Youth prison tours: Preston
Throughout 2007, Books Not Bars toured all of the youth prisons in the Division of Juvenile Justice (more commonly known by its former initials, "CYA"). This third post describes the complex in Ione, CA.
I can tell we are getting closer to the prison because Lourdes and Joyce are tensing up in their seats in front of me, and the air is more silent than ever.
We drive past an impressive, towering castle that looks like it has been around for generations. It looks alive, as though it has watched many stories evolve. "I think that used to be the prison," Lourdes states dryly. It took me all day to understand the context of that comment.
As we drive past, I spot a newer facility. The current DJJ facility has been renovated and sits directly next to the haunting castle. As we approach the front office and enter the waiting room, I almost feel like I am walking into a different time period in a romantic novel. The buildings are perfect; yet it is the kind of perfect that weeps of creepy spores. The waiting room is dim. Scattered around the room are framed photographs and glass display cases housing antique objects such as old handcuffs. I feel as if the room is in limbo -- like a museum displaying a very responsibly groomed exhibit of the history of the "Preston School of Industry."
Starting the tour, the air is heavy. The landscape is trimmed and fresh looking, it looks like a park. We meet the superintendent who does a great job of making us feel comfortable -- making it a point to project his certainty and willingness to take us anywhere and expose us to anything. He can't stop telling us, " If you want to see anything, just tell me, and I'll show you." As he leads us confidently through the grounds, it seems more like a stroll in his backyard for him.
"This is Ironwood. Every unit is named after a tree." The superintendent proclaims it proudly, as though he truly believes that these nature oriented titles like Redwood and Sequoia represent something peaceful. Ironwood is the lock-up building, where wards are sent if they commit a "violent" act inside Preston. There are a couple of guards here, and just like everyone in Preston, guards in Ironwood have a stern metal face on, a military equip uniform, and a normalized attitude towards the disturbing environment they are running.
Ironwood houses solitary cells with one concrete bed and a thin mattress on top, and soundproof walls.
Apparently, Ironwood is where you are placed when you go "too far." The first room we see in this building is unbelievable to me to this day. Behind a set of regular sliding bars is a room with showers to the right. On the left side, we are all exposed to two four-wall enclosing cages.
"These are real? Wait, I mean, are these here for people?" I ask myself underneath my breath. These cages look like human-size hamster cages.
"What are these for?" I ask.
The superintendent answers back nonchalantly, "Oh you know, we just need to use these when boys are just coming from a heated situation, and we need to protect them from each other and to you know, protect us. It's just to calm them down right after they get into a fight when they are just getting here."
Then we are in the hallway where the cells are lined up. Young men are staring at us from their small windows. The rooms are sound proof, but some of the wards know we are there. We disperse into the hallway and try to talk to people through the cracks in the doors. Walking through that hallway is devastating. The hallway reverberates with banging noises coming from the wards inside. At one point the walls seem to be shaking, almost as if we are in someone's bad dream in a corrupt mental hospital. There is screaming in Spanish and English. I sense in these long moments desperation, isolation, innocence, relentless urgency...
We sing happy birthday to a 19 year old, in his fourth month of solitary confinement. He can't get a phone call on his birthday. We are his party right then and there. He just wants to talk to us. That's it.
I hear a ward further down the hall screaming at the top of his lungs. I can't make out what he's saying. I see a guard rush towards his cell, laughing. She approaches the cell window with another guard. They are both laughing. My heart is raging, my hands are so angry.
This visit to Ironwood is surreal, like we stepped in and out of a different time zone. Coming outside, I looked up to the sky and ask for it to listen. These boys desperately need the world to listen.
We walk down to a building called Redwood, where the boys with special mental needs are placed. Although the units have other buildings, the boys are in the main room during recreation time.
The T.V. plays, there are some boys just sitting there silently. One of the boys, Luis*, tells us that he has been locked up here since he was 13 years old. He says he has a 45-year to life sentence. Lourdes asks him in disbelief, "What could you possibly do to deserve that?"
"I didn't kill anyone, I don't know, maybe they just didn't know where to put me." I remember those eyes. The same heart shone through. I swear it on my life, I saw it in Luis's eyes -- and Pedro's eyes and Ray's eyes, and birthday boy's eyes.
I venture off into the hallways to check out what the cells look like, and to see if I can talk to someone in his cell. I found Jose*, a 16-year-old boy. He is pacing back and forth, until we see each other. He iss wearing a thick gray gown that has Velcro straps.
After we introduce ourselves, I ask him what he is wearing the dress for.
"It's cause they think I'm gonna hurt myself again." He shows me his wrists.
It took us both a while to talk. "Did you get any help for that? Like any counseling or something to help you?"
"How long have you been in Redwood for?"
"A couple of months. They transferred me from Ironwood."
"Oh, how did that happen?"
"I was there for too long. They kept me in there and I kept getting out and coming back in. I'm in a family gang, and I gotta fight you know, gotta protect myself. I reached the max time I could be there so they sent me here."
That doesn't sound right to me. It sounds more like he wasn't convenient to handle, so he was pushed around spaces. And now he is in another form of solitary confinement in a restraining gown, with no form of support.
The tour is over, and the parking lot is on the other side of the front office. Our steps are long and weighted, and I sense the million emotions that are flowing through everyone's bodies.
Every time I think about that day, I think of the snickering guards, the facade, the landscape, but I will never let go of the few words we heard from each cell, the stories of each boy, and the young faces peering at us from those soundproof windows.
"I don't care how clean it is, I don't care how busy the children look. The mopped shiny floors are not enough for me. It is still a prison. That's what I know. It is still a prison." -Joyce Cook
*Names have been changed.
Apr 12, 2013
Feb 28, 2013
Dec 20, 2012
Nov 29, 2012