Family Visit 4: Rain Clouds

March 3, 2018 The morning I went into Family Visit was dark and cloudy. A few hours later, we heard the sound of thunder in the distance. We went out the door into the small outdoor space and stood together  in the grass to watch the clouds roll closer, dark and heavy.

“It’s raining over there.” Sean pointed to a darkness descending downward from some clouds in the distance, an isolated area of rain. He explained how storms always pass quickly by in this area because of the flatness of the land, unlike the foothills and mountains we are originally from. With land that flat you can see what’s coming, nothing lasts too long.

His arm around my shoulders, I leaned my head onto him and stared out at the clouds, moving quickly closer. The cool winds brushed our faces, tiny sprinkles fell on us. It was real. 

Lightning flashed upwards through the clouds, super fast and bright, so quick we nearly missed seeing it; then the rumble of thunder. The whole experience was simply awesome. Not only was it all beautiful, we got to appreciate nature together; something we rarely get to do. Both of us have always loved everything having to do with nature, the natural elements. It was special to share it together. How many times in the past several years have we seen the weather and wished for the other to share it with? Countless. And now it was finally happening. 

Thunder cracked and struck out in the normally quiet area. The lightning was mesmerizing to watch, shooting out in haphazard staticky lines. I wanted to capture it somehow, remember what it was like to stand there with my husband watching the weather. When the raindrops began to hit us we waited a few minutes before retreating to the shelter of the roof overhang in front of the Family Visiting unit.

All packed up and ready to go, labeled clear bags

Toiletries packed, all clear containers

Rain on my windshield, driving down to the hotel in the evening

View from the hotel window in the morning before Family Visit, about 7 am

The drive to the prison, long stretches of fields

The prison sign on the way out

Sean and I love and appreciate all the time we get to spend together, whether it’s a Family Visit or a regular visit, but Family Visits are incredibly special. Each time we look forward to the date with excited anticipation. We count down the weeks, days, hours, till we are finally together again with as much freedom as we are allowed. And now we begin counting down to Family Visit #5. Until then we are holding onto each other, watching the storms roll through.

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Positive Programing

I thought it might be nice to talk about what Sean does in prison. When most people think of prison, they picture inmates locked in their cell all day whiling away the endless hours doing useless things like carving into the walls. Unless there is a lockdown, most days this is not the case. On a typical day Sean is out of his cell, works at his job, and goes to college classes; he is busy working on all kinds of things.

Sean wakes up around 6:45 every morning to go to his job from 7:30 am to 4 pm as Secretary on the  Men’s Advisory Council. The Men’s Advisory Council is the liaison between inmates and staff. His job involves meeting regularly with the Warden, Assistant Warden, Visiting Sergeant, Captain, and other various facility members who work at the prison. Sean takes minutes at these meetings as well as brings to the table solutions for  important issues that affect visiting and inmate welfare.  This is an important and highly regarded job, and Sean works diligently at it. He want to make Corcoran a better place not only for us but for everyone who lives, visits or works there.

MAC chrono web edit

Chrono from MAC Parliamentarian position before Secretary

Before the MAC,  Sean had a job on the institutional paint crew, worked his way up to the position of Lead Painter and became proficient in the skills and knowledge needed to paint large walls, doors, and trim as well as train and oversee other painters. As he worked on this job he would write me about learning, and the skills he was mastering; he was truly proud of his work.   Sean earned a certificate for his on-the-job work training with the Institutional Paint crew. He completed 2,116 hours work experience.

Paint Job Chrono

Sean has been taking college classes, so far he has taken Food and Nutrition, Philosophy, Writing and Rhetoric, Introduction to Law Enforcement, Political Science (twice), English Literature, American Government and Spanish. He has gotten an A grade in every class. He is proud of his good grades and sends me copies of his work, especially his writing, some of which has been posted here in the past. While he was in Calipatria Prison he tutored 12 inmates who earned their GEDs, plus countless other inmates who showed great improvement in their educational studies.

Sean also participates in whatever positive programs the prison offers on his yard. He participated in the REACH program; REACH stands for Rehabilitation Education and Creating Hope. The program was designed to bring at-risk young men to prison for a day for some real, unfiltered prison talk to help them realize they need to change their ways, value their life, and take school seriously or they may end up in prison. It’s a new take on the “scared straight” program and one that Sean was very involved in until the program was dissolved when they switched yards. 

REACH group photo November 2016

Sean also recently graduated from the Building Resilience course which was a cognitive therapy group exploring  past trauma and how to address the affects going forward. The program, created by Dr. S. Covington PhD and Roberto A. Rodriguez MA, addresses thinking, feeling, and acting, feelings of guilt, shame or anger,  and healthy relationships.

Right now he is Chairman of the Life and Beyond program, a two hour weekly class for inmates with  Life Sentences to work in a group setting on rehabilitation, preparing for parole, self help, and just about everything that might help one who has spent decades in prison get ready for life beyond the bars; hence the name Life and Beyond. Sean is enjoying facilitating class and often shares thing with me that they are working on.

Life and Beyond Chrono

In the little spare time Sean has between homework, his job, and the programs; Sean creates beautiful drawings. He has become an amazing artist over the years and draws using creative techniques that really stand out to anyone who sees them. Sean is proud of his artwork and enjoys finding new references to draw. Two of his art  pieces have won awards at the California State Fair.

All of Sean’s chronos (like a letter of recommendation) state that he has a positive attitude, he’s a positive role model, respectful to others, very intelligent, displays an effort to complete tasks and assignments. This does not come as a surprise to either of us. Sean is not your typical prison inmate, in fact he is far from it. He is proud of his hard work but he is naturally inclined to want to learn, grow, and do good things; that’s just who he is. In the 15 years Sean has been wrongfully incarcerated he has never had a 115 (disciplinary issue) he has never broken the rules (including not having any tattoos), or gotten in a fight, and has never been sent to the SHU (segregated housing unit). But this isn’t something he brags about or thinks of as out of the ordinary, it’s just who he is. Sean does not want to live in prison, it is a terrible place to have to be, but he wants to make the most of the time he must remain there.  I am proud of my husband for making the most of his time inside and continuing to do things that are worthwhile.

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One Year Since Evidentiary Hearing

One year ago, January 17 2017, the long awaited Evidentiary Hearing in my case was finally held. I say long awaited because it had been granted on October 28, 2015. This March will mark my 15th year in prison. I have spent nearly half my life wrongfully incarcerated for a crime I did not commit.

The October 28, 2015 ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granting my Evidentiary Hearing stated in part, “O’Brien’s state habeas petition alleged facts that, if accepted as true, showed that trial counsel failed to introduce available evidence that would have significantly strengthened O’Brien’s defense. Indeed, if believed, the additional evidence would have rendered it virtually impossible for O’Brien to have committed the murder for which he was charged.” and “Competent counsel would not have failed to put such evidence before the jury.”

After years of pain, suffering, sacrifice, and waiting, always waiting; at the Evidentiary Hearing my lawyers proved  all the evidence the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals relied on in their ruling. Most people would think once you’ve proven your case the process moving forward would be simple. Justice, in my case freedom, would surely be right around the corner. The United States of America does have the greatest justice system in the world after all, right?

Wrong. the year long wait that still continues began before the Evidentiary Hearing was even over. It began when the magistrate judge scheduled additional brief filing to take place over five months- which was ultimately extended to over seven months. We had just proven everything, and now we were being told our endless wait would continue. I felt the weight of this pushing me back down. When will this nightmare end?

Trying to hold it together in the courtroom, I stood up to speak to my family and friends. As I turned to thank them for their love and support, the chain attached to my ankles and secured to a large cement block stopped me short. I was jerked to a halt. The emotion from 14 years of fighting for my rightful freedom broke through. We had just proven everything but I was being sent back to prison. I am innocent, why is this happening?  I felt broken and shattered knowing the nightmare of my wrongful conviction would continue. And here we are one year later still waiting. Still suffering. Still being denied my rightful freedom.

Don’t get me wrong, the past year has also brought some incredible blessings. Emelia and I got married. We felt it was the right decision for us, having no control over when I will come home. Then just days after we filled out the marriage application, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that Lifer and Life Without Parole inmates would once again receive Family Visits. And the last barrier to us receiving our Family Visits, my custody designation, was reduced 5 months earlier than we had thought. This gave us an amazing blessing: Family Visits.

We are living our lives now. We are not allowing the unknown to control us. We know my freedom will come but until then we are alive now.

Written by Sean, January 2017

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing.” 1 Peter 3:9

 

**Editor’s note: Anyone who wishes to accuse me of making more than minor edits to Sean’s blog posts, thatI have his permission for, may view his originals here.

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Turn Slowly

A picture I took one year ago

It has taken me an entire year to write about this. I feel it is still impossible to get the words right… I will never in my life forget the rollercoaster ride two days in court during Sean’s Evidentiary Hearing in January 2017. Nothing could have prepared me for seeing my loved one literally chained up all day long, struggling to turn the pages of that massive 800 page case binder, remaining in handcuffs for the entire proceedings.

Sean sat in between his attorneys in that glaring orange jumpsuit. We sat merely feet apart yet we were not permitted to communicate. He had shaved off his beard for court before transport but without a razor to shave in New Folsom it had grown into rough stubble. He looked pale and exhausted, I knew he wasn’t sleeping in the ASU at New Folsom Prison. He had wanted to look his best for court, hoped for deodorant and clothes. All of that was denied.

It was clear on that day that things were headed in the right direction, however it hit us both like a ton of bricks when the magistrate judge ended the final day with the fastest words she could possibly mutter, spouting off faraway dates like it was some random appointment instead of an innocent man’s life hanging in the balance; March… May… June. Sean shook his head: NO NO NO. We shared the crushing disappointment and shock. What a cruel joke.

“The wheels of justice turn slowly.” That’s what we have been told way too many times. It’s inhumane to force a man to wait months just for filing briefs. Utterly ridiculous. Before the Evidentiary Hearing his attorney had said it would probably take 30 days to get a ruling. Yet we find ourselves still waiting, a year later. Unbelievable.

At the very end of the last day the magistrate allowed Sean 3 minutes to turn around and address me and those who also came that day. The chain from his handcuffs was released from the cement block and re-secured to his waist, but the officers failed to remove the chain from his ankles. His movements were slow and deliberate as he attempted to stand up and step away from the desk, but suddenly the chain yanked him back. His face crumbled. Once able to physically turn around he lifted his hands up together, still handcuffed, to push his glasses up; they are always sliding down his nose because he has had them so long. Tears streamed down his face. He put his hand over his heart and looked at me.

“It’s OK” I said. I couldn’t cry, I was too stunned to react. It was torture not to be able to simply hug him or touch his hand, comfort him in some way. It’s like I couldn’t believe it was even happening.

“I love you”  The tears stuck in my throat. My heart was torn into pieces that I haven’t quite been able to put back together.

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Family Visit 3: Christmas

I cannot stop thinking about our time together. Sometimes it feels as if I am not even here; I am still with my wife, away from this place. When we are together at Family Visit I let go of this place, I’m so relaxed and completely at ease. Just my wife and me, no worries, nothing to weigh me down. Our time together is pure magic. I always feel my best when I am with you. And not just by a little. When I am with you it feels like all the broken pieces are fixed and put back together. I feel whole, peaceful, safe and loved.” -Sean,

Our third Family Visit began on December 20 with wild rain and wind. I pushed the cart into the Family Visiting unit, sopping wet and shivering, to find my husband who wrapped me in a hug. “My precious wife” he said.  It was a crazy but welcoming beginning to our time together. Mere hours later it was sunny and beautiful.  Even thought the sun shone brightly the weather was much colder this time around, rain water that had collected in the tetherball stand froze into thick ice overnight. We went outside in the morning to touch it, the grass blades and clovers were frozen with sparkling frost. Our version of winter in Corcoran.

There wasn’t just one single moment that stood out to me from the time we shared; roughly 46 hours for Family Visit and 3 days of regular visit. We really enjoyed playing the new board games they had: Scattergories, Headbandz, and Pictionary. Those games had us cracking up, we laughed so hard for hours on end. It was also nice to curl up and watch a movie together. Sean thought the little girl from Despicable Me 3 was so funny, I loved hearing him laugh and seeing his reactions. There were a few scenes where all the minions were in prison but they worked together to escape on a flying balloon craft made from prison uniforms, we liked that. It is nice to laugh and do normal things together.

We bundled up to go outside and watch the sunset, something we try to do each time we are at Family Visit. It was a lovely one, with pretty colors and clouds. We stood at the fence topped with barbed wire watching the colors shift and it hit me pretty hard. “You only ever see the world through these fences.” I said. He nodded. Hopefully for not much longer. Later on after the midnight count we went back out so he could show me Orion’s belt in the clear night sky. Sean said he never sees that many stars there at Corcoran, so it was special.

We enjoy cooking together, we have it all figured out pretty well now. Despite the food package catalog being pretty limited we managed to figure out how to make some very good meals. I love to sit at the table with my husband in the morning sipping hot tea in our jammies. It’s the best. We like to have the music from the TV on and we like to dance and sing. In these moments together we feel most alive.

Married life suits us in a way we never imagined. We are both grateful for these Family Visits and for the love we share, we draw strength from it daily and hold these moments dear in our hearts until the next time.

Pictures from Christmas 2017 at visiting, the officer on our yard was kind enough to decorate this year

 

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A 15-Minute Phone Call

From October 30th to November 17th, 2017 we had no phone calls due to a prison-wide state-ordered search of Corcoran State Prison. The entire prison was put on lockdown for 18 days in order for this surprise search to be completed. The following was written by Sean during this period.

“In today’s modern society with so many advancements in technology and instant communication, many people may not understand the pain of being denied something as simple as a phone call. In the real world there are so many forms of communication, many of them are instant. And if those fail you can always just go see someone. We do not have these options in prison.

All we have to communicate with our loved ones from inside these prison walls of concrete and steel is a 15-minute long phone call and snail mail. Here traditional mail only goes out 5 days a week and takes about 4 days to reach home. Any response takes a week or more before being delivered to my cell door because first it must be processed by the prison mail room. Receiving a response to traditional mail easily takes two weeks which brings me back to the 15-minute long phone call.

In prison the 15-minute phone call is our life-line to the free world and those we love. In a building of 200 men there are only 4 phones to share; every available phone time on the sign-up sheet is always taken. Men in prison thirst for communication with their loved ones. It gives us strength, hope, and much needed love. In the cold, hard environment of prison, love from family is often the only light we see.

To be denied this light, this connection to the love that holds me up, can be excruciatingly painful. The longer I am denied, the deeper the pain cuts, the further it sets in, and the more harm it inflicts.

Currently CSP-Corcoran is on lockdown for a “mass institutional search”. The administration calls it a “modified program” to justify it but it is a lock down. During this lockdown we (the inmates) are denied all of our earned privileges. And while many in society may feel those of us in prison don’t deserve any privileges; one: they don’t realize how sad and basic those few privileges are and two: these few privileges are a key tool in behavior management within these walls. When they are stripped away without any justification or cause, it is hard for those of us in prison who are behaving to understand and accept; especially being denied communication with our families. When nothing bad happened why are we being punished? When I am behaving like I should, why are they taking away the only thing keeping me alive?

It has been 9 days since I last heard my wife’s voice. 9 days since I have been able to tell her I love her and ask how she is. It could easily be another 5 days that I must wait before getting a letter from her written the day before the lockdown began. There is no way of knowing when this lockdown will be over. It could be another 9 days or even longer. All I am able to do is worry about my wife. Such isolation eats at the soul, the pain is even worse knowing the woman I love is suffering too. I may be the one in a physical prison but we are truly in prison together. We are both denied each other and the freedom to simply know we are both safe and doing ok.

In the darkest hardest times all we have is the promise of our love.”

written by Sean O’Brien

“My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” Psalms 119:50

November 12, 2017:  I went for an unplanned visit due to the lack of phone calls
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Family Visit 2: Chocolate Chip Cookies!

At Corcoran State Prison those participating in Family Visits must order all of their food for the visit from a package company called Walkenhorsts. This is a pretty limited catalog that includes very basic pre-packaged processed foods at a high price. They offer unhealthy foods, hardly anything nutritionally beneficial. After digging through the online catalog for ideas and thoroughly searching for ways to cook good meals and come up with recipes for our Family Visits, among other things, I found the Betty Crocker chocolate chip muffin mix and quickly formulated a plan to make this into chocolate chip cookies instead. Now for those of you who know me, you know I don’t eat gluten and I rarely consume processed sugar so this was going to be a special rare treat for both of us. Mainly, I wanted to make something Sean would remember from before, something that would taste like freedom. And when I first mentioned my idea he had teared up at just the very thought!

In November at our second Family Visit we successfully made chocolate chip cookies. We used an egg and a stick of butter from the fresh foods options bought from the prison on the day of visiting, Betty Crocker muffin mix and sugar from the package catalog, as well as a tiny package of salt obtained from the visiting room beforehand. Our plan worked! I was even able to bring in parchment paper to bake the cookies on. We were pretty proud of ourselves for this creative culinary exploration. Sean said it was the first time he had eaten fresh baked cookies in over 14 years. Seeing him enjoy the cookies was priceless, he became sort of a perfectionist about how long he baked them, he wanted them extra gooey; never crispy or crunchy.  We separated the dough into bowls for each day so that we could bake them fresh each time and enjoy them together.

We had made a plan that on the last morning we would stay up together after the last ‘count’ which was at 5 am. This way we would get to spend the last 3-4 hours together, instead of sleeping and then rushing to wake up, pack then have to say goodbye. We wanted to savor these last moments together.

So after two blissful days together on the last morning after another long night of waking for the counts, we got out of bed at 5 am. This was no easy task as neither of us is a morning-person. We took a long hot shower to wake us up and then Sean set about baking the very last batch of cookies. He boiled water for our tea and scrambled the last of the eggs for me in order to send me off with some protein to get me through my long drive home. I’ve never been a big egg fan but I absolutely love Sean’s scrambled eggs. Something about the way he makes them is different.

At 6 am the smell of freshly baked cookies was inviting, it wrapped us in it’s happy hug. We sipped our tea and indulged in the soft gooey cookies.  It was still completely dark outside but there we were at the table cozy together eating chocolate chip cookies. This special experience was absolutely incredible and the feelings are nearly indescribable so I wont even begin to make an attempt. It will always stand out in our memories; our last moments together this time around were peaceful and sweet.  There is nothing like the taste of a perfectly baked cookie that just melts in your mouth and makes you feel good inside but it’s even better when shared with the one you love. I think we are both still smiling.

“For He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things” Psalms 107:9

**Note: photos not from actual Family Visit**
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