Salinas Valley State Prison Visit

Last Tuesday, we visited the Salinas Valley State Prison and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because I felt joyful because there were plenty of people incarcerated there but because I learned so much from the experience. I have never been to a state prison, not even in my country. I only have a vague idea about how prisons should look like from the media that I encountered. Fortunately for us, the officer that showed us around was very amiable. He walked us through the area, explained how the prison functions, and answered some of our questions.

There were two things that I found really striking. The first was the continuation of the drug culture INSIDE the state prison. I may be naïve but it shocked me to a high degree. I imagined American prisons to be one of the most innovative facilities since they spend too much money on it. However, even here, drugs can still pass through. It utterly belittles the purpose of the prison. Prisons were made to serve as punishment for crimes and eventually lead to the personal transformation of inmates. In prison, inmates will hopefully realize their mistakes and recreate themselves and become better human beings. But with drugs running around, can that transformation happen? I don’t think so. Instead, it would lead to more crimes INSIDE the prison. It just blows my mind that even in the “most secure, most monitored” place in the world, a drug market can successfully flourish.

The second striking aspect of the Salinas Valley state prison was the politics of the Charlie (C) – yard. In the A-yard, there were the inmates who were considered in the “special needs” category. A-yard has the inmates who decided to dropout from their former gangs. However, later, we discovered that some of them created new gangs after leaving their old ones. Meanwhile, C-yard was home for the “general population” inmates. The differences were highly noticeable. I was disturbed how the C-yard reminded me of the stereotypical American public high school where everyone is strictly segregated. I can only imagine how limiting their environment is. Their space is already limited but they created these social structures that further compress their already limited space. I cannot imagine how they survive with the constant tension and perpetual paranoia. It is something that I am still thinking about but I am grateful for the experience of knowing.

When we had our debrief, I felt surprised that my peers felt that we were intruding the inmates’ space. For some odd reason, I felt comfortable. I was extraordinarily eager to go in and learn as much as I can from our visit. I know that the things I learn from here will be instrumental in the future. That what I saw in Salinas Valley will forever influence my future decisions as a citizen and as a future public servant. There was something powerful about seeing the inmates, the prison guards, and the physical structure of the prison. Oddly enough, I felt inspired after the visit. I saw a huge window of opportunity there. Prisons can be improved to divert the talents and creativity of the inmates for something good. I can just see it.