Busting the Myth: “Free Bed, Food & Health Care”

When I hear of people on the outside saying prison inmates have it made with a free place to sleep, free food and free quality medical care, I know they have never experienced the reality of what prisoners are faced with every day. It is not of my opinion that prison inmates deserve luxury, but they do deserve common decency, basic medical care and intervention as protected by the 8th Amendment under the Constitution. I would like to set the record straight.

I have been fortunate in my 17 years of wrongful incarceration that I have required very little care from the California Department of Corrections medical. In 2014, when I had a hernia, knowing the lack of quality care provided by CDCR, I dreaded the ordeal I anticipated was about to begin. I assumed it would take multiple medical appointments and about a year to have my hernia repaired, which was accurate, but I was completely unprepared for the initial obstacle I received in obtaining treatment.

“I do not feel anything” is what the Nurse Practitioner told me while examining my lower abdomen. At the time this was the Primary Care Provider for Facility 3C at California State Prison Corcoran. “If I do not see or feel your alleged hernia, I cannot refer you to be seen by the surgeon.” I was aghast. Someone who is not even a doctor or trained in medical specialty to diagnose hernias was denying me access to be seen by the medical specialist, a surgeon. The exam I had received was hostile and accusatory, as if I was lying about having a hernia and the subsequent pain.

I wake up each morning tired and sore from laying on the 1.5 inch-thick matress pad which does not fully cover the solid metal bunk I have been forced to sleep on for 17 plus years. Each night my sleep is interrupted multiple times by guards loudly passing by to conduct count at regular intervals as well as to allow the early shift workers to be let out at 4:30 am. I do not eat the food served in the dining hall. Partly because of the incredibly low nutritional value and quality of the food served, but also because of the unsanitary conditions with which it is prepared and served. The dining hall and kitchen constantly flood out from leaks in the roof, which CDCR has attempted to patch and “fix” for the past four years. The leaks continuously cause black mold to be discovered. The ceiling has open holes from which debris falls onto the dining tables and trays below, even as men are eating. The food trays are often crusted with uncleaned food remaining from previous meals. No restaurant in the US would be allowed to operate under the same conditions as a California Department of Corrections dining hall and kitchen. If the local health inspector were allowed to inspect the unsanitary conditions, which has been requested and denied, they would be shut down immediately.

As for the ‘free quality medical care’ provided to prisoners within CDCR, the truth is that California tax payers are billed for the level of quality health care that no prison inmate ever benefits from. California pays around $81,200 per inmate annually. At the same time, CDCR medical staff attempt in every way to limit or deny the treatment and care provided. Pleading with a Primary Care Provider in CDCR is akin to someone on the outside seeking approval from their insurance provider to cover the cost of cosmetic or elective surgery. Despite CDCR’s obligation to care for the human beings in their custody, they fail to do so.

One male inmate I spoke to, J.M., said “I live in constant fear of my doctor not being honest with me. I am not allowed to ask for or seek any kind of a second opinion. I am not even allowed to Google what my doctor tells me to find out if it is legit.”

J.M. also filled me in on the details of another inmate, H., whose story the occurred in 2018 adds to J.M’s fear. For nearly two years H. complained of stomach pain and had several appointments with CDCR medical staff. When H was seen by CDCR medical staff they gave him ibuprofen for his stomach pain without ever diagnosing the cause. When the pain finally became too much for H to bear, he went “man-down” which is essentially calling for emergency medical care. H. was taken by ambulance to a hospital not operated by CDCR and finally saw a non-CDCR doctor. This doctor discovered that his pancreas had failed and diagnosed him with stage-4 pancreatic cancer. I remember hearing about H’s cancer diagnosis at the time but he was transferred to a high-risk medical facility within CDCR before I was able to interview him myself. I do not know his current status, but stories of this nature and many others plague CDCR due to the lack of basic medical care provided.

Many prisoner inmates feel that CDCR medical staff do not believe them when they seek care and report symptoms. In my own experience seeking care for my hernia, this was true. Some CDCR staff will even admit they believe most prisoner inmates are attempting to ‘game the system’ and lie in order to obtain medications. If an inmate is only seeking medication instead of treatment, perhaps suspicion is justified in those cases, however this should not be the criteria in which to follow for all medical exams.

But all inmates are openly treated with hostility and distrust by their CDCR care providers. When an inmate patient is seeking treatment, not medication, what is there to distrust? The underlying truth is that CDCR does not want to pay for the necessary treatment to provide inmates with basic levels of medical care.

A clear example of an inmate-patient being denied required treatment is S.D. who has severe nerve damage in his neck and left shoulder caused by degenerative disc disease. S.D. has compressed 2,3,4 and 5 vertebras with mild compression of his spinal cord. This man lives in constant pain with his head tilted far to the left as if her is looking at everyone sideways. For the past 22 months S.D. has sought treatment from CDCR with no results.

During this time S.D was sent for various medical evaluations and appointments This began with 8 weeks of physical therapy concluding with the physical therapist stating there is nothing physical therapy can do to help him. D.S. was finally sent to see a neurosurgeon to evaluate his neck. The neurosurgeon determined that if S.D’s shoulder was repaired first, it would alleviate stress on his neck and minimize the amount of corrective neurosurgery needed. S.D. was then sent to an orthopedic surgeon on May 23, 2019 to evaluate his shoulder. The orthopedic surgeon recommended “The only surgical treatment for the shoulder would be total shoulder replacement.” This surgeon then referred him back to the neurosurgeon to have his “cervical spine issues addressed first” On July 18, 2019 S.D was back before the neurosurgeon who asked him why he was back without his shoulder being fixed. The neurosurgeon told S.D. that he would not operate on his neck without the orthopedic surgeon first repairing his shoulder. The neurosurgeon noted his recommendation “Patient in my opinion should have his left shoulder arthroplasty addressed first”. Continuing “Once his left shoulder arthroplasty has been performed we suggest that the patient follow up with neurosurgery if symptoms persist.”


Medical Document DS1

Medical Document DS2

Despite these recommendations that surgery clearly needed to be conducted to treat S.D., he has received no actual treatment to correct his “cervical spine issues” nor his “shoulder arthroplasty”. This man living in constant pain has simply been passed around within the bureaucracy of CDCR medical. Recently S.D. filed a medical appeal attempting to force CDCR medical to provide the necessary care and treatment he needs. This man is the responsibility of the State of California and deserves basic medical treatment while in CDCR’s custody. If this man’s pain were caused by CDCR’s officers it would be considered cruel and usual punishment. When CDCR fails to provide the basic levels of care to alleviate this man’s pain, that too constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

This cycle of being constantly passed around within the CDCR medical system is not uncommon; the reason is that the CDCR medical system is not bound by the medical recommendations of outside specialists or surgeons. Seeking second, third, fourth or more recommendations looking for a cheaper treatment recommendations and passing the responsibility onto someone else is unfortunately cheaper than providing necessary treatment. And being passed from one specialist to the next is reliant on if an inmate can even get through the first hurdle of going through CDCR medical. In many instances, the overwhelming burden of persistently seeking needed care is too much for most incarcerated individuals to handle. The vast majority of prison inmates lack proper formal education and are unable to effectively navigate the bureaucracy and appeal procedures within CDCR. CDCR counts on the lack of legal understanding amongst the population, knowing that most are unable to effectively advocate for themselves.

In seeking treatment for my hernia, I was unwilling to take no for an answer. I did not care that the Nurse Practitioner had been unable to diagnose my condition or if she did not believe me. I knew I could prove to her visually the validity of my hernia. I challenged her that if my hernia would bulge out, would she refer me to the surgeon? She said she would and I told her I could go out to the yard and do pull-ups and push-ups to cause physical strain on my body, forcing the hernia to protrude out. She responded that she could not “advise” me to do that, but she would be in the clinic for another hour. I told her that she may not be advising me to do so, but she was giving me no other option. I returned to the clinic 20 minutes later with my hernia visibly bulging from my lower abdomen. With complete indifference she said “Oh, so you do actually have a hernia. I will refer you to the surgeon.”

I feared a similar experience when I saw the surgeon. My hernia was not protruding during my appointment and in an attempt to be helpful I began explaining to the surgeon that I could do push-ups to make the hernia bulge out if he needed proof. The surgeon, an outside medical professional, seemed shocked by my suggestion and said it would be completely unnecessary. I felt anxious that the surgeon would not be able to confirm my hernia and I would have to start the whole process over. Or worse, to wait for my hernia to become worse. Thankfully, my fear was unwarranted. The surgeon had me lay back on the exam table and within 10 seconds located and diagnosed my inguinal hernia. From start to finish I waited nearly a year to have my hernia repaired. And I was one of the lucky ones, my hernia experience was by far one of the better outcomes possible under the care of CDCR.

My own determination and willingness to sacrifice my body forced CDCR medical staff to acknowledge my need for treatment. Without standing up for myself and pushing beyond the limits of what anyone should be required to endure in order to receive basic medical care, CDCR would have refused me the medical treatment I legitimately needed. The surgery to repair my hernia may have been free of financial cost to me, but it was not truly free.

The unrecognized cost of inmate-patients receiving substandard care from California Department of Corrections medical comes in the form of physical deterioration to the inmate’s health by being denied necessary basic medical care while in the custody of California and CDCR. Recent studies determined that for every year a person spends incarcerated, their life expectancy is shortened by two years. This cost is far too high.

Written by Sean O’Brien

Artwork and editing by Emelia O’Brien, January 2020

Sources: San Quentin News, Article: Inmate Life Expectancy, Inmate Rights

*Inmate names abbreviated for confidentiality purposes

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Our Christmas 2019


Card drawn by Sean’s friend Jessie, it’s our dog and kitten

Sean made us adorable little stockings with our initials on them! We had a really nice Christmas season this year and got great photos on Christmas Day at visiting. Thank you to those who helped make our season special, each one of you truly brightened our lives.  Also thank you to our  wonderful visiting officer, Mrs. T, for purchasing the decorations and the photo background all on her own. It’s not often that we encounter officers as friendly, kind and caring as she is and she deserves recognition for making the visiting room a safe and more comfortable space for everyone.

December marks 35 months so far that we have been waiting for the magistrate to make a ruling on Sean’s Evidentiary Hearing that took place in Sacramento on January 17th & 18th 2017 in Federal Court. We have not heard of any action pertaining to his case in regards to the magistrate. This absolutely constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and our legal system is clearly broken. We do feel that 2020 will bring answers, progress and hope. There have been many positive changes lately and a few senate bills recently passed that will help us very soon. Here’s to positive changes in 2020 and justice finally beginning.

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Family Visit 17: Christmas 2019

Sean made us cute little stockings

Christmas is not typically an enjoyable time of year for us, but this year was completely different. We went into December preparing for our Family Visit, which was a date we were extremely lucky to get: December 21st. We considered it somewhat of a Christmas miracle that we even got such a great date. We would be able to celebrate Christmas together at Family Visit, and then have a regular visit on Christmas day. Last year there was no Family Visit in December for us. We were both very excited and made lots of fun plans to bring Christmas to the Family Visiting Unit. I bought a Christmas table cover, paper plates, napkins and a cookie tray to bring in and make it more colorful. I also brought in my Christmas hand towels & kitchen towels to give the place a more homey feeling. Since I am not allowed to give my husband actual gifts he can keep, besides ordering books or photos, I planned a treasure hunt with rhyming Christmas themed clues. I printed out Christmas coloring pages, and mad-libs from online for us to play together. Sean worked on his surprise project; making us little stockings with our initials on them. He had to really search in order to hunt down red material and when he brought them out at Family Visit it was such a surprise. Our table looked very jolly and merry, it was great.

At our Family Visit we did indeed celebrate Christmas. We wore our cozy Christmas jammies the entire time. We baked special white chocolate peppermint cookies, and watched Christmas Carolers on TV. Sean loved his surprise treasure hunt and I enjoyed watching him search for the clues I had hidden. I can still picture the excited smile on his face and the way he eagerly scuffled around in his Santa hat and jammies. In the morning, Santa put mini candy bars in our tiny stockings. To top it all off Sean made amazing enchiladas using chicken from the vending machine. They were as good as I had ever made enchiladas on the outside, if not better. He is a great cook!

This is not to say that our Family Visit was one long party and that it felt no different than if we were to have Christmas at home. That is definitely not true. No matter what, Family Visit is always bittersweet because it flies by so fast that we can barely hold onto it and before we know it, it’s time to say goodbye. Leaving him behind is so painful it makes me sick to my stomach and it feels like the most unnatural thing I ever have to do. We also deal with a lot of very real raw experiences that are made more condensed and challenging due to being locked in a prison without real world resources. We have gone through excruciating emotions due to being kept apart, illness, and physical injuries. But Sean is the one who helps us navigate through it. Without complaint he has built a tent of sheets at 2 am to enclose a steaming pot of water and tea bags in order to alleviate my congestion, sat with me inside the tent and then replenished the steaming water. He has engineered countless ice packs and heat packs and replaced them time and time again to help me with pain. He has heated water on the stove, one cooking pot at a time in order to allow for me to take a hot bath to help with migraines, pulled muscles, and even an ovarian cyst rupture. He has sat next to me holding my hand while I lay in the bath, getting up only to pour in another pot of hot water and replace it on the stove again. It’s these tender real moments that balance out the hardships we face. I know I can count on him when things are hard, and he knows he can count on me. Everything we do, we do as a family. We are a strong team working toward a common goal, and we have never been stronger.

Sean wrote: Family Visit is always special and it is the real life moments that we cannot plan or control that make each family visit unique and gives us a glimpse of real life. We learn about ourselves and each other.  Each experience draws us closer together and continually strengthens our love and marriage. To me, waking up at 2:30 am to help you and take care of you is special. Of course I never ever want you to experience anything bad or painful or scary, but when you do, I am able to care for you and show you my love for you in my response and actions. I love taking care of you.”

If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world.Noam Chomsky

Thank you to Santa’s secret helpers and Earthly Angels who helped make our season merry and bright! God bless

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Merry Christmas

We wanted to extend a special thank you to Santa’s Secret Helpers and God’s Earthly Angels who have been so kind and generous to our family this season. You have warmed our hearts and made our season bright. We send all of you our sincere gratitude and wish everyone a warm and safe holiday season.

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Family Visit 16: Praying Mantis

Our most recent Family Visit was November 20th, just in time to celebrate our own little Thanksgiving. My drive there was mercifully uneventful this time and I arrived with no difficulties. After our intial 5 minute hug Sean’s eyes lit up. “Come see what I found!” he said in an excited but hushed voice. I knew it had to be a critter of some sort but the weather was probably too cold for lizards or toads, and we were inside so I was really intrigued. Sean led me to the bedroom window where at the very top of the screen there was a big green adult praying mantis. I was really surprised to see it inside our unit, Sean said he had spotted him as he was walking past the window to come into the unit. It was also the first time we had seen one at Family Visit. We are usually only visited by the typical uninteresting insects such as flies and cockroaches (bleh!). We haven’t seen Boss the toad since that first time we found him, and a handful of times we have had lizard sightings but only once was Sean able to catch a tiny baby lizard, but that was over a year ago.

We stood together at the window just watching the praying mantis for a while, the breeze blew in and we were quiet. Life stills when you observe an animal or a creature. It is something that brings us together and it was a really peaceful moment. The praying mantis seemed completely content to just hang out on the window screen. We attempted to feed him flies Sean had caught but he was mostly uninterested. Sean named him Samurai. We kept him inside with us the entire Family Visit, careful not to touch him or hurt him when opening and closing the window and blinds. Surprisingly he stayed right there at the window the entire time. We would go check on Samurai throughout the visit and observe him, watching him and telling him to let Boss know we were thinking about him. At the very end of our time together, we gently released Samurai into the grass in a nice sunny patch where he climbed onto a bunch of lush green clovers. We knew he needed to be outside where he could be free and that the next occupants of the Family Visit unit might not be as kind and careful with him as ourselves. I wanted to take him back with me to a nicer place than the prison but I didn’t think he could make the drive and I thought perhaps he would be happier in his own climate.

When I looked up praying mantis symbolism online it says: “It will come as no shock that this insect is the paramount spiritual symbol of stillness and patience. It takes care to pay diligent attention to it’s surroundings, moving through life and it’s own pace.”… “The symbolism of this insect also includes patience, awareness, intuition, and creativity.” also “In turn they teach us to be patient and wait. As the old adage says, good things come to those who wait. This is the very essence of good luck.”

How fitting. I love it.

For those asking for updates: the magistrate still has NOT made a ruling from the Evidentiary Hearing held in federal court in January 2017. Nearly 3 years, still no ruling, not a word not a clue. Thank you for your prayers.

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Family Visit 15: Oustide

September 25th- 27th 2019

Sean and I were outside the Family Visiting unit, it was late afternoon and we had just finished playing in the water. Our clothes were damp but they were quickly drying in the summer heat, almost 100 degrees. Done with our splashing, we sat on the picnic table top with drink-mix popsicles, drips sneaking down our skin like neon red streamers. We are happy, we are carefree. There is nothing but this right now. We want to freeze this moment and hold onto it for as long as we can. Keep it for later, for the weeks that span each family visit.

Earlier we had seen a small lizard sunning itself on the baking hot cement pathway along the unit. We had attempted to sneak up in hopes of catching him, twice. But both times he was simply to fast and smart. It was funny to be thwarted by a tiny lizard but it was neat to see us both in action trying to devise a plan to capture him so we could observe him. Sean lights up when he sees a creature, he just wants to admire them all.

We began to play catch with a small foam ball, tossing it back and forth in the grass. Once we had realized that the grass was surprisingly soft and clean for the first time in many, we abandoned our shower shoes and allowed our bare feet the pleasure of running free, as in faded memories of nature. It energized us, the sensation of freedom.  Our laughter and smiles, the sun sinking lower, painting the sky with barely there pink clouds and orange hues. The breeze was gentle, only adding to the feeling of being somewhere else, a place welcoming us to play.

We confidently practiced throwing and catching. Back and forth the ball sailed, sometimes requiring a lunge or a leap in order to be caught. We celebrated excellent catches with victory gestures and cheering, enjoying the challenge of our game.  I practiced my football throws and then asked him to show me how to tackle. His youth was spent on wrestling teams for many years and then football for a short time until an injury. We practiced tackles and I went for him, attempting to take him down into the grass, it really made him laugh.

Suddenly a  beautiful night hawk flew majestically over our heads, Sean pointed it out and knew what it was right away. It flew by again and we got a good look at it. We had never seen a nighthawk at the prison before, it’s always just black crows and dull city birds. We were surprised, it was a neat sighting.

After dinner Sean washed our dishes in the bathtub since the kitchen sink was broken. He sat on the ledge with his legs straddling the side of the tub and handed me each clean item to put into the dish rack. I asked him if he minded doing it this way. “Nope,” he said “It’s like washing dishes in the creek!” He always sees the bright side of things, he’s always optimistic, never letting anything get to him. And I love that about him.

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home” -Anonymous

*top image taken at Ocean Beach by me for Sean, my Honey Bear
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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

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