Inside Folsom Prison-The Toughest Beat in the State

on May 6, 2010

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to tour Folsom State Prison with alumni from the FBI Citizens Academy. At least, a small part of it. They call it the “Toughest Beat in the State” and after walking it, I would have to agree. Every cop puts his life on the line when he puts on a uniform, but putting on the uniform within the walls of a maximum security facility with 4,000 felons carries additional risks.

The prison itself is huge, split between “new” (1986) and “old” (1880) Folsom. Both are still fully operational. We were at New Folsom Prison, a maximum security facility which also has a minimum security block.

Folsom State Prison, California

This photo is particularly stunning with the Folsom Dam and Folsom Lake beyond.

I drove up the road (shown in the lower left hand corner of the photo) which was lined with inspirational sayings for correctional officers. Visitors parking is there on the left, at the end of the road, and the administration building/check-in is that first building–left of the baseball diamond. The buildings surrounding the baseball diamond are minimum security facilities. These are prisoners who have less than five years to serve who have been convicted of non-violent felonies. These may include drug charges (such as selling/manufacturing); grand theft auto; drunk-driving (usually repeat offenses or where there is injury or property damage); burglary (if no one was home at the time); and similar. Prison officials assess every prisoner who comes in, looks at their sheet, prior convictions, etc to determine where they go within the prison.

We were given a talk at the beginning, where Rhonda, our veteran guide, told us that we were entering a maximum security prison and we did so with the full understanding that it’s a dangerous place. There were, as of April 30, over 100 incidents (which can be small or large.) When we went in, both B and C blocks were in lockdown because of violent outbreaks. And she pointed out, that if we’re taken hostage, they do not negotiate. None of us turned back, but it was certainly food for thought.

Minimum security inmates work the grounds, take classes, can get their GED and even an AA, and they have far more freedom than maximum security prisoners (for obvious reasons!) In fact, there is no fence preventing them from simply walking off the grounds. However, they have a long hike, there are guard towers, and any escape attempt would result in being locked in the maximum security side plus added time.

IInmates live in a dorm-like setting, with rows of bunk beds lining alcoves right off the main rooms. They aren’t in prison cells, they are allowed to purchase mini-refrigerators, televisions (they must be clear plastic to see the inner workings, no cable), and other approved electronics. They have freedom of movement within perimeters. Unlike maximum security who lost dining hall privileges (they eat in their cells), minimum security still has a cafeteria setting. That baseball diamond you see in the front center is theirs.

I had a lot of empathy for the minimum security inmates. First, they live @40 men in an alcove, sleeping about five feet apart. Hardly enough room to breathe. Their personal space is smaller than the average jail cell in maximum, though they don’t have bars and can move around. But primarily, they’re all young men. I doubted any that I saw were over 30. They have a chance to get straight, learn a skill, get their degree, and hopefully when they get out in less than five years they’ll have learned to live right.

It’s truly unfortunate that because the state of California has mismanaged our tax dollars for more than two decades, that one of the recent cutbacks has been in parolee programs. Minimum security inmates screwed up–probably not for the first time, but they weren’t committing a violent crime. (Don’t misunderstand me–I think most need to go to prison. These are felonies, not misdemeanor drug possession or minor thefts. Violent criminals usually start with the small stuff–burglary, stealing cars, selling drugs–but often escalate as they slide deeper into criminal life.) But these are the young men who I believe can change; with education, with hope, with support and encouragement, I think they could become productive members of society. Maybe it’s wishful thinking . . . but if we can’t help them, we’ll be paying for them–in prison–to the tune of $90K a year for the rest of their lives.

On the flipside, the other tragedy of California’s fiscal failure is the cut backs on the staffing side. This was made clear when we walked through the maximum security facilities (we saw A block and B block.) On many floors, only one guard is down there. There is an armed guard in the towers watching multiple floors and/or yards, but only one correctional officer on the ground. Staffing cuts put guards at great risk–as well as other prisoners.

There are no apparent cutbacks in legal, because prisoners continue to sue the prison for a variety of claims. Some are legitimate. Most are blatantly frivolous. All of them are expensive.

When we get to the maximum security side, we’re dealing with the violent felons and repeat offenders. All are there for five or more years. 80% will never be released.

B and C blocks are hardcore facilities. See the largest building on the right? That’s were we went. B and C blocks are the two separate sections (each with their own yard) at the top of that large building. (The other group of buildings closer to the dam is Old Folsom Prison. I believe that’s medium and maximum security, but I may have that wrong. It’s run separately from New Folsom.) The tower to the left is the main intake tower that we had to pass through (under?) to get to the B/C Blocks.

I learned a lot about prison politics. Gangs control everything, and gangs are divided by race. And no matter what the government or well-meaning people want to do to force political correctness on the running of prisons, safety of the prisoners and the guards must always come first. For example, Northern Hispanics and Southern Hispanics hate each other to the point that they will fight on sight. They are segregated into B and C blocks. A Northern Hispanic gang members sued because he felt it was discriminatory to segregate the two groups. But the Folsom guard who led our tour–a sharp woman with over 25 years experience in the prison system–said that every time they have attempted integration, it has resulted in violence. The judge agreed.

We all hear about how prisoners run things, and in more ways than I believed–it’s all true. They run the yard. They run the gates. They’ll tell an officer when the new prisoners come in whether they’ll accept them on the yard. Politics is everything. Our guide quoted JURASSIC PARK: “Life finds a way.” Meaning, no matter what privileges they take away, how many lockdowns they implement, how many years they tack on to a sentence, prisoners will find a way to adapt. We went up to the Investigative Services offices. Eight special guards who look like the best of special forces (all big, buff, and the two I saw rather hot!) are responsible for investigating all incidences at the prison. This means minor disagreements to violent outbursts. They check the mail (incoming and outgoing), talk to staff about prisoners, talk to prisoners about prisoners, investigating violence to determine who did what to whom and when, and it doesn’t stop there. Why? Because prisoners from other prisons have ways of communicating that would awe AT&T. 90 cell phones were confiscated last year–including data phones like BlackBerrys, Trios, etc. 20 so far this year (four months.) They monitor the mail because prisoners will send coded letters to outside friends who forward them to other prisoners in other prisons. The criminal underground is amazing–and rather scary when you consider the extent.

Another thing we saw with the investigators were weapons made at–and confiscated–in the prison. Such as a shiv made from the lid of a can. Knifes made from melted plastic. Razor blades attached to toothbrushes. And more–over a hundred handmade weapons on display–thousands have been confiscated. And prisons have staffing reductions? I don’t get it.

If a prisoner doesn’t want to play politics, they’re threatened or attacked. Prisoners who truly want to get out of politics have an option: A block.

“A” block (the buildings to the bottom of the largest building on the right) is for prisoners who are on meds (largely paranoid schizophrenics, from what I gathered–we couldn’t take notes, no purses, pens, cell phones, electronics, etc–so this is all from memory.) It’s also where they put the sex offenders because pedophiles will be killed in B or C block. It’s a fact of life–again, prison politics. Anyone in authority (such as a cop) is in A block, because again, we know what happens to cops in prison. And gang members wanting to get out of politics have a chance to go to A block–and they can never go back.

We talked to one convict who was sentenced to 15 years. He was 19 when he went in. He would have gotten out next year . . . except that he was part of a prison incident that tacked an additional 7 years on his term. He has a daughter, 13, who he has only seen in pictures. He was raised by a single mother on welfare, no dad in the picture, in an impoverished area where the only options he saw was joining a gang. (And many times, in heavy gang areas kids don’t have any real options.) He wanted out of the hardcore yard after he got the seven years and petitioned for A block. As part of the process, a prisoner has to talk–tell everything he knows about how prisoners communicate, everything he was involved in that the guards didn’t catch, tell them in a specific prisoner is in danger, or a guard is in danger, or rumors they hear. They have to answer everything.

“A” block doesn’t have the freedom of the minimum security inmates, but they have far more than B and C blocks. A block has evening time, where the cells are opened and the prisoners can go to the central area and watch TV, play an instrument, walk around, whatever. A block was clean, and our guide said the prisoners are responsible for keeping the prison areas clean–and A block prisoners do it. B and C blocks? Not so clean. (Though, apparently, Rhonda said that the single most disgusting, filthy cell block she’d ever worked in–only for a day–was women. Another guard said she’d never work in a women’s facility, that they are worse than male prisoners.)

Rhonda also told us she enjoyed taking us through because we were serious and smart–we “got it.” I didn’t understand what she meant, until she told the story that the week before she was taking a group of college students through the prison and in the minimum security facility the girls were flirting with the prisoners. Hello, girls, these are guys who have been in prison for up to five years, and you’re flaunting your wares? I would love to pick Rhonda’s brain over drinks some day, because she must have many more stories. Like the woman who flew all the way from Germany to meet with a prisoner she’d been pen pals with. When they got too up-close-and-personal, she was removed, and sued because the prison denied her the visit (fortunately, all visits are recorded so the judge sided with the prison’s decision.)

Fellow author, New York Times bestseller James Rollins, was also on the tour with me. He said he was surprised by how quiet it was. Part of the quiet was because B/C blocks were in lockdown and going through TB testing. But part was because of the location. It was serene, surrounding by oaks and rollings hills. There were geese and wild turkeys all over the yards, and in fact one wild turkey flew in front of my car as I was leaving (I didn’t know turkeys could fly!)

I think I was most surprised by the daily processes. How much needs to happen to keep the prison running as smoothly and safely as possible.

Maybe it would benefit some teens to get a tour of the prison. To see where they could be if they don’t get their act together. I wouldn’t want to go to prison–minimum or maximum security. Lack of freedom, living so close to so many violent criminals, losing hope . . .

I watched a CSI years ago where Katherine’s daughter Lindsay, then about 13, snuck out of the house while Katherine was at work. Katherine found out when her housekeeper (mother? don’t remember) called, and was looking for Lindsay when there was a call of a young teenager dead. Katherine panicked, thinking it was her daughter, relieved that it wasn’t . . . but when she found Lindsay, she was furious (and justifiably so, IMO.) Lindsay had dressed “up” with loads of make-up and clothes that looked like she was a hooker. Katherine took her to the morgue to show her the girl that was dead–saying something like, “If you continue down this path, this is where you’ll end up.” Lindsay ran out, crying. The coroner was angry with Katherine, but I was thinking, HELLO! Daughter is going down dangerous path, two weeks being grounded isn’t going to work. Sometimes, we need to scare our kids straight. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Whoops, how did that picture get in there? 🙂