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by Jesús Ruelas

The morning sky was a kaleidoscope of pastel colors shining over Mule Creek State Prison. Chuy could feel the heat beginning to rise as the breeze touched his face. He saw the heavens had allowed that enormous ball of fire to illuminate the sky once again; at the same time, he heard the flutter of a large gathering. Sparrows had landed on the concrete wall between the visiting center and building one. It amazed Chuy. How could the sparrows rest on razor-sharp barbwire without getting hurt?

Their song, as Chuy likes to call it, reminded him of a remarkable piece of music with all the individual singing sounding rapid, yet smooth, robust, yet entertaining. Not far from where the birds were spending their time stood Chuy and his fellow jailbirds. Chuy and his fellow Juvenile Diversion Program (JDP) members were dressed in their luxury state-issue attire. This crew of prisoners looked sharp as they congregated in front of the education building. They stood proud, creased from top to bottom while sporting their one-pocketed blue chambray shirts, branded by the large florescent yellow “CDCR PRISONER” on the back. They also wore elastic blue pants that resembled Levi 501 jeans that proudly announced “CDCR PRISONER” on the right pant leg. On this Saturday, Chuy’s fellow comrades in blue stood out regardless of the conditions. Altogether, Chuy’s friends had nice haircuts, not a single wrinkle on their state-issued clothing, and they all wore a handsome smile as they anxiously waited for the visitors to arrive.

Prior to entering the maximum-security level-four prison yard, the Lodi GRIP Program and guests stood before a gigantic mechanical barbed wire fence that keeps the prisoners confined to their assigned yard. They gazed up and saw a catwalk used by correctional officers designated as the “gunner” for possible security circumstances, such as a full-scale riot. On the other side of that fence, the visitors were visually introduced to the concrete jungle. To their right was a massive concrete wall 200-yards long, with multiple blue doors leading into the different departments on A Yard.

The first door, roughly 30 feet from the mechanical fence, is the entrance to A Yard’s education department. The last door leads into the Prison Industry Authority department where selected inmates work for higher wages: 35 cents per hour starting off, and topping out at 95 cents for hard labor. Those inmates work on textiles and coffee roasting.

Most prisons are designed using a similar format, built to house 3,000 to 5,000 inmates depending on the custody level. As the visitors looked to their left, they gazed at a boomerang-shaped row of inmate housing units, beginning with the visitor center that connects to the housing units by means of a tall, lengthy concrete wall topped with barbed wire. Then, their gaze moved from left to right, as they studied housing units one through five. In between buildings two and three is an access gate that looks like huge slabs of gray aluminum as tall as the buildings, trash containers surround that access gate. This gate leads to the outside world, so the gunner designated to watch the entire yard keeps a close eye on that gate from his post across the yard.

Each building houses 200-plus lost souls who seem to forget they are human. From where the visitors were standing, they noticed windows protected by bars above the blue mechanical doors that lead into the inmate housing units. The visitors see that every building has an observation window that is used at times as a gun port. The visitors will learn later in the day that the designated gunners carry Mini-14 semi-automatic rifles at all times in case they need to deter violence and save lives. The control booth gunner has an entire view of all 50 inmate cells on the top tier, and the 50 cells, showers, and dayroom on the bottom tier. The guests will see the living units later in the day.

In between the long slab of concrete to the right, and living units to the left, the visitors from Lodi GRIP saw a large recreational yard. The yard has many exercise stations scattered: pull-up bars, dip bars, a soccer field, a dirt track around the perimeter of the soccer field, two basketball courts, and many steel tables bolted to the ground. The visitors also notice four huge light posts. A Yard at 8 a.m. was entirely empty, with the exception of inmates walking to the chow hall, and the JDP members filled with excitement just outside the Education Department.

Chuy, standing with his back touching the chilly education wall, heard the shuffle of feet, and conversations to his left. As he looked in the direction of these sounds, he realized it was show time. The JDP members were ready to put all their hard training to use. As the huge electrical fence began to open and allow the visitors onto the prison yard, the JDP people became enthusiastic, anxious, and hopeful. God willing, the prison experience can inspire change in all the youth visiting Mule Creek State Prison.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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