Life Inside Prisons


This article has its roots between 10:00 p.m. and midnight Pacific time last July 4 when I was a guest on George Noory’s radio show “Coast to Coast AM.” The general topic was our country’s Criminal Justice System, with the more specific subject being our failed policy of Drug Prohibition.

As a direct result of this show I received letters from eleven men who are presently serving time in prisons all around our country. Two of them claimed they are factually innocent of the charges against them, with one of those enclosing a copy of a signed and sworn declaration by a man who ostensibly was recanting his jailhouse snitch testimony that he had given against the writer of the letter in exchange for a prosecutor’s promise of a lighter sentence. My response was to send a copy of this material both to the Agent in Charge of the local office of the FBI as well as to the local head of the Innocence Project for their investigation. (I realize that most people in prison claim factual innocence, but this one seemed worthy of extra attention due to the enclosed declaration.)

Another letter came from a man who said he was Jewish and that there had been a “hit” taken out on him by some “skin heads” in the prison. He further said that even though the warden and other correctional officers had been aware of the threat, they had done nothing to protect him. So, soon thereafter, the writer of the letter said that he had been stabbed seven times with a shiv, or homemade knife, by these two skin heads, who were all the while yelling, “Die Jew, Die!” One of the stab wounds pierced his liver, and he was lucky to survive. But he also enclosed an official-looking prison medical record that claimed that the wounds had been self-inflicted in an attempted suicide. (Can you imagine anyone attempting to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the back —seven times?) So, I wrote a letter to the warden saying that I was sure he agreed with me that all people in our custody, whether they are Al Capone or even Jack the Ripper, are entitled to receive reasonable protections against being assaulted, and would he please investigate.

(When I received no response, I forwarded my request to the warden’s boss, who is the Governor of the state, with copies to some local media and the Director of the local ACLU. After I sent those letters, the warden responded.)

Life in Prison from the Prisoners’ Perspective

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens, but by how it treats its criminals.” So I have often wondered, how well are we doing? Although when I was still an active trial court judge in California I had the opportunity of visiting both Norco and San Quentin State Prisons, those threshold tours hardly showed me what prison life was really like. So I took the opportunity to request each of the eleven inmates voluntarily to provide me with their thoughts and experiences of prison life — both the good and the bad. Eight of them agreed, and that is what they did. Take it for what you will, but I strongly believe it is incumbent upon each one of us as citizens to do what we can to ensure that everyone in our custody is treated within reasonably humane degrees of safety, nutrition and welfare. In other words, we all have an obligation to do what we can to make the prison system work. What follows is a compilation of the reports from those eight inmates, as well as my recommendations for making some changes.

Of course, life is different in prison depending upon many things, but the biggest difference comes from the level of security of the prison. Those in low-level security prisons mostly live in military-style barracks, with two-man rooms with bunkbeds and without doors. The days start early, with inmates getting up usually around 5:30 a.m., with breakfast being from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.. Then, jobs, education, physical exercise and other activities go from about 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. There are frequent body counts during the day in which the inmates must remain standing, and the rest of the day they use “move times” to change locations on the prison “campus.” Then dinner is from 6 to 7, with extra time often being given to the cell block that has been judged to be the cleanest for the past week. After dinner most prisons go into lockdown.

As a further representative example of daily prison life, one inmate reported as follows: The majority of his time is spent to work out each day to maintain his health and mental wellbeing. He does his yoga and practices his Buddhist faith, and tries to get as much law library time as possible so that someday he might win 1983s for the benefit of all. (Section 1983 of Title 42 in the United States Code is known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was enacted to combat post-Civil War racial violence in the Southern states and is a primary means of correcting Constitutional violations by state officials.) Everyone complains about the quality of the food, saying it is often stale and even moldy, and mostly a heavy concentration of unhealthy carbohydrates instead of fruits, vegetables and protein, in order to reduce expenses. Sack lunches are usually given out after breakfast and often consist of a bologna sandwich (one slice) and things like pretzels. Dinner often consists of a pressed chicken patty or gravy over white rice with Kool-Aid and Jell-O on the side.