On Sunday, October 14, 2018, I visited with Travis Christian, known to some as BB8099. Travis is an inmate in California State Prison, Sacramento. He’s served five years and has five more to serve. He’s happy to be where he is now compared to where he was a few months ago — in another prison in solitary confinement or the hole. Or the SHU. At first, no books, no paper, no pen, no tv, no radio. Just Travis and four prison walls.
Travis has bipolar/schizo-affective disorder. In a psychotic state, he thought a man was Satan and stabbed him. Hence to prison. In prison, in another psychotic state, he punched a med tech. Hence to solitary. What’s wrong with this picture? When the mental health system doesn’t help someone, and he acts out, we send him to jail. When mental health professionals don’t help him manage his illness, we send him to the hole. Case closed. Hands washed.
This was my first visit to a high security prison. I drove through the wrong entrance and was told. ”You need to back up. The visitor’s entrance is back there.” I asked a question. “No questions. Ask at the Visitors’ Center.”
When I entered the visitors’ admission room, 15 people, from a church group, were ahead of the individuals trying to get in to see their loved ones. It was disorganized. Tempers erupted. “You’re infringing on our visiting time.” When I stepped up to the desk, I was told I needed to fill out a form (that I didn’t know about) and had to leave the line. A woman, visiting her husband, offered to show me the ropes. She helped me purchase a “credit card” to use in the visiting area for the food/drink vending machines.
When Travis’s name was called, I removed my shoes, watch, vest, and glasses to walk through a scanning machine. (Cell phones, combs, lipstick, wallets, and purses are not allowed.) Put back together, I joined a group waiting for a shuttle bus. I wasn’t shy about asking questions — “This is my first visit.” One couple was visiting her brother. He’s due to be released next year and will live with them until he gets his bearings. One woman drives each Sunday from Yuba City (about 43 miles) to visit her son who has schizophrenia. He’s been in prison 22 years. He’s afraid to come out. He believes people will think he’s weird. They won’t understand. Each time a release date is coming up, he does something to get in trouble and to delay his release.
His mom said, “It’s terrible in here. One Sunday three guards played a joke on my son. I couldn’t come to visit that day but they told him he had a visitor. He walked into the visiting area and no one was there for him. The guards laughed. My son was devastated. And they’re making new rules that make things worse.” Who makes the rules? “People in ties and heels sitting around a desk who’ve never been in a prison. Other people, like DJ Jaffe and Pete Earley, have good suggestions but none of them ever get implemented.”
The shuttle arrived and around fifteen of us boarded. The shuttle made stops at different prison entrances (varying levels of security) and the driver called out the names of the prisoners inside. “Christian” was called at the third stop. I got off the bus, walked into a grey, concrete building, and showed my visitor’s pass and my stamped hand to a guard. He opened an electronically locked door. I walked through the door. It closed behind me. A second locked door opened in front of me. I proceeded onto an elevator to Floor 2 and through two more sets of double locked doors. Finally, the visiting area spread wide open. I approached another guard desk to show my visitor’s pass. “Go to table ten and we’ll call the prisoner.”
Fifteen to twenty tables were busy with groups of two or three. I noticed that I was one of two or three white visitors. The rest were African-American or Latino as were most of the inmates. The room was big, square, bleak. Vending machines holding candy, hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, and assorted drinks lined the walls. A red line on the floor marked the perimeter of the room and said, “Out of Bounds.” The microwave area was marked, “Out of Bounds.” People ignored the line to microwave their sandwiches.
I sat down at table ten. I read the rules written on a laminated sheet on the table. One rule was “Face forward at all times.” I faced forward. Another rule was “Keep both hands visible at all times.” And, “The inmate must sit in the center.” (There were three chairs at each table.) And “Keep your feet off the table.” And “Brief hugs/kisses allowed when arriving or leaving.” There were nine rules. I don’t remember the others.
I learned about Travis through this blog. I wrote to him and he wrote back. He was in solitary at the time. Mail was a big deal. I posted his address. I hoped readers would write to him. More about that in a bit.
Travis’s mother, Kathy, sent me photos so I knew what he looked like. I sat waiting at table ten. After about five minutes, I saw him. Travis entered through an opening on the right and walked down a ramp. As he scanned the room, I waved. He spotted me (I’d sent him my photo) and a big smile lit up his face. Our visit, nine months after we first communicated, and one hour after I arrived at the prison, was about to begin.
Tomorrow: Talking with Travis