Open Eyes Within Hidden Places
Incarcerated writer April Harris gives an inside view of day-to-day life in a women's prison in Chino, California.
Photograph by Michele Zousmer
By April Harris
April Harris is an author who is incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California. Her experiences are a powerful insight to advocate for incarcerated people and the betterment of their environment. She has been interviewed by LA Weekly, The Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, and Solitary Watch, among many other outlets.
Published September 2023
Although I know it’s coming, I can never really prepare myself for the succession of loud popping sounds at 6:00 a.m. every morning. It feels like a thousand jarring pops although the number of metal doors being opened is only 60.
Sitting up in bed trying to steady my racing heart, I realize that it is only the sound of the unit being opened for us to begin our daily program. I squint as I am temporarily blinded as a guard shines his flashlight into my cell for the morning security check. I take a slow look around at the brick walls. I stretch and raise up from my metal bed and place my feet on the concrete floor. My name is April Harris and I am currently a resident of California Institution for Women. I have been incarcerated north of three decades.
As I make my coffee the thundering sound of footsteps stampede by my door as 120 women compete for the eight showers available to our unit. The repetitiveness of this program every day takes a mental toll. The knock that is about to take place on my door in...one...two...three...four...(knock) is so expected. A friend of mine wants to know if I would like for her to save me a spot in line. The shower line in the morning is our daily newspaper. It is here where we find out what fights are going to happen today, what guards were disciplined and walked off, who is going to the parole board. Most of this information is unsolicited but you stand there and do your best to close your ears without using your hands. The less you know the better.
Just moments after the unit opens at 6:15 a.m., an announcement is made for chow release. Directly in front of the chow hall there is a metal corral that looks like it was once used for cattle. You are made to enter it and form a line. From a distance you can hear the loud chatter from the different conversations all being had at one time. While in line you try your best to focus on the fresh crisp morning air and not be affected by the violation of your personal space as you are all packed in tight like a can of sardines.
A guard is giving a signal for ten women at a time to enter the chow hall. The rest of the line moves forward through the corral maze. Women are leaning back on the metal bars holding their state-issued cup and spoon in their hands—the only thing you are allowed to bring with you to chow. Some women are still half asleep as others are overly animated while telling their morning tales. Once inside you are immediately slapped with the smell of fresh onions and sewage. You encounter a long steel wall that seems to go on forever. At the end of this steel wall your tray appears out of a small rectangular hole. The yelling guards directing traffic, the extra bright flickering lights, and shouts coming from behind the steel wall becomes a symphony as the trays find their rhythm and slam together.
Once seated you are finally able to discover that in their haste the kitchen workers have mixed together most of your food. They have also either forgotten to give you something, or gave you a portion significantly smaller than the person seated next to you. For some women this is the only food they will have until dinner at 5:45 p.m. Some women will take their tray back to complain, however, most women will just accept their fate and eat what they can while picking out what they cannot.
Most of the food is unrecognizable and you will oftentimes find leftovers from dinner floating around as goulash for breakfast. You are not given basic salt and pepper to spice up your meal. Attempting to bring your own spices will result in disciplinary measures.
A World Inside of a World
Once finished you are escorted out of the chow hall where they hand you a clear plastic bag containing a sandwich, a small bag of sunflower seeds, and a sugar-free Kool-Aid pack. As you slowly walk to inspect the contents of your lunch, you look up to see four female guards wearing latex gloves waving you over to search you. You stand in front of them with your arms up as they search your body to ensure that you did not bring out anything from your tray. Trying to disconnect yourself from this early morning violation of your body as you vow to never come back to this chow hall ever again. Walking away you cannot help but notice the huge pile of food and cartons of milk on the ground, trashed and confiscated by the guards.
Around 7:45 a.m. every morning a piercing scream rings throughout the unit as a guard announces program release. The PA system would suffice but of course it would have taken away their power and control to scream instead. Everyone in prison is assigned to a job or a class. Failure to show up more than one minute late will result in disciplinary measures taken against you.
Program release is an interesting time. Throughout the prison, jobs and classes are starting. Women are pouring out from different buildings. It looks like a freeway as traffic moves at an alarming rate. I stand still amid the traffic as I take in my surroundings. Looking around I cannot help but notice that this is a world inside of a world. Shot callers are out dealing drugs. Prison-made families move about as one unit. The innate desire for women to nurture has them walking around talking baby talk to lizards, smothering them with kisses.
I watch women handle their time in different ways. You have the ”Grouper.” This person spends their entire waking moment attending self-help groups. Their only goal is to do what is required of them for a second chance at freedom. Then there are the women who exercise all day. At any point throughout the day this person will run past you at least twice, regardless where you are in the prison. This is their coping mechanism and a very strategic way to isolate themselves from everyone else. I see women dressed in their finest state-issued clothing on their way to visiting to spend a few hours with their loved ones, only to leave heartbroken having to say goodbye.
As the traffic intensifies I close my eyes and tune in to the chatter.
“I finally passed my GED. I had to take it six times.”
“Did you go to graduation in the auditorium last night?”
“Everybody who went to board yesterday was found suitable except for Ashley. I knew she wasn’t going to get it.”
“Our unit got raided last night and the dog left his paw prints all over my bedding.”
The flow of traffic reveals their secrets as everyone rushes to get to their destinations.
The sound of the alarm jolts me as ten guards run past me, screaming for us to get down. I immediately drop to the ground where I will remain until the alarm stops.
Sometimes these alarms can last up to an hour. If it is raining, we are forced to sit in the same spot and watch a puddle form around us. The reasons for the alarms vary from medical, to fights, to a disruptive prisoner. Time freezes as I think about how sad this place is.
A lot of women in here are on drugs or addicted to alcohol. It is their coping mechanism. They feel that it is what is needed to get through this mental torture chamber.
I have seen a coping mechanism that is even worse. Some of these women have denied that this world even exists. They have mentally created a world of their own. Believing in the world they have created so much that they are now lost in it. Anything to find a different reality other than their own. They speak of children that have passed away as if they were still alive. Women who deny that they have a life term will try to convince you that they are going home any day now. Women who believe that they are receiving letters from home, when no one has written to them in years.
Television shows could never truly capture the ways that the mind will find to adapt to an environment such as this. A woman took out her own eyeball and ate it in front of staff. In England long ago, they proved that isolation causes mental issues. Their prison was called “The Stir,” hence the phrase “stir crazy.” The highs and lows of what I see and hear on a daily basis are exhausting.
Hoping for a Lifeline
Once the alarm clears everyone rises, hundreds of women brushing off their clothes from being on the ground. Traffic is back in full swing. Brushing my clothes off I can’t help but think about my own issues. When I was first arrested, I screamed my innocence from the rooftops, hoping and praying someone would believe me. But when I entered the county jail, every rooftop was occupied with someone else screaming their own innocence.
I could no longer hear my own screams as I watched all claims of innocence become a joke to all who heard them. I have been denied parole numerous times because the panel believes that my claims of innocence are implausible and I have no insight. Heading to class I remind myself to hold on because better days are coming.
When class is over I rush back to my unit so I can get in the shower line before count. At 3:30 p.m. a loud horn that sounds like a boat leaving the dock sounds throughout the prison. This is the signal for recall. Everyone is ushered like cattle into their units where we prepare to stand and be counted. This is also the time where most of us discover that the guards have searched our cells. I take this time to clean up the mess they made, talk to my family on my prison-issued GTL tablet, and prepare myself for my self-help group at 5:00 p.m.
When count clears at 4:30 p.m., the same succession of loud pops open the doors. Again, the traffic is high as women move at a rapid pace. I sit in the day room and socialize with my friends for 30 minutes. Women utilize the kiosks and video chat with their families. A movie plays on the TV and an argument happens somewhere close by.
The day of the week dictates which self-help groups are being held. All groups end at 7:30 p.m. when another loud horn blows letting us know that everything on the yard is closed and everyone must return to their units. Once in our unit, we have 45 minutes to do whatever we need to do before we are locked in for the night.
Once the doors lock at 8:45 p.m. we are left alone with our thoughts, our choices, and our regrets.
As I drift off to sleep I play out different scenarios of things I could have done differently in life. I pray and hope that I will be thrown a lifeline, an opportunity to choose again.