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Locked Down and Forgotten

EDITOR'S NOTE: When two guards were stabbed in July at the Salinas Valley State Prison, the facility went on "lockdown" -- an increasingly common occurrence in California's state prisons, and one with grave effects on inmates' mental and physical health. The following edited letter was written July 19 by a 63-year-old inmate incarcerated for life in the prison.

SOLEDAD, Calif.--It is very early this Tuesday morning. I have been having serious difficulty with my sleep, and no doubt that is because it has been so long since I, or anyone else for that matter, have been able to get out of my cell and stretch my legs...and mind. We all are in serious need of some physical exercise, fresh air and mental stimulation. These long lock-downs take their lasting toll.

There may well be an investigation happening, but at this prison there are four, totally self-contained "facilities," each housing 1,000 inmates. There is absolutely no human contact nor communication possible between inmates of these different facilities. Yet whenever a guard is assaulted in one of those facilities, all facilities are locked down.

During the past week there have been several men who "broke" -- acted out -- and now sit in solitary confinement. There will, no doubt, be more as we go along. There is no allowance, no quarter given for the psychological and emotional destruction that takes place.

It is surely a right step toward improving this system with the recent decision to turn the health care system over to the feds. Frankly, I had become convinced that (United States District) Judge (Thelton) Henderson was forever only going to bump his gums and do nothing more. Those of us who have been able to discuss it through the air vents and toilets all agree, because of our experience with the CDC, we would be indeed foolish to get our hopes up. Truth be told, there is very little hope left among us here.

Is this 24/7 nightmare created by the actions of custody staff, alone? It is not!

A 20-year-old youngster here has a very large lump on his penis. He saw a "doctor" who told him, "I'm not sure what it is, but it might be a calcium deposit. If it gets any bigger, let us know." No tests were ordered... It has become considerably larger. He has twice seen this same doctor, and has both times been told to "return if it gets worse." ... Imagine being 20 years old with this sort of problem, and realizing these folks either have no idea what they are doing, or they just do not care.

No matter, the worst they can do to me is kill me. Looking around, that would not be such a horrible thing. Actually, I am one of the better-behaved inmates here, never into any trouble, nor causing the administrators headaches. Yet I, and others like me, are treated no differently than anyone else: punitively. Good behavior does not have its rewards at this prison. Back in the day there was an "honor" cell block set aside in which inmates who were consistently model prisoners were placed to enjoy a quiet, comfortable environment. It gave inmates incentives to remain on their good behavior. It is obvious that if incentives do not exist, prisoners are not motivated.

Frankly, I am near the point of not caring, hardly feeling, as are so many others around me. I am of the mind, for the most part, as long as I have a good, strong cup of instant coffee in the morning, and a Ramen noodle soup for my lunch as I listen to low-playing music in the background, I am better off than most here. Besides, a hundred years from now, who the hell is going to care about any of this? They do not even care now.

Always remember, it will be a merciful day for me when they carry me out of this pit. I will see you on the other side -- wherever that may be.

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