Q&A with Carmen and Charlie: Deprived of Personal and Economic Freedom Behind Bars

This week, Root and Rebound is introducing a weekly blog series: Questions and Answers with Charlie and Carmen.

Carmen Garcia works at Root and Rebound as the Programs Coordinator, where she leads the distribution of Root and Rebound’s Roadmap to Reentry legal guide to thousands of people across the state. Currently, she is pursuing a Psychology degree at S.F. State.

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Charlie Lundquist works at Root and Rebound as a Development and Communications intern, where he writes grants, blog-posts, and develops and carries out social media marketing and communications initiatives. Currently, he is pursuing a Sociology Degree from Dartmouth College.

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Every week, we will speak together about issues facing people trapped behind bars. We hope that we not only shed light on these hardships, but also how one’s experiences in prison impact the reentry process. Today, we hone in on a dehumanizing loss of personal and economic freedom.

Charlie: How strictly was your time and space divided when you were in prison?

Carmen: It was very, very structured, from the moment you wake up until you go to bed. Breakfast is always at the same time, which you probably had maybe 5 minutes to eat. I worked Monday through Friday at Unicor so I had to be at work ready to start by 7:00am. Lunch break was at 11:30; by noon I had to be at work in my area ready to make phone calls. Every hour on the hour and alarm would sound off letting us (inmate) know that we could leave the unit to wherever we needed to be according to the “Call Out” list.

You also had to be ready so right when your cell doors opened. We only had ten minutes to go from our unit to wherever we needed to be.

You were also only allowed to leave your unit if you were on the “call out” list. You are on the “call out” list for work every day, except for Saturday and Sunday, if you work at Unicor, while others work on weekends. The guards have access to your daily schedule through the “call out “ list, so for example if you are in your housing unit and the “call out” list shows that you are supposed to be at Unicor, you can get a reprimand which can lead you to the “SHU”-Special Housing Unit. After your done with work, unless you have permission to be in the library, the gym, or whatever, then you have to be in your unit.

So everything is structured. They know where you are every second of the day. When you’re at work, you have about six or seven prison staff watching your every move. If your computer is on idle for one minute, the guards come up to you and say: “What’s going on?” Or, if you’re taking too long in the bathroom, they come looking for you.

So everything, everything is monitored. They hear everything you say on the phones, talking to customers and everything. You can’t even leave work unless one of the guards call you out for whatever reason or you are on the “call out

Charlie: So what I’m gathering is there was basically no freedom to move across time or space. And I have a follow up question: so you were mentioning that you had a job, and I was wondering if you could tell me: how was the pay? Did you enjoy the job? And how did it make you feel?

Carmen: I like that I had a job, right, because it kept me busy. I didn’t like what I was doing; it was telemarketing.

Charlie: Laughs.

Carmen: When you first get to the prison, for the first month you have to work the kitchen. You only get paid like 5 cents for the whole month. And then after that, if you have a high school education then you can make somewhere between 15 cents and 8 cents an hour. The longer you’re there, the more you can earn. But I think the maximum, that people who have been there for 20, 30 years, is like not even a dollar an hour.

Charlie: Yeah… I think its startling that you have so many liberals fighting for a fifteen dollar minimum wage on the outside, and then no one really knows about this exploitation. There’s no better word for it than slavery. Its forced labor behind bars.

Carmen: Some people believe that a person deserves what they get. So if you end up in prison with no outside support, that’s on you. But there’s another side: there are inmates who have been in prison for so many years that their outside support is gone.

They have been there for so long, and so they are responsible for buying everything that they need plus those items that the prison doesn’t provide for them, [such as extra toiletries, extra pairs of underwear and socks, and other ‘essentials’ to living a normal western life, snacks and food].

Earning so little for hour of work makes it really hard to do [buy these essential items] because most of the commissary items are overpriced. They actually charge a lot more than on the outside. I remember when I was in county jail, a small bag of coffee cost sixteen dollars and some change. You could get this small bag at Safeway for seven dollars.

The items that they [the guards) know that the women, the people, the inmates, use or consume a whole lot are the ones that are the most expensive. So, that’s why a lot of inmates “hustle. ”They get creative to figure out ways to earn that bag of coffee. I mean there’s no exchange of money or anything, but they either iron for people, or draw or doodle, and more, so that that person can buy them a bag of coffee.

So, no minimum wage doesn’t apply in prisons. hahaha

Charlie: Tattoos?

Carmen: I don’t know. I never saw it, but I’m sure it happens. But I did have people approach asking: “Oh do you want me to make you this?” or “I can make you that!” I felt really badly because, you know, most of the women asking had been there for over many years, and they to “hustle” everyday just to survive. To know that you will never be able to afford the items you need, because your only getting a few paid cents an hour was really depressing.

But, I was very grateful and fortunate that my family didn’t abandon me. They helped me as much as they possibly could. I learned just to be so grateful because there were people in prison who didn’t have anybody.

Charlie: There’s this Nelson Mandela quote and I’m not going to say it directly because I forgot the exact working. But, the basic meaning is: every human will fall through their lives, but the strongest will rise every time they fall. I think it’s on the back of our guide. So, I was wondering if you could talk about this process of rising from a low place in prison and also what you learned from that uphill climb? I imagine that getting paid so little behind bars, and then exiting out into a free community, makes living feel even better. To me, pain and suffering is a necessary prerequisite to living one of the happiest lives one can live because you appreciate everything. Can you touch on that thought?

Carmen: Yeah! You’re so right. I think my lowest point in life was when I realized that I was not going home to my daughter and that moment I had to make a choice, I was either going to sleep my time away or face the day and go forward. I chose to move forward. I joined the Choices Program in jail, and showed up for life each day.

There were a lot of things that I took for granted before going to prison.

When I got out of prison I realized: “Oh my god! Just to breath this air and not have anybody watching is amazing!” Even just going to the bathroom whenever I want was a blessing. I finally recovered this dignity. I was deprived of this dignity by the prison guards, who would burst into my bathroom door at any time. Just to have that even just that privacy was so, oh my gosh, I cannot even explain to you how that felt.

I think that one of the happiest and saddest a moment for me was when I got my license, I felt like: “Oh my god! I am a citizen again. I am back into society.” Before I went to prison I had a drivers license and state id and I never appreciated them. When I got them after getting out I cried. I sat there and I cried. I was on the phone with my mom and I was in tears.

It’s just hard to explain that feeling of “now I’m not just that prison number I was in prison for all those years. This is me, this is my identity.” It was wonderful feeling to know that now I had control over what I chose to do. There is nobody telling me: “you have two minutes to get there.” Now I choose. If I want to go there, I go there, if I don’t, then I don’t.

Even just to sleep. Sleeping in was unheard of in prison. If you are not working, you still have to get up at the same time as everyone else, on weekends we still had to get up for breakfast and count. I remember my first days out in the free world, I would wake up frantic in the middle of the night thinking I had overslept…something you just don’t do in prison. If you happen to catch the Correctional Officer on a bad day, you were going to the SHU-Special Housing Unit. Then I said: “wait a minute, I’m not in prison anymore!” *LAUGHS*

This series was written, in collaboration, by Charlie Lundquist and Carmen Garcia.

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