The Sacramento Valley is held by mountains to the east and west, and on a clear day you can see the foothills of the Sierras, if not the snow caps from the right vantage point. You have to get a little further west on 80 before the Coastal Ranges come into view. Otherwise, the valley is as flat as Kansas. Power lines run all along the gridded two lane roads that connect still small farms in various levels of productivity; the encroaching housing developments will only make it so far south before they hit the Delta, with its levees and sloughs, peat and marshland, unfit for higher population density. A few acres of solar panels starkly confront the older industries as the dairy cows look on, RVs rust, and barns decay in the fields. Mustard flowers and spring green grass contrast with the cloudy early morning sky, pink in the east, gray in the west. A partial blanket of clouds hang overhead like a low ceiling. This is driving south on Bruceville Road to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, or “R triple C.”
I pick a metal stool in front of a window with a phone hung up on my left and wait for the inmates to come in. There is a mother with a one year old to my right and an Asian woman to my left. The door to the hallway on the other side of the glass opens, and the inmates file in looking for their visitor. My brother Robert, in a faded thermal and orange pants, sits down on the stool on the other side of the glass, and we pick up our phones.
Protective Custody (PC) is reserved for gay guys, child molesters, older or disabled men, and gang dropouts. They are housed in a wedge-shaped room, or “tank”, with bunks along the back wall and high ceilings with a catwalk so guards can look into many such rooms at a time. There are a few tables and chairs and two bathrooms. They get to go outside twice a week into a yard with high walls and a net across the top. Visitors can come Tuesdays at 9am for one hour. Three of his friends happen to be in his tank, and they sit at a table and play cards, gossip, and share ideas about what they might do when they get out. They pool the money that gets put on their books, and sometimes will combine graham crackers and chocolate pudding to make a pie, or crush up a candy bar in coffee to make mochas. Robert says the gay jokes are mild and rare, no one really cares much to puncture the monotony. They eat at 5am, 11am, and 3pm, so their commissary is very important to them, as well as the welcomed relief from the boredom it provides. The cinder block walls are painted grey and the high florescent lights are either on or off, obscuring the contours of the day. There are no recovery programs, no classes, no job training, no therapy, no library, nothing that might actually prepare them for re-entry into the world. Almost everyone is serving time for a drug or alcohol related offense. Robert’s friends will all leave months before he will. He has eight long months ahead of him.
The idea of “serving time” coaxes me into rumination.. Is that the most we ask of those who disrupt the social order for whatever reason, to forfeit a specified amount of time from their lives? We don’t insist or even ask that they educate themselves on the consequences of their actions or on the factors that may have led them to take those actions in the first place, not to mention help them to not repeat the behavior. There are obvious conflicts of interest here, few people want to open the can of worms marked “Class,” particularly those who benefit from its structure, who also happen to include the private industries that own and run the prison systems. It is not in their interest to rehabilitate inmates, the profit is in repeat offenders. These are the cold hard turning gears of capitalism. It is proven that education, prevention, and treatment produces better results and is far more cost-effective than incarceration, saddling someone with felonies that limit their employment opportunities, burdening them with social stigma, and setting them up to repeat the same behavior. Robbing someone of precious years of their lives while securing them on the path that led them there is cruel, if you ask me. Time is the only thing we really have, for without it, no dreams can be built and seen through to fruition.
I don’t have a better answer for Robert. Social change happens as a reaction to the current state of things, and often only affects the next generation, if it happens quickly enough. Robert has been to rehab many times, he knows the recovery programs well, there is nothing more anyone can give him that is available. I don’t think he really understands the breadth of why he is where he is. At least I know he is safe in his tank, and at the moment isn’t selling drugs to some young person who hasn’t yet seen many consequences and may have a chance of escaping the black hole of addiction and incarceration. I don’t know what would work now, it is really up to him. The adversities are great, but hey – people do it, and this is the only life.
The walls of my tank are silent, the clock on the computer ticks on. The light through the windows turns dim and bright again from the passing clouds and intermittent rain. Everything that exists in our human world in its current state is only an adaptation of the previous model. Evolution is a response to changes in the environment, and the process often times cannot keep up with quick and drastic changes, which is why species perish. Our world is now a blur of quick and drastic changes. No one would have designed us, nor the systems we depend on to function, as we/they are now; an organism cannot develop a trait to help it survive in an environment it hasn’t yet experienced. Consciousness, as in a group or an individual, denotes “a part of the human mind that is aware of a person’s self, environment, and mental activity and that to a certain extent determines his choices of action.” I would add that full consciousness requires an understanding of exactly what state we are in, how and why we got here, and to what extent is it serving the greater good. Those questions being answered (and they can be), a course of action usually reveals itself in a very obvious way. I venture to say a broader social consciousness is a trait that is naturally developing, however tumultuously, and will surely have a huge impact on the lives of individuals and the community as a whole. Conscious evolution may be our adaptive short cut to the long unconscious process of trial and error that has served us up to this point. The change in environment we must adapt to or perish – the quickening pace of change.