California's revolving door of imprisonment

Slammer culture

Luis Rodriguez (left), Kimberly Simpson (right). Rodriguez: “All these new lifers are in their early twenties.”
  • Luis Rodriguez (left), Kimberly Simpson (right). Rodriguez: “All these new lifers are in their early twenties.”
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Even as a young teenager, Charles Goshen figured he would end up in prison.

Abandoned by his father, he grew up in Compton watching his stepdad abuse his mother. A babysitter molested him. His mother turned tricks for daily drug money. At eight, Charles was arrested for burglary, and the rest of his youth was spent in group homes, reform school, juvenile hall, and jails.

Charles Goshen: "It’s all right outside my door. But I’m looking to move soon.”

Charles Goshen: "It’s all right outside my door. But I’m looking to move soon.”

Kelvin, the youngest, was the first to disappear — he went down for life in 1985 for kidnapping and robbery. Another brother was murdered in 1988. Two years later, Charles was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a friend and was sentenced to three years to R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility.

"We’re putting six-year-olds in detention, trying youths as adults."

"We’re putting six-year-olds in detention, trying youths as adults."

"I was at Donovan with my brother," Charles says, sitting in a meeting room of a Vista-based drug rehabilitation center, where he's now a counselor. "I got something like 30 cousins who've been in prison or CYA [California Youth Authority). I didn't look forward to going to college — I looked forward to going to prison and coming home. Because I grew up in that whole gang culture. When you go to prison, you get your respect and everyone looks up to you."

"I thought I'd avoid prison. But homeboys would come out of prison, and that would impress me," says Ariel Vasquez, 21, who landed in juvenile hall at age 12 and was pulling off as many as seven robberies a night as a teenager running with a Latino gang out of National City. "They'd get more respect. They'd talk about the 'cars' — groups of them together in prison — or how they’d run the tiers. They'd tell war stories of how when they got to prison they got bags of coffee, cigarettes, and nice clothes."

“I've talked to many kids, and they tell me that going to prison is like going to the army was for the previous generation," says Barry Krisberg, a criminologist and director of the San Francisco-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "Prison doesn't scare them, because almost everyone they know has been to prison. And they figure they'll be there sooner or later. They just assume that the state has a bed with their name on it."

Fifteen years after it launched the most costly prison building program in American penal history, California has more than 145,(XX) men and women in its state prisons and another roughly 90,000 people housed in everything from federal prisons and local jails to county camps and juvenile halls.

In California, 40 percent of juvenile offenders in custody have at least one parent who is, or has been, locked up. And in San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods, like Southeast, many residents have a family member or someone they know behind bars.

A recent study by the Berkeley-based Prison Activist Resource Center shows that California is now locking up roughly six times as many prisoners as it did in 1980. San Diego County alone has more than 10,000 parolees. Donovan holds 4400 men, and the county’s seven jails are at a court-ordered capacity of around 5200.

“Prisons are creating a new kind of class system,” Marcia Bunney, who’s doing 25-to-life for murdering a man who abused her, told me not long ago as we sat in the day room of the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. “It’s like it was in Victorian England, where you had a wall that you couldn’t get beyond, as opposed to the philosophy that you can be anything you want. I have had the uncomfortable experience of watching three generations of one family come to prison.”

“You just have to go into the inner city neighborhoods and you can see whole families completely tied to the prisons now,” says Luis Rodriguez, a Chicano poet, activist, and former gang-banger from East LA. who has visited prisons all over California and corresponded with convicts. “When you have 250,000 men and women locked up or on parole, you’re talking about a million families affected. And their whole lives are completely changed. There is nothing to get people out of the system now. There are no transcendent paths. This state is writing off entire communities."

“My mother went to prison when I was three and my grandmother raised me,” Kimberly Simpson tells me, sitting in an office at Community Connection Resource Center, an El Cajon-based group that helps ex-offenders reenter society.

“Everyone in our family was a drug addict. Three of my four sisters went to prison, and two of my brothers went. I spent 16 years in and out of juvenile hall, jails, and prison. For nine years I never knew what it was like to say the words ’mom’ or ‘dad’ or ‘sister.’ I knew my sisters’ and brothers’ names but not the faces that went with the names.”

“Because of prison, I lost my children for four years, which was devastating,” says Macky Castenada, who’s 50 now and spent most of his adult life in California’s prisons. “And in the early ’80s, my father died while I was on my way to prison. The prisons eat up whole families. I had more than a dozen cousins who ended up doing time. Prison gets passed down like a disease, going from fathers to sons to grandchildren.”

A raft of politicians and experts on all sides have theories on the benefits and harm of incarceration as a strategy for fighting crime.

John Dilulio, a conservative criminologist at Princeton, sees prison as society’s only defense against a coming generation of tcenaged “super-predators” raised in “moral poverty.” “Each generation of crime-prone boys has been about three times as dangerous as the one before it.... The next 10 years,” Dilulio prophecies, “will unleash an army of young male predatory street criminals who will make even the leaders of the Bloods and the Crips.. .look tame by comparison.

“What we’re talking about is an additional 270,000 juvenile offenders coming at us in waves over the next several decades,” says Dilulio, who recommends longer sentences for the most violent youths. Dilulio laments that the super-predator concept has been misinterpreted by media and by liberal and conservative politicians alike. But he finds no evidence that youth are being generally targeted for prison.

Other legal scholars and criminologists have challenged — even ridiculed — Dilulio’s theory.

“There’s no proof whatsoever of a coming plague of superpredators,” says Jerome Miller, former head of the juvenile justice systems in Massachusetts and Illinois. “Dilulio misuses statistics terribly. And there is no question that he has hyped this. Nor is it even subtly racist. It’s clear that Dilulio means inner-city black kids. And he ties it with another emphasis — the welfare system and single mothers.”

Still, the “super-predator” has captured the ears of Congress and the fears of the public. Bob Dole used it in his presidential campaign. Last year, the Council on Crime in America warned of a “coming storm of juvenile violence.”

“Most prisoners are poor people of color,” says Rodriguez. “But the prisons have never bothered to see how this all affects our families and children. If you cut college programs and take away jobs, then kids will be funneled not into colleges but into prisons. Right now California is setting kids up for prison. And the kids don’t even know that they’re being taken in that direction. But if you build 200,000 new prison beds, you have to fill up those beds.”

There are more than 10,000 women behind bars in California, most of them on drug and property charges. Three out of four leave children behind, but only one in five says she can count on the father to take care of the children while the women are incarcerated, according to a recent Justice Department study.

Often the children of women prisoners are placed with grandparents, who are themselves surviving on the margins, or are placed in foster care.

“Children in foster care graduate to juvenile hall, to CYA, and then to prison,” says Catherine Campbell, a California attorney who’s worked extensively with prisoners and their families. “It’s often said that criminals are created by abusive parents, but I think they’re more often created by the foster care system, where children are taken away from those that love them. That’s one of the major feeding grounds for the prison culture.”

The growing prison culture has created a feeding trough for companies that provide the services required to cage so many men and women. Companies ranging from AT&T to Sony and Westinghouse are in the prison business. There is money to be made in urine testing, surveillance equipment, and collect inmate calling. Collect inmate calling is the system by which inmates call lawyers and family members. It’s so profitable that MCI and GTE installed all the equipment needed for California’s 32 prisons for free and paid commissions of 32 percent and 22 percent respectively to the state. In 1995, the Corrections Department received $14 million in commissions from calls made from prison phones.

“It’s odd that a society that is built on the imagination of freedom now imprisons more people than any other place in the world. To me, there’s an implication that some basic freedom

Charles Goshen is at risk when so many people have to be imprisoned,” says Michael Meade, whose Washington State-based Mosaic Multicultural Foundation has worked with ex-prisoners, gang members, and youth at risk across the country.

“A culture that is imprisoning so many people says that the culture itself is imprisoned. That has to be what’s going on. Some disconnection has occurred at a root level between the people living now and the sense of America as a place of freedom. You see and feel that with the barricades being put at the borders. America becomes a prison, with gates and bars all around.”

In (California, the bars have gone up in desolate desert towns like Calipatria and Blythe, and in rural communities like Susanville and lone. The state has 32 prisons now, with plans for 6 or more by millennium’s end.

In Corpus Christi, Texas, Kimberly Simpson’s grandparents raised her in the church — on gospel music and the words of Jesus. She came to San Diego at age 12 to be reunited with her mother, who had been in prison, and her siblings.

“My mother was a junkie. And I soon went from smoking weed to doing pills to drinking Robitussin to snorting heroin to shooting heroin,” Kimberly says. “That was the kind of family I came from.”

By the time she was 14, Kimberly had landed in juvenile hall, a place she and her sisters would visit repeatedly. Then, a year later, a close male family member started propositioning her.

“Out of fear I gave into it. I thought if I gave him what he wanted he’d leave me alone. But it didn’t happen like that. By the time he came back I was into my addiction, and I started using it against him to get my drugs,” she says.

Drugs led to crime, and Kimberly eventually got caught. At 18, she was locked away in Las Colinas women’s detention facility in Santee. A few years later, she was doing a stretch at a federal prison in Pleasanton.

During those years, prison or violence would claim much of the rest of her family. An older sister, Leslie, now 44 and a heroin addict in recovery, did a couple of stretches in prison. And Cynthia, 43, is currently serving time in Las Colinas behind a drug charge. Kimberly’s oldest sister, Laura, died of an overdose of barbiturates when she was 26.

“My brother Johnny tried to do something with his life but drowned on Labor Day, 1977,” Kimberly says. “And Tony, who’s 40 now, is blind. He got shot in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun back in 1979. He was a bully and a neighborhood jackass. And he’s still a blind fool. He was locked up too, from the time he was a kid.

“I used to look at my mother and think how I hated her. I never wanted to be like her. But I turned out to be just like her. Everything she was, I became. And it wasn’t until I looked at myself in the mirror one day not that long ago that I was able to forgive her.”

Kimberly was the first in her family to go through drug rehabilitation. For the first ten years of her daughter’s life, Kimberly was in and out of jails and prison. Now her daughter’s 22, married with three kids.

“While I was in prison, my daughter stayed with my sisters and brothers. And by God’s grace, she doesn’t drink or use drugs. But my son, when I was pregnant with him, I was using. He’s real outspoken, and I watch him constantly.

“People think they’re going to stop crime by locking people up forever,” Kimberly says. “But there’s no rehabilitation. Sixteen years in and out of jails and prison didn’t teach me anything but how to be more violent, more angry, and more manipulative, and a better thief. And prison teaches racism. If I’m black, I’m over here; if you’re Hispanic, you’re over there; and if you’re white, you’re over there.”

Stop Prisoner Rape, an organization devoted to raising awareness about prison rapes, estimates that at least 364,000 unwanted sexual acts take place every year in prisons nationwide.

“Almost all the men involved in committing violent rapes have themselves been violently raped,” says Jerome Miller, president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank. “So when you establish a culture like prison, where sexual violence is an everyday occurrence, it’s something that’s definitely going to be exported into communities”

“When I got to Vacaville, my cellie raped and beat me for two months straight,” Dirk Edwards (not his real name) tells me in a slow, unemotional voice. Sitting in his Oceanside apartment, Dirk looks six years younger than his actual age — 34. He has a long, droopy face and sad, blank eyes.

“There was nothing I could do. When I complained, the guards just thought I wanted to get out. They finally let me go to a doctor who took an x-ray of my head and saw I had a cracked skull, which happened when I’d been raped in another prison and the guy slammed me against the wall.”

Dirk got his own cell. But then a large black convict took to visiting him.

“Sometimes I’d have to give him head. The guards didn’t know or didn’t care. They knew I was a child molester and figured I deserved it. Every night I cried myself to sleep. There was nothing I could do about it.”

“The act of rape in the ultra-masculine world of prison constitutes the ultimate humiliation visited upon a male, the forcing of him to assume the role of a woman,” the convicted murderer Wilbert Rideau says in “The Sexual Jungle,” an essay on sex in prison that he wrote while incarcerated at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. “It is not ’sexual’ and not really regarded as ‘rape’ in the same sense society regards the term. In fact it isn’t even referred to as rape.” Instead, prisoners and staff call it “turning out,” a description “that reveals the non-sexual ritualistic nature of what is really an act of conquest and emasculation, stripping the male victim of his status as a ‘man.’ ”

In the subculture of prison, those turned out become “females” or “punks” and assume their role as the chattel of whoever sodomized them. As Rideau points out, they “become a slave in the fullest sense of the term.”

It’s not easy to muster compassion for Dirk. By his own admission, he’s helped to spiritually and sexually mutilate the lives of a number of kids.

“I can’t believe the abuse I put that child through,” he says, describing a time when he was 18 and staying at a friend’s house, baby-sitting her young boy.

“He was four or five and would cry. And I would say everything was okay. But it was sick,” Dirk says, his voice trailing off.

However, it wasn’t until he was living with another family in eastern San Diego County and got involved with the woman’s ten-year-old son that he was caught. Though the boy told his mother that Dirk was molesting him, the mother didn’t believe it.

“But I felt so guilty I confessed it to the pastor, and he called the police on me,” Dirk says. “I needed help, but I got thrown in prison instead.”

When he was eight, a male baby sitter molested him, he says. He can only remember a man coming in the room and touching him. Not long afterwards, he started having homosexual feelings, which he acted out with a stepbrother. Then, two years later, when he’d moved from Arizona to California, Dirk was molested again, this time in a canyon by someone who lived in his mother’s apartment complex.

“I tried to say something to my mother, but she didn’t believe me,” he says in a mono-tone. “And I didn’t get any counseling."

In prison “there were convicts who’d get hold of the pictures of all the young guys just coming to prison or being transferred,” Dirk says. “They would arrange to get them moved into their cell. And the guards would do it. Every youngster was pressured to have sex. The older inmates prey on the weaker ones. And if you aren’t a good fighter, and I never was, you get turned into a punk.”

Punks can be sold for a bag of heroin or shared among other inmates. Once you’re a punk, you’re always a punk.

“In prison, sex is a violent power trip. It’s all about humiliation. You have these big lifers who are never going to get out of prison. They’re not getting sexual visits. They’re not going to get in trouble, so they do what-ever they want.”

When he was 14, Dirk was put in a group home. Two years later, back living with his mother, he was responsible for the care of his younger brother. I ask him what effect prison had on his family.

“It helped destroy my mother. I would write to her and tell her what happened, but letters would get lost. She couldn’t come visit me. They shipped me so far away — from San Diego to San Luis Obispo and then to Soledad and Vacaville — that she only came once.

“My brother got into drugs and gangs. I was no longer there to take care of him. So when I was gone, my mother had to be a mother to my brother, and it didn’t work out. She had no control of him. After I got out of prison, it was so hard to have me back. Soon, my mother slipped into a depression. She lost it and had a nervous breakdown. They tried all the medicines they could and nothing worked. Then they tried electroshock treatments.”

In the years since he was paroled, Dirk has drifted. He hasn’t held many jobs. He’s collected disability, unemployment insurance. I ask him if he’s ever had a relationship with a woman.

“I’ve gone out with some girls, but it hasn’t worked. I’m very uncomfortable with sex because of all the experiences I had as a child and in prisons. The whole thing has been a nightmare.”

Charles Goshen has a round, open face and unflinching brown eyes. He’s 31. Born in Arkansas, raised in Compton, he now lives in Escondido. “The part where I live is really bad,” he says. “Drug infested, gangs. It’s all right outside my door. But I’m looking to move soon.”

When I ask him about prison culture and its effect on him and his family, this is what he tells me: “I come from a dysfunctional family. Everyone used one drug or another. My father abandoned us when I was 5. There was five of us and my mother was 23, her self-esteem all shot out. She had this scar on her face, and she never would tell us how she got it. But later I found out my dad had cut her with a knife. He tortured her on a regular basis. I would come home and catch him beating her up. I’d get a glass of Kool-Aid and go out and play with my friends. Our house was insane. All the dope fiends came to use there. My mom was tricking most of the time, mixing booze with red devils.

“Everything around me was negative. Pimps and dope fiends. My uncles had just come back from Vietnam. Prior to leaving they were all right. But when they came back they were crazy. They beat on me and my younger brothers all the time.

“I was molested when I was five by a baby sitter. He threatened me and said he was going to do something to my younger brother and sister if I didn’t come with him. So I went into another room, and he made me give him head. And I took that shame and hurt, and it molded me into this callous little kid. I remember being cruel to animals and starting fights a lot. In school, prior to that happening, I was a pretty good student. But after that I couldn’t stay focused.

“I first got arrested when I was eight, for burglary. And from that point on as a juvenile, I got arrested over a hundred times—for burglary, GTA [grand theft auto], purse snatching, robbery. I didn’t start being violent until I was 14 — that’s when I got involved in strong-arm robberies.

“When I was 11, they investigated my family and told my mom, ‘He’s a menace to society and you’re unfit to raise him.’ So I went to group homes and juvenile hall and CYA facilities —back and forth. And that was another kind of insanity. In one group home I was in in Chino, a 15-year-old kid there raped and killed another kid there and left him in this remote area. There’s a lot of abuse going on in all those homes. You might go to a home where the guy who’s running it is alcoholic. Or he might be a maniac and molest you.

“Here’s a quick glimpse of my whole family. I got 25 cousins right now doing time. And a lot of cousins are dead from gang violence. My youngest brother, Kelvin, is doing life in prison for kidnapping and robbery. And my other younger brother, Darryl, was murdered. There were two drive-bys. The first time he was shot in the head and it blew his eye out. The next time, he was killed.

“I got an older brother, Cletis, who used drugs and has since cleaned up. He did a lot of CYA and county time. We were incarcerated a lot as juveniles. He’s doing good now, but there was a time, in the ’80s, when he started doing drugs.

“We didn’t have no family. My maternal grandmother was an alcoholic and diagnosed as a schizophrenic. I never knew my grandmother on the other side. My great aunt was the only older person who had a positive influence. She’s the only one still around. She basically grew up on a slave plantation — sharecropping in Arkansas.

“I’ve probably spent 14 years locked up. I’ve been to prison one time — in 1990 for involuntary manslaughter. Some dude in my neighborhood was threatening me. So one night, I had a gun in my hand, and this friend kept trying to make me put it away. I pushed him away, and the gun, which had a hair trigger, went off. That was in April of ’89, I did three years for that.

“I have three kids, and as a result of me going to prison I lost all contact with them. My ex-girlfriend, their mother, was out using drugs, ripping and running the streets. I wrote letters and tried to hunt her down, but no one could ever locate her because she kept moving from motel to motel. Trina was tricking all over Compton, Long Beach, Pasadena. She kept moving. My sister got in contact with me while I was in prison. She told me the situation. I didn’t know where they were. She told me Trina was living in a motel.

“While I was in prison, I learned my kids had been traded for drugs, held as ransom. Their mother would tell her drug connections, ‘If you don’t believe I’ll pay you, you can keep my kids.’ I now believe that my daughter Triva was molested. My other kids showed signs of drug use, and they have problems in school Tremell, my son, has anger problems. And in school it’s hard for him to compete. He and Triva are in RSP, a special ed class. Tanisha was a baby when all this happened. She got neglected too. And Triva had to be a mother to her. When I got custody of the kids three years ago, I noticed right away that they would hide and hoard food. They never knew when they were going to eat again.”

In The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents, Mike Males explores the longterm consequences of locking up so many people and spending such vast sums of money“s” on prisons.

“What you’ll have is an enclave culture,” says Males, a professor of social ecology at UC Irvine. “Places like Hunters Point in San Francisco, fully a third of Los Angeles, major portions of Oakland, Fresno, and San Jose, all of which are essentially not under the control of civil authority or city government, have been expanding rapidly. And they’re going to continue to grow. As they do, people who can afford to will retreat behind the barricades.

“An enclave society consists of two different kinds of prisoners. One group lives in affluent conditions, their freedom restricted. The other group lives behind bars. And as you expand the prison class as opposed to the enclave class, society polarizes. Those in the middle class, which is shrinking and stagnating, will be surrounded by millions of those who are justifiably angry at being permanently left out And this isn’t something just inevitably happening. We’re creating it.”

For Dan Macallair, a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University and associate director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, California’s expanding prison system is “a creeping disaster” that all of us are going to pay for.

“Eventually the bill is going to come in. And when it does, we’re going to see an elimination of every function of state government we’ve taken for granted,” says Macallair. “The Corrections Department is already looting the treasury. And higher education is getting hit hardest. They’ll just keep raising tuition, and the university system will become more and more elite. Parks and recreation will go next.

“As more people go to prison, the inner cities will disintegrate, because money and jobs are being transferred out of those areas. We’ll see more violence and more walled communities. In many ways, California will come to resemble a Third World country like Brazil, where a small number of the population live lavishly and most of the rest live at or below poverty levels. There, children are thrown out on the streets by parents because they’ve become a liability, and they turn to prostitution to survive. There is no government intervention, so people are left to fend for themselves. That’s where we’re going. We’re heading in that direction.”

What happens when so many youths have been locked up? Nine out of 10 convicts return to society. Are we ready for the rage of the prison class?

“All these new lifers are in their early twenties,” says Luis Rodriguez, the poet/activist. “Can you imagine the kind of time bomb they’re creating? People who don’t give a shit? lifers used to be older, three-time losers. But I know a 16-year-old who they’re trying to give 80-to-life.”

“When we’re putting six-year-olds in detention, trying youths as adults, and talking about ‘super-predators’ and ‘godless’ kids, we’ve gone through the looking glass,” says Barry Krisberg, director of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “And you can’t even figure out anymore how things are going to sort out. I think American society is in a moral panic. We’re afraid of our kids, we’re afraid of immigrants, we’re afraid of poor people, we’re afraid of everybody. And historically, moral panics happen as a prelude to seriously totalitarian regimes. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany, and that’s what happened in Russia.” Not long ago, I met Max, a sweet-faced 11 -year-old, half Chicano, half Guatemalan. He told me about his father, now in prison, who molested him as a child and beat his mother. When he was 5, Child Protective Services took Max and his siblings away. Over the next six years, the brothers and sisters were scattered, bounced between foster families and group homes.

“I’d always end up attacking people. Or I’d try to commit suicide. Once I got a rope and hung myself,” Max told me, sitting inside the group foster home he’s been in for two years. “But they found me.”

Already, Max has been arrested for everything from assault to theft. He’s run away from the group home where he now lives and has attacked staff. His mother is a drunk, and his father is in prison. According to a clinical psychologist’s written evaluation last year, Max has “the potential to become extremely violent.”

“I want to get a gun and kill my father for what he did to my little brother — for (having sex] with him,” Max says. “Because of what he did, my brother messes his pants all the time.” When Max gets mad, he gets all lightheaded; he fights and then they restrain him and he falls asleep.

“I took out a lot of anger on my younger brother. I beat him up. I was mad because of what my parents did to me. I never got any love,” Max says. “My parents would always be out on the stoop drinking or doing cocaine.... I don’t know what I might become. I might become like my dad, who’s in prison. And I have nightmares about getting the electric chair. I don’t want to grow up. I just want to stay a little kid.”

Jory Farr, staffwriter for the Riverside Press-Enterprise is author of Moguls and Madmen.

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