Salinas Valley State Prison. Level 4 security, home to some of the most violent and dangerous criminals in the world, and we just walked right in.

Well, not quite.

It was early in the morning on May 26th when I got my first glimpse of what “maximum security prison” really means. We were late for our tour and took about five wrong turns, (one of which led us to an off-limits road) and a stop at a guard station warned us never to run near a prison facility. The guards weren’t happy that we had no idea where we were, but they were even less happy when we thanked them and ran back to our car. “DON’T RUN!” They warned. (Oh, yeah, people can shoot guns at you here. Welcome to prison.)

I was struck by the quiet removal of the prison from society. No one knew where to turn, the signs were very generic and quiet, and the entire facility was completely removed from life as we know it. From the very moment I walked in, it was like entering a different world, a world where everything the guards said to you was taken as truth, where everything they told you to do was quietly obeyed, and discussions were firmly discouraged. A girl in my class wore gray pants, and was told that the pants looked “too much like faded blue” and was required to wear a yellow jumpsuit for the rest of the day. Despite her protests, you could tell that the guard’s word was law and that we should not even try to argue. It would get us nowhere. Democracy doesn’t exist in a maximum security prison.

When we went into the visitor entrance, we had to check in. This happened every single time we went in or out of the different yards, facilities, or any other place that lead indirectly to the outside world. We had to show ID, our visitor pass, and sign a book before being let into ANY places prisoners might walk around.

The facility itself was…in one word, dry. The grass that was grown was only grown on the outside edge (“for appearance” our guide told us) because of water limitations. Most of the facility was a light tan, matching the dirt, or cement with wire fences and guard towers surrounding everything. For looks, I guess you could say Salinas Valley matched my idea of what a typical prison would look like.

The places we went: a visitation to A-yard (there are four “yards” that prisoners are confined to at SVSP, A, B, C, or D) which included a trip to the library, chow hall, and education center; their mental health facility, which included a talk with the psychologist who worked there and a trip to the padded room with the padded walls; their hospital, where inmates go when they get in a fight or need any kind of medical help; and (the best part of the tour) C-yard, which is a world all its own.

  • A-yard: this was a very relaxed and chill place, with the occasional prisoner mingling around, most of whom are in A-yard for safety concerns, protection from gang violence, or other special needs. We talked with a few prisoners that work in the tutoring system of their education program, which helps the prisoners earn their GED. We saw the “chow hall” complete with a guard tower where a guard stands at the watch for riots. Complete with gun. There are no guns inside the facility, for fear that an inmate could overpower and take control of them. All guns are held above prisoners in locked watch towers with entrances outside the facility. I would never be able to eat or sleep with that many guns around.
  • The mental health facility was an experience all its own. We talked to a psychologist that works with inmates and found out that most inmates have a tendency to fake symptoms to get medication, but that there are a few that actually need it. It was an interesting talk, and I hope to someday work with inmates in this way, working with rehabilitation and therapy. I could tell that it would be something that I truly would be interested in.
  • The hospital was one of our first glimpses into a prisoner’s daily struggles. A man with cancer (and I would assume other mental problems) was seen as a danger to other inmates and was therefore kept in a room with rubber walls and floor. The rubber was about as hard as a rock, and there is no bed. Inmates are given a blanket at night to sleep with. It was probably the most depressing thing I have ever seen, and so I won’t go into more detail unless you really care to know what happened.
  • And then there was C-yard. The most dangerous yard for the most dangerous and violent criminal offenders, and this is where they chose to take us! It was fantastic. The security clearance was double, there were two different walls and doors and guard towers to walk through, and the inmates were actually out of the cells in the yard. It was a bit scary, but none of them wanted to approach us. Some of the pods have been on lock-down (not allowed outside) for as long as I have been alive or longer. Gang violence is huge in “Charlie” yard. While we were there, we went to see a prison cell.¬† The inmates were watching our every move, which was a bit scary, but the guard on duty was also watching their every move: with a fully loaded, very large gun. The cells are small, about half the size of a single dorm room with two people living in a very confined space. It’s about what you would typically expect for the size of a room of a small child. While we were in C-yard, we made attempts to talk to prisoners that were walking around. None of them wanted to talk. (we figured as much-if anything you say can be used against you, why would you want to talk to a stranger?)

The experience itself isn’t something that you would ever wish upon a person. The place is bland, dry, hot, windy, and very very¬† controlled. There isn’t much to do, much to think-that’s just the way it IS there. “We don’t make the rules, we only enforce them,” is the motto of everyday life, probably closely followed by “Every person in here did something to deserve the time they spend.”

All of these things are true. The people in prison do deserve to think about the problems they have caused society. They deserve and NEED to be separated from people that they could cause harm to. I agree that prison is a place that criminals need to be held. It’s a safety thing, and society needs to be protected. Yet, I would never wish for a person to have to live in prison. The psychological effect of being told what to do, constantly, and to have guns on you, constantly, and to have no connection with the outside world?

It would be painful for anyone to endure for any length of time, let alone for your entire life. The prison was very…

sad? dull? lifeless? hopeless? none of these things.

There truly are no words. It’s a different place. A different mentality. No one knows about the conditions that are inside a prison, and they probably don’t want to. It’s ok. We can just continue to live our lives in peace, knowing dangerous people are behind bars, without ever wondering what “behind bars” actually means.

Or have you ever wondered?