Family Visit 11: Rain Storm

On March 2, 2019 Sean and I had our 11th Family Visit. We celebrated being married for over a year and a half, as well as my birthday.

The morning on the first day of our Family Visit was cloudy and wet. It rained while I loaded our bags from my car into the processing area and I had to avoid huge puddles as I wheeled the cart toward the Family Visit units. Sometime after I had gotten safely inside with Sean, I was laying in the bed dozing when he called from the front window. “It’s pouring!” he said excitedly. I got up from my cozy spot and looked outside with him, it was indeed absolutely pouring rain. Now it is probably going to sound like I am making this next part up, but I am willing to swear on the Bible that it really happened. In my tired sleepy brain the wheels began to rapidly turn: it was not cold outside, it was ridiculously pouring rain which rarely happens and we were together and this is something we have always talked about doing, cliché as it may seem. I began to hurry taking my socks off and Sean caught on, taking off his socks and throwing on his prison uniform. We seized the moment and dashed outside barefoot. Immediately drenched from being pelted by fat raindrops, we laughed and ran down the pathway to the gate, standing by the wall in disbelief and amazement. It was surreal, like the prison had been magically transformed. It felt like we were at a waterpark for kids, just playing and having fun. We laughed and looked around, the yard transformed into a fantastic splash zone, the sky nearby bright blue with puffy cartoon clouds. We wrapped our arms around each other and kissed; the feeling was indescribable. Sean could barely see out of his glasses, his face dripping wet. We laughed and kicked our feet in the water. It was truly unforgettable. Moments later the rain stopped, the water on the cement dried up fast in the bright sun.

And maybe to some it might sound crazy, or too much like a budget romantic comedy. But that’s just the kind of people we are; adventurous, silly, hungry to live. We strive to create memorable moments we can hold onto, Family Visit for us is a chance to capture time while we are together and say yes, we did this. We felt the rain on our skin, we felt alive.

On the second day of Family Visit I taught Sean CPR. I have been certified in Adult and Pediatric First Aid and CPR for over 13 years for my job working with children and I have been trained by the Red Cross instructors so many times that I could teach the class myself, so I decided to impart these skills onto my husband should the need ever arise for him to react to an emergency. He was quick to learn as he had been taught many years ago at Boy Scouts and quickly picked up the new techniques and numbers. I am glad we both know these life saving skills now and it was fun to show off my knowledge of emergency preparedness.

On our last morning together Sean brought us breakfast in bed, he had cooked it while I was sleeping. We sat together on the bed, eating scrambled eggs with toast and drinking our hot tea; sleepy in the early hour but happy to have out last special moments together. Neither of us consider ourselves ‘morning people’ but we would rather turn those last few hours into memories than sleep and have to rush to clean up and pack before the officers come to get us at 8:30 am. Still, there is something unique about sitting side by side in the dimly lit room, a chill in the air, hands cupping hot tea for warmth, watching the clock and savoring our last minutes. It may not be ideal circumstances, but it’s our life and we embrace it.

“We are not defined by the things that make us separate and distinct, but by the moments we share and the memories we make.”

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DVI 2: The Nightmare

This is the second post about Sean’s time in Tracy Reception Center (Duel Vocational Institution). Read part one here: DVI 1:Welcome to Tracy

Eventually I reached my cell that first day in Tracy. It was already dark outside, that is all I knew of the time. I was exhausted; mentally and physically spent from the past few days. I was 20 years old, had just been denied my motion for a new trial and sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. I was given no time to process this before being woken up at 3:30 am and shipped to Tracy. In this dark world I did not know I was ready to fall asleep and wake up from the nightmare I had been living.

As the cell  door slammed closed behind me I found myself locked in with a man I did not know. He was a complete stranger I now had to live with. All I had with me was a bedroll and a ‘fish kit’; a small care package containing one roll of 1-ply toilet paper, one bar of state soap, a small packet of tooth powder, one disposable razor, one 2 inch toothbrush, a small plastic spoon, and two pre-stamped envelopes. Besides being given an additional roll of toilet paper, bar of soap, and a packed of tooth powder each week, plus a piece of my cellie’s deodorant,  this is all I would be given for my hygiene for the next 90 days. This is all the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides to indigent inmates and new arrivals.

I do not remember anything about my first cellmate other than he was Caucasian. I do not remember what he looked like, his name, what he was in prison for, or anything else. I know we introduced ourselves. At the time all I cared about was getting to sleep, I simply wanted the day to be over. Unfortunately I knew I could not admit this as it might be misinterpreted as weakness.

In the fog of my exhaustion and emotions I could not process, I remained awake to have a conversation with him. Mostly I just answered his questions. Occasionally he would yell things out the door to other guys, sometimes in response to their questions, other times to pass on information about me. I was too out of it to even think about this at the time. I later learned that he had been “vouching” for me on being “good”,  meaning I did not have any violent history or crime other Caucasian guys should be concerned about.

I remember all the noise that first night, a constant drone of men shouting. Just as my cellmate would shout out the door, many others would as well. Yelling out on the tier seemed to be normal behavior. There were many conversations going back and forth. I do not know how they kept them all straight. I heard all of this noise while my cellmate kept talking to me and asking me questions. I wondered if it would ever end.

During this time I used the supplies from my bedroll to make my bed which was an old ratty stained mattress pad with a big hole where stuffing was coming out. The mattress pad was barely two inches thick and when I got my bed set up and laid down it felt as if I was laying directly on the metal bunk. At the same time it felt good because I was finally off my feet. I closed my eyes, still hearing all the noise and my cellmate’s questions.

Then it began. The noise outside on the tier got louder, if that was even possible. All the various gangs with their members began to do what I later learned is refereed to as a “roll call”. Sometime during this roll call I fell asleep, despite all the noise. I was out to the world.

I slept until I heard the crash of my neighbor’s door being slammed closed and my cell door being jerked open. In the confusion of being startled awake I could not grasp what was happening. It was still dark outside the cell. I was still in prison. The nightmare was not over. My body ached from the metal bunk and almost no mattress. I tried to assess the situation. I am not hurt. No one is attacking me. Why am I awake?  “Breakfast!” the guard shouted “If you don’t get down here to grab your tray it’s a refusal!” I didn’t even know if I was hungry. I just wanted to sleep, that’s all I could think about.

My cellmate ended up getting my tray for me followed by the door being slammed closed. I was handed my tray as I was still processing it all. I tried to make sense of where I was and the situation I was in. I realized the tier was fairly quiet this early, most of the noise was coming from the officer and the few inmates assisting him  passing out the breakfast trays. I remember looking at the food on my tray and wondering if they seriously intended for us to consume whatever it was. I ate what I could manage to and then offered the rest to my cellmate.

I climbed down from my bunk to get some water from the sink, I was incredibly thirsty. The sinks in prison work like a water fountain and I felt the cool water touch my lips, I drank and it was disgusting! I spit it out. I asked my cellmate what was wrong with the water. He said it was actually better than a few months prior. I asked if he had been there that long and he said yes. I had been told I would only be in Tracy for 30 to 60 days. This guy went on to tell me some of the inmates who were level 4 had been there for two years. I knew with a LWOP sentence I would be a level 4. My mind was trying to comprehend being in Tracy for that long. But first I had to deal with the water.

The water was awful, I managed just a few sips.  My cellmate told me I could make a cup out of the empty milk carton from breakfast, then use it to mix in the drink mix packet (like a sugar free Kool-Aid) from our lunch trays. I drank my milk and waited. When our lunches came I sought out my drink mix packet. I filled my milk carton cup up with water and did my best to mix in the powder, it did not dissolve as I had expected. I later learned it was better and easier to leave the milk carton intact so I could close the opening and pinch it tight with my fingers while I shake the water and drink mix together. My cellmate offered me his drink mix packet, explaining that he had gotten used to the water. I did not know how this was possible but I gladly accepted his cool-aid packet. I put it up on my self like a small treasure.

I knew two packets of drink mix per day would not get me by, they were only enough to make 8 ounces each. I would later dilute it to get about double that, just enough flavor to make the water bearable. I asked my cellmate how I could get more and he told me I could trade other guys. I had nothing to trade, but I could draw.

This became my first goal, trading drawings for drink mix packets. My cellmate had a few pieces of paper and a pen. I folded the paper into thirds, on one third I would draw. My artistic skills were still in their infancy at this point, but I managed some simple roses and hearts. My cellmate called one of the inmate porters to our cell door. We explained what we had and what we wanted: one card was for drink mix packets, one was for more paper, and one was for a couple ‘shots’ of coffee. In prison a spoonful of instant coffee is called a ‘shot’. The porter said he would do it for us but he wanted a drawing too, we told him if he got us what we wanted I would draw for him. He agreed and I took my first step in learning to survive in this foreign world.

Written by Sean O’Brien February 2019

*picture not from actual prison*

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Please take a moment to sign my petition which will go along with my application  asking Governor Newsom to commute my wrongful conviction sentence while we wait for the ruling from my 2017 Evidentiary Hearing in Sacramento. Every signature counts to bring me home where I belong.  Thank you.

Want more information about my case? My Case: Misconduct and Manipulation

See what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had to say about my case

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DVI 1: Welcome to Tracy

The following is the first in a series of posts Sean is writing about his experience at Duel Vocational Institution in 2006. Built in 1953, DVI is located in San Joaquin, CA. It serves as a reception center for all newly committed inmates to the California Department of Corrections from Northern CA county jails. According to Wikipedia DVI is at 132% capacity as of December 2012 and has a long standing reputation for being violent and dangerous. Sean was housed there for a brief period shortly after his wrongful conviction. 

I arrived at Tracy (Duel Vocational Institute) November 1, 2006. I was 20 years old and nearly as naive about prison as I had been 3 1/2 years before, when I had been arrested at age 16. I was scared for sure, but in this new altered reality where I had been found guilty of a crime I did not commit and sentenced merely days before to Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole, I was unable to process anything.

I knew that prison was a place I would not fit in. My plan was to ask for Protective Custody, otherwise known as Sensitive Needs Yard or SNY, at my first opportunity. This had been recommended to me by a customer of my mom’s auto shop who had been a Captain at Mule Creek State Prison. I wanted to avoid the violence and gangs of the “mainline”, or GP, that I knew could forever destroy me. Even if it meant living around men who had committed disgusting crimes, what another man had done was none of my business. Survival was my only concern in this foreign environment.

As the county jail van pulled up to the gates of the prison, I saw for the first time the high level of security taken to enter a prison. The officers had to exit the van and secure all their weapons. Then they had to verify their identity as well as mine. The entire van was searched, including underneath, before we were allowed in.

I was astonished with what the prison looked like; it was huge. There were many layers of fencing, each one topped with razor wire. And there were so many buildings, I could not tell what they were all for. I had never seen anything like it. Then I saw the jet airplane, an old fighter style jet. Why is there an airplane inside the prison? It made no sense to me. I had no idea what to expect because when you are incarcerated the officers tell you nothing. They wont tell you what is about to happen, how long it will take, where you are going, they literally control every aspect and keep you guessing and on your toes as a means of control.

The van drove past huge “wings” of cells branching off a central hallway. Each wing housed more people than the entire county jail I had just come from. I was quickly removed from the van and taken into what is called Receiving and Release, or R&R. In this area I was strip searched, given worn-out and mis-sized clothing, and put into a holding cell with roughly 40 older men. The men were hardened by previous prison experiences, affiliated with gangs I did not comprehend, and covered in tattoos announcing those affiliations.

I vaguely remember a row of Caucasian guys calling me over to stand with them. I know introductions were made, they asked me my name, where I was from, and my sentence. I remember they grew quiet after I told them “Life Without the Possibility of Parole”. Most of them were low level offenders and parole violators serving short sentences. The finality of my sentence at such a young age shocked them. I have found that having been given a sentence of LWOP at 16 years old shocks most hardened inmates and correctional officers I talk to about it. And in a weird abstract way my sentence has become a shield of protection.

I was in the holding cell for hours, waiting to be processed into the prison. More men were brought in. Periodically I was taken out to have my fingerprints taken, my picture taken, asked some basic questions. At one point we were all given sack lunches but I could not bring myself to eat, I had no appetite. Eventually guys started to be called out of the holding cell and slowly it emptied out. Finally it was my turn, I was taken to another room where I was given a bedroll: a rolled up blanket, two sheets, and a towel. I was put into a tiny 2 foot by 3 foot metal cage. I had never seen anything like it. I have since learned that putting men into such small cages is common practice within the California Department of Corrections.

I stood holding my bed roll inside the cage for about an hour. I watched other men being taken out of other cages and escorted in handcuffs through another door. They would go into a room I could not see into. They never came back so I knew it was part of the intake process. When it was my turn I was handcuffed and taken through the doorway. In the next room I was instructed to sit down in front of a desk. On the other side of the desk was a Sergeant. I remember thinking “I need to ask now before it is too late.” So I asked the Sergeant if he could put me into the SNY protective custody. He asked me what I was in prison for. I told him I had been accused of murder (wrongfully convicted). He simply stated that I would be fine in the General Population.

This man did not know anything about me or care about me. He knew how the ‘General Population’ would use and manipulate a young man newly sentenced to JLWOP. He had essentially thrown me to the wolves, so to speak, without any consideration to my safety or well-being. I felt my level of fear rising as I realized that my plan to seek the safety of the SNY yard was not working yet. I would have to keep trying.

written by Sean O’Brien January 2019

 Read DVI 2: The Nightmare

**Photo for artistic purposes, not from prison**
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Christmas in Prison by Sean

Nearly 2.5 million Americans spent this past Christmas incarcerated. Many of them deserve to be in prison for committing a crime, however, these 2.5 million Americans in prison also have families they are separated from. These men and women are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters. Prison touches the lives and families of more Americans than ever before. Prison leaves a fractured family Christmas.

I cannot speak for all the men and women across the country who spent their Christmas locked behind bars. I cannot know the circumstances at other facilities but I do not see how they can be much different than the circumstances here at Corcoran State Prison during Christmas. There were no decorations in the housing units or on the prison yard, no festivities, or holiday music. There is only drab concrete walls, rusting metal fences and razor wire; lots of razor wire. You would never know one season from the other except for by the temperature or the rain.

All calendar holidays in prison are generally worse than regular days. There is no mail, one of the few things inmates look forward to. Holidays usually mean less program/out of cell time because prison staff take time off to spend with their families. This can often mean no access to the dayroom phones to call home. Every cell is searched to make sure no one is making illegal prison alcohol. And worst of all, I am separated from my wife. Holidays in prison are extremely lonely and isolating.

California State prisoners are “lucky” to be allowed visiting on the day of Christmas, December 25th. Unfortunately, very few receive such visits. Here, on a yard of 800 men there is a visiting room of only 27 tables with 4 chairs each, which does not sound like it would be enough to accommodate everyone but it is. All 27 tables are rarely ever used. I am one of the lucky ones. My wife, Emelia, has managed to be here with me on Christmas day for the past five years. Being together on Christmas means so much to me and it has become our tradition. It is both an incredible blessing to know I am this loved, and also a burden of guilt knowing my wife must sacrifice so much to be here.

Most families do not have the means to visit their loved one in prison. Sadly, children are far too often unable to visit their incarcerated mother or father. The few who do get to visit will not receive a gift directly from their incarcerated parent- any such exchange of property is forbidden. Last year at Christmas, our visiting room provided holiday coloring pages and crayons for inmates to color with their visitors. My wife and I took the opportunity to do this together for the very first time, it was enjoyable. Emelia wanted to be able to keep our special coloring we had worked on together and everyone was taking their colorings out as they left. One of the officers was snatching them away from visitors as he processed them out, illegally confiscating them even though visitors had every right to keep their drawing. He even stated he had been taking them from children all day. How can anyone justify taking perhaps the only thing that child had to remember their day with their loved one? No one deserves that kind of treatment, especially children. After this incident, through my work on the Men’s Advisory Council we clarified with the Visiting Sergeant that such a confiscation of  hand written or drawn items is not CDCR policy or procedure- but the damage was already done.

On a more positive note, we were pleasantly surprised to see the level of decorating that was done in the visiting room during our visit on Christmas this year. It was not much, but it was far more than had been done in years past. There is an officer who takes her own time and money to purchase decorations for visiting. She hangs garland, holiday shapes and phrases, covers the photo background with festive wrapping paper and sets up a wooden cut-out tree. The visiting room is a place for families after all, and she is dedicated to making it as inviting as possible given the restrictions she must face as well. We appreciate her efforts to make visiting a better place for everyone.

Written by Sean January 2019

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Christmas Day 2018

Christmas feels so different when one is spending it in prison. My Christmas Day went something like this: I woke up at 3:30 am to get on the road by 4 for my long drive to the prison, the last couple hours were spent navigating though fog. Not exactly the typical picture of a merry morning. There are no hats allowed in visiting, sadly that means no Santa hat however I did wear my old-school jingle bell necklace, which Sean enjoyed surprisingly quite a bit. We quickly hugged and kissed before sitting down at the table where we would spent the next 6 hours just holding hands and talking. The vending machine had no breakfast items available this time, but it did offer a few special holiday meals so our lunch was portions of sliced turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy and cranberry. Sean piled this on the small rolls it came with for us; he smiled while eating. We felt grateful for a nice meal together.

We reminisced about the time at Family Visit when we had gone out into the yard late at night to look at constellations together. We had found the Big Dipper, also known as the Great Bear. Sean had taught me how to locate Orion’s belt and now every time I get the chance to, I look up and am reminded of our time together. We both love the night sky, the stars and moon.

My sweet husband and I had not seen each other for about 7 long weeks due to circumstances beyond our control. Our Christmas Day visit was emotional, bittersweet. The movie ‘Elf’ played on a screen in the children’s area and though we could not hear it from our seats, it nevertheless incited festive feeling. The visiting officer had used brightly colored wrapping paper and a flat wooden tree covered in paper ornaments to create a Christmas scene in the photo area for people to stand in front of. We posed for our pictures, the guy taking our photos smiled. We quietly sang Christmas songs. Many tears and kisses goodbye. “See you soon.”

I drove home from the warm south into the cold northern darkness. Arriving hungry and overtired from a non-stop trip back, I pulled into the Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurant parking lot. I walked wobbly legged, bare feet shoved into shoes, jacket askew, grateful to arrive safely and that it was open on Christmas evening. I felt surprised to see other customers inside; who is here and what is their story? I wondered.

I went home to walk our tiny dog because he had been waiting for me to come home all day. I walked past houses decorated and brightly lit. Real Christmas trees shone through windows on my street. What are we missing out on? How many more holidays will be spent in prison? Sean has had 15 years of it so far, still waiting for the magistrate to make a ruling is beyond ridiclious at this point. But the pieces fit and feel just right even without all the things that so many associate with the holiday. Then I look up and Orion’s Belt is right there, big and startlingly low on the horizon like I’ve never seen it before- like a huge sign from Santa, God, the universe or whatever you, dear reader, believe it to be. It took my breath away and brought peace to my heart.

“When you have nothing to lose you have everything to live for

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