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August 06, 2009

The Belly of the Beast (Personal)

Yesterday I had an experience I won't soon forget; one I have been unwittingly prepping for since opposition to America’s war on drugs became a personal cause in late 1995. I was brought to a new level of understanding of the phenomena I’ve been studying for fourteen years by visiting the Elmwood Correctional Facility, a division of the Santa Clara County Jail. The opportunity itself was unusual, perhaps even unique; it came about when a judge issued a court order to perform a medical evaluation on an incarcerated marijuana user for the purpose of assisting his personal attorney (not a public defender) with his defense. I now realize that a number of unusual circumstances had to combine for that to happen, but rather than confuse this account with tedious detail, I’ll go right to the visit itself, because it demonstrated unequivocally that not only is our criminal justice system a travesty, its continuing reciprocity with the drug war is trapping us in a pattern of institutionalized cruelty that will be difficult to undo.

The Elmwood facility is in Milpitas, only a few miles from several of Silicon Valley’s premier companies, something I discovered by getting lost long enough to discover unmistakable signs of economic blight, even there: new properties with empty parking lots sporting ‘For Sale” or For Rent” signs.

Elmwood turned out to be a sprawling, forbidding complex of two story buildings surrounded by an enclosed chicken wire run that gives away its mission. Separate men’s and women’s divisions had their own parking lots. The men’s was much larger, as was its entrance complex, bristling with signs reminding visitors of a list of forbidden items & behaviors, also that anyone entering is subject to search.

The staff were armed and uniformed in quasi-military blue uniforms with combat boots and baseball caps. They were, with few exceptions, remote and unfriendly. Once inside, its low security level was apparent because prisoners, unmistakable in their wide striped uniforms were not escorted. Visitors wore large numbered plastic ID badges that are returned upon leaving. What struck me immediately was the oppressive mood inspired by the sprawling facility’s sheer size, drab architecture and narrow windows. Also how much it must cost to operate, even for a rich county like Santa Clara (Pop. 1682585 in 2000), Hard information about the county's jails is surprisingly hard to come by at its website, probably the best overview is supplied by a self-serving video narrated by a uniformed officer that revealed it's the fourth largest in California (fourteenth in US) and how hard they must struggle with overcrowding.

The most important emotional revelation from my visit (which I’ll return to in future posts) was also unexpected: the degree to which I was made to feel the same humiliation and dehumanization prisoners must experience and which have become so much a part of our system of criminal “justice;” also, the degree for which our patently absurd "drug control" policy bears responsibility.

What was brought home to me yesterday is that although I had interviewed many people who had spent time in jail for marijuana offenses and had participated vicariously in Dustin Costa’s imprisonment in the Fresno County Jail, (I now receive phone calls from his Texas prison a couple of times a week), nothing had prepared me for the feeling of being inside such a place, even one as comparatively “easy” as Elmwood.

That we routinely incarcerate young men who have been victimized by their upbringing and are "guilty" only of treating their troubled emotions with an effective medicine proved even more depressing than I could have imagined.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at August 6, 2009 07:06 PM