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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Fun Tips for Puking in Your Car

Barfing is never a funny experience while it is happening to you. It can be painful, awful, or even embarrassing. No one enjoys being sick. It is only after the incident is through that we can step back, learn from our experiences and, if we are lucky, laugh a little.

*The following is not intended for the squeamish, reader discretion advised!*

In the past 6 years I have done a lot driving to and from the prison to visit my husband. Generally, I experience some level of nausea on my morning drive, either from drinking my hot tea or perhaps getting car sick. But, whatever the reason, I have never ever puked on my drive… until this time. So it was not something I was anticipating when I became incredibly nauseous at around 4:30 am on my way to the prison. It came on suddenly with a strength that forced out every other thought in my mind. Of all the things that happen to a body, nausea is the thing I handle the least well. Every smell I encountered as I drove made it 10 times worse. I did not pull off the freeway for a few reasons. One being it was pitch black and I could not identify where there was a safe place to pull off in the unfamiliar area. It’s difficult to read signs and find a suitable exit when you’re covered in sweat and trying not to pass out. Also, I have never puked in my car except for one occasion many years ago when I was driving myself home from work with the flu. If I were to pull my car over every single instance I got nauseous, I would be sitting on the side of the road for hours and never get anywhere in a timely fashion. So that is what led to me puking my guts out while I was driving on the freeway before I was even fully awake. Nothing in my human power could have prevented it from happening but once it started it did not stop until I felt like a deflated balloon. Luckily once I realized it was about to happen I had for the forethought to cover myself with my Minions throw blanket in an attempt to catch the vomit, but a lot of good it did me. My clothes and under clothes ended up completely soaked. As I was spewing like a broken faucet thinking “please don’t crash” I managed to bail off the freeway.  Miraculously I landed my car on the side of the exit lane with my hazard lights on and just sat there panting, grateful for it to be over.  There I was in the middle of nowhere literally covered in my own vomit, shaky and sweaty, in the dark alone.  I think the driver of the semi I pulled in front of must have seen the state I was in because not long after, the truck was gone. What a way to start my day and begin our family visit!

I’ll spare you readers the horrific details of my heroic recovery from this sad story and skip to the part where I sat in the Walmart parking lot in my newly acquired $4 t-shirt googling: “I threw up on myself while driving” and what I found was pure gold. The blog post and comments had me laugh/crying so hard I was on the verge of a vomit-relapse. The description of “Even if you are in a MacDonald’s parking lot and it is very tempting to go use the facilities, realize that you are now an abomination and have no right to go among non-disgusting people who are trying to eat.” and your clothes should probably be thrown away or burned immediately. Feel free to check it out for yourself because who doesn’t love a good barf story?

**disclaimer: I am definitely not pregnant and this incident was not morning sickness.**

Here are my suggestions for dealing with vomit on the go:

-Keep a box of trash bags, a small throw blanket and bottled water in the trunk of your vehicle for emergencies, you’ll thank yourself later

-When going on a long drive, take along spare clothing even if you do not think you will need it, especially if you are prone to nausea!

-Plastic bags don’t work well to contain vomit when opertated single handedly, instead take along a large plastic cup (red solo or even Big Gulp) and keep it accessable. This is easier to hold in one hand and once it contains barf you can securely set it in the cup holder until you can find a place to pull off and dump it. I know it may sound gross but take it from me it definitely beats the alternative!

-Peppermint helps with nausea. Mint chewing gum, mint tea or essential oils are great for those long drives. My husband also suggested a pressure point wrist band I would like to try that targets nausea.

-My regular travel bag contains: painkillers, Pepto Bismol, DayQuil, a tooth brush, toothpaste, floss, bandaids, antibiotic ointment, chapstick, deodorant, essential oil roll-ons, and hand wipes. It’s great to have these items on hand so you wont have to make any emergency pit stops when it’s inconvenient.

If you have any awesome barf stories please share below, we would love to hear them!

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Sean’s Recent Chronos

The following are some of the most recent letters of recommendation (Chronos) written by prison staff for Sean’s commutation. Sean will be sending these to the Governor in his commutation packet, along with many other chronos, letters from friends and family, achievement certificates, college transcripts, and photos. (Certain names have been removed for privacy)

A chrono is not something that comes easily. It is not something you will find in an inmate’s file unless they have worked hard to earn it. You would be hard pressed to find anyone with multiple chronos in their file. Sean has countless chronos from prison staff, so many I can barely keep them all straight. And more come every week. Why? Because he clearly does not deserve to be in prison, he is not a typical inmate and he is always of upright moral character. The prison staff have taken note of the injustice that has been done to him, they are sick of seeing it, and are writing to help bring Sean home.

These descriptions of my husband Sean: “Highly respectful, courteous and polite” “positive role model” “never displays the usual prison attitude” “open and honest” “does the right thing even when inconvenient for himself- putting his integrity and values above peer pressure” “has shown exceptional character” “hard work, dedication, positive attitude and admiration of both peers and staff” these are things I already know and love about him but it is so valuable to have it come in the form of a professional letter from experienced highly reputable people. Even though Sean proved his innocence in court at the Evidentiary Hearing in January 2017, we are still being forced to wait for the ruling and during that wait we are painstakingly proving his character as well as his innocence in his commutation packet. It’s a task we do not take lightly, but it is a challenge we are ready for because we know the truth.

Thank you to Sean’s professors, prison staff and officers who have written chronos and letters of support! It means so much to us.

You can sign our petition to ask Governor Newsom for Sean’s freedom or find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @emeliaobrien12. GoFundMe

We have truth on our side, we will not be silenced. We will never stop our fight for justice 

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They Know who They are

There are several individuals out there in the world who repeatedly lied under oath in a court of law to wrongfully convict my husband Sean O’Brien when he was just a teenager. There are individuals out there who are free, right this moment, living with the knowledge that they took part in covering up a serious crime and sent an innocent child to prison for life. There are many individuals who did not do the right thing in this case, people who covered up the truth, or failed to protect an innocent child and those people will live with the guilt of their actions for the rest of their lives. These individuals know who they are, they know that the truth will come out and their lies will be exposed. If they have any kind of conscience left, they know the pain and suffering they have inflicted.

16 years is a very long time. It is more than half my husband’s life. That is how long these individuals have had to bear the weight of their actions. This is how long they have tried to hide from the truth. This is how long is has eaten away at them, bit by bit, day after day. Yet they continue to live in their lies and rob themselves of the opportunity to come clean, and attempt to right what is so very wrong.

We know we have made the right choices every step of the way. We would rather be on the side of good than on the side of evil and lies. My husband says we need to forgive these people and let go of the pain they have caused us.  He is free from the weight these individuals carry, he sleeps peacefully at night knowing he took no part in the killing of the victim in his case and is free from the lies. I know that he is right, I also know that we will prevail. We are stronger than the monsters who walk among us. We are right where we are supposed to be, in the place of righteousness and light. Every day brings us another step closer to truth and justice. We have God on our side. We know that our consciences are free from the guilt and darkness those individuals must bear for not only hiding the truth from the victim’s family but also for what they have done to my husband and our family.

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Family Visit 14: Two Year Anniversary

Card drawn by Sean’s friend Jessie

Sean and I were recently blessed to receive a Family Visit date on our 2 year wedding anniversary weekend in August. We were grateful to be able to spend quality time together to celebrate reaching 2 years in our marriage. The weather was beautiful for us and we spent some time outside having popsicles and playing catch with an improvised ball. I was happily surprised how good Sean was at throwing and catching. I distinctly remember how lovely it felt, so free and easy to play a simple game with the splash of a golden sunset just beyond the gate. The hum of insects, summer air thick with promise.

On Saturday morning Sean made us breakfast as he normally does, I sat at the kitchen table reading a book I had been able to bring in, sipping our hot Irish Breakfast tea. Country music on the radio. It is always the best feeling on this morning because we still have an entire day and night ahead of us, a day that is ours for the taking. No one can control this time, and what we do is entirely up to us. The magic of the morning is exciting, offering up fullness beyond description. As he set down my plate, Sean surprised me with a heart shaped piece of toast, it meant more to me than anything that can be bought in a store.

There is nothing I can write that would adequately summarize our weekend together. How can I describe something so wonderful and magical without sounding like I am making it all up? But I will say that our time together means everything to us, it renews our spirits and lifts our hearts. We are lucky to have each other, some people spend many years searching for someone with whom they can share life, feel understood and loved beyond a doubt. We have been told time and time again that our love is unique and we see it firsthand every day. We never take it for granted.

A special thank you to everyone who wished us a happy anniversary and those who support us and our dreams.

Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope. -Maya Angelou


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