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Producer’s Perspective: What I Learned In Prison

Editor's Note: The producer inadvertently wrote that prisoners can make "up to $100 per day." She meant to write "up to $100 per month."

The blandly named Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility is huge, squatting over some 700 acres of Otay Mesa about twenty minutes south and east of KPBS and a stone’s throw from the colonias and maquilidoras of Tijuana.

Audio

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.

These Days

Read the transcript of the These Days segment

Watch Video

Watch the "Life in Prison" documentary

Three of us from KPBS are there to meet the administration and see if we can come to an agreement to tape a These Days show there. This sort of thing has not been done before, and the staff seems both reluctant and intrigued by our request, two adjectives which also apply to These Days executive producer Natalie Walsh, director Kurt Kohnen and me. A prisoner driving a shuttle picks us up in the immense and distant parking lot and hauls us to the administration wing, which could be any aging state building. A guard riding along in the shuttle notes approvingly that we will be able to go in because none of us is wearing blue jeans. We don’t tell him that this is a lucky accident.

Our tour guide, Patti Colston, who has the enigmatic title of community partnership manager, stops first at the front door to cheerfully show us two expressive and colorful murals and a tall polished wooden cabinet, both crafted decades ago by prisoners. As we head outside, the three of us don’t know what to expect, but we’ve all seen prison movies. We’re nervous, and our imaginations are on overload. Will they yell at us? Take us hostage? Ask us to smuggle out notes? Will it be filthy? Smelly? Dangerous?

None of that, of course. At least not today. Donovan is not Club Med, but neither is it Midnight Express. It is a well-run prison whose staff manages nearly 5,000 prisoners -- from non-violent parole violators to garden variety gang members to hyper-violent psychopaths. And they do it in a facility built for 2,500.

We show our driver’s licenses on entering and leaving every door of every building, every yard, every locked gate, and there are many. Our first stop is a large yard with grass in the center – beginning to green-up from the recent rains – and a dirt walkway around the perimeter. Prisoners are standing, sitting or walking slowly around in small groups. They are quiet, ignoring us. Some in this area may be on drugs to keep whatever demons pursue them at bay. In this part of the prison the men can be outside from breakfast to dinner if they want. All -- some young, some middle-aged, some with canes -- are dressed in blue pants and shirts. And now the reason we can’t wear jeans suddenly becomes clear. Patti tells us the blue outfits mean they have been accepted into Donovan as inmates. The hundreds of guys in orange we will see later are in transit – or limbo, whichever you prefer.

Because there is so much idle time-passing going on, we ask if prisoners at Donovan work. Yes they do. Jobs start at $.50 per hour; half goes to a restitution fund and half goes to the inmate, and it’s possible for an inmate to earn up to $100 a month. And what is there to do? Not so much as a few years ago, apparently.

For many years Donovan inmates produced thousands of eyeglasses for Medi-cal patients in the optical shop. But this year, California cut glasses out of its Medi-cal budget -- perhaps to prevent people from reading about budget cuts. Also kaput are the art program and the carpentry workshop. All substance abuse and educational programs are gone. The program for prisoners about to re-enter society – San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’s initiative which reduced the recidivism rate among participants from Donovan from 70% to under 20% -- was cut dramatically last year to save money.

What’s left for the prisoners to do? Donovan’s bakery is still turning out bread for several California prisons, and the sweet aroma of baking adds a surreal touch to an already foreign scene. Patti tells us prisoners also make tennis shoes – blue ones -- for themselves, and they can work in the laundry, offices and grounds.

We cross the yard to the Level 1 housing unit. It’s dim inside, but we can see that cells line the walls of two stories and face a gray open area where round tables with metal seats attached like spokes are fixed permanently to the floor. A second-floor perch with darkened windows has one officer inside, the one with the gun. The two guards on the floor are unarmed and very obviously outnumbered. Patti shows us inside one of the cells – empty, thankfully – and it’s about five feet wide and maybe 9 feet long. These were originally built for one man, but now two share this tiny space with bunks, lockers, a sink, toilet and a forest of sharp metal corners.

The deeper into the prison we go, the stranger it gets. Prisoners like pedophiles and gang dropouts with “special needs” – such as not being killed by fellow prisoners – are allowed outside, too, but must be isolated in largish outdoor cells. The men waiting to see a doctor are lined up outside the medical building in four cages, three to a cage. (The medical facilities at all California prisons are in the hands of a federal receiver, and the medical care, which was sub-standard in the extreme, has improved to the point where law-abiding, uninsured Californians would be envious.)

The last two places Patti takes us spook us the most. The first used to be a gymnasium, but it’s now a Reception Center dormitory for prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses. 150 of them are wearing orange and are packed in bunks stacked three high with perhaps two feet between each stack. These orange-clad, long-haired, tattooed mostly young men are waiting -- officially for assignment or release, but perhaps for some action, someone to start something, which in these conditions appears inevitable.

Our final stop – an unpleasant surprise -- is Administrative Segregation, prisoners too violent, too psychotic to be allowed in the general population. Standing outside as a guard lowers a metal clip on a string from a second-story window, we send up our IDs, and eventually someone opens the heavy doors. Here are the familiar two stories of cells around the walls, but these have 8X10 sheets of paper taped around the doors, notices that the prisoner is likely to spit, kick or something worse. They cannot leave their cells without being handcuffed and/or dressed in a mask or some kind of special suit, depending on their aberrant behavior. Most bizarre, instead of tables in the center of the room, there are eight or so tall white cages in two semi-circles. Three or four guards and several staff members hover nearby as Chris Beletsis, a staff psychologist, explains to us that the cages are for group therapy participants who otherwise would tear each other limb from limb. Some prisoners here can be helped, he says, but some are so sick that even anti-psychotic drugs can’t reach them. It’s a fitting end to a very weird day.

At KPBS, we’ve been working on exploring and explaining California’s dysfunctional state prison system since October of last year. We’ve spent some seven and a half hours of air time looking into why there are so many prisoners incarcerated for so long, how much each one costs taxpayers, why the recidivism rate is so high, and what ideas there are for reform.

But the thing that struck me the most during my visit is that not only is prison a fundamentally sad and scary place, but in California it is also deeply counterproductive. Sure there are people who are actually pernicious and evil, and we all should be grateful to those who keep them away from the rest of us. But I believe that most of those in Donovan or San Quentin or Las Colinas are not really like that. I believe that if taught to read, or taught a trade, or discover that hope and parole are not empty words, that good behavior and self-improvement can mean redemption and that rehabilitation is a reality, then most of them -- some of them -- will become what we all want to be -- constructive and productive Americans. As it is, most prisoners produce nothing and cost us more than $40,000 a year. Each.

That’s what I learned.

That, and prison guards deserve whatever they want. No questions asked.

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