Projected discharge date: Oct. 27, 2028.
Every time I visit the Dixon Correctional Center website, I hope that somehow this date has changed so that there are fewer years between my father and me. On Oct. 28, 2010, I received a phone call from my uncle, “No vas a ver a tu papa por mucho tiempo, mija.” My heart sunk, and I had no words. My world went black. I didn’t know when I would be able to see my father again.
I have had many emotional moments in my life given the experiences of my family. I lost my mother to substance abuse and homelessness at the age of 12, and after being in and out of jail, she has committed to a drug program and is now 150 days clean. During the time my mother was absent, I moved in and out of family members’ homes and for the better part of a year, lived in my father’s mechanic shop. Despite having experienced these ups and downs with my family, I have to say that seeing my father again was the most emotional.
Before walking into the waiting room, my brother and I had to be searched. As the guard ran her hands down my body, I couldn’t help but think, “I’m not dangerous — I just want to see my father.” I didn’t expect to be able to touch my father, but in what may have been one of the most overwhelmingly joyful moments of my life, I was granted permission by the guards to not just touch, but actually hug him. It was a moment I can’t put into words.
I value the time I spend with my father in the correctional center. But that time is often cut short. Several hours into our visit, my father usually gets restless because the prisoners are not allowed to get up or walk around. At most, we spent four hours a day together. I wish I could be with my father without all of these restrictions. I wish it weren’t always a mystery when I would get to see him again.
Angela Davis, a radical black educator, scholar and activist for civil rights said, “Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo — obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.” Her words almost hit too closely to home. Davis is right: Inmates like my father suffer the consequences of prison-manufactured racial lines, limited opportunities and inhumane treatment. When my father tells me about the relationships he has made in jail, he often talks about his black inmates. Most relationships are hostile, but not because he dislikes those inmates. Through his letters and over the phone, he says it’s because prison is a hostile place and the mentality is to “stick with your kind.”
He tells me how he wants to get an education and is spending his time wisely while he is there. But very few options are available to him. This was especially true when my father was sent to the Security Housing Unit for two weeks due to a group punishment. It is rare that he misses our Sunday calls, but throughout that time, I received no phone calls or letters. This made me very worried, so I called the correctional center, and they told me he was sent to the SHU and he was not allowed to call or have contact with any human beings. Fortunately for my father, two weeks is the longest he has experienced this type of inhumane treatment. Could you imagine enduring that for ten years? Or even longer? That is what some inmates face.
But these tactics can’t silence those behind bars. For example, on July 8, 2013, more than 30,000 prisoners in California commenced a hunger strike that lasted 60 days to demand several important items. They demanded the end of group punishment and administrative abuse, to abolish the debriefing policy and to end long-term solitary confinement. They demanded the centers provide adequate and nutritious food, modify the criteria that constitutes gang membership and expand constructive programming for those who will spend their life in solitary confinement. This was the longest recorded prison hunger strike in history, but it shows the solidarity of those behind bars, across all races, and illuminates the needs of those who society has purposefully made invisible.
These prisoners are not alone. At Berkeley there are several efforts to mitigate the effects that incarceration has on students and their families, both on and off campus. I had the opportunity to be a part of a class that was comprised of formerly incarcerated students and those who had loved ones behind bars. In our conversations, we agreed that the University of California had failed to provide desperately needed resources to formerly incarcerated students and those with family members in prison. We and other students began to meet over the summer to discuss ways to increase resources for students like us. As a result, we created the Phoenix Scholars Project at Berkeley, a student working group that discusses the kinds of support that could be institutionalized for students with these particular experiences.
Additionally, a coalition of organizations on and off campus are working together to address these issues through the IGNITE campaign. IGNITE, or Invest in Graduation, Not Incarceration: Transform Education, was one of the most popular campaigns adopted by the University of California Student Association at their Congress conference in August. The office of the EVP at every UC campus will be working on the IGNITE campaign to organize tangible ways to divest from prisons, invest in education and increase the UC diversity pipeline.
Some of the organizations involved include: Human Rights for the Incarcerated at Cal, MEChA De UC Berkeley, All of Us or None, the Black Student Union, the office of the EAVP’s State Affairs Department and the Phoenix Scholars Project.
I look forward to creating a collaborative effort between students to dismantle what we know as the prison industrial complex and hit this issue at its core. UC Berkeley is known as a flagship university. We, as members of this University, must band together in this movement to make a difference.
Wendy Pacheco is an ASUC senator.