DVI 4: Shocking Conditions

This is the fourth 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 after his wrongful conviction. Click below to read the previous installments: 1. Welcome to Tracy, 2. The Nightmare, 3. Trading. Please see below the post for a prison dictionary.

The portion of Tracy I was housed in was the Reception Center, the population of inmates housed there was transitory. Most inmates would only be there a few months and were locked in their cell roughly 23 hours per day. For most inmates in a reception center, the only time they are allowed out of their cell is when they are going to and from the shower three times per week or going to the dining hall, church service, or to the yard once or twice per week but only if they are not on lockdown. The only inmates allowed out more than this are the inmate ‘porters’ who spend their time running round the tiers doing favors for the inmates locked in their cells rather than cleaning, which is what they are supposed to do.

I was disgusted by the amount of filth that covered Tracy. There was trash, dirt, and grime everywhere. Every wall, surface, crevice and corner looked as if it had not been cleaned in decades; which was highly likely. I was shocked by the conditions at Tracy and many of the other things I saw in my days there. Most of the time I was stuck in my cell. For 9 months of my life I was at Tracy in a 6 by 9 foot cell, rarely let out; when I was, it was into an unrecognizable culture.

In the short time I was on the “mainline” being forced to cohabitate with active gang mambers, I witnessed prison violence for the first time. As I was being escorted to the shower with a few other inmates up on the top tier, a group of men attacked another man on the tier below. It all happened so fast. I remember seeing a pile of men swarming over another, flashes of orange as they used razor blades still attached to the orange disposable razors to slash at their victim. They quickly pushed him up against the overhang of the top tier where I could no longer see, the alarm went off and officers rushed in. The officer escorting us to the shower hurried us to our destination and locked us in before heading to the scene of violence. We were left locked in the shower for well over an hour when normally we would have been given 10 minutes. I would continue to see the blur of bodies with orange flashes in my mind, knowing that is how fast violence could strike in prison.

As I learned more about prison and the depravity of some of the men who were there, I was not surprised to find out that some inmates would abuse prescription medication in order to sleep. Many inmates in Tracy were prescribed medication for mental illness, and many would trade their medication to other inmates for the things they needed. The inmates who traded to get the medication used it as a sleep-aid, sleeping for upwards of 20 hours or more at a time if they took enough pills.

At the time, the despair and isolation I felt allowed me to sleep much of my time away. I got into a pattern of sleeping 12 to 14 hours per day because there was no reason to be awake, there was absolutely nothing to do. There was no reason to get up and face the reality of being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This pattern of long sleep cycles would stay with me for many years and ultimately may have saved me during the hardest times of my wrongful conviction.

Shortly after this I was moved again, this time to H-Wing. In Tracy they tried to house all the Lifers in H-Wing. It was here I was celled up with an older man who had already spent 26 years of his life in prison, gotten paroled, and was now back with a life sentence. He spoke about the violence that used to be in prison as if the extreme violence that is still in prisons today is child’s play. I knew I waned nothing to do with this prison culture and life. The more he talked the more I knew I had to get away from it, I had to get away from the prospective violence I may have been forced to be a part of. I came up with an idea and thankfully it worked.

I submitted a medical request to been seen by the psychiatrist. Soon I was given an appointment and taken to be seen. I remember the doctor’s bewilderment when she asked me what was wrong. I simply told her I was not going back to the mainline, I was not going to be a part of the gangs and violence and I wanted to be housed in the SNY population. It became obvious that she had never dealt with such a situation. At first she did not know what to do. She made a few phone calls to find out. What I did not realize at the time was that by involving the mental health staff, the officers could no longer ignore my request to be moved to SNY like the one sergeant did when I first arrived at Tracy.

My request ultimately got me moved to Administrative Segregation, temporarily for non-disciplinary reasons. This was the first step in the right direction. I had been in prison roughly 45 days and would spend the next 45 days in Ad-Seg being processed into the SNY population. If I had to be in prison, this was absolutely the right decision for me.

Written by Sean, April 2019

Prison Dictionary

Administrative Segregation: AKA “The Hole”, separate area of the prison used to either keep inmates separate while in transition or to punish inmates for rule violations. Inmates in Ad Seg are generally restricted to their cell 23 hours per day with little interaction. However, some ad-segs are designed for small groups of individuals with no safety or security concerns with each other to go to small yards together. In these cases the small group is usually given 2-3 hours out one day and no time the next day. This is how Tracy was designed.

Lifers: Inmates with some form of a Life Sentence

Lock Down: Used by the prison as a security measure or punishment, a lock down is when all inmates must remain in their cells for 24 hours per day. This could take place for weeks at a time. During a lockdown there are no phone calls, day-room, classes, or visits. Inmates are only allowed 3 showers per week during lockdown

Mainline: An area of the prison also referred to as General Population. Generally this is where active gang members are housed, it is more dangerous and violent

Porter: inmate-porter is a job assignment given to inmates in all prison housing units with the expectation that they keep the common areas of the housing unit clean.

SNY: Sensitive Needs Yard; protective custody where individuals who aren’t involved in gangs, or those who could be victimized by gangs may go to stay safe

Tier: The level in the building, 3rd tier= 3rd story

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Sean’s Certificates

Sean received this certificate just recently from Bakersfield College, he deserves this recognition and we are both really proud of him. Thank you to all his professors, past and present. Below are his other recent certificates for positive programming and on the job training.

Here is Sean receiving his Anti-Recidivism Coalition certificate from David Garcia, Sean plans to work for ARC upon his release.

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DVI 3: Trading

This is the third 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 after his wrongful conviction. Click to read his first post DVI 1: Welcome to Tracy, and DVI 2:The Nightmare

During my first full day in prison, I had asked my cellmate when we would be able to go to canteen. Canteen is where inmates are able to purchase basic hygiene and food items. My cellmate told me we would not be going anytime soon because we were on lockdown. Lockdown means no leaving the cell at all and losing access to yard, day room, phone calls or canteen; sometimes it can even mean losing visiting. I had just arrived the night before, I didn’t understand why I was on lock down and denied access to canteen.

From what my cellmate told me, a day or two before I had arrived at Tracy, there had been a small riot during yard. Everything I was told about this incident was second-hand information from my cellmate and eventually others. None of them had even witnessed it or spoken to anyone who had. From what I was told, four Caucasian guys had been attacked by nineteen Northern Hispanic gang members. At least some of the Northerners had weapons to wound the four Caucasian guys with. As a result of this violence I was told all the Caucasians and Northerners were now on lockdown.

It did not seem fair to me that the men who were not actually involved in the incident were being punished. From the prison’s perspective, by locking the inmates down they were preventing the two groups from retaliating or escalating the violence; attempting to break the cycle of violence and the inmates’ ability to respond. As I would learn, it is a common theme within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to punish everyone as a whole rather than addressing specific problems.  This method is rarely successful or effective, as men in prison who commit acts of violence hardly act with any rationality behind their actions. Instead, resentments, hostilities, and fear build inside locked prison cells.

I did not want to be a part of any of it. I did not want to be on the active gang side. I did not want to be involved with any of their violent criminal behavior. I also did not want to be punished for the behaviors of others either. 

Knowing I would not get access to canteen for a long time, I realized I was going to have to do more to provide for my essential needs. I worked on drawing more cards to trade out on the tier. This allowed me to get some real toothpaste; not a whole tube but a good amount squeezed out into a plastic bag and tied off to seal it, then I cut a small hole in the corner of the bag. This is a common practice in certain prison environments where access to canteen is limited. I also traded for a larger piece of deodorant, stamped envelopes to write home, extra food items, shots of coffee, and of course the drink-mix packets. I did not have much but I was finding my way.

After about a week of being at Tracy, I received my first writing package in the mail. This was a small miracle as mail in Tracy usually took weeks to be passed out to the inmates. In this writing package I received lined writing paper, two pens, envelopes, and two books of stamps. By then I knew books of stamps were a form of currency, they were not worth their face value paid at the post office, generally being worth about half price on the tier. Due to the lockdown at Tracy and the law of supply and demand, goods on the tier were limited and the value of stamps was even lower.

The guys in the next building over, E-Wing, were not on lockdown. My cell did not face E-Wing but a guy my cellmate knew had a cell that did. This guy assured my cellmate that he could trade a book of stamps to E-Wing for a bag of coffee. Coffee was even better currency than stamps. If I sold the stamps for the coffee, I would be able to double my stamps, thus being able to trade for items I needed. My cellmate and I divided up the coffee into 80 shots, each worth one stamp, plus a little extra leftover for ourselves and to pay back the guy who had helped with our trade. With coffee being in such high demand in Tracy, we quickly traded all that we had.

Around this time, my cellmate was transferred out and I was moved over to the cell with the guy facing E-Wing. This is when I learned about fishing in prison which is how he was able to get the coffee from the other building to ours.

There is a lot to fishing in prison and anyone who knew me before my wrongful conviction knows I love fishing. Unfortunately, fishing in prison is far different than catching rainbow trout in the cool waters of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fishing in prison at it’s basic level is getting from one cell to another with a piece of string (your line) in order to pass items back and forth. The obstacle of fishing is how to get your line from one cell to another. Over the years, prison inmates have come up with many ways to accomplish this that they can fish items from the first floor tier up to the third floor tier without either inmate leaving their locked prison cell. In my introduction to prison fishing, I learned you could even fish from one building to the next.

To pull this off I had to learn to make an “arrow” out of tightly rolled wet newspaper coated with a small amount of soap to bind and hold it together. When the paper dried it created an arrow-like shaft that could be shot out the back cell window, most of the glass in the back cell windows at Tracy had been broken out and all that remained were the bars. Next I learned how to make a “shooter” to launch the arrow, it was made out of a toilet paper tube (in prison these are about 1/2 inch wide) and the elastic bands stripped from a pair of boxers or pants. The elastic is twisted to create a thick band of rubber that is stretched across the center of the shooter. When the string/line was tied to the arrow it could be aimed out the back cell window into the area between the two buildings. A guy from the other building would then shoot his arrow out and cross my line. When the two lines were crossed, one could be pulled back into the cell. At that point the connected lines could be pulled back and forth between the two cells/buildings. Any items that could fit through the bars on the windows would be shuttled across.

It could be quite comical to see lines of string stretching from one building to another, but goods were passed back and forth this way all day long.

Written by Sean March 2019

*image not of actual prison*

Recent article about the condition of the Dining Hall at CSP SATF (Prison located next to Corcoran, although conditions are the same throughout)

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Dean’s List

Sean made the Dean’s list at Bakersfield College for Fall Semester 2018! It is great that he is getting recognition for his hard work in his college classes.In addition to this, Sean is gathering more letters of support and chronos to send in his commutation packet. Thank you to everyone who has written one in support of Sean. It means a lot to both of us.The letter above was written by Bakersfield College Professor Magdalena Bogacz, Sean’s Logic Class Professor. It would not scan properly into my computer for some reason, but the date was March 23, 2019. See below for full letter

The following photos were taken with my phone, so they are not the best quality.  They are the support letters/chronos we just received this past week.

If you would like to submit a support letter you may send one directly to Sean, contact us directly via messenger, or email: innocentat16@gmail.com. Thank you.

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The Pearl

The sun had just risen, it was about 7:15 am and I was alone on the road making my way toward Corcoran to spend the day with Sean. Silent except for the music on my car radio, there were no other cars on the 2-lane farm road from Selma into Corcoran (43) There are very few cars this early in the morning normally. I heard a message on my phone and glanced down, and when I looked up there was an animal making its way into the road directly in front of me. I figured it was likely a stray dog. As I got closer I could see it was a coyote. It paused on the road directly in front of my car and I came to a stop, staring at it. The coyote didn’t seem to even notice my vehicle, I wondered why. In the 6 years I have been coming to the prison to visit I have never spotted a coyote let alone had one right in front of me on the road. I pulled out my phone to take a picture or video, not the brightest idea but hey I was up at 3:30 am so my judgement was a bit off. But the coyote saw my movement and ran off. I smiled and continued on my way.

According to my brief online searches, the coyote is revered in Native American culture to be an important messenger of personal transformation through self-reflection. A coyote sighting is generally a message to take a look within, to not take life too seriously, lighten up and learn to laugh at ourselves and even our mistakes. I think that makes a lot of sense, I like that message.

When I arrived at the prison, I processed through and then Sean and I sat together and celebrated my birthday. Once the visiting room became crowded we were asked by the visiting officer to pick someone to sit with. Sitting at the same table with another inmate and visitor is something we are rarely made to do, but on the occasion that the visiting room gets crowded, “doubling up” allows more people to be accommodated and for us to keep having our visit as opposed to having to leave. So we gladly oblige and normally try try to sit with someone we kind of know.

Coincidentally, Sean and I had just been recounting our wedding day on which his buddy, a Russian inmate, had generously bought us a piece of cake from the vending machine, brought it over to our table, and had wished us congratulations on behalf of the Russian Consulate (he was kidding). He is a humorous, friendly, happy kind of guy whom Sean recognizes as someone who wants to do good and be good. So we chose to move to the table he was at and the visiting officer allowed us to do so.

The Russian, as we will refer to him for privacy reasons, warmly greeted us and stood to introduce us to his visitor, his sweet grandmother. I shook her hand with my two hands and smiled. Once we sat down, the Russian told me about how much Sean values his relationship with me, describing how hard he works to get phone calls. He went on to briefly tell the Parable of the Pearl and likened Sean to the merchant with me being the pearl; saying Sean does everything he can for our relationship and in his life I am the consistent goal, the most precious. Although I am very aware of this, it was nice to hear from an outside observer.

For those unfamiliar with The Parable of the Pearl as I was, it is this:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

— Matthew 13:45-46

At one point I had gotten up to throw away our trash and when I got back The Russian and his grandma had purchased a Birthday Treat for me and Sean. It is rare to have friends inside prison. It is hard to know who you can trust, so normally we don’t really make friends. It was so nice to have this friend who had bought us cake on our wedding day, now bestowing us with treats for my Birthday. What a nice experience for us, I know it may sound strange but it truly was unique. We all genuinely enjoyed sharing a table that day.

Image result for old fashioned Irish clover

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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 has written about his experience at Tracy Reception Center (Duel Vocational Institution) in 2006. DVI has a long-standing reputation for being violent and dangerous. Read his first post: 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 refered to as a “role call”. Sometime during this role 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 quickly 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. My heart sunk, 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 drink mix 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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