By Boston Woodard
I live in a prison dormitory (one of 29) on the “Sierra” yard at the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville. It is a Level II prison with Level I being the lowest custody level and Level IV being the highest.
I was told by a 20-year-plus employee (at this prison) that the dormitory size was originally designed for approximately 10 prisoners when CCC opened in 1963. Today, 30‒32 prisoners are crammed into the small dorms. Way too many people stuffed in much too little space. There is one small section of a two-tier housing unit that inhabits 16 prisoners per dormitory. Still cramped and overcrowded with 16 men, the 30-plus man dorms are horrendously overcrowded.
There are two feet separating the all-metal beds/bunks that line both sides of the dormitory walls, which is the size of two small two-car garages side-by-side. Thirty full-grown humans are forced to live inside one of these dorms with two toilets and one urinal. Envision all 30 men waking up within minutes of each other having to use the small bathroom facilities and using only one shower head, minutes before the dorm is unlocked for breakfast. Happens every day.
Some men will go straight to a mandatory job assignment from breakfast, un-showered, still having to use the toilet. If those men who missed the toilet opportunity in their dorms are lucky, they will be able to empty their bowels and bladders within a half hour or so once at their assignments. The men who head back to their housing units will wait 30 minutes or more (out in the elements) for an “unlock” back into the dorms. Once inside the cramped dorm, it’s a literal foot race toward the toilet area in an attempt to be first in line. After the first two men are seated, others line their rolls of toilet paper on a partition near the toilets marking their place in line to defecate.
At the other end of the overcrowded dorm, a television set is blasting while some men are slamming dominoes on a metal property locker tipped on its side and used as a table. A few feet from the blasting TV and the pounding domino game, other prisoners are participating in yelling conversations that are more like decibel matches about absolutely nothing. Those convicts lucky enough to still be serving their sentences in a two-man cell should consider themselves fortunate to be far from the din of dormitory madness.
Those prisoners wanting to read or study find it almost impossible to educate themselves in overcrowded circumstances. It takes an awesome amount of forbearance and requires a massive sum of restraint to read, study or write under bloated living conditions.
Prison officials, politicians, law enforcement agencies, parole and probation departments and the taxpaying public at large expect a parolee to have the necessary education and/or social skills to succeed once released from prison. Many prisoners wish for the same thing. When incarcerated people are subjected to long-term continued dehumanizing and stagnant warehousing, nothing changes.
Whatever the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is doing to bring itself into court-ordered compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce its prisoner population from severely overcrowded to 137.5% of capacity is not having any noticeable positive effect at the CCC state prison in Susanville.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, “For years, the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.”
Although prison officials demand that prisoners obey all rules, regulations and laws in order to regain their freedom, they continue to scoff at the highest court in the land that ordered them to preemptive action to eliminate overcrowding throughout the prison system. We’re still waiting.
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist serving his sentence in Susanville State Prison. Boston has written for the San Quentin News and the Soledad Star and edited The Communicator.