By Holli Coulman, Associate Prison Professor
After enduring the last year between entering my plea and sentencing, THE most fateful day of my life, October 5, 2015 the day I self-surrendered to federal prison Camp, had finally arrived. By federal prison, I mean the Satellite Prison Camp at the Federal Correctional Complex Victorville in Adelanto, CA.
Of all the beautiful sunny days that we have here in Southern California, wouldn’t you know that day of all days, I awoke to the vision of gray overcast skies and a light rain on my window. I took a peek outside and wondered with all the inordinate media coverage that I received as well as my home address being showcased online, if there would be a caravan of my detractors from the wonderful Internet parked outside in my hood awaiting me to emerge and accompany me on my sojourn up to the Camp.
So, wanting to get this show on the road with attitude and knowing it was a 2.5 hour drive up there, I got up at 5 AM so that I could go down the street to take a shower at my in-laws. As luck would have it, and wouldn’t you know, our water heater had given up its ghost the day before. As I backed the car out of the garage, and to my blessed relief, I didn’t see a soul parked outside on my neighborhood street, not even any of the neighbors who had turned against me. I must say however that there were several of my neighbors who remained steadfast, knew me for the person that I was, and stood by me regardless of inaccurate press releases and media articles based on only one side of the story. And then I recalled what a good friend of mine once said to me regarding the fact that only in a crisis is true character revealed and only then do you really know who your friends are. And I now most certainly know how very true that is nor have I ever forgotten it.
After taking one last look around my home, my husband and I hit the lonely road and headed up the I-15 N. The way up with was peppered with small talk and I even used some of the time to transfer the $360 that you’re allowed per month on your books at the Camp. I did this via one of the main money wiring companies as a friend at the Camp had previously told me that it’s best to wire the money into your account to avoid any conflicts with bringing cash or checks and given once wired, the money takes 2 to 4 hours to show up. Apparently, each facility is different and one can get confusing information when calling on the phone.
My Self-Surrender – Crossing the Threshold from Freedom
As we approached the city of Victorville, we decided to stop and eat. Again my wonderful friend mentioned making sure that I ate before self-surrendering because by the time I was processed, I would have probably missed breakfast and the lunch. Little did she know how right she was.
After finishing our meals, I decided to not drag it out any longer and although my poor husband looked so sad and worried, he knew I was right. So we got back into the car and started driving to the FCC at Adelanto. My journey’s end getting ever closer, I felt the subtle pangs of fear and distress beginning to rise inside of me. As much as I had prepared myself for this day, as much information as I had gleaned from my prison consultant, and as much as I had read the many informative letters from a friend who was already in the Camp here, my stomach tightened evermore as we made the last turn onto George Road from Airbase Road and approached the complex.
As our car moved closer and closer, I saw the low, dark tan institutional profile of the FCC starkly rising up out of the arid flatness dominated by nothing but differently colored gravels arranged in sweeping patterns and a few succulents. Compared to my neighborhood and home, both surrounded by green shrubbery and many mature trees, this place looked like an outpost on some lonely asteroid. The only real beauty of the surrounding landscape was the San Bernardino Range in the distance.
Strangely, we drove right on in the main FCC roadway and noticed that there was no guarded checkpoint or gate that one would think would be there to control access. We both thought it very odd that an FCC with all levels of incarceration up through a federal pen would not have a guarded entrance but open access to anyone and everyone. Guess they figure whose going to raid a federal prison that is guarded by men with guns? So after locating the Camp via the directional arrows on wooden signs to the right side of the roadway, we pulled into the parking lot, found a parking space though the lot looked deserted beyond the government vehicles, and walked up to what we thought was the main entrance.
Upon entering, there was an officer in the first room and I stepped into the doorway and announced that I was there to self-surrender. Amazingly, the young officer was completely perplexed as to my statement. He then radioed someone and walked us back outside through the doors we had entered and directed us over to a little side door which was apparently Receiving. No sign, no direction, no roster, no nothing! Only clear and obvious mismanagement from the getgo!
Federal Prison Camp For Women at Victorville
A female officer opened the door and answered a few questions we had. She then gave us a moment to say goodbye, kiss, and hug each other. I then turned towards the doorway and being too caught up in the moment to even think further, I quickly let go of my husband and crossed over the threshold. And just like that, this bad dream of the craziest show of me going to prison had finally started.
Long before I self-surrendered, I was combing the internet for information as to what the actual intake process consisted of and found nothing on line. So I thought I would describe it for you here to shed some bright light on that dark and mysterious enigma – that being Receiving & Distribution (R&D).
Upon leaving my husband and going through the door, the female officer escorted me in from behind and told me to walk a few feet and stop, then turn to my right, and then go through the door into what looked like a haphazard waiting room. She then handed me a clipboard which contained three sheets including one medical form, one form stating that I received the Camp handbook and knew the policies, and one sheet that listed how many pants, shirts, socks, underwear, bras, sheets, blankets, towels, and washcloths I received. This last sheet would be forwarded to the laundry. So I completed each of the forms and waited in the room with the door locked until the female officer retrieved me an hour later and then asked to stand at the counter. It reminded me of being back in school as the area looked just like my old high school’s main office.
At this time, the female officer started going through what looked like green uniforms on the shelves back beyond the counter and I realized this was the famous green dress shelf my friend had mentioned to me. She pulled one out, looked at me and sized me up for a T-shirt/bra, underwear, socks, and asked me for my size shoe. I told her I took a size 8 as she walked towards the bathroom and asked me to follow her. She then placed a brown sheet on the floor, asked me to go ahead and stand on the sheet, and remove all of my clothing. Anticipating this, I had worn old things that I knew could be discarded including a white T-shirt, beige bra, black leggings, and some old flip-flops. I wasn’t going to pay to have my clothes shipped home and I said yes when she asked me if I wanted to donate them although I wonder if they really ever do get donated.
So there I was standing there stark naked as she asked me to open my mouth stick out/lift my tongue, then to extend my arms palms up than palms down, and then to lift each breast. After that she asked me to turn around, face the wall, and repeat with my arms outstretched followed by lifting each foot to show the bottom. She then mentioned me needing to bring my hands together and then squatting low while doing and coughing to assess whether one is internally carrying any contraband. Believe it or not, cell phones do still make their way inside despite this protocol, a protocol which happens after each visitor you receive by the way. And to be honest, I didn’t consider it to be much of a personal affront although perhaps I’m immune to it given all the doctors and nurses I’ve been naked around for the surgeries I’ve endured. Just tell yourself that it’s not that bad and it won’t be. Beyond that, the officer then had me turn back around, asked me bend my head over and shake my hair out, and that was that.
Clothing at the Federal Prison Camp For Women at Victorville
She handed me the clothes and told me said clothing was just temporary. After putting the undergarments and the hideous green smock on, I tried putting on the canvas shoes but they did not fit as they had been washed too many times. So my size 8 there was actually a size 10 although the officer said they didn’t have to fit that well because they were only temporary.
Moving on from changing, I came back out and was both fingerprinted and photographed for my ID badge. As she heated the ink plates in the microwave, I looked down at myself and trying to find some amusement out of the process, thought what a horrible fashion faux pas my ensemble was. The green smock was a one size pretty much fits all with two straps that come over the shoulder and buttons down the middle. And it had so much room in it that you looked like a barrel but hey, it had pockets. Gazing further down, I further noticed my lovely low-cut ankle socks with the droll blue canvas shoes. This all draped over used underwear no less. Washed but pre-worn and unsanitary nonetheless. So welcome to prison.
Finally the ink plates were ready and she took my prints and picture and handed me my ID. After looking at it, I thought the woman should work at the DMV as the ID picture was better than my driver’s license. She then told me to sit in one of the chairs that was adjacent to the front desk and was where she handed me my bedroll. The bedroll came in my laundry bag which aggregately contained two blankets, two sheets, and two pillowcases and a little travel kit of two soaps, two deodorants, a travel toothbrush and toothpaste, and three disposable razors. So after sitting there for another 30 minutes, mind you I arrived at 9 am, it was noon and I had missed both the camp breakfast and lunch. Apparently, we were waiting on medical to process me although I heard it was going to be quite some time as my officer mentioned that the medical team was at the adjacent men’s penitentiary addressing an issue. The head of the medical team indicated that I would likely have to wait for the next shift change at 2PM, so there I sat until another uniformed officer came in who happened to be my counselor. Not that I knew that at the time as he offered no introduction.
He asked me to stand up and come down to the other side of the counter where he took my DNA swabs. In my mind, I was thinking that given the US marshals had previously taken my DNA after my plea and ones DNA remain unaltered, why was it necessary to take it not once but actually two more times? Our taxpayer dollars at work I guess. Beyond that, he directed my into a little room with two tables and chairs, presented me with three forms, said for me to sign here, here, here, and here; and that they would give me the info later although I had no idea what I signed. He then asked me a strange question about whether or not I got a new wedding band to which I replied that I had my band for quite some time. I was allowed to keep my plain wedding band (as long as it had no stones) and my small gold ball earrings. After I signed the last form, he asked me to follow him back outside through the same entrance that I had originally come through. The young officer that I first met followed both of us and I went into the visitor’s area where they told me to have a seat and to wait there for medical as they locked me in the room. By that time, I had now been there 4.5 hours and had to badly use the restroom but dared not ask. I just sat there reflecting on the day so far, was very tired, and still had awfully high anxiety.
What was my first day in the Federal Prison Camp for Women at Victorville like?
Around 2:15PM, the officer unlocked the door and took me to medical. The medical assistant I met with went over the medication that I had and gave me a TB test. She administered the test incorrectly and I then thought to myself that no one would ever show positive with them being given like they were. Then I was told that my medications would be available at the pill line, stated we were done, and then radioed for the officer who came back 20 minutes later and told me to follow him. He was actually nice and asked me how long I would “be with them” to which I replied that I had received a 21-month sentence. He replied by stating that “that was a piece of cake and that I wouldn’t do that long.” So yet another person with an opinion.
As we were walking, a group of women were walking out the laundry and all standing there and staring at me, asked my escort officer if I was being taken to G North or G South to which he replied G South. Surprisingly, they then stated that they would take me as one of them grabbed my bed roll/laundry bag and then my hand and led me back into laundry. The officer complied and let go of me which I thought was rather odd and uncontrolled given I was a new inmate and figured that the administration would need to secure me from cradle to grave so to speak my first day. Apparently not!
As my new found friends pulled me into the laundry, they started grabbing pants, T-shirts, button shirts, and more underwear and socks and said for to get out of my smock. I then found out that they were actually leaving for the day but took pity on “the new girl” as I would have had to wear that dress for four days until my laundry day. Temporary indeed! So after loading my laundry bag, they led me to G South. I walked through the G South entrance and into the large multipurpose room that held about 30 women and was basically your space until you were assigned to one of the condo’s which held only 2 women. At this point, the ladies from the laundry left and the other ladies in the multipurpose room came over and greeted me. One a lovely woman who was actually being released the following Tuesday welcomed me with shampoo, conditioner, lotion, a pair of sweats, long underwear, and a Hershey chocolate bar. Two of the other women began unpacking my bedroll and making my bed! Pleasantries abounded as other women were introducing themselves, smiling, and offering to help. At this point, I had to use the restroom as it had been 6 ½ hours since I had arrived and you have to carry your toilet paper with you by the way. Once I had most welcomly relieved myself, it was time to change and since it was late afternoon, I was able to put on the long underwear, sweats, T-shirt, and the canvas shoes. Much, much more comfortable!
It was now approaching 4PM and was time for the “standing count”. For those in the multipurpose room as I and all new inmates were, you stood in the hallway for count. So right then and there, I had my first count and then it was time for dinner or the early bird special as it was. The ladies I had just met pulled me under their wing and walked me to the dining hall. I was told by my friend there on the inside to be to be leary of people hustling you but so far, no one was working any angle that I could detect.
First Meal at Federal Prison Camp For Women at Victorville
My first meal in prison was pepper steak and all I can say is that the ladies take pride in what they cook and try making it edible. After dinner, the ladies brought me back to the multipurpose room when our counselors suddenly said that anyone, including any of the new inmates, that wanted to move out of the multipurpose room into one of the ”condos” needed to stand in line. I got in line and was excited at the prospect of so quickly getting into a condo with a bunkmate, two lockers, two chairs, and one small writing table. When it was my turn to meet with the counselor, the only words he uttered were “35 Upper.” I didn’t say a word, turned, and left as he clearly wasn’t a man of many words. I knew at that point that I was going to have to manage my extroverted personality.
So after leaving his office, I excitedly went back into the multipurpose room, quickly made my bed, placed all my clothing in my laundry bag, and moved over to 35 Upper. Upon doing so, I was greeted again by a group of lovely ladies, many my age and older, and I met my “bunkie”, whom I always affectionately called Magpie. She was a very nice woman with a good personality and I felt we’d be a good match as she helped me make my bed and put my stuff away. She then told me to go ask the counselor for a pillow and ask for my personal accountability code (PAC) and personal identification number (PIN) number so I could set up my phone and email using some of my funds that I had transferred earlier on the way up. So, I walked back to his office, waited outside until he waved me in, and asked him if I could have a pillow first. He got up without uttering a word, walked to the office next door, unlocked the door and just pointed. I started to take a pillow off the top of the middle stack but he suddenly shouted for me to stop and to take one from the first pile to which I quickly complied. As he was locking the door to the pillow room, I then asked him about my PAC and PIN. He walked back to his office, pulled off a piece of paper from his office desk, handed it to me, and then sat down and that was it. Not a word so I just said thank you.
Clutching my pillow and paper, I made it back to my bunk. I fluffed the flat pillow as best I could and then looked for instructions on how to set up my phone and email. But much to my surprise, there were none of course and the ladies had to help me. I had to transfer funds from my commissary account (the main account that your wired funds are sent into) first and then started listing the contact information that I could remember off the top of my head. While I had mailed my contact sheet to myself the week before to make check-in and receiving easier, one has to wait for said contact information to be reviewed and approved so the only thing I could not do was call or email right away. And that was okay as I reflected back upon my first day there.
First, I was out of the green smock on my first day. Secondly, I had my PAC and PIN numbers. Thirdly, I was absolutely fortunate enough to have moved from the multipurpose room to a condo in the same day! And the next day, I was already getting to shop at the commissary which I considered a blessing even though I was in a Camp. As it was approaching the 9pm standup count, I was prepping to go to sleep. Someone kindly handed me earplugs and after the count I put them in and crawled to my top bunk, laid back, and the lights went out at 9:30PM. And it was then about taking a breath and replaying the day in my mind.
As bad as it was to be here, the one thing that I held on to was that I had survived the first day in the whole next part of this journey.