Don’t Just “Close” Prisons — Demolish Them and Reinvest Their Funding

As the movement to defund the police and prison has continued to gain steam, more are embracing a key decarceration strategy: closing down prisons and jails. Struggles for prison closures have always been an important organizing tactic for those of us working against the prison-industrial complex. Unfortunately, some state governments have attempted to co-opt the rhetoric of prison closure without truly putting it into practice.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has announced two prison closures — Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy, and California Correctional Center in Susanville — in the wake of the devastating impacts of COVID-19 as well as the ongoing forest fires endangering vulnerable people across the state.

But what does the state mean by “prison closure?” Sure, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) will transfer the people locked within these prisons to other remote locations throughout the state, and there will be some staff shuffling. But what is actually being offered by CDCR is called a “warm shutdown”: The prisons will maintain a skeleton crew of staff, a smaller budget and, in the instance of DVI, will then be used as a training site for corrections officers.

The problem is, like all prisons, DVI is infamous for its decades of oppressive and harmful tactics and toxic culture. I know this first-hand: I spent two years caged in DVI. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and why I know for sure that DVI should never be used to train any prison staff.

DVI is known as “gladiator school” to people throughout the prison system because of the history of violence permitted and ignored by staff that took place over the course of this prison’s history. When I was sent there, it took a five-hour bus ride to arrive at the facility from Wasco State Prison, a reception center where many start their sentence. Riding in, I could see the housing wings — dirty clothes piled up outside, debris waiting to be picked up. All of the housing units were clearly dilapidated, but I had no idea how bad it really was until I got inside. We were herded from the receiving and release area led to a tiny, ramshackle building. It was raining and the ceiling was leaking.

We were pushed through monstrous, pronged cattle turnstiles into cages that were filled far beyond capacity, as if we were animals at a factory farm. We waited for six and a half hours, only then to be ushered through a series of ambivalent nurses and stern interviewing sergeants. We were given a kit called a “bedroll” –– a tattered shirt, one pair of underwear and socks, and some old sheets. As we were escorted through a large corridor, dayroom after dayroom was crammed full of beds and people until we arrived at “fish row.” That’s where they house new intakes to the prison, on the first floor of C-Wing.

I entered my cell and the guard slammed the door shut behind me. It was completely dark. After several minutes of searching, I discovered an old pull-string light above the top bunk; the lightbulb was missing. It was very cold from the rain outside, and a puddle pooled beneath the grated but open window. Closing the window wasn’t an option — the surrounding window panes were broken. The cell was disgusting; it had a smell that could only be described as “rotten.” The mattress was torn in half.

I shouted to a person in the cell across from mine: “How do I get a light and a mattress?”

He answered, “You won’t get anything from them [the prison guards]. They’ll ignore you if you ask.”

This was my first day in DVI-Tracy.

One might assume it got better — it didn’t. The truth is, although privileges slightly improved as I made it into the general population of the prison, conditions did not. The shower drains were clogged and the water severely discolored — black and orange most days. The prison guards were dismissive, rude and aggressive. While this is typical within the California prison system, DVI-Tracy seemed to be tinged with a special kind of hatred for imprisoned people that only comes from a longstanding, toxic internal culture built on the idea that we are “less than.”

Tracy is known to have the largest recreational yard and gym within CDCR, but we only got to go outside once or twice a week at most. Instead of being offered as a space for recreational purposes, the gym was used to cage hundreds of people, specifically putting up to hundreds of triple-stacked bunk beds and ensuring that every bed was full. Sometimes weeks would go by without any “outside time.” Isolated, we made “fishing lines” out of the elastic in our boxer shorts to pass notes to one another. I lived the next two years like this. Others would spend their entire lives under these horrid conditions.

I was in DVI in 2003 and 2004. During this time, CDCR as a whole was under federal monitor due to reports of severe abuses and mistreatment of incarcerated people in its system. Did any of the federal monitoring change the abhorrent living conditions? My experience of DVI is that no amount of external pressure or monitoring actually changed anything significantly. Windows were left broken; lightbulbs were hard to get; water was left muddy, metallic and orange-black; and drains were left clogged until someone “important” did a walk through. Then things were fixed only to the degree that they appeared “suitable.” Eventually, everything would fall apart again and no one cared — except the people who lived there. This was — and I assert still is — the culture within DVI-Tracy. It’s endemic. It cannot be “trained out.”

The only way to ensure that the toxic culture at DVI is eliminated is to eliminate the prison as a whole. Tear it to the ground and deactivate the staff positions completely. DVI’s closure will save California $119 million in 2021-22 — and an additional $150.3 million every year after. That savings could be used for reentry programs for formerly imprisoned people and to directly support the economies of the towns that are impacted by DVI’s closure.

Demolishing DVI will ensure that CDCR can never use this horrid, archaic place for anything ever again. Its demolition could serve as a model for decarceration efforts around the country.