DVI 5: Filth and Pests

This is the fifth post Sean has written about his experience at Tracy Reception Center (Deuel Vocational Institution) in 2006. DVI has a long-standing reputation for being violent and dangerous. Sean was housed there for a brief period shortly following his wrongful conviction. Click below to read the previous installments

1: Welcome to Tracy, 2: The Nightmare, 3: Trading, 4: Shocking Conditions

I was in Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg or “the hole”) as I transitioned from the manline to Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) population. I already knew I wanted nothing to do with the gangs and violence of the mainline. I was even more sure of my decision when I saw a man being escorted past, covered in pink and white scars all over his torso, arms, and neck. My neighbor said the guy with the scars was a victim from the riot between the whites and the Northern Mexican gang, the scars were razor blade cuts.

I had done nothing wrong to be in Ad-Seg but I was prepared to endure whatever was necessary to get to the protective custody of SNY. Within the prison culture, an SNY yard is considered protective custody by those on the gang-controlled mainlines. In some cases this is true. Individuals who for one reason or another may be targets for violence from the prison gangs must seek refuge on the SNY yards because they no longer want to participate in the gang culture of the mainline and the subsequent violence. Whether considered protective custody or not, SNY yards have allowed individuals the ability to be themselves within the prison environment, making their own choices rather than being told what to do by others.

To be admitted to the SNY population, I had to go through a process to be cleared that left me in Ad-Seg for 45 days. I went through a classification committee review to determine my eligibility. Having never been involved in any gang activity, it was easy for them to clear me which is why it only took 45 days. Validated gang members may spend years going through this process.

While I was in Ad-Seg going through this process, I was still locked in my cell nearly the entire time. However, because I was in Ad-Seg and in the Ad-Seg SNY population, I was no longer under the restrictions of the lockdown. I was finally allowed to go to yard (go outside) for the first time since I had gotten to Tracy. In every Ad-Seg, the yard schedule is segregated to one degree or another. In some Ad-Seg facilities, the inmates are secured into individual mini-yards for their recreation time. These mini-yards are referred to as “dog cages” because they are essentially enclosed dog kennels used for human “recreation”. In other Ad-Seg facilities all groups of inmates go to larger exercise yards segregated by gang affiliation or ethnicity. As I was transitioning into the SNY population, I was allowed to access the SNY recreation yard. This recreation yard was not segregated by gang or race, it was for all SNY inmates and all SNY inmates went to this yard together 3 times a week for about 3 hours each time.

I immediately took advantage of going to yard. I remember the sun being so intensely bright after being kept inside for weeks. Out in the yard area I saw a man I recognized and had met in the county jail. I knew no one else so I began to talk to him. He told me I was making the right choice to move to the SNY population. He told me how none of the guys on the mainline would care about me and they would try to use me to accomplish their illegal goals.

L-Wing, the Ad-Seg area of Tracy, was designed differently than the other housing units of Tracy. Each tier of L-Wing was an entirely sectioned-off floor while the other wings had open floor plans from the ground floor all the way up to the third tier. There was also a partition wall in the middle of each floor so the cells on the other side of the floor could not be seen. L-Wing was highly isolating and designed to be this way. L-Wing was even filthier than the other areas of Tracy I had seen.  There were no inmate porters in L-Wing to do the minimal cleaning. Instead, the correctional officers were expected to do the cleaning. It was never done.

The first couple of days I was in Ad-Seg, I was on the second tier. Then I was moved to the first tier and given a cell mate. Another oddity of L-Wing was that outside my window was a mini courtyard that was no longer in use. As it was no longer in use and some inmates are not the most sanitary, over the years the courtyard had been filled with trash. The area had heaps of trash piling up against the walls at least 4 feet deep. The trash stank. What I did not realize was the amount of pests and vermin hidden in the trash heap, and hidden inside Tracy. Until being moved to this cell I had been on the second or third tier, creating a buffer zone from the pests and vermin. Now on the ground floor I was introduced to the mice and rats of Tracy. 

Each night as soon as the light turned off, the mice and rats would come out in search of food. The bottom of each cell door is about 2 inches or higher off the ground. In this gap, a faint light would shine through and back light their bodies in silhouette. I would see their little shapes sneaking and scurrying about.

I will never forget the first time I saw a rat sitting just outside my cell door. It sat there like a giant mutant evil mouse and I thought “What the hell is this?” The mice would flee at the slightest movement or sound my cellmate and I made. But the rat seemed to care less about us, standing its ground fearlessly.

As bad as the mice and rats were, they could not compare to the insects that infested the ground floor cells. The mice and rats could not get to us up on our bunks, but we found out the cockroaches could. One night I was laying on my bunk falling asleep when my cellmate asked me if I had just touched him. I said no, wondering what he was talking about. Then he said something was touching him. I told him I was laying on my bunk trying to sleep. Suddenly I heard a fast rustling of his bedding and something hit the wall. I jumped up and turned on the light by pulling on the chain attached the single exposed light bulb above my head. There was a dead cockroach on the ground. My cellmate was freaking out, it had been crawling on his body and he had thrown it against the wall. Several more cockroaches scurried across the walls as they fled from the light. Waiting to fall asleep at night I found if I watched the walls I would see their black bodies crawling around. 

Our problem with the cockroaches got much worse the day we returned from yard and the trash in the court yard had been cleaned out. All the insects calling the trash pile home had moved into the cells. There were hundreds of them, it was disgusting. My cellmate and I spent hours trying to get them out of our cell and belongings, but they just kept coming. That night was hell. And the next few nights after that too. The cockroaches and other insects seemed to be everywhere. Nothing we did stopped them. After a few nights it went back to the normal rate of cockroaches crawling across the cell walls, but they were still there every night along with the mice and rats.

Written by Sean O’Brien,  June 2019

Recent LA Times Article about Corcoran Prison’s sister prison SATF here

2007 Article about Tracy’s overcrowding here

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Happy Birthday Sean

Sean’s Birthday 2013

September 2013

June 2014

June 2015

June 2016

June 2017

June 2018

June 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2013, my first year with Sean, he had just been transferred to a new facility and we had no way to get photos during our first visit. The September 2013 photo is from the following visit. Every year we like to visit on his birthday Over the years the visiting rules have varied, we have grown closer & stronger, and my photo editing skills have come a long ways. It’s fun to see how far we have come and how much everything has changed since that first year. While it is absolutely heartbreaking for Sean to have to spend so many birthdays in prison when we have already proved his innocence in court, we choose to focus on the positive, the blessings we have and to embrace our love and happiness. We focus on what we DO have rather than what we DONT, and look forward to the multiple opportunities for his upcoming freedom. We know the day will come, we just don’t know when. So for now we live a fulfilling life the best way we can.

Thank you for the Birthday wishes, we had a great day yesterday celebrating Sean’s 33rd birthday!

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Sean’s Bakersfield College Documents

There is beginning to be an almost overwhelming amount of papers, chronos, certificates and documents regarding Sean’s college, commutation and character so in order to begin to organize them I am going to label and put them all into individual posts for easier access. This post will contain Sean’s Bakersfield College Documentation.

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Recipe: Family Visit Cookies

Each time Sean and I have a Family Visit we enjoy having freshly baked cookies. Everyone likes cookies, but since prison is not a place you can get this kind of warm baked goodness we had to get a little bit creative. Here is our recipe so you can enjoy them too. These cookies are not by any stretch of the imagination considered to be healthy, planet-friendly, or something you would likely incorporate into your diet on a regular basis. They are, however, super tasty and really hit the spot when one has no other choices available. Normally we make classic chocolate chip but recently we created a spring time version that is sure to stick around through summer. We hope you enjoy!

Ingredients: 3 packages Betty Crocker ‘just add water’ Blueberry Muffin Mix, 2/3 Cup granulated sugar, dash of salt, 1 Cup plus 2 TBSP room temperature butter/margarine (whatever the prison gives us), 1 egg, 2/3 cup white chocolate chips (we order Ghirardelli brand)

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Blend the butter/margarine and sugar together in a big bowl with a sturdy spoon. Mix in the egg. Add the salt and packets of muffin mix, gently mix until dough forms. If needed add a bit more egg. You want a soft thick dough that is no longer sticky. Add the chocolate chips until it looks good to you. Place rounded spoonfuls onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake 8-10 minutes.

For Ice Cream Sandwiches: If you want to be extra, place some white chocolate chips on top of a couple cookies right out of the oven. Cut an ice cream bar from the vending machine in half and sandwich between two cookies with the melted chips on top. Whoa, behold your yummy treasure and savor it’s gooey chocolatey goodness. We recommend eating with a spoon. It’s going to get all over the place and that’s ok, it’s part of the fun!

This is the kind we normally use

Did you try our recipe? We would love to hear how it turned out! Feel free to leave a comment below, email us: innocentat16@gmail.com or find us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Thank you to our supporters and friends for your encouragement, kindness & clear bags for Family Visit!!!

**Disclaimer: All photos taken inside my home with products I purchased **
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DVI 4: Shocking Conditions

This is the fourth post Sean has written about his experience at Tracy Reception Center (Deuel 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

Prison Dictionary

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

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Sean’s Certificates

Sean received this certificate just recently from Bakersfield College, he deserves this recognition and we are both really proud of him. Thank you to all his professors, past and present. Below are his other recent certificates for positive programming and on the job training.

Here is Sean receiving his Anti-Recidivism Coalition certificate from David Garcia, Sean plans to work for ARC upon his release.

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DVI 3: Trading

This is the third post Sean has written about his experience at Tracy Reception Center (Deuel 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 to read his first post DVI 1: Welcome to Tracy, and DVI 2:The Nightmare

During my first full day in prison, I had asked my cellmate when we would be able to go to canteen. Canteen is where inmates are able to purchase basic hygiene and food items. My cellmate told me we would not be going anytime soon because we were on lockdown. Lockdown means no leaving the cell at all and losing access to yard, day room, phone calls or canteen; sometimes it can even mean losing visiting. I had just arrived the night before, I didn’t understand why I was on lock down and denied access to canteen.

From what my cellmate told me, a day or two before I had arrived at Tracy, there had been a small riot during yard. Everything I was told about this incident was second-hand information from my cellmate and eventually others. None of them had even witnessed it or spoken to anyone who had. From what I was told, four Caucasian guys had been attacked by nineteen Northern Hispanic gang members. At least some of the Northerners had weapons to wound the four Caucasian guys with. As a result of this violence I was told all the Caucasians and Northerners were now on lockdown.

It did not seem fair to me that the men who were not actually involved in the incident were being punished. From the prison’s perspective, by locking the inmates down they were preventing the two groups from retaliating or escalating the violence; attempting to break the cycle of violence and the inmates’ ability to respond. As I would learn, it is a common theme within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to punish everyone as a whole rather than addressing specific problems.  This method is rarely successful or effective, as men in prison who commit acts of violence hardly act with any rationality behind their actions. Instead, resentments, hostilities, and fear build inside locked prison cells.

I did not want to be a part of any of it. I did not want to be on the active gang side. I did not want to be involved with any of their violent criminal behavior. I also did not want to be punished for the behaviors of others either. 

Knowing I would not get access to canteen for a long time, I realized I was going to have to do more to provide for my essential needs. I worked on drawing more cards to trade out on the tier. This allowed me to get some real toothpaste; not a whole tube but a good amount squeezed out into a plastic bag and tied off to seal it, then I cut a small hole in the corner of the bag. This is a common practice in certain prison environments where access to canteen is limited. I also traded for a larger piece of deodorant, stamped envelopes to write home, extra food items, shots of coffee, and of course the drink-mix packets. I did not have much but I was finding my way.

After about a week of being at Tracy, I received my first writing package in the mail. This was a small miracle as mail in Tracy usually took weeks to be passed out to the inmates. In this writing package I received lined writing paper, two pens, envelopes, and two books of stamps. By then I knew books of stamps were a form of currency, they were not worth their face value paid at the post office, generally being worth about half price on the tier. Due to the lockdown at Tracy and the law of supply and demand, goods on the tier were limited and the value of stamps was even lower.

The guys in the next building over, E-Wing, were not on lockdown. My cell did not face E-Wing but a guy my cellmate knew had a cell that did. This guy assured my cellmate that he could trade a book of stamps to E-Wing for a bag of coffee. Coffee was even better currency than stamps. If I sold the stamps for the coffee, I would be able to double my stamps, thus being able to trade for items I needed. My cellmate and I divided up the coffee into 80 shots, each worth one stamp, plus a little extra leftover for ourselves and to pay back the guy who had helped with our trade. With coffee being in such high demand in Tracy, we quickly traded all that we had.

Around this time, my cellmate was transferred out and I was moved over to the cell with the guy facing E-Wing. This is when I learned about fishing in prison which is how he was able to get the coffee from the other building to ours.

There is a lot to fishing in prison and anyone who knew me before my wrongful conviction knows I love fishing. Unfortunately, fishing in prison is far different than catching rainbow trout in the cool waters of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fishing in prison at it’s basic level is getting from one cell to another with a piece of string (your line) in order to pass items back and forth. The obstacle of fishing is how to get your line from one cell to another. Over the years, prison inmates have come up with many ways to accomplish this that they can fish items from the first floor tier up to the third floor tier without either inmate leaving their locked prison cell. In my introduction to prison fishing, I learned you could even fish from one building to the next.

To pull this off I had to learn to make an “arrow” out of tightly rolled wet newspaper coated with a small amount of soap to bind and hold it together. When the paper dried it created an arrow-like shaft that could be shot out the back cell window, most of the glass in the back cell windows at Tracy had been broken out and all that remained were the bars. Next I learned how to make a “shooter” to launch the arrow, it was made out of a toilet paper tube (in prison these are about 1/2 inch wide) and the elastic bands stripped from a pair of boxers or pants. The elastic is twisted to create a thick band of rubber that is stretched across the center of the shooter. When the string/line was tied to the arrow it could be aimed out the back cell window into the area between the two buildings. A guy from the other building would then shoot his arrow out and cross my line. When the two lines were crossed, one could be pulled back into the cell. At that point the connected lines could be pulled back and forth between the two cells/buildings. Any items that could fit through the bars on the windows would be shuttled across.

It could be quite comical to see lines of string stretching from one building to another, but goods were passed back and forth this way all day long.

Written by Sean March 2019

*image not of actual prison*

Recent article about the condition of the Dining Hall at CSP SATF (Prison located next to Corcoran, although conditions are the same throughout)

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