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22 stories of federal prison at Union and F streets

Leave it to Cleaver: What's in a jail?

Sixty percent are illegal aliens.
  • Sixty percent are illegal aliens.
  • Image by Jim Hair

Don’t begrudge your prime connection if he is a few days late with his customary delivery; he may have taken time off to spend a well-earned vacation with Timothy Leary at the “Tijuana Hilton,” 808 Union Street, known to law-enforcement agencies and law-abiding citizens as the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

This sumptuous new (one year old November 15th) Federal highrise is a striking example of penal architecture. A view of San Diego and outlying vicinities can be seen from each of the 22 stories above ground. Two subterranean floors hold the main kitchen and inmate receiving. The earthquake-proof building, carpeted and decorated in pleasing hues of orange and gold throughout, is utilized to house offenders until such time as they go to trial and/or sentencing.

In case you have not been to jail lately (and the MCC prefers to call itself a “jail”), entry can be had via three diverse routes;:

(a) As a visitor. Visiting hours are from 6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. weekdays and from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on week-ends. Visitors have their own elevator and lobby to the visiting room on the floor where the inmate is housed. This room, compared to the Ward, is drab and uninviting. Lack of the standard air-conditioning adds to its unpleasantness. A phone call from this room will re-admit the inmate to his Ward.

(b) As a tourist. Scheduled tours are periodically given to various groups from, for example, the American Beverage Control or recent Law Enforcement graduates. It should be noted that these tourists are not asked for identification nor are they searched prior to entering the wards. On “the honor system” those who have contraband or narcotics deposit them in the Security Room to be returned after the cordial and cursory tour.

(c) As a prisoner. Prisoners are admitted on the bottom floor, searched, taken by private elevator to Receiving on the second floor. Here they are frisked, finger-printed, photographed, issued a sporty one-piece jumpsuit in a choice of colors and assigned to a Ward.

Once assigned to a ward, or a floor, inmates are given a medical examination and a psychiatric evaluation before being issued work assignments such as Laundry or Kitchen duties.

The Livingroom is the focal point (inmates are encouraged to socialize), with upper and lower “quads” breaking off into the corners. These quads contain the individual cells and a lounge which features a long settee and a color TV. The women’s floor. Floor Nine, has a hair-dryer.

Each floor has a kitchenette where the food, sent up from the main kitchen, is reheated in micro-wave ovens. The kitchenette also has a coffeemaker, milk and soft-drink dispensers, a toaster and a refrigerator. A typical meal: hot roast beef, small green salad, tapioca pudding and a beverage. In addition, an inmate can place an order with the Commissary prior to 8:00 a.m. for popcorn, for example, for 20 cents, cigarettes at 30 cents a pack, or VO-5 hair conditioner at $1.20.

Paraphrased here is a random sampling of posted bulletins:

  1. No smoking: (a) in bed, (b) in the kitchen, (c) in the showers. All cigarette butts must be deposited in the ashtrays.
  2. No trials will be scheduled from December 25th through January 2nd due to the holidays.
  3. Only one visitor allowed in your room at time and you must be present with your visitor.
  4. Requests to see the chaplain must be addressed to him by name and signed by the inmate. The envelope is then to be passed to the chaplain by the Correctional Officer on duty.
  5. The Quad whose turn it is for kitchen cleanup must be prompt. Also, morning chores (washing, dressing, and cleaning surrounding area) must be done promptly. No TV until the areas are cleaned. (No TV before 10:00 a.m.)
  6. Sign up here for group therapy. Sometimes you will feel better about your situation if you discuss it with others who have the same problems.

Each floor has a Correctional Officer on duty at all times. They work an eight-hour shift (8 hours duty with a 1/2 hour briefing before and after). One-third of the COs are women who, like the men, oversee wards of either sex. There is little chance for foul-play however, as all of the Floors are monitored by TV screens in the teletype-equipped Security Room. In addition to the CO a social worker is on duty at all times.

A typical cell/room is shown on the drawing. This format is the rule except on Floor Five which houses inmates who are in transit and will only be incarcerated from two to three days. This floor has open sleeping areas, has no cells per se.

The phenomenon of open sleeping spaces gives rise to the question of homosexuality in the MCC. One CO said “We don’t have too much of it, but it does happen. It’s a natural part of living — there isn’t too much we can do about that! ... Offenders can be prosecuted, though.”

Unlike most penal institutions the MCC, which can house over 500 inmates, has no yard. Rather, the roof maintains a top security deck where the inmates (a mean age of 25) are free to engage in sports except, of course, in inclement weather, in which case he/she is confined to the ward and its limited diversionary techniques. There is no planned recreation although each ward has one or more pool tables and at least 4 color TVs.

There is no library. School-aged juveniles have no formal education while incarcerated, and any learning they come by will be administered by a staff member who supervises a correspondence course. There are neither arts nor crafts.

Juveniles, aging from 17 down to a recent 9-week-old infant, have their quarters on the third floor. Almost without exception they are in for illegal entry into the U.S. Also on the third floor is the Dispensary, the Dentist's office, the Doctor’s offices, the Psychiatric Ward (where Mrs. Moore was detained). Examination and Physical Therapy rooms. According to one nurse, “We have at least one case of heroin withdrawal per day.” These patients are not given Methadone, which is outlawed in Federal institutions, but are given Librium and/or Darvon and sugar-water.

The age range has been from 76-year-old C. Arnholt Smith to the nine-week old illegal alien. Forty percent of the inmate population of the MCC are incarcerated primarily for sale of narcotics, probation violation, bank robbery, murder and flight to avoid prosecution. The balance, or bulk, of sixty percent are illegal aliens. This high percentage is the source of the dubbing: Tijuana Hilton. One might easily believe that the thirty or so young Mexican men playing volleyball on the Roof “never have had it so good.”

“To the contrary” one local merchant says, “No wonder they’re bitter!” Why “bitter”? “They’ve gotten the short end of the stick. The economic stick. The short end of life! Their country is overpopulated, under-educated. Their whole set-up is backwards. The land isn’t distributed properly — it’s operating on the vestigial patron system where the large estates own the land and the people can’t live on it. So they come here, to the United States, the “land of opportunity,” where they can find work and better themselves and then they get thrown into our prison and find that our prison is better than any home they have ever known. No wonder they're bitter.” A consensus being that these aliens will return for, at best, housing in the MCC.

Why is our Federal Government spending such impressive sums on a prison that could be regarded as a glorified holding tank, since the length of tenure is from two days to seven months at the most? For one-reason, it is the only pre-trial detention center on the West Coast.

Eldridge Cleaver, incarcerated on the fifth floor, expressed a desire to be able to “do his time" there. This is an understandable wish particularly in light of prison conditions at large. Crime in our country has increased 18% in the past year. The current nationwide prison population, according to a recent issue of Time magazine, is 200,000. “Florida State Prison at Starbe has 646 inmates living in Army tents and converted warehouses. Georgia’s maximum security prison at Reidsville is so overcrowded that 119 prisoners are forced to double up in 8’x5’ cells.” One prison official suggests in this article that even though conditions are grossly overcrowded’ new prison facilities not be built because they will only fill up with prisoners!

This writer asked a San Diego attorney if he agreed with this premise. He replied, “‘More room’ is not the answer to rehabilitation. It requires a working philosophy. A philosophy that begins with the administrators and goes down to the warden and even to the guards.”

The September/October issue of the California State Bar Journal contains an article on “Prison Reform: Backward or Forward?” In it authors Murray, Ringer and Alarcon report that “Folsom and San Quentin are disgraceful dungeons; Vacaville and Soledad are wholly inadequate places to house human beings. The warden at San Quentin was asked whether, if he had unlimited funds, he would favor prison living quarters with separate rooms, beds, furniture, bathrooms, and other facilities commonly found in the house of a civilized man. His answer was: ‘No; what you have to understand is that these people have already lived in a civilized society and they failed there’.”

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