Otay Mesa prison – built to house 2200, today there are 4636

The parking lot is nearly full

— Otay Mesa is part of a vast sweep of scrub that stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border as far as Texas. Donovan State Prison State Prison is located there, a huge complex of buildings 25 miles southeast of downtown San Diego.

Built to house 2200 men, today 4636 prisoners are held under a bristle of antennae, guard towers, enclosed walls, and barbed wire. The foreboding stillness is like a mountain that kills all sound. Just a mile away stands a medium-security county jail. When compared to the state prison, the George F. Bailey Detention Facility is as benign as an elementary school playground.

I turn in to the parking lot, which is almost full in early afternoon. Men and women are lounging in their cars, windows down and doors open, their faces greasy with the heat, clothing loosened. Children are listless and cranky. I park and lock the car, whose temperature inside, an hour later, will be over 120 degrees.

Racing to get out of the sun, I make for a sandstone-colored building, Number 4 (all buildings are numbered), the jail's registration area. Inside, clerks move about behind thick, bullet-proof glass. On my side, the place is jammed. People are talking to clerks, in line, or planted on plastic chairs bolted to the floor. They are here to speak to some of the 1600 inmates held inside George F. Bailey; I am here to talk to those who wait to talk.

It is estimated within two years that those incarcerated in the U.S. prison system will number more than 2,000,000, according to a recent NPR news report. In San Diego there are six other county jails besides George F. Bailey, as well as a federal and a state prison, two juvenile halls, and a few probation camps. The seven county jails hold a total of approximately 5300 men and women. On the day I drove out to George F. Bailey, 11,567 individuals were incarcerated in the San Diego facilities mentioned above.

From news reports, television, and movies, I know some of what their lives are like inside prison. What I don't know is what it's like for the prisoners' families. How do they make do while their loved ones serve time? What are their daily lives like? How often are they able to visit the jail? What is incarceration doing to their family, to their marriage?

A thick red line has been painted on the floor. A sign says to stand behind it while waiting for a clerk. One of the women behind the glass motions me forward.

"Hi," I say, and then raise my voice, talking through glass. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes, I can hear you fine." Her voice comes out a little muffled.

"Good. I'm doing an article about families of prisoners..." I drop my voice.

The clerk wears dreadlocks, which comes as a surprise, and a nametag that I cannot read. While the entire building is air-conditioned, with so much activity in the lobby, the door opening and closing so often, it is much warmer on my side. The clerk looks comfortable.

"I'd like to interview families of men incarcerated here and wondered if I needed to get permission."

"To do what?"

"To talk to them," I say, indicating those moving about the lobby.

"It's better if you speak with my supervisor," says the clerk, and slips off her chair.

"Are you the one from the newspaper?" I whirl around. It's a minute later and a dark-haired man has stepped up behind me. We shake hands and introduce ourselves.

"Are you a supervisor?"

"No, I'm the principal clerk."

I ask for the spelling of his name. "For my article," I say. He suggests we go outside. I follow him past the glass doors. "You have to understand," he says, turning to face me and squinting against the glaring sunlight. "We have more than a couple of dozen clerks..."

"Exactly how many?"

"I'd rather not give exact numbers, but our clerks move hundreds of people through the registration process every day." He went on to explain that clerks made sure money and letters were routed; they functioned as a telephone service, answering all outside calls; and when the men were ready to leave, they processed them out. "And all this is done under conditions of potential hazard."

I didn't understand.

"For example, none of us, the clerks and myself, are trained in the use of firearms. We don't carry weapons. Suppose one of our names appeared in the papers, and somebody with a gripe tracked their address down? The clerk and their family might be placed in danger."

Okay, no names.

"Could I ask you some questions?"

"Sure, but let's do it in my office."

He leads the way next door. We gain entrance to the building only after he punches in a code that unlocks the doors. His office is small. He sits on one side of the desk. I am snug on the other side. "What is it like for these families?"

"Many of them find it a hardship to visit. Sometimes they have trouble finding a babysitter and have to bring the kids. Or they have no transportation and have to wait until a friend can drive them out."

"Do you think it's a financial hardship?"

"For the families? I'd say, yes it is. When the man is in jail, he's not working and bringing home a paycheck."

"So what happens when they get out? What is the prognosis?"

"You'll have to ask them or the parole people." His tone is not unkind. "My job ends when they leave here."

"Can I talk to some of them, the visitors?"

Talk to who you want, he says, only his clerks will not be able to help me. "Visitors must wait 45 minutes between registering and when they get to speak to an inmate. You can talk to them then. Just keep things down."

"Is today a good time?"

Prison visits take place Friday through Monday from 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. "The earlier you get here, the better," he says. "Tomorrow is Saturday, and it's pretty busy after eight."

Back in the registration area, I decide to line up my interviews today, schedule them for later in the week, then visit people in their homes. I notice the alphabetized list of bail bondsmen listed above a pay phone. "All Clear," "Aloha," "Already Out," "Escape Artist." A side door opens and two prisoners appear. The young Mexican has the sweet look of a choirboy while the tall, middle-aged white man is in need of a shave. Both wear khaki-colored clothes with SAN DIEGO JAIL stenciled in black on their backs. They roll out a cart with a bucket and pail, mops, and cleaning utensils. In a brown uniform, a sheriff rattling keys opens another side door and the three men disappear.

Everyone is preoccupied filling out the registration forms, checking the booklet with the prisoners' names and cell numbers, arranging matters with the clerk, or waiting for their appointed time. I do what the two prisoners and the sheriff did: I disappear.

On one side of the courtyard outside, lined up against the wall, a set of giant vending machines offering Pepsi and Dr. Pepper, candy, and ice cubes. I imagine how much energy these machines suck up to keep the soda cool and the ice cubes from melting. Posted above the machines is a sign: "Vending Machine Refunds!" with instructions and a San Diego phone number for those seeking a refund for money lost. Good luck, I think.

Saturday morning, 6:30 a.m. The nighttime sky is only beginning to go gray, but already the parking lot has a dozen vehicles. I turn off my car lights, lock the door, and walk to the registration area. A dozen people are inside. The women appear carefully made up and coiffed. If they have shapely legs, the legs show. Nails are done, toenails painted.

The children have on clean clothes, as if they're going to church. A little Mexican girl, no more than two, wears a pretty ruffled dress that is sure to prove too warm in two hours. Men with ponytails and tattoos leave the lobby for a smoke.

By now I can identify the old-timers. They know to go to the desk at the right of the door and fill out the visitors card, then wait behind the line where they'll be called by one of the clerks. They will pass the filled-out card, plus ID, through the chute (children over 16 are also required to show ID). Visitors are then put on a schedule to speak with an inmate.

No matter what the hour, even if the telephone line is free, a minimum wait of 45 minutes must pass while the prisoner is pulled from his cell. Usually it is longer, depending on how many visitors are already scheduled to use the phones. The principal clerk said there were ten telephones per housing unit. He said they tried to give visitors an hour, if possible. "But sometimes things happen. Sometimes there are fights between visitors."

Those who are not in line or outside smoking or keeping an eye on their children are sitting quietly. I study a young woman with two children, an older man with his granddaughter, a woman alone. I think to go over and introduce myself, but something holds me back and I wait. Again and again, the chutes through which visiting cards, letters, IDs, and money are placed clang open and shut. The noise it makes sounds like the crash of a guillotine.

"Your appointment will be for one o'clock," the clerk tells a young black woman, not much older than a teenager. Her T-shirt is tight and her jeans have been ironed to a sheen. The young woman leaves the building. I stand and watch her walk to the parking lot. She finds her car, unlocks the door, sits down, and closes the door behind her. She does not notice that I am looking at her. She has a blank look on her face. She has a five-hour wait.

An hour later the parking lot is nearly full. One man is waxing his truck, another changes the oil in his car. Children are eating breakfast or curled up in back seats, sleeping soundly. The fog is lifting, and the sky, no longer gray, is going silver on its way to gold. Behind the prison, the mesa is yellow with early morning.

What I don't know about the young black woman sitting in her car or the woman with the two children or the man waxing his truck is enormous. But this is not the place to find out. Every visitor has undergone hardship to get here. Punishment is not just for the prisoner. They deserve their hour. Mine, I hope, will come later.

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