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

Have comments of questions? Share with us at innocentat16@gmail or connect on Facebook FreeSeanO’Brien

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Family Visit 10: Take Care

Family Visit #10 was January 5th 2019. To hit the double digits in our number of Family Visit dates since beginning them in September 2017 is bittersweet; happy that we get to have this special time together and feeling grateful for it, sad that we are still dealing with this when Sean should have been home a long time ago. Family Visits to us are absolutely everything to us. They are our goal, what we strive towards and hold onto. Because we did not get to have a Family Visit in December, this time we celebrated Christmas; we even wore Christmas PJs for the first time ever! We both loved it.

Sean is the best husband I could have ever asked for. He says “I am ready to take care of us at Family Visit, because you take care of us every day.” This is true, I work hard to provide for us and by the time I reach Family Visit at the end of my work week I am very tired from waking up at 3 am to get to the prison. So Sean cooks every meal we share, even the cookies. He does all the clean up, including washing the dishes and cleaning the unit before and after. He keeps us stocked in iced tea because the tap water tastes weird. He gets us ready for our shower by collecting everything we need and bringing it all with us, he adjusts the water to get the temperature right and keeps the oven open to heat the place up so we are not freezing when we get out since we cannot adjust the thermostat. When we are ready to watch a movie he gets the couch set up for us by spreading out our sheet to sit on, making us a big pillow out of our blanket, and getting snacks out of the food box. He sets up our bed for us and gets us ready to sleep at night, placing water bottles on each side, making us our sleepy time tea and getting the lighting just right. We are a team together, we enjoy taking care of each other.

The lack of sleep at Family Visit affects us both. Sleep deprivation does weird things to one’s brain. It makes everything blur together and puts a haze over our eyes. The second evening of our family visit and I wasn’t feeling very well, I had a stomach ache. We were both utterly wrecked, attempting to sleep on the cheap, stained mattress- without actual pillows. Seeing my discomfort and distress, Sean asked me what I would do if I were at home. I explained my desire to be more elevated. He moved behind me, my head on his chest, while his back was supported by the wall from behind. I settled back into him, feeling comfortable at last. I quickly nodded off, using my husband as a pillow. It was much needed sleep. He faded in and out of sleep sitting against the wall until it was time for the 12:30 am count. That is just a small example of the tenderness I see in Sean every moment we are together.

Family Visit is another world entirely and anyone who has never been in that situation would have difficulty understanding the full experience. But I do my best to express what it is like and share our journey with those who wish to read it. It is also for us to have later on down the road as an account of what we have been through, to be able to look back and see how far we have come together.

Sean’s PJ Pants

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Merry Everything from Us

Christmas Card 2018

Our friend, Elyse Smith with Beautiful Disaster Photography, has given us these beautiful photos for Christmas. I sent them as a special surprise to Sean. Thank you to Elyse for helping make our family’s holiday brighter!

Merry Everything and Happy Paw-lidays!

Sean’s Christmas Card drawing of our family
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Sean’s Fall Semester Classes 2018

Sean’s Fall 2018 Semester College Courses through Bakersfield College:

Career & Life Skills, A

Economics, A

English, A

Geology, A+

Sean’s Geology Professor wrote him the above chrono. A chrono is essentially a letter of recommendation that goes into his file and can be used to show judge of character for parole hearings or anything having to do with his case.

I am so proud of him for working hard to get good grades in his classes, he is closing in on his goal of achieving his Associates degree in two fields of study.

The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” -Victor Frankl

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