Doing Time in Donovan State Prison
Monday, February 1, 2010
What I Learned In Prison by These Days producer Pat Finn
Watch the "Life in Prison" documentary
KPBS goes inside R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa for a two-hour broadcast to talk with the prisoners and staff about what life in prison is like. The broadcast marks the first time any radio program has been allowed to tape a program inside prison walls in California. KPBS also sent a photographer to capture images of life inside Donovan.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In this year's State of the State address, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told Californians that he never again wanted to see our state spend more on prisons than on education. Many applauded the governor's sentiment but with more than 170,000 people behind bars in California, many serving long or even life sentences, the price tag and the problems of our state's prison system are not likely to go away soon. Today on These Days, we’re doing something unprecedented in an effort to bring the reality of prison life home to our listeners. We are bringing you the first radio program entirely recorded within a California state prison. We're at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in the southern part of San Diego County. We'll be talking to prison officials, mental health workers, officers and some prisoners themselves to find out what it's like to be in prison, to work in prison, to live behind prison walls. Joining me now to give us an overview of life inside Donovan are my guests. Lt. Michael Stout, Public Information Officer, and Lt. Stout, thank you for being here.
LT. MICHAEL STOUT (Public Information Officer, R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility): Thank you. Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And Patti Colston, Community Partnership Manager. Patti, welcome.
PATTI COLSTON (Community Partnership Manager, R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You know, from an outsider’s point of view, which is what we are here, the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility seems to be really huge. How many prisoners do you have here, Lt. Stout?
LT. STOUT: It fluctuates but approximately 4700.
CAVANAUGH: And even though this place looks so big, how many was this facility built to house?
LT. STOUT: It was designed to hold 2200 inmates.
CAVANAUGH: Has overcrowding been an issue ever since you’ve been here?
LT. STOUT: Well, I started here in 1990 and from that point on, when they designed the prison, it was supposed to be one man per cell, well, ever since I’ve been here it’s been two men per cell. So I’ve never really noticed it because it’s just what I’ve been, you know, that’s what I’ve worked with for 20 years now, so I don’t really notice an overcrowding issue.
CAVANAUGH: Patti, let me ask you, how does the fact that there are more than double the number of inmates here than Donovan was built for, how does that impact the living arrangements?
COLSTON: Well, currently, we have three gyms, which were designed originally for recreation, basketball, which are housing inmates, about 152 inmates per gymnasium. One gymnasium is currently used as our psychological services unit and is used for mental health care on a regular basis.
CAVANAUGH: So these – this facility – these gyms you’re talking about were originally designed to be used as gyms.
COLSTON: For recreation, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. And now they – this is where the inmates sleep. This is where their bunks are.
COLSTON: Yeah, and in some buildings we have beds in what’s called the dayroom, which would normally be used for activities. Instead, we have inmates in double and triple bunk beds.
CAVANAUGH: Lt. Stout, when a prisoner first gets assigned to Donovan, what happens?
LT. STOUT: Well, we’re a general population prison as well as a reception center, so we receive inmates that are newly committed to the system from San Diego County, Imperial County. We do get some out of Los Angeles and Orange, but primarily from Orange – I mean, from San Diego and Imperial. So they do come into the system, reception center status. They go through various of screens, medical, mental health, they’ll go through whatever their committing offense was and they’ll get what they call a classification score as a end result. When they – when that score is determined, that will basically dictate where they’ll serve their sentence throughout the state. You know, there’s 33 prisons throughout the state as well as a number of fire camps so depending where he falls into the scheme of, you know, his score, that’s where he will end up doing – serving his sentence.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So just because you’re convicted and sentenced in San Diego County doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to do your time here at Donovan.
LT. STOUT: Correct. I mean, when I first started, we had one facility designated strictly for reception center and three facilities for general population. We’ve pretty much flipped that now. We’ve got two general population facilities and then two reception center facilities. So the number of general populations, the ones that actually serve their time here, is, you know, we don’t have the number of beds. So…
CAVANAUGH: What kinds of prisoners are here? I know that you break prisoners down or at least their housing levels into security levels 1 through 4. What do those levels mean?
LT. STOUT: Well, Level 1 is your lowest, your minimum security. Now, we do have a minimum facility here at the institution and it houses your non-violent, non-predatorial type individuals, no sex crimes. Those are – they’re also relatively short term so they’re not doing a long sentence. You know, it’s usually four years or less. So, and those are the inmates that’ll be doing ground-keeping around the outside perimeter, going to your communities, you know, maybe working at the trolley stations or the Caltrans and those places. And then we also rise all the way to a Level 4, which is the highest, maximum security, and these are inmates who are serving life sentences, have been disruptive in the past, you know, because an inmate could come in, theoretically, his classification score may start out at 30. Well, if he breaks rules and he gets vi – you know, does violations within the system, every time he gets found guilty of those violations, you know, his score will – he’ll add points to his score. So an inmate can go from 30 to 100 points if he really wants to, you know, be very disruptive and then that would rise him to a Level 4 and, you know, it turns into a whole ‘nother, you know, housing needs for this individual.
CAVANAUGH: So it doesn’t – it isn’t just determined by the offense that the inmate has committed?
LT. STOUT: No, there’s all other different factors. I mean, if he’s a multi-termer, maybe he’s come into the system one, two, three, maybe four times, those all get figured into his score. And it’s a pretty elaborate score sheet, and I couldn’t break it down for you but, you know, it’s, you know, a lot of math.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Patti, I’m interested in what prisoners of whatever level, do all day. Does everybody get up at the same time?
COLSTON: That would actually be a Lt. Stout question.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, certainly, Lieutenant.
LT. STOUT: Well, normally, you know, the wake up call is pretty much standard throughout the prison. Usually 6:30 is the beginning of breakfast. They’ll go to feeding. It’s not an all open line type thing. When your housing unit’s called to go to, you know, breakfast, you go to breakfast. If you don’t, then you basically miss it. So the inmates know what the time schedule is. If they know they go at 6:30, by gosh, we hope we’re getting them out at 6:30 because they’re very programmed to time. And when you start maybe delaying it an hour, two hours, then, you know, that’s when they start getting a little bit restless. So it’s very important that we start off breakfast early and after breakfast is fed, they’ll have some morning recreation, morning day room. Some inmates are going to work. We do have different industries here at the institution that these guys do, as well as education and, you know, other things. And then their lunch meal is given to them during the day, you know, during their breakfast. It’s basically a brown sack lunch and they can eat that at their leisures. And then, again, afternoon rolls around, they’ll have more yard activity and more day room activity. And then comes dinner time, around four o’clock, and then get everybody fed and then at 1800 is our first general population count, our institutional count. It’s a standing count, so every inmate’s required to stand, we count, and we’ve got to make sure we’re right on the money. And then after that, then, again, some evening yards for different yards and then, again, 2100, nine o’clock at night, is pretty much lights – doors are closed and that’s the end of the day. And they’ll be – they’ll remain in their cells until, again, six o’clock in the morning, 6:30.
CAVANAUGH: I want to talk a little bit more about the kinds of work that inmates do here at Donovan. There’s, from what I understand, a bakery?
CAVANAUGH: And what do – Do the prisoners do the cooking here?
COLSTON: They sure do. We have what’s called Prison Industries Authority, which is actually a portion of the prison that trains inmates to do certain jobs. And here at Donovan, we have a bakery, we have a shoe factory, we have a laundry, and we just recently lost our optical. We made all the eyeglasses for MediCal patients in our prison here. And due to budget cuts, about 120, 125 inmates lost their jobs, lost revenue of about $4.2 million annually. All the eligibility for 18 to 72 year olds was eliminated as a benefit, therefore, we made about 15,000 pairs of eyeglasses a year.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
COLSTON: We bake about 18,000 loaves of bread a day, and those inmates are paid about fifty cents an hour. About 50% of that goes to restitution. The other half is available for their savings. And it’s a real-world model for working. They have to be at work at a certain time. They have to have certain standards for their performance. It’s just like an outside job. And we will actually pay for their continued education when they parole through the American Bakery Institute, which would allow them to qualify for a bakery position paying between $22 and $36 an hour on the outside.
CAVANAUGH: Now for people listening to this show, we’ve heard an awful lot about budget cuts to prisons and programs that have been abandoned. Apparently you’re not making eyeglasses anymore because of some of those budget cuts. Have rehab programs been cut back here? Whoever wants to take this, Patti, Lt. Stout?
LT. STOUT: Well, we’ve currently lost our substance abuse program. That was our – that was back in, I believe, November.
LT. STOUT: October, November. We just lost that, you know, and that was due strictly to budget cuts.
CAVANAUGH: How much of a loss is that?
LT. STOUT: Well, it’s particularly a big loss and especially on Facility 3, you know, I mean, Facility 3’s got a lot of, you know, individuals that need that type of help and taking that away from them, you know, basically now they just have idle hands. They’re pretty much – they have, you know, the work. Jobs are limited as it is due to the number of inmates housed here. So, you know, every time we lose a program, it’s just putting more inmates, basically, with nothing to do.
COLSTON: Yeah, about 10% of our inmates, about 400 inmates, were involved in the substance abuse treatment program.
CAVANAUGH: Would it be fair to say that most of the inmates here really don’t have much to do with their time?
COLSTON: No, not necessarily. I mean, we provide inmate leisure time activities. There are still three vocational programs. We have a welding program. We have a C Tech program, which is teaching the inmates how to lay cable and how to configure systems for computer systems. And we also have mill and cabinet – oh, excuse me, machine shop, tool & die making, so we do have some programs but at one time we had as many as 19; now we’re down to three.
CAVANAUGH: And so does that leave a lot of inmates with time on their hands?
LT. STOUT: Yes. Yes. There’s no other way to – there’s no where else they can go so they’re out on the yards. They’ll be in the day rooms. You know, sometimes they get frustrated and – because they’re bored, you know.
COLSTON: Well, we’ve been fortunate here in San Diego County to have the Offender Reentry Program, commonly known as SB-618, which is a comprehensive case management program that the inmates are – or that at the time of sentencing guys are introduced to. And it’s a program for nonviolent, felony offenders to – We provided a case manager here in prison. They develop a life plan at the time of sentencing so basically they’re planning for reentry at the time of sentencing. And once they complete the program in the prison, they’ve eligible for up to 18 months of post-release case management, which is our partnership with the DA’s office and with UCSD. So those guys are studying. Many of them are enrolled in college courses. Some are enrolled in not SB-618 guys, but other inmates are working on their GEDs and correspondence courses with community colleges and universities, so we have some opportunity that we make available if they’re willing to – It’s all voluntary so if they’re willing to participate, it’s there.
CAVANAUGH: I’m just wondering, I want to ask you both quickly, are – do you find working here stressful or dangerous in some way? Or are your jobs pretty insulated?
LT. STOUT: You know, I’ve come up through the ranks as an officer, promoted to sergeant, lieutenant now, on my way, hopefully, to be captain one day. But, you know, the various, you know, obviously there’s certain jobs that are more dangerous than others. But any time you go inside that secure perimeter, you know, anything can happen. You know, sometimes when disruption happens, we don’t know about. And normally that’s what happens because, you know, sometimes we do get word that things aren’t just right and we’ll intervene. But normally those spontaneous events, you know, they just happen and you always have to be aware of your surroundings, you always have to, you know, always have to have an avenue of escape if something happens and, you know, you know, some people do get complacent and forget about where they’re at sometimes, you know, and it’s just something you mentally have to prepare yourself when you go to work because once you start getting complacent, you know, you’re at a disadvantage.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, as a female, Patti, is that a special burden or stressor for you?
COLSTON: Well, I grew up in South LA so this is a place that operates based on rules and we’re all trained when we first start to acknowledge correctional awareness. We go through specialized training so that we are respectful of our environment and that we learn techniques to manage our behavior and inmate behavior while we’re here. So, fortunately, I’ve never felt that way. I work with very capable staff, particularly Lt. Stout, who kind of has been my mentor since I’ve been here. But these guys are very highly trained and very highly skilled. And I’m very confident in the emergency situation as long as I follow the rules and do what I’m supposed to do, I’ll be protected. I have been in situations where I’ve been surrounded by Level 4 inmates on the yard who were complaining about things, and I realize that as long as I am in control and follow the rules and manage my behavior and respect the inmates’ rights, I’ll be fine.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both for speaking with us today. I’ve been speaking with Lt. Michael Stout and Patti Colston. Our special broadcast recorded inside Donovan State Prison continues after this short break. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Our special broadcast from Donovan State Prison in San Diego County continues. We just heard from prison administrators that Donovan, like all California prisons, is overcrowded and that rehab and occupational programs have been cut. Now we’re about to hear from men who are serving time here at Donovan. They’ve agreed to be on our program to tell us what their lives are like day after day, serving out their sentences at this facility. I’d like to introduce Robert Walker. And, Robert, we know that there are different levels of the way inmates live here. What level are you?
ROBERT WALKER (Level 1 Inmate): I’m a minimum 5 yard, minimum 1, you know, I go outside the gate of Donovan. You know, they got people that can go work inside the communities, you know. You know, I guess it’s kind of like a reentry before we get ready to get out because most of the people who’s on the 5 yard, they got no lower than 3 to 4 years to do and so they more or less like a model of the inmate that they want to do right, want to change they lives and things, so they cope with the everyday life of being on the 5 yard everyday.
CAVANAUGH: Robert, let me ask you, how did you get in here?
WALKER: My charged offense was in sales to a undercover officer, you know, downtown.
CAVANAUGH: So it was a drug offense.
WALKER: It was a drug offense for 20 – a $20 rock as they call it, the street name, and I got 8 years with half with it, and then I’m finishing it up right now. I’ve been down over here it’s almost 3 years now. I got one more year to do.
CAVANAUGH: Now you – Tell us what your day is like here, okay?
WALKER: Well, ever since 2007, I came over here, I went to ground maintenance. I used to cut the front entrance lawns and keep the maintenance of the grounds good, trim trees, you know, cut the grass, the flowers, whatever the case may be that work outside of Donovan’s fence, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Do you live in a cell or a dormitory?
WALKER: We live dormitory living, you know.
CAVANAUGH: And what time do you get up in the morning?
WALKER: I get up about close to 5:00, 5:30, you know, get ready to take a shower if I need to take a shower. Brush, you know, get ready for chow, you know. And after we come from chow, we get ready for what they call for work call, you know, to go to our destination of assigned jobs for the day. And I’m a staff barber, you know. I work off in the administration building, you know. And I deal with officers and staff each and every day, all day. And so it helps me out to relight myself back into the community to know how to deal with the public, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Now is cutting hair something you knew before you got into prison?
WALKER: Oh, well, I’m a cosmetologist by trade.
WALKER: I got my license at North Park Beauty College, you know, and I’ve been cutting hair for years, I’ve been doing hair for years, you know. And then, you know, and then got special skills because you just can’t come out here and talk like you going to be a staff barber if you don’t got no special skills…
WALKER: …you know.
CAVANAUGH: Now I know you’re a minimum security. Do you run into any guys that you’re afraid of here in Donovan?
WALKER: No. Because I’m a OG.
CAVANAUGH: And what does that mean?
WALKER: I’ve been doing time ever since ‘72, you know, I’m not proud of it, you know, and – but then it’s something that I have to do, you know what I’m saying, to survive. You know, if in – I give each and everybody respect, you know, all races, you know. On the 5 yard, you know, it’s not like being on the inside to where you got the barrels, you know, to, you know, race barrels that you got to buy by, walk by and, you know, that, you know (sic). We more or less get along because we all work together. We all got to look out for each other, you know, in all the job assignments that we have, you know, but then, you know, on the 5 yard.
CAVANAUGH: So you’ve had a prison sentence before, right?
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, since 1972. Have you been in Donovan before?
WALKER: Yes, I’ve been in Donovan before.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. And, you know, a lot of people say the problem – one of the big problems of being a prisoner is that you kind of live the same day over and over again, day after day, week after week. Do you feel like that?
WALKER: Yeah, because you’s programmed. You’re programmed, you know, like you got to do your time, it ain’t no way around it. You know, so you got to make the best of it, you know, the best as you can of it, you know. I will say, wasn’t for me, you know, I get up, I do what I have to do, make my day, come back, watch my TV, watch programs, this and that, that’s my day. Wait for the next day to come, you know, and then I wish I can cut it all off but I can’t, so I’m going to have to accept this and deal with this…
WALKER: …the best way I can.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Robert Walker. He’s a minimum security prisoner here at Donovan State Prison, and we’re broadcasting from inside Donovan State Prison in San Diego County. Robert, you know, a lot has been made on the outside about, you know, how medical care is in state prisons. Have you ever had any medical care here?
WALKER: I have medical care right now like when I caught this new term right now, I was surprised to be diagnosed with Type II diabetes. And, you know, and then I’m 54 now, you know, and so at then 51, I was saying, you know, and then I went to the hospital one day down off from county jail and then they took my blood and found out that I’m Type II diabetes. And so I’ve been – I got another whole lot of changes that I got to make, you know, within my life, you know, within myself to take care of myself, you know.
CAVANAUGH: And so are – do you have to inject yourself with the insulin or…
CAVANAUGH: …can you just control it with your diet?
WALKER: I hate needles. So I could – I take my pills and I make sure that I don’t get on that needle.
CAVANAUGH: What is the best thing, Robert, that you do in here in a week? What do you look forward to doing?
WALKER: Going to work every week, every Monday.
WALKER: To get – to get off the yard, I will say, you know, to have my solitude, you know, to, you know, to change my life, you know. I guess I said it right, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Now you have been, you know, sort of doing time on and off since the ‘70s. How has prison changed during that time? A lot more people here?
WALKER: A lot more people. Overcrowded people, you know. California, you know, I don’t understand it but, you know, like I say, you do the crime, do the time. But, you know, it is overcrowded, you know, and it seem like they just about the money now. You know, that’s what I’m saying. You know, it’s just all about the money. Long as you can house a inmate and get paid some amount of money from a year and everything, you know, it’s all good.
WALKER: They keep job security for some of the staffs, you know, it’s good job security. Good benefits from it, I would say, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Now when you get out of here in a year’s time, do you know what you’re going to be doing? Are you going to go back to cosmetology?
WALKER: Yeah. I’m going to go back to cosmetology, I’m going to try to get back into making teeth, you know, dental technicians. You know, I know how to do that, too. You know, and I’m going to pick up where I left off at.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to thank you for talking with us today. Thanks, so much.
WALKER: You’re welcome, you know, thank you for calling me.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’ve traveled from the administration area at Donovan State Prison into the Level 4 area of the prison for our next interview. Inmate Terry Campbell has joined us, and I want to welcome you and thank you for being on this program.
TERRY CAMPBELL (Level 4 Inmate): Thank you for allowing me to speak.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, people on the outside hardly ever hear what it’s like in prison from the prisoners themselves, so that’s why we are having this conversation with you right now. And I’d like you to tell us – First of all, you are a Level 4 prisoner.
CAMPBELL: Yes, I am.
CAVANAUGH: And what is the offense that you committed to get inside?
CAVANAUGH: And h…
CAMPBELL: First degree murder.
CAVANAUGH: And how long ago was that?
CAMPBELL: 44 years and 2 months ago.
CAVANAUGH: Have you been in this facility for that length of time?
CAMPBELL: No, I have not. No, I came here from a Level 3 to a Level 4.
CAVANAUGH: And what was your original sentence?
CAMPBELL: It was 7 to life, 7 years to life. I became eligible for parole after 7 years of a life sentence. But then when I first came prison, I got in trouble. I got two more life sentences for killing two other inmates. And I became eligible for parole eventually in 1979.
CAVANAUGH: Terry, what is your day like here? When do you get up?
CAMPBELL: We get up about 6:00, 6:30. We start feeding by – on a rotation basis, the units, the housing units. They’re usually finished with breakfast between 8:00 and 8:30 then we have program which consists of yard and/or day room activities. We also have inmates that go to work every day in PIA or other support service jobs.
CAVANAUGH: Do you work?
CAVANAUGH: What do…
CAMPBELL: …I work for the captain. I’m the special purchase clerk/hobby craft clerk. And I work usually from about eight in the morning until about 8:30 at night.
CAVANAUGH: And what about any special amenities? Are there any – people on the outside might think that everybody has a TV in their cell or things of that nature. What – Describe to us the area in which you live.
CAMPBELL: All right. I live in a housing unit – in a housing unit that consists of 100 cells housing 200 inmates. There are two sides – or two sides to the day room, one on each side of the gun, the control booth gun. And there’s a – there is a TV on each side. Inmates have personal TVs, personal radios, personal property in their cells but if they don’t have family to provide that for them they have to work at a prison job where they make very little money every month, ranging anywhere from $7.00 to maybe $130 if you work in a really good job like inmate day labor or PIA as a lead man. Most inmates do not work in those positions, they do not have the skill level and they don’t have – the jobs are not available.
CAVANAUGH: You mentioned something called the gun area, what is that?
CAMPBELL: That’s a sally port control booth area where they control all the entry into and out of a housing unit. They also have weapons up there that are used to quell disturbances when they have them.
CAVANAUGH: How would you characterize most of the people that you interact with here on – in the Level 4 area of Donovan? The other prisoners.
CAMPBELL: Well, you have a conglomerate of different types, different personalities. You have inmates that are mentally ill here. You have inmates who are, you know, doing life without the possibility of parole. You have inmates who have been eligible for parole for a long time. You have short term inmates. Even on this Level 4 yard, you have Level 3 inmates and sometimes Level 2, but they try to get them transferred out of here as quickly as possible. But I would characterize – You know, you have different categories of prisoners. You have short term prisoners and then you have long term prisoners and then you have prisoners who are never going to get out of prison in this lifetime and, unfortunately, I fall into that latter category.
CAVANAUGH: You have been in this prison for a very long time and I’m wondering, how has it changed since you’ve been here?
CAMPBELL: It’s changed radically. This prison or this prison system. I’d like to say this prison system because I spent my first 35 years in northern prisons. As a whole, prisons are fluid. They change. The system is fluid. It changes. It’s moved like – it’s moved from fairly liberal in the ‘70s and the ‘80s to more restrictive now, and I think that has a lot to do with gang inmates, you know, gang related inmates.
CAVANAUGH: How is it more restrictive for your daily life?
CAMPBELL: It’s more restrictive because if you came on the yard, you saw all the fencing. You can only go on one side of the yard. Your access to, say, laundry and to canteen and to other activities are severely limited because of the number of inmates. You’ve got to remember, we’re way above designed capacity here. So – And, unfortunately, as they increase the number of inmates, they don’t increase the support services for those additional inmates, so it takes away and you have – fortunately, we don’t have beds in the day room like they do on Facility 1, but, you know, it severely limits the amount of phone time that you get and the other activities, the support services, that we rely on, you know, to live our daily lives in here.
CAVANAUGH: Are you ever afraid in here?
CAMPBELL: Yeah, sometimes.
CAVANAUGH: Of what?
CAMPBELL: Of being assaulted, dying here. You know, it’s a constant risk. You know, like I mentioned earlier, we have mentally ill inmates on this yard, you know, people that are not altogether there. And we have some inmates that are doing life without the possibility of ever getting out. So, you know, and then we just have inmates who have a bad day. So you can’t get away. You can’t go away. You can’t move from your current home. You can’t, you know, you can’t go across town. You’re here. You see the same people every day, day in and day out. So, for a lot of inmates, I would imagine that constant fear is an everyday thing that they have to deal with.
CAVANAUGH: Would you say, in a sense, since you’ve been here for such a long time, you’ve acclimated yourself to this life?
CAMPBELL: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s a process like anything else. It took me a long time when I came to prison to even realize what a life sentence in prison meant. And so you become accustomed to it. You become institutionalized, to use a term. And so, yes, I’ve become institutionalized. And a lot of people that leave prison, even guys that are only here for a few years or ten years or whatever, you know, it’s not like you can get out of prison and suddenly, you know, you’re used to being out and you can be a citizen, functioning normally in a normal society. It’s going to be a process getting out, too, because a lot of parolees, unfortunately, when they leave prison, they apply in-prison solutions to out-of-prison problems and it just doesn’t work out and it usually leads to reincarceration so…
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it.
CAMPBELL: You’re welcome.
CAVANAUGH: Our special broadcast recorded inside Donovan State Prison continues after this short break. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. At Donovan State Prison in southern San Diego County, prisoners know that daily life for them is a lot different than for people on the outside. It’s not just the fact that they can’t leave, it’s the fact that every aspect of their lives from their meals to their clothes to the time they get up in the morning is controlled by someone else. And their lives are also controlled by another factor, the color of their skin. California prisons allow prisoners to segregate according to race and many claim that has increased the presence of race-based gangs within prison walls. As we continue our program from inside Donovan State Prison, we’ll talk about gangs in state prisons, how powerful they are, how dangerous, and how they are controlled. I’d like to welcome my guest, Assistant Institutional Gang Investigator William Edrozo. And welcome to the program. Thank you so much for being here.
WILLIAM EDROZO (Assistant Institutional Gang Investigator, Donovan State Correctional Facility): Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: I’m going to call you Officer Edrozo for most of the rest of our talk, if that’s okay with you.
EDROZO: That’s okay.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. How long have you worked here at Donovan State Prison?
EDROZO: I’ve been here for ten years, going on ten years now.
CAVANAUGH: And what is your main focus? I think probably your title gives it away but tell us, your main focus is on prison gangs but what is your job exactly?
EDROZO: My job is to gather intelligence, gang intelligence, and to document gang activity and to validate certain individuals that are promoting prison gang activity out there.
CAVANAUGH: About how many gangs are there in Donovan?
EDROZO: Hmm, I would say roughly – I’d say about 45 or more different gangs out there. And that’s talking disruptive groups because there’s a difference. You have prison gangs, which we have 7 that are identified by the state of California and then we have disruptive groups which are street gangs.
CAVANAUGH: I want you to tell me more about that difference. Describe some of the gangs for us in the category of disruptive gangs.
EDROZO: Okay, disruptive gangs, there would – disruptive gangs would be more like your street gangs. For instance, with the Hispanics it would be Otay, Barrio Chula Vista, Logan Heights, Logan Red Steps, Shelltown. With your black gangs, it would be Neighborhood Crips, West Coast Crips, Skyline, 5/9 Brim, Lincoln Park. With your white gangs, it would be like your East County Crew, the Chosen Folk, United Society of Aryan Skins, San Diego Skinheads. And then you get into your Asian gangs, which would be your Oriental Killer Boys or Tiny Oriental Crips.
CAVANAUGH: So it doesn’t sound like the gang members here in Donovan as inmates are just from San Diego County.
EDROZO: They’re from all over. We get them from Los Angeles and Imperial County.
CAVANAUGH: And do certain gangs specialize in certain kind of crimes?
EDROZO: At one point, I would say that they did but now it’s pretty much all the gangs are all into the same activity, committing the same crimes out there.
CAVANAUGH: You know so much about this, Officer Edrozo, can you profile a large gang that’s located in San Diego County for us and perhaps tell us about their activity and their membership?
EDROZO: I can give you one particular is Otay, which is actually in Chula Vista. Roughly, I would say there’s probably about 300 members are part of that gang. And they’re out there committing – You know, their main source of income is through sale of drugs. And other than that, it’s robberies, home invasions, car thefts. One big thing that a lot of these gangs are getting into is identity theft and that’s a big moneymaker for them.
CAVANAUGH: So when they wind up here in Donovan State Prison, you specifically call them disruptive gangs. How do they disrupt things here inside the prison?
EDROZO: Well, we call them a disruptive group because that’s what we consider a street gang.
EDROZO: Once they come into a prison setting and they’re promoting gang activity, now they’re promoting gang activity on behalf of a prison gang. And for the…
CAVANAUGH: And – go ahead.
EDROZO: Excuse me. I’m sorry. You know, for the Hispanics, that gang would be the Mexican Mafia.
CAVANAUGH: So the gangs recruit in here.
EDROZO: The prison gangs do, yes.
CAVANAUGH: The prison gangs. Now let me get clear on that. When someone is taken in, when a prisoner is taken in, they’re basically allowed to segregate according to their race and where – which gang they’re going to affiliate with?
EDROZO: Well, we don’t segregate – We don’t allow them to segregate. They segregate themselves.
CAVANAUGH: They segregate themselves.
EDROZO: Yes. And it’s part of – it’s based on their politics.
CAVANAUGH: And does that, though, do you think encourage gang membership?
EDROZO: Yes. Yes, it does.
CAVANAUGH: Is it possible to survive in prison if you’re not in a gang?
EDROZO: You know, you can survive but there’s consequences you’re going to have to pay in the long run. You know, you can come into prison not belonging to a gang but you’re going to – in order to stay on the yard, you’re going to have to pay somebody, either canteen or send money to somewhere down the road. And you might even be asked to basically what we call take care of business. You might be asked to commit an assault or to take drugs back to another housing unit. So you’re going to basically what we call put in work.
CAVANAUGH: So what does being in a gang do for an inmate?
EDROZO: It – In prison, it makes life easier. It makes life more comfortable in a prison setting because you’re protected. If you need things, you can go to your fellow inmates and they’ll take care of you if you’re, you know, short on canteen, short on food, coffee, if you’re out there and you have a problem with another race, they’re going to protect you. So it just makes life more comfortable for you.
CAVANAUGH: Outside of any criminal activity that might actually take place within the prisons that you have to deal with when that comes up, when it deals with gangs, do the gangs actually make things run a little bit more smoothly in prison?
EDROZO: They can at times.
CAVANAUGH: How so?
EDROZO: Because they’re – within their politics, it’s – you don’t want to draw – they don’t want to draw attention to their particular race so they follow rules that, you know, are given or given direct orders by cops. You know, when it’s time to lock up, they lock up and in a timely manner. They’re not running around their tiers, not a bunch of chaos. They keep things in order.
CAVANAUGH: Now when we on the outside, when we hear about some sort of problem within a prison, maybe a riot, we often hear that it has to do with rival gangs. And I’m wondering, how dangerous is that for guards, for officers? Do you often have to intervene in gang disputes?
EDROZO: Yes, we do, a lot. And it’s part of our job on a daily basis. You know, every time you go out to the yard, there’s always gang activity going on. There’s always racial tension. And you always got to keep your eyes, especially in my job, I always have to know who’s at war. You know, one day are the Hispanics at war with the blacks? Are they at war with the whites? Or vice versa? So it is, it is very dangerous. And we do try to get in there and communicate with them. That’s the biggest part of our job, is communication.
CAVANAUGH: And what is your job actually like? Do you go out in the yard? I mean where do you basically police the gang activity?
EDROZO: Everywhere in the institution.
EDROZO: Yeah. I go over an institution. When guys come in off the bus, I’m out there looking at the guys coming off the bus, what type of tattoos they have. Tattoos that they have tells a lot. It tells me a lot about that certain individual. And once I identify a guy and he’s showing a lot of tattoos, he’s done a lot of time, that’s someone that I’m going to pay a little bit more interest in because someone like that is promoting that prison gang activity.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Assistant Institutional Gang Investigator William Edrozo. We’re talking – We are broadcasting from Donovan State Prison on These Days on KPBS. And I want to ask you about does anybody ever drop out of a gang in prison?
EDROZO: Yes, they do.
CAVANAUGH: And what is that like?
EDROZO: It – The process basically, in order for people to become a dropout, first they have to be validated as a prison gang member or an associate. Once they drop out, they have to go through what we call an IYP, an integrated yard program. And what that does is, that gets them ready for an SOY yard because…
CAVANAUGH: What’s an SOY yard?
EDROZO: A sensitive needs yard.
EDROZO: That’s a protective custody yard because now you’re going to be housed with child molesters, rapists, other gang dropouts, your enemies. And you have to be able to prove to the state or to the Department of Corrections that, you know, you dropped that gang lifestyle. Because what people don’t really understand about gangs is it actually is a lifestyle. It’s a way of life for them. And they have to lose that mentality once they drop out of that gang because once you drop out of a gang, you’re actually looked upon from your former gang members as like a child molester or a rapist. You’re like the lowest of the low. And they have to prove to us that they’re willing to drop that mentality and they can go cell up with another race or live with another race or live with an enemy that would be like, for instance, you know, right now if I were to house a Mexican and a black, as soon as that door would close, there would be a fight on site. Now when you go to SOY, all those racial politics are out the door. You should be able to cell up with a black, a white, you know, an Asian, because now you’re on the same level as them.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Officer Edrozo, you are heavily uniformed. Are you wearing a stab vest?
CAVANAUGH: Do you normally do that?
EDROZO: Yes. I wear one every day but actually mine’s a dual vest. I have ballistic and stab-proof.
CAVANAUGH: And so I guess this is a rather silly question to follow up but how dangerous is your job?
EDROZO: It’s very dangerous because I’m documenting the worst of the worst. And I’m the one that actually changes their life within the prison setting. You know, one day a certain individual could be walking on the yard getting four or five hours of yard a day and once I conduct my investigation, now he’s locked down in a cell 23 hours a day. Gets off for yard, you know, one hour a day or a shower. So I changed his way of living within a prison setting.
CAVANAUGH: We hear a lot on the outside about people and inmates holding grudges and getting revenge and even sometimes on officers. Does that happen?
EDROZO: Yes, you hear about it. But the biggest thing, the main thing in prison is respect, okay? As long as you show these guys respect and you don’t look at them as a criminal, you look at them as a man—he’s another man sitting across from you—you treat them with that respect, you’re going to get that respect back. A lot of these guys do understand that it’s just my job. You know, that was their job, what they were doing, they just got caught. It’s my job to document and validate them as a prison gang member. And once they demonstrate that, then I’m going to do my job.
CAVANAUGH: Do you ever find that gang – people who were in gangs before they came to prison are actually still running some criminal activities on the outside? Does that ever happen?
EDROZO: Yeah, it does. It does in some cases. Very rare, but, yeah, they do. You know, once you join a gang and you’re going to stay active, you’re always going to have that mentality so you’re always going to find the easy way of making money. And…
CAVANAUGH: And so I wonder if that – there’s anything that you could change about the fact that the overcrowded prisons in California are kind of riddled with these really dangerous gangs. Is there – Do you see any way out of that?
EDROZO: No. I mean, it’s been around forever and it’s going to be around. You know, it’s – all you can do is just do your job and be the best at it, you know, and try to make a difference. But it’s – you gotta understand, like I said, it’s a lifestyle. You know, a lot of these kids grow up in the neighborhoods, their dad’s already in prison, and that’s all they know. And a lot of these kids, these young kids, they want to become, you know, prison gang members because from what they understand is that’s how they’re going to earn their respect from their neighborhoods. So it’s just a – it’s a cycle. It’s just – it’s going to continue. So…
CAVANAUGH: Officer Edrozo, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
EDROZO: You’re welcome.
CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to a special These Days program recorded entirely inside Donovan State Prison. Stay with us for hour two of the show coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.