It’s the first thing we all head when we walk into our housing unit for the first time.
The trip from a county cell to a state cell started at 12:30 AM when I’m told to roll up my stuff, change out of my PC reds and into GP orange. Even knowing what comes next- it’s nice to wear something different for the first time in nearly seven months. Five hours later, after shuttling from my jail to the main jail, getting finger printed for the Nth time, and being processed out, the six of us heading to San Quentin are finally loaded onto the van for the drive up.
I’m a little disappointed when I realize it’s only the county van. I’d heard so many stories about the SQ state bus, the screaming guards, being shackled to your seat, etc. That fact that we were only in the van is a real let down. I’m facing backwards out the rear of the van so the view is great and it’s wonderful to drive thru the early morning. To finally able to see more then the inside of the two jails and the few blocks between them. While driving through a residential neighborhood in redwood city- a doe runs along behind the van for a couple of blocks. It is beautiful as are the crystal springs reservoir along the 280, the drive over the golden gate bridge, and the 101 through Marin. It’s incredible how starved my eyes are for green and blue, for views, for anything besides white walls.
Since I am facing backwards I don’t see the approach to San Quentin. My first view is as the van drives through one of th sally ports. Facing backwards it feels disconcertingly like we’re being swallowed by some huge animal. The feeling is magnified by the long twisting drive past the buildings to the reception processing center.
Processing is the combination of disorganized and dehumanizing I’ve come to expect from ‘the authorities’. We feed from the van into an old cinder block building. One by one we strip and we are directed to open and show both sides of our hands, to lift our cocks and sacks, turn and show the soles of our feet, bend over spreading our cheeks, and cough. This happens in what is essentially a wide hallway with 8 or 10 guards standing around. This includes two female guard, something prohibited by regulation and possibly by law but not the worth complaining about. It’s not the first time this has happened. We discard our country clothes, are given state clothes, and are herded down the hallway into a holding cell with two guys wearing blues as opposed to our orange jump suits. These guys are SNY inmates waiting to transfer from reception to their mainline prisons.
This is the first time I hear the phrase ‘chomo’. One of the guys going out talks alot about being the chomo-inator and how many he’s jumped and how they’re getting jumped all the time. When they’re finally pulled out to get on the bus one of the two guys processing in turns to me and says that guy was full of shit. On the one hand this is reassuring, on the other hand it is not great that he thinks that might be freaking ME out. I understand I don’t look like the ‘criminal’ part- no face tattoos, not buffed out, but I really really don’t want to look like a chomo.
Nate and Gomez have both done state time before and know we have hours to wait so when inexplicably our cell is left open and unattended, Nate talks Gomez into sneaking out and snatching us 3 extra blankets off the cart down the hall. After eating our box lunches we all wrap up and grab space on the benches and sleep. Over the next few hours we are woken for various processing. ID, photos, finger and palm prints, weight, a second round of fingerprints because the computer didn’t save the first set.
Then we each, separately, have an interview with the sergeant running intake. I’m asked if I have any known enemies, no, and if I have any reason to fear for my life. I know, from conversations with other inmates in county that this is an opportunity to “roll myself up” and go to solitary.
“It’s your prison, I’m small, older and you know my charges. Should I be in fear for my life?”
“There are guys with charges 10 times worse than yours in here. It is your choice though.”
I had already decided I wanted to go into the normal SNY housing but his answer didn’t give me as much confidence as I was hoping for. He also took down emergency contacts and next of kin. That didn’t make me feel any better.
After this it’s back to the holding cell and we’re fed our first hot meal in SQ. It’s some sort of chicken stew and is so much better than anything in county. I am hopeful for the next few months of food. Another nap and then a quick psych interview. Some blood is drawn, eyes tested, and we’re herded to the property. I’d been warned that this can be very arbitrary, we’re allowed 5 books and magazines. A ‘reasonable’ number of letters, and 20 pictures. I got the letter of the law maximum, some people get much more. My 2nd cellie got to keep well over 100 photos.
Finally we are told to gather our belongings and led out of the intake building. We walk, single file up thru the prison, through gates, past what I later learn is the hospital, the gate the the psych ward, the chow hall, an old stone block house that looks like a dungeon from Pirates of the Caribbean, the commissary building, and finally to South block, the location of all the reception housing. South block like West and North block resemble a cross between a castle and an early Gothic cathedral complete with buttresses, tall skinny windows, gun man walkways at the eves and a tall metal banded arched double door as the entrance. We step into the lobby (far too nice a word) and Nate turns back to me and says “get ready” as we pass a sign that says “No Warning Shots Are Fired.”
I’ve been mentally preparing for this for months. I had been warned both gently and harshly by friends in county who had come through here before. I knew what to expect but as it turns out I was not prepared. We stepped through the door into the “Alpine” unit and the chaos began.
Alpine, like the 3 other units in South Block houses up to 500 inmates in 2 main cell blocks. The cells are arranged in rows of 50 on 5 tiers open at the front and the walkways face a 5 story tall open space about 20 feet wide. The best way to describe it is housing for lab animals but the scale of a 5 story motor inn crammed into a slot canyon. The whole thing is about 60 feet tall and 300 feet long.
The noise is cacophonous and begins the moment we step through the door.
IM GONNA BUST THOSE SPOKES
Show us your paperwork!
Show us your WAGON WHEEL
KILL KILL KILL KILL
What county you from? Which ones are CHOMOS??
Show us your WAGON WHEEL
Your PAPER WORK BETTER BE CLEAN!
And under and over the words is the clanging of the metal cell doors as the inmates rattle them back and forth against their locks.
It is so loud that at first I don’t hear the guard directing us down the unit. As we walk- I look up and around. On our left are the cells with one or two inmates at each door, most shouting or screaming. Looking up are the other tiers though because of the angle I can only see the bars on the second and third tiers. Directly overhead on the wall opposite the cells is a gunners catwalk with razor wire strung beneath it and trash, sheets, towels, clothes hanging from it.
As we walk, the inmates on the upper tiers who can’t see us begin to throw trash through the bars of their cells, over the walkway and down onto us. Plastic bags and crumbled paper fall around us. We’re walked about halfway down the unit and then line up against the wall facing the cells. As we stand there I realize that hand mirrors are sticking through the bars of the cells that don’t have a direct view. We’re given our “blues”, denim pants, light blue shirts, along with white boxers and a t-shirt and again are directed to strip. We pull off the jump suits and change, this time in front of another half dozen guards and hundreds of inmates.
Once we are changed we are directed to our cells. In my case it’s up the open stairs at the middle of the block. Closer to the cells I realize how many guys are asking for my papers. It is worse than I expected. A “papercheck” is a review of one of the many official documents that outline one’s charges. It is how “chomos”, child molesters are identified. If you don’t have “papers” it is assumed that this is because you know you would fail a check. I do not have papers. While I’m not an actual molester that is an unimportant nuance here.
I climb the stairs to the second tier. My cell 2–21 faces the landing and I look thru the bars into my tiny cell and my new celly as the inmates in the cells on either side continue to shout at me. Eventually a guard arrives to unlock the cell and let me in.
My new cellie Mark, does not check my papers. He tells me he doesn’t care and offers to show me his but complains that it will take awhile to dig them out. I don’t ask to see them. Mark had been here for months, longer than the neighbors and as the long timer he offers to “vouch” for me. He does, claiming he’s seen my papers, that they’re clean, and that no he won’t pass them along because I already put them away and he won’t hassle me. This works.
Over the couple of weeks we are cellies before he transfers I realize that his charges are actually probably pretty bad. His story was that he embezzled from an employer however his sentence (85% time) means he was sentenced for a “violent” crime and the term (6 years) and his classification to SNY suggests molestation. He also told me his 1st cellie, a GBG, vouched for him without a papercheck. Mark was “paying it forward” and we were both very lucky.