As a co-facilitator of the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), I spent a weekend with a group of inmates at the CIW (California Institution for Women) in Chino. Chino has three levels of housing for 2500-2600 inmates (with almost 800 staff). Eleven women plus three of us “outside facilitators” and three “inside facilitators” spent two and a half days together experiencing the AVP basic program, which is the first of three levels before one may become a co-facilitator.
Upon entering the prison lobby, we presented our I.D. and went through a metal detector, having avoided wearing metal (no jeans or bras—except sports bras). Also forbidden were clothing of certain colors as well as carrying anything in with us besides lunch, an I.D., and basic items such as a comb and car key. The main facilitator wheeled in a couple of boxes of pens, paper, markers, posters, and other paraphernalia. Accompanied by a prison employee assigned to escort us, we crossed a large grassy area to a building where classes, activities, and workshops are held. So far the grounds were reminiscent of a campus, it seemed to me. Of course, I wasn’t able to see the dorms.
In another post I’ve described the AVP “curriculum,” so I’d like to focus on the women I met—anonymously and generally, of course, so as not to violate confidentiality. First, I was struck by their nationality. Six of the eleven were Anglo, three were black, and two or three were Latina. I hadn’t expected so many whites. Whether they represented the racial makeup of the prison or whether they had self-selected, I’m not sure.
Another surprise was how many seemed middle class in their looks, comportment, and diction. (A couple of women seemed less educated with rougher speech. But I want to avoid stereotypes.) I had expected a lower educational level. The years they were serving and the months or years that remained to be served varied but we did have at least one lifer, and two that were leaving within a few months.
Family was extremely important to the inmates as could be seen by how often they mentioned family members. Some of them had familial support and visits; some were cut off by their families. Most had children whom they missed and worried about.
Another surprise was the amount and quality of rehabilitative programs at the prison, which may help explain why the women seemed so mature, articulate, and even wise! The following programs and more take place there: Prison Puppy Program (training puppies to be assigned to veterans with PTSD), drug treatment (AA, etc.), forestry/camp training (to fight forest fires, etc.), computers, high school diploma/GED, literacy, basic education, clothing and textile manufacturing, construction. One of our inside facilitators even gave me handouts about their Restorative Justice group. (Restorative Justice consists of prisoners and victims meeting face to face to arrive at some common understanding and restitution by the inmate—or the accused, if it occurs before a trial.) We learned that the inmates were grateful for all the programs offered and took full advantage of them, even to the point of exhaustion at times. One woman said it was “better” than being outside and having to drive from one program to another, which point of view I took with a grain of salt.
On Saturday we ate dinner in the cafeteria—not a good experience for me. Inmates lined up outside in switchbacks as if in “stockades” (their word). Upon entering they received trays, one at a time, through a slot in the wall. Tables were metal circles with uncomfortable, semi-circular, metal “benches” bolted to them. By the time another inmate and I found a free spot in the huge and deafening room, our food had cooled. Dinner consisted of tacos with rice and beans. Not so bad if it had been hot. “Ice cream” cups for dessert, but it didn’t look or taste like ice cream. Dinner was to be eaten quickly. We AVP “outside” folks had been instructed to bring our own plastic spoons (but no forks or knives, of course). Except for this one meal, courtesy of the prison, we brought our own lunches and Friday-night dinner and drinks in plastic containers and ate them in the workshop room.
I found myself laughing and crying the whole weekend as all of us—the facilitators too, in conformity with the AVP process—shared our feelings and experiences. As the weekend progressed we bonded with one another (the women had been drawn from different dorms). As fascinating as it was, our weekend was emotionally and physically draining. We didn’t get back to our motel before 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, and had to rise at 5 a.m. to have breakfast at a café across the street before entering the prison and setting up. We didn’t leave until mid-Sunday afternoon. (I slept ten hours the first night after getting home.)
As we grew to feel more comfortable, the inmates revealed other things about their prison experience. According to them there are many frustrations. They have trouble getting through the bureaucracy to receive and send mail and packages. They are susceptible to “drops” at any time if there is a crisis such as an attempted escape. During such times they have to immediately sit on the ground and stay in one spot whether sun or rain or cold or ants. Lights are turned out at set times, and “bunkees” are assigned with little regard for compatibility, sometimes leading to violence, especially since the rooms are tiny (according to an inmate), with just a bunk bed, toilet, and small metal desk welded into the wall. There’s no Internet access, although there is a library.
One woman told us that if an inmate is the victim of theft, the entire dormitory is subjected to a thorough search. Prison personnel rifle through every item of the women’s personal property in the search for an item which common sense would suggest to me had long since been smuggled out to a friend in another dorm.
It became clear that basic needs such as freedom to control your life and time, freedom of space and movement, dignity—all of these are lacking. Prison is not the place one wants to be, despite a plethora of programs, for which the prison management must be congratulated and respected.
With all these programs, I doubt that there is much recidivism of the inmates of this institution, although I have no statistics regarding this. The resilience of the inmates, their acceptance of responsibility, and their eagerness to take advantage of the many programs to improve and transform their lives—all this I found remarkable and moving.