DVI 6: Isolation

This is the sixth 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, 5. Filth and Pests

After 3 months in Tracy, I was finally off lockdown and out of the administrative segregation unit. This meant I was finally allowed the few privileges afforded to reception center inmates. I was allowed to leave my cell twice a day to eat in the dining hall. I was allowed to attend church services that were held in the same dining hall. No chapel for us. I was also allowed to go to the main recreation yard 2 to 3 times per week with two to three hundred other inmates. Being out there with so many other men, grown men who had committed serious crimes to be in prison, was an overwhelming experience. I was also allowed to go to canteen for the first time.

Access to the canteen is a privilege in prison that many people never get to use. Most families cannot afford to send their loved one money. What little money is sent, CDCR withholds 55% to pay off an inmate’s restitution. This means the inmate is not paying off their restitution, their already burdened family is. In order for me to go to canteen to buy the food and supplies I needed with the allowed $90, my mom had to send me $200 until my restitution was paid off. I was lucky to have this.

I now had plenty of canteen supplies and with some of the extra items I had, I was able to trade for breakfast syrup packets smuggled out of the kitchen by those who make alcohol. But I bought the syrup packets to make “candy wheels”, a special prison treat made by boiling syrup and butter together in a can. The length of time the mixture was boiled determined the consistency of the final product. Personally I liked it in the middle, when the syrup became like a chewy firm caramel when cooled. Once the syrup was ready I would pour it out over broken cookie pieces, almonds or other tasty items. Once the syrup cooled the final product made a candy wheel.

I have not had a candy wheel for over 12 years now, but during my time in Tracy I made these often. As I made them, watching the flame burning to boil the syrup, I often imagined making them around a camp fire after I came home. I would explain the process to those with me, showing them how to prepare the syrup and then able to share this with others.

My new cell came with a new view too. I was no longer looking out at another prison building or piles of trash. I was now housed on the far western edge of the prison complex. From this vantage I could see a road nearby with cars going by. I often wondered what the people in those cars thought of the prison as they went past. I also got to see the trains and I would hear them at all hours of the day.

One of the best parts of my view was watching the squirrel family that lived below the prison building. There was a small fenced area that contained the family visiting units at Tracy, I never saw this area used other than by the ground squirrels that made the area their home. At times I would spend hours watching them as they scurried about, slipping into one hole or another, gathering up various items to take down into their burrows.

The other great part of my view was the sunset each night. I have always loved the sunset, seeing the beautiful colors of the sky. The variations of color as the sun slips below the horizon. The clouds and sky awash in brilliant oranges, pinks, reds, and purples. I have always loved colors and I use this in my art work. These are some of the things you come to appreciate when absolutely everything is taken away from you.

I also received many books while in Tracy. People who are incarcerated in CDCR are allowed to receive books directly from a publisher or book store, including Amazon. Having little else to do while locked in a cell all day, I read constantly and built up a large library of Robert Ludlum, James Patterson, Dean Koontz, John Grisham: easy to read books that would allow me to escape the monotony of a prison cell and the nightmare I was trapped in.

Besides candy wheels, squirrels, sunsets, and countless books, the next six months in Tracy weny by fairly uneventfully. I was locked in a small cell for so many hours each day and the days began to blur together. In this blur I slept many extra hours each day to avoid the situation I could not escape from.

Tracy was incredibly isolating. I had no phone calls home for nine months. The letters that were sent by family and friends took weeks to get to me after being sorted out in the prison mail room (this is typical of prison). The visits I got were only for one hour behind glass on a staticky phone. By the time I was in Tracy it had been over 3 years since I had any physical contact with anyone I loved. If you have never experienced this before you won’t know how dehumanizing this feels and how quickly it breaks a person down.

When I was finally told I would be transferring to Calipatria State Prison after 9 months in Tracy I did not know how to feel. Calipatria is down by the Mexico border 603 miles from home with summer temperatures regularly over 115 degrees. I wanted out of Tracy so desperately but while I had been in Tracy I had remained safe. I was scared to be sent to a prison where some men remained for the rest of their lives, being sent to Calipatria seemed so final. I had been told stories of the violence experienced in such places. I was not ready for the transition that awaited me but I could not stay in Tracy any longer either.

I packed my property for transfer July 3, 2007. What little I was allowed to transfer fit into two brown paper bags like the ones from grocery stores. I was being shipped hundreds of miles from home to a level 4 prison at age 21, I was innocent, and all of my possessions were in 2 brown paper bags.

The next day was a holiday, the 4th of July, which meant I had one more day in Tracy. The day itself was rather uneventful, but on this night out in the distance from my window I was able to see several different fireworks shows. Only one of them was close enough to hear the faint booming of the explosions, but just being able to see them was a memorable experience. I got to watch the distant fireworks blooming tiny colorful flowers in the sky. It reminded me of freedom.

After the fireworks were over I lay awake hoping for sleep, my mind racing with the thoughts of what waited for me when I got to Calipatria State Prison. I laid awake for far too long that night. When I finally fell asleep it felt like I had just done so when I was woken up at 3:30 am and escorted to a secure prison bus to begin my journey south.

Prison Dictionary:

Canteen: Prison store where items can be bought such as toiletries, letter writing supplies, and non-perishable packaged food items

Restitution: A fine the judge orders an inmate to pay for their crime

About Sean & Emelia

Sean O'Brien was wrongfully convicted in El Dorado County, California and sentenced in adult court to Life Without Parole at the age of 16 without a shred of physical evidence tying him to the crime for which he was convicted. Sean and I have been friends since grade school and we were married in 2017. We live and grow together in love with the knowledge of his innocence, our faith, and hope for our future. We embrace this journey, wherever it may take us, cherishing each moment we have together and staying true to our hearts. This blog is about the past we share, our life together and our fight for jusice. Thank you for reading. God bless.
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