I hope to publish a book someday.

Eva Contreraz is a transsexual serving a life sentence in California. Her writings on prison and other subjects have appeared in publications, books and websites. Her unpublished manuscript, “Valley of the Queens,” is about life among transsexual women in men’s prisons. She prefers that her address not be published.

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