This is the fourth post Sean has written about his experience at Tracy Reception Center (Duel Vocational Institution) in 2006. DVI has a long-standing reputation for being violent and dangerous, Sean was housed there for a brief period shortly after his wrongful conviction. Click below to read the previous installments: 1. Welcome to Tracy, 2. The Nightmare, 3. Trading. Please see below the post for a prison dictionary.
The portion of Tracy I was housed in was the Reception Center, the population of inmates housed there was transitory. Most inmates would only be there a few months and were locked in their cell roughly 23 hours per day. For most inmates in a reception center, the only time they are allowed out of their cell is when they are going to and from the shower three times per week or going to the dining hall, church service, or to the yard once or twice per week but only if they are not on lockdown. The only inmates allowed out more than this are the inmate ‘porters’ who spend their time running round the tiers doing favors for the inmates locked in their cells rather than cleaning, which is what they are supposed to do.
I was disgusted by the amount of filth that covered Tracy. There was trash, dirt, and grime everywhere. Every wall, surface, crevice and corner looked as if it had not been cleaned in decades; which was highly likely. I was shocked by the conditions at Tracy and many of the other things I saw in my days there. Most of the time I was stuck in my cell. For 9 months of my life I was at Tracy in a 6 by 9 foot cell, rarely let out; when I was, it was into an unrecognizable culture.
In the short time I was on the “mainline” being forced to cohabitate with active gang mambers, I witnessed prison violence for the first time. As I was being escorted to the shower with a few other inmates up on the top tier, a group of men attacked another man on the tier below. It all happened so fast. I remember seeing a pile of men swarming over another, flashes of orange as they used razor blades still attached to the orange disposable razors to slash at their victim. They quickly pushed him up against the overhang of the top tier where I could no longer see, the alarm went off and officers rushed in. The officer escorting us to the shower hurried us to our destination and locked us in before heading to the scene of violence. We were left locked in the shower for well over an hour when normally we would have been given 10 minutes. I would continue to see the blur of bodies with orange flashes in my mind, knowing that is how fast violence could strike in prison.
As I learned more about prison and the depravity of some of the men who were there, I was not surprised to find out that some inmates would abuse prescription medication in order to sleep. Many inmates in Tracy were prescribed medication for mental illness, and many would trade their medication to other inmates for the things they needed. The inmates who traded to get the medication used it as a sleep-aid, sleeping for upwards of 20 hours or more at a time if they took enough pills.
At the time, the despair and isolation I felt allowed me to sleep much of my time away. I got into a pattern of sleeping 12 to 14 hours per day because there was no reason to be awake, there was absolutely nothing to do. There was no reason to get up and face the reality of being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This pattern of long sleep cycles would stay with me for many years and ultimately may have saved me during the hardest times of my wrongful conviction.
Shortly after this I was moved again, this time to H-Wing. In Tracy they tried to house all the Lifers in H-Wing. It was here I was celled up with an older man who had already spent 26 years of his life in prison, gotten paroled, and was now back with a life sentence. He spoke about the violence that used to be in prison as if the extreme violence that is still in prisons today is child’s play. I knew I waned nothing to do with this prison culture and life. The more he talked the more I knew I had to get away from it, I had to get away from the prospective violence I may have been forced to be a part of. I came up with an idea and thankfully it worked.
I submitted a medical request to been seen by the psychiatrist. Soon I was given an appointment and taken to be seen. I remember the doctor’s bewilderment when she asked me what was wrong. I simply told her I was not going back to the mainline, I was not going to be a part of the gangs and violence and I wanted to be housed in the SNY population. It became obvious that she had never dealt with such a situation. At first she did not know what to do. She made a few phone calls to find out. What I did not realize at the time was that by involving the mental health staff, the officers could no longer ignore my request to be moved to SNY like the one sergeant did when I first arrived at Tracy.
My request ultimately got me moved to Administrative Segregation, temporarily for non-disciplinary reasons. This was the first step in the right direction. I had been in prison roughly 45 days and would spend the next 45 days in Ad-Seg being processed into the SNY population. If I had to be in prison, this was absolutely the right decision for me.
Written by Sean, April 2019
Administrative Segregation: AKA “The Hole”, separate area of the prison used to either keep inmates separate while in transition or to punish inmates for rule violations. Inmates in Ad Seg are generally restricted to their cell 23 hours per day with little interaction. However, some ad-segs are designed for small groups of individuals with no safety or security concerns with each other to go to small yards together. In these cases the small group is usually given 2-3 hours out one day and no time the next day. This is how Tracy was designed.
Lifers: Inmates with some form of a Life Sentence
Lock Down: Used by the prison as a security measure or punishment, a lock down is when all inmates must remain in their cells for 24 hours per day. This could take place for weeks at a time. During a lockdown there are no phone calls, day-room, classes, or visits. Inmates are only allowed 3 showers per week during lockdown
Mainline: An area of the prison also referred to as General Population. Generally this is where active gang members are housed, it is more dangerous and violent
Porter: inmate-porter is a job assignment given to inmates in all prison housing units with the expectation that they keep the common areas of the housing unit clean.
SNY: Sensitive Needs Yard; protective custody where individuals who aren’t involved in gangs, or those who could be victimized by gangs may go to stay safe
Tier: The level in the building, 3rd tier= 3rd story