Inside Prison Walls

Prison often resides on the bad end of publicity in the media. Combine that with the way prison life is portrayed in movies and TV shows and we all come to the conclusion that prison is oppressive to its inhabitants.

Officers are portrayed as individuals that are abusive of power. There is a lack of trust where instead of protecting us, the law is manipulated to be against the public.

The Inside/Outside prison narratives held in the Wignam Hall at Chaffey College further reinforced this belief. The exhibit focused on being confined within a cell and the effects that plays on inmates. It would appear as if they are not considered humans with needs while they are incarcerated.

Unable to easily digest that information, I reached out to public relations at California Institution for Men and was able to arrange an interview with the Chief Deputy Warden preceded by a walk-through of the facility.

Approaching the prison I was confused, the image depicted in my head was of a solitary, dark, and confined building with skyscrapers for walls lined with barbed wires. The only thing factual about my vision were the barbed wires that coiled around the top of the fences that surrounded the prison.

Directly across the street were businesses ranging from School Portraits to Dellos Dance Connection.

I was met at the gate by Daniel Tristan, Correctional Lieutenant, Administrative Assistant and Public Information Officer.

Upon the start of my tour, Tristan turned to me and said, “I am going to give you the same disclaimer I give everyone. We do not do hostage negotiations. If an inmate were to grab you, we will not negotiate the release of an inmate for your return.”

Walking through the facility I was surprised to have inmates walking past without any kind of escort. They outnumbered the officers. I had this thought that they were going to stare me down or yell out obscenities but I was very much mistaken.

Guards sat at their posts and seemingly had no regard for the inmates. This was routine for them, the inmates knew the rules and abided by them. “On your first day you are wide eyed,” said Tristan. “There are certain unwritten rules. When an inmate is walking behind you they know to say something like ‘inmate walking behind’, and I’ll move over.”

Facility D reminded me a little of our campus here at Chafffey. In the center there was a baseball field surrounded by buildings that either housed inmates or was designated for a particular program. Inmates were walking back and forth between bungalows like students walking across campus to classes. There was a diving program on the yard where inmates could participate and upon graduation they are given a job upon release from prison.

The cells on this yard were unlocked and inmates could come and go as they pleased. In their cells most inmates had a clear television where they could watch shows such as Empire and How to Get Away With Murder. Tristan noted that it would get pretty loud Thursdays as inmates talked about the shows. Through commissary inmates could order things ranging from food to cd’s and even jewelry such as chains.

My tour ended in the office of Debbie Asuncion, Chief Deputy Warden at the prison. She is small in stature and was a banker for 15 years prior to pursuing a career in law enforcement. Asuncion believes that as a correctional officer you have to have good people skills and be able to communicate.

Asuncion goes on to talk about an incident where an inmate told a female officer that something was about to go down and for her to leave. Not long after a riot broke out. “As long as you treat them with respect, they will respect you as well.”

Knowing that the general public thinks the worst of prison and the correctional officers, Asuncion stressed that, “Inmates are the responsibility of the state while they are incarcerated. For the most part they’re happy.” Officers take their job seriously. There will always be a few with bad attitudes but for the most part the interaction between the two is a grounded one.

Contrary to belief that inmates are beaten by the guards, their use of force policy is a polished one. “If you use force against an inmate you have to be able to justify it. We actually have County Sheriffs come out so we can train them on use of force,” said Daniel Tristan, “Every inmate gets a copy of Title 15 upon arrival.”

Title 15 outlines the rules and regulations of adult institutions. They also have access to a law library where they have the ability to do their own research. This allows inmates to know their rights while incarcerated. If an inmate files a complaint against an officer, said officer will undergo an investigation.

If you lie as a peace officer you are terminated. “Dishonesty is not tolerated,” said Asuncion.

Asuncion feels that is crucial to educate inmates. They should have a productive life while incarcerated. She feels that by keeping busy inmates are able to improve their self- esteem. She describes the atmosphere surrounding graduations as a very joyous one where the inmates are able to celebrate with their families.

Currently they are working on a program to provide inmates with a BA in theology. While Asuncion knows people will murmur things questioning the benefits, she states that it’s a stepping stone. Chaffey College is in negotiations to fulfill the general education portion of this degree, as of yet nothing has been finalized.

The staff is very encouraging “Inmates will be our neighbors one day.”

That statement made by Asuncion grabbed my attention. It was very much true. The tour opened my eyes to a world I was unfamiliar with. The relationship between the inmates and guards was not combative as I expected. I was biased, I walked in thinking I was walking into a war zone. With the population that occupied the free world having it’s own war against law enforcement and police brutality, I could only assume there would be a war 10 times that at ground zero.

Instead I found a community. While I am certain there is not a constant calm behind these fences I was now driving away from, for the most part there was an understanding. There was a system, and everyone had a job. These officers, they were not the enemy. There are always bad seeds, but overall they all communicated well with the inmates and their goal was to rehabilitate.