First Day Working In side a California Prison

Terry B. Davis

The First Day

December of 1982, I was hired as a Correctional Officer for the then, California Department of Corrections at Soledad State Prison (later to be renamed the Soledad Correctional Training Facility). Upon completing the Correctional Officers Academy, I reported to my first day on the job. I was apprehensive, my stomach was tied in knots as I entered the Central Facility, this is the area where the most dangerous inmates were housed at that time, the steel electric gate closed behind me. At this point I realized that I was now locked inside a prison, with murders', rapists, child molesters, basically the scum of the earth. I took a deep breath and continued walking into the facility. I approached the entry to the housing complex and was admitted into a narrow sally port enclosure. A small area about 15 feet long and four foot wide, reinforced concrete, with two small windows which lead to the control room, so that officers there could see who was entering the facility and who was leaving. I was in my brand new uniform with a shinny badge, squeaky new leather gun belt, and spit shined shoes. An electric lock was engaged and produced a loud clanking noise of metal on metal that echoed in the confined area of the sally port. The door on the far end, leading into the main corridor, opened about two inches. As I entered the corridor I was met by the sounds of keys banging against each other, the background noise of hundreds of conversations blurring into a jumble and elevated to the level of near eardrum shattering static. My nostrils were then assaulted by the antiseptic odor of floor wax and disinfectant, the smell of an institutional setting. The Main corridor is about ΒΌ of a mile in length and about 15 feet wide, with inmates (prisoners) and staff (guards, non-uniformed employees) walking in all directions, like five o'clock traffic on a freeway at a main junction of on ramps and off ramps. I spotted a sign above a doorway that read, Watch Office, that was my first stop, to check in and find out where I would be working. As I entered the watch office the smell of sweat and cigar smoke filled the room, I was in a small room, about 10'X15', with two large desks in the center of the room facing the door, and a table with a coffee pot against the near wall by the door. Seated at the first desk was an older officer, he glanced up at me, looked down at a clip board on the desk, and mumbled, "Davis, F wing, 2nd officer", and looked back down at the paper work on his desk. I had no idea of where F wing was or what 2nd officer was. With-out looking up the officer blurted out, go to the window in the main corridor where you'll see a line of officers and get your keys. Enough said, I walked back into the corridor and saw a line of officers standing at a window, so I walked to the back of the line and waited for my turn to approach the window, where another officer was handing out keys in return for small metal tags, which they called "Chit's", that had the officers name on them. After about 5 minutes I made it to the window. The window was about waist high from the floor, with a metal tray extending out that was about 5"X5", the window itself was about 3' high, and 4' wide and an octagon shape, which stood out from the wall about one foot, made up of 6"X6" panes' of Plexiglas. The window pane just above the metal tray was missing and a small steel door, with a latch on the inside was attached to it, which stood open. The officer inside asked me what do you want. I replied, F wing, 2nd officer, the officer stopped, looked at me and yelled, what position number? I froze; I had no idea what he was talking about. As I was stuttering, the officer directed me to a clip board hanging on the wall, about five feet from the window and said, "look it up", he immediately looked passed me to the officer behind me and yelled, "position number". As I walked toward the clip board I could hear grumbles of the officers waiting in line that were behind me, trying to go home, saying "Newbie", "Fish". I didn't react to the name calling but walked to the clipboard and found the position number for f wing, second officer. I returned to the end of the line and waited for my turn again, I wasn't going to screw up again, I had my chits in my hand ready to go. As I approached the window, for the second time. The officer again asked position number. I proudly spoke out, 236. The officers' hand shot out the window with his palm up as he said, "Chits". I gave him four chits, he looked at me with discuss and said he needed six chits. I fumbled and dug to get the remaining two chits off my key ring to give to him. The officers behind me again started grumbling and catcalling, get moving or get out of the way, newbie, fish, fresh meat etc..The officer at the window then handed me 6 chits and again moved on to the officer behind me. As I walked away from the window, I looked down at the chits' clutched in my hand. The chits read, I. AM. What the hell was this, a joke, a prank played on the new guy, what kind of a name was this? At this point I realized I had no idea where F wing was, I asked a passing officer, where's f wing, he motioned with his thumb, like a hitchhiker over his shoulder in the direction he was coming from. I looked down the 1/8th mile of corridor that was a slight decline and began walking. As I would approach a door, I could see a letter painted on the wall above the door, to my left was A wing, I continued walking, to my right The chapel, to my left B wing, I was going the right direction at least. I was starting to feel better I kinda knew what I was doing. Over the PA system I heard the announcement, YARD RECALL, YARD RECALL. As if by magic all the doors in the corridor opened and inmates came pouring out walling up and down the corridors at a fast pace. It looked like a jail break, inmates going everywhere, no order, no control. Officers then came out of the wings and stood inside two white lines painted in the center of the corridor, they were about two feet apart. As I approached an officer standing inside the white line he yelled, get inside the lines before you get run over. As my mind was attempting to evaluate this bit of new information, I saw a wall of blue approaching me I immediately jumped inside the white lines, an island of safety from the approaching stampede. At last I saw F wing above the last door on the right. The officer standing in front of the door, with in the white lines was staring at me as I approached him. He asked me, "Whose chits you got". I looked down at the chits still clutched in my right hand and said, I am. It immediately turned into a relay race with the handing off of the baton. The officer began walking towards, an as if by magic, several large set of keys and a box that looked like a garage door opener appeared in one hand and handcuffs, handcuff case and key appeared in the other. As he approached me without stopping or slowing down, he thrusts the keys, cuffs and case, and garage door opener into my midsection, while grabbing the chits from my hand and continued up the corridor without breaking stride. Dumb founded, I looked down at my hands at all the stuff he had thrust upon me, and wondered what in the hell am I supposed to do with all of this. As I looked up, shocked and confused, an officer walked out from the F wing door and into the corridor. He was, a light skinned black, about 6' tall, slender build, and short afro hair. He walked upright with a military bearing, having just got out of the military myself this was a welcomed relief, something familure. As he approached me he smiled, extended his right hand and said, "Welcome to the armpit of the world, first day?". I stuttered, yeah. He laugh and said follow me. We walked into F wing and into the office just inside the door to the right. It was small and dark. One desk, two chairs, a filing cabinet, and clipboards hanging everywhere, suspended from brass colored hooks that went all the way around the room. There were glass walls made up of 6"X6" panes of Plexiglas on three sides and a solid wall to the rear. The officer again introduced himself by name, Officer Wiggins, and said give me your keys, all I want you to do today is follow me around and watch what I do, tomorrow you're going to do it. I didn't know it then, but later learned that I was lucky, a lot of the older officers wouldn't talk with you much less show you what to do, They would just watch, laugh and let you fumble through. We walked out of the office and closed and locked the corridor door. As I turned around facing the wing I saw 350 inmates, standing around, talking laughing, watching us as we climbed the stairs. F Wing is one of the larger wings. It houses 350 inmates, on three tiers, with a metal staircase at the front and rear of the building. Each set of stairs reaches to a landing made up of steel mesh; each landing then connects to a three foot walkway that wraps around the building. On each side of the walkway are cell doors, 20 on each side with numbers painted on the top portion of the door. This set-up is duplicated two more times. Each tier has steel tubular rails about chest high, and from the 3rd tier it is a long way down to the concrete floor on the first tier. You hear the roar of voices all jumbled to gather rising from the 350 inmates on the first tier and a grey haze rises to the third tier along with the smell of burning tobacco, sweat and the institutional smell of disinfectant. At this time I was in a state of pucker factor 10. The pucker factor is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 with ten being the highest, in other words you are so nervous and scared that your asshole has closed so tight you have a tickling sensation in your throat.

It was time to lock all the inmates in their cells, do a body count and then get ready to release the wing to chow. The lock-up, I followed Wiggins to the third tier. At the front portion of each tier is what they call the "BAR". The bar is a manual locking/unlocking device that locks, unlocks, or allows the cell doors to be opened with a key. It is a large L shaped handle with a steel bicycle break contraption on the handle. You push the brake type lever down till it touches the L shaped handle, this removes a steel pin from one of three slots, you can then either push or pull the L shaped handle and line the steel pin up with one of the three slots, which will either lock all doors, open all doors or set each door to be opened with a key. Normally the bar is locked, except when there will be movement in or out of the cell doors. During programming hours the bar is set in the position where cell doors can only be opened with the officers' keys. Wiggins unlocks the bar, and Yells," Third tier, third tier only", using his drill sergeants voice. The stamped begins, without warning all the inmates, all one hundred and sixty or so that live in cells on the third tier claimer up the stairs raising the noise level to almost ear shattering. My first instinct is to run, but there is nowhere to go. Besides with a pucker factor of 10 it is almost impossible to run anywhere. The inmates' line up in front of their cell doors and Wiggins locks the bar in the open all doors with key position. He waits for about 10 seconds then yells, in his drill instructors voice, third tier west side lock it up, third tier west side lock it up. He then walks down the tier to the first cell door and begins manually locking the cell doors closed. Inmates are scrambling around, getting coffee, books, paper or whatever they may need for the next several hours from other inmates and rushing to get back to their cell door before Wiggins locks it. If they miss it, they have to go down to the first tier and wait until everyone else is locked up. As we finish the third tier we walk down to the second and lastly the first tier where the same process is performed. Upon locking up the first tier there are five or six inmates still out. Three of them are porters and will sweep and mop the tiers, and then be locked in their cells, one is the wing inmate clerk he will go to the office and do paperwork that we have directed him to do. The last two missed there lock-up. Wiggins writes down their names, CDC numbers, and cell numbers. He checks his book and finds that one of them had a prior failure to lock-up on time earlier in the week and the second one is his first time. The repeat offender is informed he will lose his night yard privilege for a week and the first timer is warned and reprimanded for missing the lock-up, advised of actions that may be taken if the behavior continues. He is then told to go and stand by his cell door and wait. Wiggins goes to the office, gives the clerk instructions on what he wants done and sits down for several minutes' before returning to the tiers and locking the offending inmates in their cells. After about 30 minutes, we check the porters work and lock them up in their cells. The clerk is last to be locked up just prior to the count and will be the first released to go to dinner.

After about 15 to 30 minuets' an announcement over the PA system echoes in the wing, COUNT TIME, COUNT TIME, START YOUR COUNTS. I followed Wiggins back up to the third tier, as he went cell to cell and looked inside each window and counted each inmate. At count time the inmates knew they were to be on their bunks and in plain view. Some would try to ask questions or wouldn't be on their bunks. Wiggins would shrug off the questions and tell the inmates to return to their bunk till after count. At the end of each side of the tier he would write down his count and then start on the other side. To complete all the tiers would take between 15 and 20 minuets'. We returned to the office, added up the counts by tier, filled out a count slip that would be picked up later by an officer and hand carried to the control room where it would again be verified, logged and submitted. Officer Wiggins, upon filling out the count slip would call control and give them the count verbally. The control officer would either say the count is good or bad. If it was good, no problem, if it was bad you would be told to recount. If on your recount still didn't match you would be told to get a negative count. A negative count consisted of counting all the empty beds and writing down the empty bed numbers. After which you again called control and gave them the negative count per tier. If it didn't match controls records you had to give them the cell and bed number of each empty bunk. If it still didn't match, your unit sergeant would come down and do the count again with you, either until it matched or until it was verified that you had someone missing. If someone was missing, the inside and yard of the facility would be searched to find him. If he was still unaccounted for then escape procedures would be implemented. That is a whole other ball game. Wiggin's and I finished the count, returned to the office and called Central Control to give them our count. The first several attempts the phone line was busy with other officer's calling in their counts. Finally, we got the call went through. Wiggins rattled of the tier counts and then a total wing count. He said thank you, and hung up the phone, turned to me and said the count is good, handed me the count slip and told me to push it part way through the crack in the corridor door between the door and door jam where it locks. After several minuets', an officer would pick up the slip and hand carry it to the Central Control room where it would again be checked, recorded and filed. Ten minuets' later the announcement came over the PA system, COUNTS CLEAR, COUNTS CLEAR, PREPARE FOR CHOW RELEASE, PREPARE FOR CHOW RELEASE. There is a list of what is referred to as critical workers. These are usually inmate clerks and workers that are needed immediately. They are always released prior to any of the wing being released. Again, for the hundredth time, or so it seems, we walk up the stairs to the third tier. Wiggins' has a list by cell number and name of the critical worker's to be released, including our wing clerk that we put on the list. It's like a benefit for the wing clerk, as long as he does his job right, we will release him to early chow. The critical worker's are released and mill around on the first tier, while we wait for the corridor officer to open the wing door. It suddenly dawned on me that we had been locked up in the wing with the inmate's since they had been returned for lock-up. I asked Wiggins about it, he laughed and said, yeah if anything goes down in here; it's me and you against 350. That sent shivers up and down my spine; I didn't like that idea at all. Wiggins also informed me that during the chow release one of us would be in the corridor and the other on the second tier landing. If anything happened the officer in the corridor would immediately lock the corridor door, if you're on the second tier landing you had better get to the door before it's locked, or you will be locked in the wing with the inmate's by yourself. Yep, new guy was on the second tier landing for chow release. Now, chow release was ran a little bit different. We would receive a call from the center corridor officer, he coordinated the chow release, and he would tell us to drop the first half of the wing. This meant that we would let out one and a half tiers, have them unlocked and ready to go when he called for them. Now chow release was ran exactly the opposite of a lock up. Instead of starting on the 3rd tier, we began on the 1st tier. This way when all the inmates were released from their cells they would stand on the first tier and we would be on the tier above them. Makes it harder for them to rush a cell while we are unlocking them. So, Wiggins' yells again, First Tier Eastside, First tier Eastside, CHOW. He opens the bar and one officer unlocks the doors on the eastside and the other officer watches him from the bar. Upon completion of the eastside, he announces the west side first tier and we continue until the entire first tier is unlocked. We then proceed to the second tier and release half of the tier. All the inmate's are ushered from the second tier to the first and wait for the corridor door to open, starting the release. After about 15 minuets', the corridor officer opens the door and yell's, CHOW. Officer Wiggins is first to exit the wing and takes up his position in the corridor where he can see me on the second tier landing and observe the inmate's leaving the wing and walking up the corridor. When the last inmate leaves the wing, the corridor is secured and we unlock the remaining inmates and have them wait on the first tier. Again, the corridor door opens, the officer yell's, CHOW and the officer Wiggins and the inmates leave the wing and again, I am standing on the first second tier landing. Once the entire wing has been released, the corridor door remains open, one officer remains in the corridor and the other officer returns to the wing office to do paperwork and sort the mail. Once inmates finish eating they are released from the chow hall to either go to evening yard, or return to their cell and be released later on for tier activities. Tier activities are, playing cards, writing letters, or watching TV in a common area. So, we receive the call that F Wing will be released from the chow hall. Officer Wiggins goes out into the corridor, and you guessed it, I am standing on the second tier landing watching the inmate's that return to the wing that are milling around on the first tier, talking joking and smoking. Officer Wiggin's returns to the wing, thank God, and yells, THIRD TIER LOCK IT UP, THIRD TIER LOCK IT UP. The inmate's that live on the 3rd tier, begin the long trek up the stairs to the 3rd tier followed by Officer Wiggins and I. Again, Officer Wiggins announces THIRD TIER EASTSIDE, THIRD TIER EASTSIDE, LOCK IT UP. He waits about 10 seconds and then begins locking the inmates in their cells. He repeats the same procedure as before until all the inmates, except the wing clerk are locked up. The clerk is locked in the office and given instructions on what Officer Wiggins wants him to do. We then pass-out the mail that we had sorted earlier, cell by cell. After passing out the mail, we get the cards, board games, iron and hair clipper's ready to go, the items that the inmate's are allowed to check out for tier activities. Now only certain inmates, with-in a certain classification, are allowed tier activities in the evenings. We not only have a list of the inmate's, but also require them to place their privilege cards in their cell windows so we can verify that the inmate is eligible for tier activities. We go to the first tier, make the tier announcement, and begin unlocking cells. As the inmate's exit their cells, they go directly to the first tier. We complete the unlock and we are on the 3rd tier, and again we usher inmate's off the 2nd and 3rd tier's and down to the first tier. During these activities no inmate's are allowed on the 2nd or 3rd tier without our permission. Officer Wiggins and I go to the office and he demonstrates for me, how to issue out the items and make sure they are secure. When using the hair clippers the inmate giving the hair cut and the inmate getting his hair cut are locked in a small room next to the office. When they finish, they call an officer over. The officer checks the room and the hair clippers to make sure no parts have been added to or taken away from and that both inmates are still in one piece with no additional holes, scrapes or cuts. They are then allowed to leave and if other's want to use the hair cutter's they approach us and give us their identification cards. After everything is given out Officer Wiggins returns to the office and I return to my perch on the 2nd tier stairs landing and watch the inmates. If inmates start horsing around, get to loud, or try to sneak up on the 2nd or 3rd tier, you use your flashlight by shining it on them and either shaking your head for no or some other gesture to convey the meaning to stop what they are doing. There are about 100 inmates out for tier activity and another 25 to 35 that went to the yard. When yard recall is announced, the inmates on tier activities are instructed to return all items to the office that were checked out and wait for lock-up. Officer Wiggins again goes to the corridor and I took my perch. Inmate's straggled in from the yard, and waited on the first tier for lock-up. This is one of the times that if inmates are going to fight it will happen. Usually, under the back stairwell where it is difficult to see. We usually will find a body, uncounsience, lying motionless, and usually bleeding from cuts to the head and face. They pick this time as the officer's are busy and they are being locked up anyway, it give's then the opportunity to wash themselves up and change clothing if needed. Back to the completion of yard recall. As the last inmate from the yard returns to the wings, Wiggin's announces, THIRD TIER LOCK IT UP, THIRD TIER LOCK IT UP. As the inmate's ascend to the third tier we again follow them and lock them up, by tier until we are completed. Once finished locking up the inmate's the porter's and clerk are the only ones left out. We give the porter's brooms, mop's and mop buckets and they sweep and mop the floors on all tiers, the TV are, barber shop, shower's and restroom areas. Any late returns from work are allowed to shower and then locked in their cells. Late returning inmates are identified; their stories checked and then locked up. Once the porter's and clerks are finished cleaning, they are allowed to shower and afterwards locked in their cell. Once everyone is locked up and counted again, the lights in the wing are turned down and the wing is placed on first watch status. Finally, it's quite, the smoke is dissipating, and the humidity from the showers, being on for the last hour and a half, is beginning to fade. There is still a dull roar in your ears from the continuous onslaught of sound that your ears were assaulted with for the last seven and a half hours. Sounds like a seashell being held to your ears. Officer Wiggins and I return to the office, where he asks if I have any questions. None come to mind. He says, good tomorrow you run the show and I'll watch. With that Officer Wiggins gather's his equipment, walks out the door, says good night over his shoulder as he heads to the center corridor to return his equipment and leave. I remain in the wing, in the now dead silence, dimly light, wing awaiting the first watch officer. I entered the wing office, laid out my equipment neatly on the desk, and set down to await my relief. When my relief arrived he looked at the equipment on the desk, handed me my chit's, and began unloading his lunch and other items he had brought to work. As he was doing this I began briefing him on the events of the day, I couldn't tell if he was listening or not so I continued and when I had finished. He turned around, set down in the chair at the desk, looked at me and said, you still here, I can read the wing log. As I left the wing and entered the corridor I heard him mutter under his breath fucking new guy, which I decided to ignore as my feet had began throbbing and filled with shooting pain. I hobbled up the corridor and exited the small sally port. As I walked into the cool night air and the sally port door clanged shut behind me, it felt like a hundred pound weight had been removed from my shoulders, and a surge of energy renewed my spirits. I walked to the main gate and entered the last sally port area and then I would again be free. As I exited the sally port and the sliding gate slammed shut behind me I could feel the knot in my stomach slowly release and fade away. I hobbled to my car, immediately removed my boots, my feet screamed with the pain of fresh blood pouring into them. I had to wait several minuets' for the pain to go away before I could drive home. I made a mental note, First thing in the morning I was going to get some comfortable shoes. As I drove home my mind was filled with doubts about this job, will I return tomorrow? It's either, go back or starve, well this job is only temporary until I can find something better. About halfway home I became extremely sleepy as the remaining stress was being released from my body that I was not even aware of.

That was my first day. It actually took about a month before I noticed that I no longer had that knot in the pit of my stomach, that would form when I saw the institution, while driving into work' and that would dissipate when I left work. However, the stress that I did not notice, until I would suddenly get sleepy while driving home as it left my body, would continue for another year. I still can't say that it went away all together or if I had just become so use to it, I didn't notice.

That job I took at the prison, until something better came along, lasted for 25 and one half years, August of 2007 I retired. After having been retired a year, I am able to see some of the long term effects that that job has left me with. I don't like large groups of people, I constantly scan and evaluate people in the stores, malls and any other public place, even people in vehicles while I am driving, noting their physical description, color make of car and the license number. I can't stand to sit in a restaurant, church or any other public place with people or a door behind me. My family is so a custom to this, that when we go to a restaurant to eat, they pick a booth in the back, and leave the seat open that has it's back to the wall and is facing the door, for me to sit in. Do guards get paid to much, I don't think so. Remember, this was only the first day, It gets worse.

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Comments 1 comment

Hparis 4 years ago

Compelling and scary story, thank you! It's interesting how many of the guards come to act like the people they deal with, cold, callous, tough, unwilling to be nice to the new guy.

I'd be scared to death to have to work in a prison!

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