The California Department of Corrections has this certain section in most of their prisons that’s called the SHU program – the S-H-U standing for Segregated Housing Unit. It’s where the dudes labeled as incorrigibles are sent to be away from the general population; kinda like the bad boy section where ya gotta wait it out in solitary confinement until you’ve served the time awarded you for breakin’ the rules and while prison already sucks going to the SHU really sucks.
As you can probably well imagine waitin’ around by yourself in a five by eight foot cell gets a little lonely, desolate and even bleak at times. Yet just knowin’ that this isn’t gonna be forever, that someday you’ll be gettin’ out, that someday after the administration’s calmed down and forgotten whatever it was that you’ve done, you’ll be back out and about walkin’ the yard doin’ all the things that regular convicts get to do when they’re doin’ time, and this almost makes it bearable, almost, I mean as bearable as bein’ in prison gets.
And though serving a prison sentence, in segregation or otherwise, is a pretty horrendous ordeal there’s usually a reason as to why you’re there: like ya broke the law hurtin’ someone or stealin’ something and you were tried and convicted and now you’re serving your time sequestered away from society with the idea that someday, after supposedly having repented for your sins, you’ll get out.
Well, that’s the theory anyway, and I can understand some of it, like the society locking you up because you’re a menace to yourself and others part. But the isolation and deprivation from healthy human interaction part I don’t get. Having seen the damage that it has done to a lot a people, a lot a people who were never the same afterwards, and now we as “society” gotta deal with the final outcome once these folks have been released. Unfortunately the usual “final outcome” is that they’re destitute, about to be if not already homeless, addicted to one substance or another and left to fend for themselves in a world they’re ill equipped to deal with.
Regrettably my neighborhood and the people that live in it, many of which are the very same people that I’ve been talking about, are a perfect example of the effects that haphazardly discharging institutionalized and emotionally damaged ex-offenders has on the community: the wino exiting the liquor store, a bottle clutched in his hand, almost like a weapon, expecting the worst as he squints surveying those around him for the danger that lurks. The looks of fear worn by ninety percent of the women who walk the alleyways of this South of Market neighborhood stuck havin’ to navigate their way through while every few seconds they glance over their shoulders at the shadows. Outstretched hands and mumbled pleas from disheveled dirty shapes that resemble human beings but no one really stops to make sure as everyone is in such a hurry to just get somewhere else.
Brush mustaches, dark wrap-around shades, beanie caps, Pendleton shirts with only the one collar buttoned, and if that wasn’t enough there’s always the overabundance of crude jailhouse tattoos that everyone sports all over their bodies like as if they’d been branded – an indelible sign as to who they really are and where they’d been. It’s this certain style, one that screams PENITENTARY and half the dudes walkin’ around on
Unfortunately that’s just the visual you get from seein’ the surface as what’s going on deeper inside isn’t so easily apparent. But at night when you hear the gun shots, the sirens, the sound of shattering glass and know that they’re all the direct result of these very same people and the futility that livin’ down here in the streets breeds, ya gotta wonder is any of this working? Do any of the people that enforce the laws feel that it’s working? Do any of the people that are breakin’ the laws ever consider that another way of life is possible and if they do is anyone gonna allow them to try?
Outside my apartment’s window there’s a brick wall topped with ancient metal posts adorned with rusty strands of barbwire, all the parked cars down on the street have that tell tale blinking red LED light signifying engaged alarms and a couple-a-times a week I see the county parole officer’s car parked at the curb while he makes an unscheduled search and seizure visit on one of my immediate neighbors.
Some days, when it’s late and I’m really tired comin’ home my building’s long hallways with their endless lines of doors almost resembles a segregate housing unit. Like as if there was actually one with imitation wood grained paneled doors leading to the cells instead a the usual steel and Plexiglas. Not that I’d really compare my apartment building to a prison, it’s just that there are some similarities; the small single rooms, the roving uniformed guards that walk the halls at night and the endless noise that all the tenants make twenty-four hours a day.
But what may be the worst of it is the solitary confinement that most of this building’s tenants sentence themselves too through either their addictions, fears or unchecked mental health issues, and hidden away down here under the freeway amongst the warehouses, clubs and auto repair shops there’s a forgotten neighborhood, like so many others in this country, that so called normal people hope will just disappear and go away.
But I’ve been here for over three years and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere else any time soon.