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Inside the County Jail (October 4, 2000)

Cell Block D, Mendocino County Jail, Ukiah — My home for the past 40 days is a barren, white metal room, compartmented into four cells of five inmates each surrounding a small dayroom in the center. Each cell has the appropriate rumbling sliding door that locks us in, and another door rumbles shut the dayroom. Three white metal picnic tables are available for sitting in the dayroom — for eating our meals, playing cards, writing letters or watching the obligatory blaring television. Reading takes place in the cells usually. 

Our cells, mine is cell D#2, are equally stark and color-starved. They consist of the same cold, gray concrete floors throughout this portion of the jail, and white metal walls and ceilings, lit by five white flourescents, and furnished with five welded metal bunks, one stainless steel toilet out in the open, no toilet lid, thank you, and one small stainless steel sink with push-button faucets, underneath a corroded metal mirror. Two narrow, frosted windows face outside and five steel grated windows face the dayroom in each cell.

Our formal behavior in the jail is governed by County policy and the Sheriff’s Department’s implementation of this policy through its Corrections Division. The Corrections Division of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office owns this jail, make no mistake, and they run it well. 

Yep, there are all manner of codes and rituals we inmates follow informally, but it’s the Rules and Regulations promulgated by the staff and the men and women — the “C.O.’s” or Corrections Officers on floor duty — who influence us directly, constantly and professionally. No doubt modern penal administration theories govern to insure control and compliance with minimum resulting liability to the County. After all, incarceration is Big Business in California. And after all, this is jail.

This is a no-hostage jail — as we are advised in our briefing handout given us upon “classification.” In other words, try to escape and you and your hostages, if any, will be shot — if you’re so foolish as to even contemplate such prison-movie cliché behavior. The briefing handout states, “…You will NOT be allowed to escape, even if you take hostages.”

It is precisely this hard-ass position about us inmates that Mark Scaramella probably had in mind in his recent Ukiah Daily Journal article analyzing pay rates and workloads in jail. Enforcement of a hard-ass jail, after all, by the aggressive internment of us unsentenced inmates creates a helluva a burden upon the guards. They are County employees on the edge.

Rumor has it that on the “sentenced side” of the jail where inmates are housed after formal pronouncement by judicial royalty, life is easier going, more respect-oriented and presents a more natural atmosphere. After all, these inmates are “doing time,” supposedly are over their adjustment depression, rejection and self-esteem flatlines.

On this side, we constantly face uncertainty and personal pain as partners that we have to tolerate: uncertainty over pending arraignments, bail hearings, or trials; personal pain over the humiliation of being incarcerated, very rejected and ignored by friends on the outside, and being just a number in an orange jumpsuit. 

Accordingly, the County taxpayers expect a lot of their Corrections staff. They are clearly overworked, overtimed and unappreciated. You see, I have just been describing Cell Block D. But one Corrections Officer also supervises three other cell blocks (gays and snitches, parolees, and prior offender groups) two of them being of much larger constituencies. 

Conceivably these COs then can be responsible for the safety, health and well-being of not only D-blocks predominantly 20-year olds in for DUI, but as many as another 120 prior offenders and parolees, and 20 more gays and snitches. That’s a total of 160 men to supervise for one CO. It’s a burnout job. Just talking to the COs and learning of the overtime requested of them, observing the antics, demands and needs of us inmates (three meals per day, med calls, our laundry, mail and commissary distribution, etc.) makes me realize quickly that the taxpayers are getting a deal: dedicated men and women, marginally paid at best, who are required to put out enormous amounts of effort (and perhaps sacrifice their personal safety to idiots desiring to test their macho). 

The Corrections Division has done a remarkable job of recruitment. It is, by the now-seasoned account of this inside observer, one of the stellar divisions of the Sheriff’s Department.

Perhaps it is a sad irony that in our war-on-drugs, dollar-sodden national law enforcement and justice systems that our County jail retains its outstanding benefit to us taxpayers. The filled bunks may be a result of war-on-drugs enforcement efforts, but the Corrections Division shows taxpayers what a scarcity of programmatic dollars, yet old fashioned quality recruitment, and care for the diversions of its young people, can demonstrate.

* * *

Penological Intent, Correlations and Lockdowns…

Sitting here in Cell Block D I have little “luxury.” It is a jail after all. Yet, incarceration yields the luxury of time free of demands, sleep free of interruption (although three feet away from a blaring television in my case), and writing opportunities that are free of expectations. Thank God for literacy, for I’ve again become a man of letters. Handwritten letters, in pencil no less, re-read, revised and corrected without the aid of a spell checker or word processor. Anachronistic behavior in an archaic setting.

But I consider myself lucky. The average Mendocino County inmate has a third-grade education level, I’m told; and from what I can observe minimal levels of accompanying achievement and self-esteem tied to their frustration over illiteracy.

The psychological relief we inmates derive from writing cannot be measured. If you could see the sheer joy on the faces of these young transient and/or institutitionalized young men when they are given help in writing a letter home or to a girlfriend (“Tell the bitch I love her…”) you would instantly demand literacy tests at all relevant school grades as a basis for further promotion.

In fact, it is not too far-fetched — although a smart one out there will debunk any notion of causality — to posit a positive correlation between illiteracy and crime, let alone length of imprisonment. I’ve seen it first-hand, as anecdotal as the data are: The greater the degree of illiteracy, the older the inmate, the more likely he is a recidivist and will be institutionalized during long periods of his adult life. Call it shame; call it frustration at the inability to decode; or call it embarrassment.

Literacy, as I have witnessed once before in my life in a setting like this — in the Army in Asia in the 1960s — is a defining and acquired trait that marks a man and allows him — through reading and writing — to escape the foxholes, the quonset huts or the jail cells at any time.

Historically, accounts of confinement, all the way back to the Bible no less, have established the use of letters to express the feelings, truths and remorse of those imprisoned. It is the sine qua non with which to confront, in my case at least, the overwhelming sense of disbelief, incomprehension and unreality with which I sit here at age 57. Writing permits me to defend against the verbal onslaughts of the pain and hurt from the rejection by friends unwilling or unable to cope with my new status. 

It can also shield against vulnerability to whatever assessment of the reason for my being here is promulgated for the gain of the assessor. Perhaps most importantly of all, writing from jail permits me to question any suspension of belief in me, the coitus interruptus of the benefit of the doubt.

Oh, the self-styled “helpers” are out there with their axes to grind, manipulating whatever chunks of residual faith in me that remains unmoved. To some it appears that incarceration has forced a total transformation of the inner person they knew in me, to one who is now a criminal, without redeeming value and worthy of disrespect.

So perhaps I, with my PhD, can make time go by a little easier by writing letters. What do the other inmates do who can’t write? It is an especially relevant issue in the Mendocino County Jail. Why?

Because of the lockdowns: being locked in a cell all day without access to the yard, phones or showers. Some say lockdowns are cruel forms of control and punishment that despite the most progressive penological intent, occur routinely here.

No, it’s not some sadistic, malformed execution of isolation cells. It is the dividend from extraordinary staff shortages at the County Jail. The Corrections Officer shortage is so precarious, that the diffusion of a flu-cold going around the jail absented two guards just yesterday, resulting in the lockdown of the entire jail. 

Frequently we are told (or we hear through the prison grapevine) that inmates housed in the “sentenced” side of the jail are locked down for entire weekends due to staff shortages. I needn’t explicate the disastrous impact this has: inmates are denied access to visitors; visitors are denied access to their families and friends behind bars, morale suffers and then spreads. 

No doubt the decline in morale also finds its way to the staff, trying to manage and cope professionally. We have the weak budgetary policies of the Board of Supervisors to thank.

So our fellow County residents, largely incarcerated by the judicial royalty in seemingly formulaic and tiresome criminal proceedings, pressed by bored and vain deputy district attorneys, are typically unable to write their psychological way out of incarceration. And when the lockdowns are in force, the dayroom, television, and the previous 30 minutes per day of access to the outside yard, and access to any education programs or work programs are precluded.

Essentially, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors in their greed to accept programmatic anti-crime dollars (note the recent COPS grant), panders to war-on-drugs hysteria in an area that counts illicit drugs as one of its primary cash crops. Yet it lacks the will to make unpopular moves to use tax dollars for more Corrections positions, improved pay scales for existing (and expensively trained) officers, thus depriving the taxpayers and their children, unlucky enough to be incarcerated, of due process under the Constitution.,

The Penal Code is clear on this fact: Jail conditions for detainees awaiting trial, like those in Cell Block D, are a constitutional due process issue. Crowded jails brought about by lack of staffing in the Mendocino County Jail conceivably could be interpreted as punishment prior to the adjudication of guilt. Lack of access to yard, showers, open space… believe me, it appears to be cruel and unusual punishment at the least.

I understand that other jurisdictions have been subject to class action and civil rights suits to force the County Supervisors to get real with funds for the jails, or, I assume, in other ways lessen the number of inmates routinely incarcerated.

I don’t know for sure whether any recently impaneled Grand Jury has investigated the serious lack of staffing and resultant problems at the County Jail. But the Penal Code (PC 919) clearly enables the Grand Jurors to investigate the conditions of the County’s jail.

Existing management and staff of the Corrections Division simply cannot do the job the County’s citizens expect. The jail is severely understaffed; the County needs to fund new positions and increase benefits before litigation or writs prove an expensive and unnecessary motivator. 

It’s time for the Board of Supervisors to wake up.

One Comment

  1. Douglas Coulter July 19, 2021

    We have a WallMart, a theme park and a prison
    Our town provides all that I need
    I work as a guard
    I mow my front yard
    At night I watch prisoners bleed

    I spend my wages at WallMart
    Buying junk that is made overseas
    Then I ride through the park
    And tunnels so dark
    And spin upside down in the breeze

    Work at the prison is easy
    Close my eyes at things too hard to see
    Near the end of my shift
    My mind starts to drift
    To the newest ride beaconing me

    I try to forget all the anguish
    Those dirt-bags in orange suits bare
    A Roll-back is on
    So I’m trying on
    Some fancy new sports underwear

    Today the laundry was empty
    Advise from from the head cell block screw
    A new kids rear ended
    Yet I ain’t offended
    That’s just the stuff prisoners do

    A shanking went down in the day yard
    But no one saw anything strange
    I’m off to the mall
    For engraved bowling balls
    And a new outdoor cooking range

    Dogma is delusion in a tuxedo
    Normal folks make the finest Nazis
    Don’t question our system of order
    And never piss into the breeze

    I wrote this song while drinking pruno
    Liquid courage to strengthen my plan
    Truth I must speak
    My words may seem weak
    I dread the virtues of a self righteous man

    By Douglas Wayne Coulter 9/24/2017
    The Department of errors is America’s largest employer

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