Monday, April 4, 2011

Rural prisons: spacial isolation at its finest

During the past month, I have made what I consider to be an inordinate number of visits to several California State Prisons throughout the state. My most visited institutions include the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California (2000 population 38,824) , and the Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, California (2000 population 28,075). To say that the prisons are spatially isolated is an understatement. Even within the cities in which they lie, all of the prisons, and their sister prisons, the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad and the North Kern State Prison in Delano, are all located a good "cushion" distance away from the towns themselves--although still within the city limits.

One of the things that has struck me most about my visits--besides the obvious encounters with extreme security and psychological tension of being in an enclosed space--are the journeys to and from the prisons.

I have now made the five-hour (one way) drive to Delano from Davis along highway 99 three times. Unlike the I-5, which parallels it, the 99 goes through virtually every small town between Sacramento, to the north, and Bakersfield, to the south. When I am not surrounded by blooming agricultural fields of trees or the straight rows of other crops, I am bombarded by small towns and larger cities and the billboards that go along with them. My favorite billboard is one which says "GO TO HELL! PLEASE DON'T!" Central California is a very different place from the rest of the state (see Jon's insightful post about Modesto, here). Despite the billboards, I am often struck by the beauty of the Sierra Nevada range to my left as I make my way to Delano.

The drive to Soledad is similar. I have made the drive only from my mother's home in Salinas, but the fields along the 101, surrounded on either side by majestic hills and mountains, do not prepare you for the stark contrast upon entering the prison complex or the grounds of the prison itself.

Upon entering each prison, tall buildings and walls block out the surrounding beauty. I asked one of my clients if he ever saw Delano's open fields of table grapes, and he said that the walls surrounding the yards prevented him from doing so. Similarly, the complex in Soledad is surrounded by a tall grove of eucalyptus trees which can block out any sights that might otherwise be visible from the prison yards. Prisons are made in order to isolate wrongdoers, break down their bad habits, and replace them with something better. Instead, every minute that I spend in a prison I am only reminded that I am not in control, and that the majority of inmates are forced to spend most of their time staring at concrete and barbed wire.

I have said it many times, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is a misnomer. Being prevented from even seeing the natural beauty surrounding oneself can hardly be rehabilitative. My half-conclusive thesis for this post is that while rural communities themselves are isolated, prisons create a double layer of isolation that is even more alienating.

Visiting prisons has caused me to give much thought to Prison Town, USA, which documented the small town of Susanville, California (2000 population 13,541) as it struggled with the impact of the High Desert State Prison and another federal facility on the local economy and community. Tracy Hullig wrote about the benefits and costs to rural communities in 2002, in a short piece entitled Building a Prison Economy in Rural America. Hullig writes that prior to 1980, only 36% of inmates were in non-metropolitan prisons. Now, a majority of inmates in the United States are housed in rural settings.

Many of the COs (guards) I encounter drive a fairly long distance in order to work at their respective prisons. Most of the guards at KVSP in Delano live in Fresno (2010 population 505,479, located about an hour away) or Bakersfield (2010 population 347,483, located roughly half an hour away). The majority of the COs I met in SVSP drive from Salinas (2005 est. population 148,350, located twenty-five minutes away).

Instead of invigorating the local communities in which the prisons are built, many COs choose to live in larger cities and commute to work. The towns themselves struggle day-to-day with their limited economies, enjoying the beauty that surrounds them even while the prisoners cannot. Instead of benefiting the communities, they are generally exposed to billboards such as the one outside of KVSP: "State Prison. Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers."


Chez Marta said...

Well, it's interesting to learn that the Correction Officers (COs) do not enjoy living in the town closest to the prison, and choose to commute, at the "ungodly" hours of the dawn, from larger towns, which are generally populated by homes of the same sprawling architecture and also lack meaningful central places and downtown centers. But what do we expect when there is a government subsidy on the price of gasoline?

The tables are turning, though. With the price of gas at $4.05 a gallon, one would think it will be soon chic to live closer to work, and even take the bike for a morning commute and for some exercise. Or, perhaps, I'm only daydreaming here.

D'Arcy said...

I agree with your quasi thesis - prisons create isolation within isolation. I remember meeting my second prison client in Chowchilla and feeling like I had crossed into another world. I reached the dusty town exit of the 99, drove east past all signs of life, and turned onto the driveway leading to the massive parking lot that sprawled out from the walls of the prison. After passing through the reception and being guided through 3 security fences to reach my rather innocuous client I could hardly find similarities between my reality and the reality inside.

lauren said...

I also agree with your thesis that prisons create a doubly isolated environment to those who are incarcerated. It is also interesting to hear about your prison visit accounts and the landscape leading up to the prisons. I think the levels of isolation go even deeper, both physically and mentally, as you enter the prison gates. Reading your post, I thought about the times I have driven to Marin and passed San Quentin and thought about the juxtaposition of such a restrictive structure in such an unbelievably gorgeous place.

Dusty said...

Your post reminded me of something that struck me while we watched Prisontown. These isolated prisons towns create a third class of people other than between the prisoners being imprisoned and the COs living in areas that distance themself from them. The third class created are the prisoners who were released but remained paraole bound to the county or area. These released persons are incredibly vulnerable and hard to employ and often remain stuck in the areas they were imprisoned in. So sad that once the prisoners are released from the isolation of prison, they remain isolated by their stuckness of having to remain in the area whie on paraole.

Caitlin said...

Marta, interesting things about prison officers--very powerful union. I wonder if their commute is further subsidized by the State?

Anonymous said...

Really? I did time in soledad prison. When you are in there, it's not the trees or lack of them that matter. It's who you are as a person that carries you through. I have been in prisons with very little to see but fences and bare ground, and have been in prisons with plants and trees everywhere(soledad south). I went to prison three times. The third time I learned a trade. I have been out 13 years and I work that trade still. If you are isolated within yourself, no matter what the landscape looks like in prison or in town, you will still be isolated. It's hard to join the march forward to a better future when you're living within yourself and without hope. A prison teacher gave me hope by teaching me a trade, what I did with that hope was up to me. When I look at my five year old son, I know one of the best gifts I can give him is to teach him to be hopeful and to join the march forward. The prisons, the prison towns, they are not the places where isolation lives. Isolation is a feeling that lives within our hearts and minds. That is the place where prisoners do their time. Do a thesis on that.