San Quentin Radio: Lockdown

Sep 14, 2017

A lockdown happens when correctional officers decide there is a threat to the safety and security of a prison. That might be a fight, an assault, or a race riot. So what's it like in a lockdown? 

It is exactly what it sounds like. In a lockdown, inmates have to stay in their cells until the problem is contained. They can't go anywhere unless strip-searched, handcuffed, and escorted by correctional officers.

During the lockdown, inmates spend 24 hours a day with another man in the space the size of a bathroom. Lockdowns can last months. So what becomes of a man’s daily routine? How does he overcome boredom? And if he knows it might be coming, how does he prepare? 

Endurance test

A prison yard is a very unpredictable environment. Violence and lockdowns can happen at any time. John Johnson, who goes by Yaya, has been in prison for 20 years. 

 "I've been in more lockdowns than I can remember. The longest lockdown I've been in is 10 months in Corcoran State Prison," he says. 

Trevor Bird has been locked up for 16 years and told me he's "endured many lockdowns and the longest was 8 months up at High Dessert." 

Here's how it starts. The first few hours of the day are spent gathering information.

"There's a lot of confusion, there's a lot of uncertainty and nervousness," Bird says. 

You're not sure what's going on. Yaya remembers one time when he heard something bad had happened. 

"My cellie came in and he had this look of bewilderment on his face and I said man what happened out there. He said man it was bad, it was a race riot. And I looked at his face man I seen the terror in his eyes and I was like wow," says Yaya.

That race riot was the start of a 10-month lockdown. In the beginning you don't know how long it is going to last. During lockdowns there's absolutely no movement unless you are handcuffed and escorted by officers. Inmates find ways to communicate with each other by doing things like yelling, talking through the ventilation system or even taking advantage of the time with prison escorts to have a conversation.

"Sometimes your only chance to communicate with somebody else is maybe on a quick little 15-second walk to the shower," Bird says. 

Adapting is key for any form of survival, as is preparation. Just like Bay Area residents who prepare earthquake kits, many inmates prepare by having a lockdown box.

Inside the lockdown box

Bird likes to call it a war chest.

"The war chest are the basic necessities. We're not filling it with candy bars and, you know, smell-good body wash. No, these are the things you're going to need to fight off hunger and to fight off your own funk in the cell," he says.

Yaya's box consists of things for food and hygiene.

"It was mandatory to have 5 deodorants, 5 lotions, 5 toothpastes, things like that. Coffee. It's a must to have 240 soups in your cell at any given time," he says. 

An earthquake kit is locked, stored, and put away for unexpected emergencies. A lockdown box is no different. 

"Well, a lockdown box is never, never, really generally touched. It's something that you’re going to have to rely on at some point in long lockdown, so its a box that taken, place under the bed and it's out of sight," Yaya says. 

Eventually the lockdown box empties and prisoners run out of supplies. The three meals a day the state provides is not nearly enough for an adult and the hunger becomes unbearable. 

"Hollowness in your gut. I mean your belly just grinding on your backbone and the hunger pains ... that sack lunch and a graham cracker just might be just enough to let you fall asleep that night," Bird says. 

The same meal is repeated over and over, so the men have to use their imaginations. 

"Sometimes that loaf of bread can turn into mama’s lasagna, mom's fried chicken," Bird says. 

"When we ate these peanut butter sandwiches it was always considered a steak. With A1 steak sauce being the jelly. Our imaginations run wild again, because you're confined to this cell and you're coping, " Yaya says. 

"Your mind wanders and your mind tries to fill in the gaps of what could be and what should be, but what really isn't," Bird says. "You mix up that cool-aid and sip it slowly like its your favorite soft drink or something. Or a smoothie." 

"You find yourself being creative and imaginative to make the food more palatable when you eat it," Yaya says.

Within in a few weeks, men establish routines for themselves and with their cellies. 

Trevor Bird says a lot of time is spent dividing up space on the floor.

Close confines

"So, you're either on your rack or you're on the floor and there's not enough room for both of you to be on the floor at the same time. So, we divide it evenly and tippy toe around each other like that," he says.

Still, being barracked with another man for 24 hours a day for several months in basically a room the size of a bathroom can be extremely challenging. Yaya says it can feel like you're in hell. 

"It works your nerves. So you have to have good coping mechanisms in order not to go crazy in one of these small prison cells," he says. 

During lockdowns, men can only shower every 2 days. So, they find methods of cleaning themselves inside their cells daily, which is known as a "birdbath." 

"It's a splashdown. Suds up with your little sink and your little trickle of water that comes out. Usually we got some ladle of some type, usually it's your mug, using your sink and your toilet to corral all the water and a few floor towels to sop up the excess," Byrd says. 

Since visits and phone calls are restricted, the only form of communicating with family members are through letters.

"I write my family. I have a son, I have a granddaughter, my mother. They're active participants in doing this prison time with me," Yaya says. 

"And my letter going out can reach my family in a couple of days. It takes about 15-20 days sometimes for one of their letters reach me," Bird says. 

But Bird and his dad found creative ways to make their letters during their lockdowns a bit more interesting.

"We start up a game of chess. And it was not out of the norm to just send off a letter with nothing but a simple chess move in it. Talk about a slow game of chess. There's no time on the clock there because I'm waiting 15 to 20 days for his responding move," he says. 

While Bird and his dad like a slow, well thought out game of chess, lockdowns are very psychologically challenging. 

"Just being stuck in that cell without movement, day after day after day, I struggled to stay stay sociable. I'd spend three or four days in my own head, but that would be three or four days that I didn't write a letter, that I didn't say a word to my cellie. Three to four days, just spent in a depression," Bird says. 

Yaya agrees.

"Having been locked down, confined to a cell with minimal movement, [it challenged] the maintenance of my sanity. Not being able to go to the canteen, not being able to get a package, not being able to visit your people," he says. 

Yaya and Bird did utilize their lockdown time productively. Yaya learned to speak Arabic. And Byrd earned his associate degree taking correspondence courses through the mail, but neither of them would ever want to do another lockdown again.

"No way, there just too much wear and tear on the soul," Bird says. 

"Absolutely not, 'cause I like to be free. I like to move about the land and learn things without being confined in box," Yaya says. 

This story originally aired in July of 2015. 

Editor's note: In the audio that accompanies this story, SQPR reporters have recreated some of the prison sounds in their media lab. The sound design is necessary because the reporters are only allowed to record in one part of the facility.

San Quentin Radio is a project in which KALW editors train inmates to report stories from inside prison. San Quentin officials listened to and approved the script and audio for this story prior to broadcast. Thanks to Sam Robinson and Larry Schneider for their help.