The Patterns, Routines, and Pervasive Fear of Daily Life in Prison
Keith Corbin on the Unspoken Codes of the California Penal System
When the state comes for you, it’s like a kidnapping. They come in the middle of the night, wearing all black. While everyone else is sleeping, they pop your door, grab you, cuff you up, and walk your ass to a bus.
Unlike the sheriffs running the jails, the prison guards deal with you with a little more respect—their tone isn’t as aggressive, and they are willing to communicate directly with you—which, in a sense, is their way of asserting even more authority. They don’t need to yell; they’ve got control of you in other ways. Now, at the time, I didn’t realize this. I was scared but trying to be tough, and when I get that fight-or-flight feeling, my instinct is naturally to fight. So, on the bus, when they told us to be quiet, I got loud. This was a mistake.
They pulled the bus over to the side of the road, took me off, and made it very clear to me that they would make it seem like I was resisting and leave my ass right there, and they weren’t talking about alive. That scared me even more. Shit, at that moment, I wanted my momma. The whole rest of the long-ass ride to the state reception center, I was dead quiet, which I figured was better than dead.
A lot of people don’t know about reception centers, the stop between County and prison. Reception centers are essentially shipping ports for prisoners. Think of the Port of Long Beach. Everything arriving into Long Beach by boat comes through the port, where it’s kept on the docks until they figure out its destination and what truck to load it on to take it there.
Processing at the reception center is more or less the same as at County, but faster: they know you’re coming, so they’ve got a bed for you. They ask if you’re in a gang, make you see the psychiatrist and get a TB shot, and make sure you’ve got a clean bill of health before they put you in with the general population. This is where I first found out I wasn’t going to be in dorms with the rest, that I was going to be housed in a cell. I was confused—I saw people with more time than me in those dorms—and it made me scared, panicky, and claustrophobic as I looked around my cellblock and saw all those gates, cages, and barbed wire with signs showing images of people being electrocuted.
From the moment I got off the bus, the contrast to County became real. Everyone at the reception center was quiet, taking in the seriousness of their situation. As someone whose senses are heightened in chaos and crisis, who came up in the constant commotion of the projects, I was thrown off. Normally, you associate quiet with tranquility, but this wasn’t that. I moved my way past the cells and saw the shadow of a face in every window slit. I was already at a disadvantage.
Everyone knew what I looked like coming in, but I didn’t know who they were. In prison, I didn’t have to try to figure out who the predators were: because of their cases, activities, and criminal history, everyone in a cell was deemed unfit for gen pop. They were all predators. No one was showing their hand, but I sensed the danger really fast. The dorms may’ve been like being in the jungle during the day, but the cells were the jungle at night. In that moment, I felt as vulnerable as I ever had.
Reception centers are a strange version of limbo—while you’re there, you don’t get phone calls or anything; basically, all you can do is write letters. And if you don’t get mail, you can get jealous over the smallest thing. You see others getting letters every day, and you start to question your relationships with people, question your family. You forget that life on the streets doesn’t stop just because you’re locked up with nothing to do, so you start wondering why the fuck your homies and family can’t take a moment of their time to say “what’s up” and ask how you’re doing. You forget how busy you were on the street, how many excuses you had for not writing your homies who were locked up. When this happens, you might start writing hate mail, further alienating yourself from those on the outside. It turns into a psychological war.
You can be in reception for up to a year, but I got my transfer slip after ninety days. In the fall of 2004, right before I was transferred, I met with the counselor, and they started asking me questions.
“How old were you when you were first arrested?”
“Are you affiliated with a gang?”
“What level of school did you complete?”
“Have you ever served in the armed forces?”
Something I didn’t know the first time I got to prison was that my answers to these boring-ass questions were actually tallied up as points against me. This was where the “attempted escape” from County really hurt. My final tally was sixty points. Fifty-nine points or fewer, and I’d have been in the lower-security Level 3. But now I was in Level 4, which meant I was going to Calipatria State Prison, in Imperial County, California. (Look, if you want to get technical, they sent me to another prison, called Centinela, for six months before Calipatria, but I’m trying to tell a story here and save you from the boring logistical shit. Just know Centinela sucked, too.)
I’d never heard of Calipatria, but when I asked around the yard, it came back that it was one of the worst prisons in the whole system, home to a bunch of paperwork gangs (gangs that operate strictly in prisons) and to many of the inmate shot callers in the California penal system.
Calipatria’s claim to fame is that it’s the “lowest prison in the Western Hemisphere,” because it’s nearly two hundred feet below sea level, but I’m not sure that’s really a claim to fame. Its real claim to fame is probably the so-called death fence surrounding the facility. Installed in 1993, the fence instantly shoots four thousand volts through anyone who touches it. Calipatria sits on over a thousand acres near the Mexican border, not far from the Salton Sea, a toxic lake filled with pesticides from nearby farms, which also make the entire facility smell like cow shit, especially in the summer, when it gets up to 120 degrees.
The prison itself looks like a combination of a small municipal airport and a college campus… if that college had cut its entire landscaping budget twenty years ago. The part of the prison I was in features five big buildings in a semicircle around a half-oval yard split down the middle by a barbed wire fence. There are five guard towers staffed by dudes with semiautomatic rifles and two more external ones. The prison is designed to house 2,300 prisoners, but when I was there in 2005, it had over 4,000, which meant that some of the lower-level prisoners slept on mattresses brought into the chapel, the gym, and the common areas. They even built fifty-bed camps outdoors.
Back in the 1960s, over 60 percent of the inmates in American prisons were white. But after the “war on drugs,” everything flipped. At the end of the 1980s, minorities were five times as likely to get arrested for drugs. By 2005, they made up 60 percent of the state and federal prison population in the United States and nearly two-thirds of male inmates in California. Couple that with the passage of the “three strikes law” in the nineties, and you could understand why these prisons were crowded as hell.
So, the idea of any sort of nuance when it came to whom you would associate with in prison went out the fucking window. Back in the day, when the prison populations were smaller, there were also more interracial gangs, which formed around region or city loyalties. But not anymore. Now, it didn’t matter your progressive political views or your multicultural background or who your stepdad was—Blacks hung out with Blacks, Latinos with Latinos, and whites with whites.
The prison couldn’t officially approve of segregation, but there were ways around that. In Enforcing the Convict Code: Violence and Prison Culture, the author, Rebecca Trammell, cites a study of California prison reception centers in 2008, which found that guards made the inmates say their race and then asked if they would be willing to bunk with other races. If an inmate said yes, he was “asked again until the inmate figured out the correct answer was no.” For the prison, this was the bluntest and easiest way to tamp down violence.Now, it didn’t matter your progressive political views or your multicultural background or who your stepdad was—Blacks hung out with Blacks, Latinos with Latinos, and whites with whites.
Among the prisoners, once we were inside, we took it one step further and broke ourselves down into “cars.” A car is your prison family, your tribe, the people you ride with. Your car is determined by your race, where you’re from, and your gang. A car can be two people or a hundred, but there’s always a driver, someone steering the car, deciding which way to go. That person “has the keys.”
When I got to Calipatria, the driver was my homie Cisco, a lifer from Grape Street who was about twenty years older than me. (He ran with my mom back in the day.) As soon as I got there, he got me moved into his building, solidifying my rep. Though we had about fifteen to twenty people in our car, because Compton and Watts—“the Hub” and “the Dub”—usually roll together in prison, there were forty to fifty dudes in total from our two hoods. We rolled deep.
An important distinction between Level 4 and the other levels was that, in the fours, the paperwork gangs had everything locked down. They were lifers, and the prison was now their home, so they weren’t looking to disrespect or mess up what they had going on in there for some shit happening on the outside. Anything that went down on the streets stayed on the streets. You could be a Bounty Hunter Blood; you could’ve shot my brother or, hell, shot me—that would have to remain on the outside.
That’s not to say violence didn’t occur. It certainly did. But mostly it was a result of what you did in prison. Even so, I never felt safe while I was there. Not one day. Not even the day of my release: you’re not safe or even out until you’re sitting on your couch at home. And you’d better not tell anyone your release date, because prisoners can use that information against you, start testing you, knowing full well you don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize your getting out.
That whole “misery loves company” line? That shit should be on posters on the walls of prisons, because there are plenty of dudes who aren’t going home who would love to catch you up and make you one of them. You can go in that motherfucker with thirty days and, just by protecting yourself (and hurting someone really bad in the process), wind up never getting out, Now the thirty days is out the window. Now you’re in for life.
In a way, prison is like Tetris. You can see what’s happened in the past and where things need to fit, where your strengths and vulnerabilities are, but you never know the next pieces coming until they’re already there. You’re dealing with the guards, the different races, the different tribes within the races, the regulations, stress from what’s happening on the streets—all of it. And even when it seems all good, that shit can change in one day. There could be peace on the yard, with things running smoothly and all the key holders in communication, but then a new bus shows up, and some white boy skinhead from Pelican Bay comes in and supersedes the white boy you’ve been talking to, and now everything is thrown off.
This was why, inside, I became a master at recognizing patterns and routines. Every day, we’d go to the yard and, for the first ten or fifteen minutes, I’d stand there and take in the energy. The first part of my routine was to watch everyone else’s routines. Ninety-five percent of the time, I’d see the same things. You know which dudes are gonna be doing calisthenics over by the pull-up and dip bars, and which OGs will be at the card tables playing dominoes and chess, and which inmates will be working the gardening and maintenance jobs, and which will be at the commissary. But 5 percent of the time, things are off. Like, Why are all the Muslim Brothers working out in front of Building 3 today? Normally, they’re over by Building 5. And then you realize, Oh, they’re waiting for some poor dude to walk out of Building 3 so they can stab him up.
In a yard full of predators, recognizing the signs of an attack is how you avoid becoming prey.
Excerpted from California Soul by Keith Corbin. Copyright © 2022 by Keith Corbin. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.