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
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