From the outside, the goings on in prison are invisible. If you live close enough to one, you might catch a glimpse of concrete walls and high mast yard lighting. If the wind is just right, you could hear the shrill buzz of an alarm in the distance. For most people, that’s the only thought–a prison is a place that’s just there.
That electronic buzz that you heard–that alarm–means that something bad happened. An inmate stabbed another inmate, a riot kicked off on the yard between opposing racial gang factions, or more increasingly common, a staff member was assaulted.
Like their law enforcement brothers and sisters on the street, staff members on the inside are targeted for assault, just because of their job.
In California, there is tremendous pressure to reduce the number of inmates confined in “solitary” and push them back out into general population. I’m sorry, but what many fail to understand is that the “prison system customers” who are in Security Housing Units, or SHU beds, earned their way there. You don’t get placed in SHU for not selling enough girl scout cookies. You stabbed someone, trafficking in drugs while in prison, tried to kill staff, or aligned yourself with criminal prison gangs to disrupt prison operation.
Once upon a time, I worked in a unit we called Bedrock. It was considered a Violence Control Unit and it was a more restrictive section within the Security Housing Unit. Think of it as a prison within a prison, within a prison. If you stab someone in general population, you get a SHU placement for about nine months to a year. If you stab someone while in SHU, you earned a placement in Bedrock.
Bedrock was designed as it sounds. You get nothing, the bare basics–back to bedrock. The metal bunks were removed and replaced with concrete beds. The SHU inmates were pretty adept at cutting sections of the metal bed frames to make weapons. The weapon stock which came from the bed frame was eliminated as was all excess property. If the inmate clothes were changed out to eliminate elastic waistbands, then they couldn’t manufacture crossbows to shoot feces-tipped arrows out of their food ports.
The inmates assigned to this unit were the most recalcitrant, assaultive and dangerous bunch in the system. The basis for my books AT WHAT COST, and BURY THE PAST were born there. One inmate, lets call him JW, was an Aryan Brotherhood member, who’d recently stabbed an officer in the San Quentin Adjustment Center, so he came to my unit–Bedrock. Because you can’t get a leopard to change his spots, JW died in that unit while stabbing another inmate. His organs went up for donation and at the time I couldn’t imagine who’d want something from that dirty, disgusting guy.
There was always something going on in Bedrock, cell extractions, gassings, stabbings–you name it. But, I feel the place kept the violence contained and kept it from spreading to the rest of the prison. We knew how to control it and contain it within Bedrock and the staff who worked there were veterans who knew their way around prison politics and knew how to get the most recalcitrant con to comply.
Rehabilitation definitely has a place inside, but these men were all serving terms of life, or hundreds of years. They were never going home–they were home.
With the prison violence I’m seeing, from my perch on the outside now, I’m thinking a return to the Violence Control Unit might be a more prudent approach as opposed to the let them all out plan we’re seeing now. Staff safety matters. Inmate safety matters. Keep it contained–don’t let the violence spread.