By Scott Kernan, CDCR Secretary
I received a very positive response from staff regarding my last Secretary’s message and the story about my mother. I truly hope that through these articles I can share with you what I believe are important stories that many staff members can relate to and may help as you continue to provide dedicated service to CDCR. While this story is much darker, it is intended to bring attention to the difficult environment many of us work in and how it can impact our lives. The violence and absence of basic good in some of those that we incarcerate are embedded in our memories forever. More often than not, the machismo in our profession prevents us from seeking help or even talking about it with our peers. That needs to end. The services provided by Peer Support and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) are available to all staff, but not used enough. Peer Support call outs have increased every year since its inception in 2010, but our work is never done. Staff who step into the role of peer support team members have a passion to help others through these challenges. I want to enhance the training of these dedicated people and develop the trust among all employees that accessing these services is both confidential and encouraged. We need to help ourselves.
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I pushed the container of hot coffee from cell to cell filling plastic tumblers and small empty milk cartons with the strong liquid. It was 0615 and the routine was the same day after day, week after week, year after year. Some inmates were awake and already completing their morning exercise routine and others stretching from being awakened by my soft yell of “coffee” as I pushed the screeching container down the tier. An officer armed with a shotgun and perched on the gun walk oversaw the routine. The bland breakfast would be served on plastic trays, collected in half an hour, and yard release started by 0730 hours. The daily routine of the prison was interrupted by flares of violence and only then for the amount of time it took to address the incident, and transport the injured staff or inmate to the hospital when, like the inevitable rush of a wave crashing into a beach, the routine would begin again.
San Quentin’s North Block was a building of granite and steel more than 100 years old. The zigzag stairwell joined the five floors with 50 cells on each side. Each tier could house 100 inmates, 50 inmates double-celled on each side with caged showers in the middle of each tier. North Block’s dingy windows overlooked the death row Adjustment Center on one side and the General Population upper yard on the bay side. Small sail boats floating effortlessly on the San Francisco Bay could be seen from the top windows of the cell block.
North Block inmates did not enjoy the freedom of the General Population. North Block was a close custody program that required inmates housed there to be isolated from the rest of the population. It housed the most notorious gang leaders and other inmates aspiring to make a name for themselves within the gangs. Like housing units throughout California, the inmates were separated by race and gang affiliation. The only barrier separating these mortal enemies was the key to the security gates at the end of each tier that sat connected to my hip with a small chain. North Block was a dangerous place to work, but my six months working the ocean-like routine taught me how to survive. I was outthinking the ingenious inmates and finding with increased regularity makeshift weapons they used to advance their gang careers. I was making a name for myself by being fair, consistent, respectful and alert in an environment where trouble-making inmates looked for staff complacency to enable their deadly deeds. I inched the noisy coffee cart from cell to cell and embarked on another day like a wave in the ocean.
Inmate Thomas Collins, convicted rapist, was standing at the rear of his cell half-dressed. The cell sink was plugged and the faucet running lukewarm water. The water flowed over the basin and onto the cell floor, out onto the tier, and down the five stories to the drains on the first floor of the building. A wash cloth and bar of soap in his hands, Collins was doing a bird-bath ritual repeated by many of the inmates in the unit between access to the tier showers every other day. I poured him a tumbler of coffee and placed it on the heavy metal handcuff port of the cell front. He asked, “Is yard going to be on time today?” The prison culture destroyed typical personal inhibitions as I freely talked to the barely clothed inmate, and responded that yard release was on schedule. I lowered my voice to deter forever eavesdropping inmates in adjacent cells and asked Collins if he was OK. The day before, while searching a cell, I intercepted a kite (note) that indicated Collins was “in the hat,” a saying for an inmate targeted for assault by the gang. Inmates with such status were very vulnerable to violence-prone inmates trying to make a name for themselves within the gang. Even someone’s best friend would carry out the assault if directed to by the gang leaders. If you were “in the hat” you were alone in the army of inmates and either faced the violence or asked to be placed in protective custody. Collins responded that he was fine, but the look in his eyes told me otherwise as I pushed the coffee cart noisily to the next cell.
I used the ladle to flop a portion of powdered eggs into a section of the tray and grabbed a small carton of milk and placed the breakfast on the handcuff port of the cell. Collins was wearing a muscle T-shirt and boxers as he sat on the end of the bunk just inches from the cell bars. He looked nervous as he peered through the small opening between the bars. I lowered my voice again and indicated “I’m hearing you’re in the hat. What’s up, Collins?” Collins, even softer, defiantly said “f*** those dudes, they wanted me to hit that new kid for nothing. I have a dime down and get out in 15 months. I’m not screwing that off for that! I’ll be alright, they come at me and I’ll handle my business. I’m not going protective custody for no man.” I whispered, “Who do you think will be coming at you?” Collins responded, “Don’t matter dude, I have no choice but to go out there and handle it.” I pushed the food cart to the next cell and contemplated who would be the logical inmate to want to put a notch of violence on their belt as they ascended the gang hierarchy. A couple came to mind.
The exercise yard was directly adjacent to the entrance of the housing unit. Ten-foot high double-chain link fence topped with razor wire created the enclosed area of the yard on three sides. The fourth side was the five-story perimeter wall of the adjacent East Block. The yard was littered with weight equipment on one end and covered with partial aluminum overhang to keep out of the weather. A single basketball hoop with no net stood on the other end. A gun walk towered over the yard along the North Block perimeter wall and permitted unobstructed observation. Yard was the only time North Block inmates regularly interacted together and as such was the opportune time to engage in strategic attacks. This outwardly innocent-looking recreation yard had been the final violent resting spot for many inmates.
Inmates got access to the yard every third day for several hours and today the white inmates, including Thomas Collins, were preparing for yard. I finished cleaning up the breakfast meals and yelled “Yard Call” to the inmates as staff from the other tiers lumbered up the stairs to the fifth tier. The gunman held the shotgun on his shoulder and walked to a corner stool that gave him the greatest vantage point to watch the ritual. Inmates placed their clothes in between the cell bars and each stood naked inside his cell. Staff formed a line in front of several cells simultaneously and began the strip-search process. The guards searched the clothing placed on the cell bars and turned their attention to the naked inmate before them. If satisfied that they were free of contraband, the inmate was permitted to dress and proceed down the stairwell and onto the adjacent yard.
I continued to think about what Collins had told me and who might be the most likely assassin. Inmates Adams and Henry seemed the most likely based upon my observations – two up-and-comers whose cells were clear indications of their ideology. They had put work in for their gang in the General Population which landed them in North Block. As staff continued the strip-search ritual, five at a time down the 50 cells, I advised staff to let me do Adams’ and Henry’s cells when we got to them towards the end of the tier. My colleagues acknowledged with knowing nods.
I stood in front of Adams’ cell and began. An old guard had given me some advice when I started, “Look into an inmate’s eyes and ask a direct question, and you will see in the dart of his eyes and facial expression if he is hiding something.” I chatted with Adams as I searched his clothes on the cell bars. As I finished, I looked him in the eye and said, “I hear you are going to make a hit today?” The inmate’s eyes widened ever so slightly and darted briefly to his bunk before recovering and re-focusing on my eyes. He retorted calmly, “That’s bull, I’m only going to hit iron today.” I finished the search and allowed the inmate to dress. I cracked the lock of the cell door and the inmate stepped onto the tier. I immediately ordered the inmate to place his hands on the cell door as my fellow staff inched closer in anticipation of a confrontation. Once handcuffed, I performed a clothed body search of the inmate and found no contraband. I asked staff to hold the inmate and entered his cell with the intent of conducting a cursory search. Doubt that this inmate planned to kill began to sink in, and I was mentally moving on to the next likely candidate, Henry. I reached down to the end of Adams’ bunk and removed the folded blanket. Sitting on the bed in plain view was a prison shank made of flat metal stock and machine grinded point. Obviously made in the prison metal shop and smuggled into the assassin’s cell, the deadly weapon was intended for Thomas Collins. Adams’ head hung as he witnessed my discovery.
I secured the weapon in my pocket, exited the cell, and took Adams by the arm and began escorting him to the first-floor offices for processing. A surge of pride clouded all other thoughts. There was much to do in processing the discovery and would lead to Adams’ placement in Administrative Segregation and off of my tier for up to a year. My supervisors would applaud my diligent work and my fellow staff would pat my back in congratulation for a job well done. I escorted the inmate to the holding cells with great satisfaction about my crime-fighting skills. I read Adams his Miranda Rights, documented his refusal to make a statement, and began preparing my report. My pride was interrupted by the familiar shotgun blast and loud alarm being set off from the yard gunman.
With the gunman’s shot, all movement throughout the prison is stopped and all inmates are expected to get on the ground. Designated staff from throughout the prison respond to the site of the emergency. I ran through the block rotunda and entrance to the outside yard. I followed fellow staff through the narrow walkway to the yard entrance. Four dozen men lay prone on the cement ground as I scanned the yard for obvious victims and assailants. Staff all around me continued to yell at the inmates as I struggled to make sense of the scene. I instinctively looked up to the gunman and the point of his gun guided me in the general direction of the emergency. In the middle of the yard, surrounded by a number of prone inmates, Thomas Collins lay with his hands unnaturally positioned to his neck. As I focused on the scene, the now familiar color of bright red blood poured from the base of a weapon and down his neck staining the muscle T-shirt I saw earlier in the day. In order to get a gurney to Collins, the other inmates must be ordered to the far side of the yard. A Sergeant yelled for the inmates around Collins to crawl away. The inmates did not move. The Sergeant continued yelling at the inmates and it became clear they had no intent to move and permit assistance to Collins. They were watching him bleed to death. The Sergeant ordered the gunman to aim at the surrounding inmates and yelled that they would be shot if they did not comply with instructions. I saw the inmates glace towards a leader sitting out of harm’s way on the basketball court who gave a slight nod. The inmates began crawling away from Collins to the far side of the yard. The Sergeant ordered me and several other staff to enter the yard with a gurney and remove Collins. We entered the yard cautiously and placed him on the gurney, the shank still lodged in his neck, and began backing out under the cover of the gunman. The weapon mirrored the one I had so proudly discovered just minutes earlier. Once outside of the yard perimeter we began the hurried walk to the prison hospital. Collins’ eyes were in a panic stare darting around as if confused and the once white T-shirt was a crimson red. The prison hospital was several hundred yards from the scene of the attack and I felt the weight of the inmate almost immediately. We continued forward and somewhere in the frantic race to the hospital I heard Collins heave his last breath and his eyes go blank.
I trudged back to North Block with grief in my heart. I felt that my mistake had caused this man his life. Nobody would blame me, but I knew that I had reacted to finding the weapon on Adams and failed to focus on anything else. I didn’t follow my instinct about the second assassin, Henry, and confirmed when I returned that he had been the lone assailant. As I walked into the block rotunda, I saw Adams waiting where I had left him. In an adjacent holding cell sat Henry. I said nothing as I walked into the office but looked over my shoulder at Adams. He had a large smile of victory on his face that chilled me. I finished my paperwork and went home for a sleepless night. Like the repetitive waves of the ocean, the next morning I was again pouring the inmates their breakfast coffee.
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The story of Inmate Collins haunts me to this day. While it was a very long time ago, his face and the face of his killers remain in my dreams. In hindsight, I wish I would have had the insight and opportunity to seek help and support to deal with stressful experiences like this. Back then we did not have resources like Peer Support. Many of you have similar memories that might be impacting you physically and mentally and you do not even know it. Go talk to a peer support team member or Employee Assistance Program (EAP) professional who can help you cope with these situations. CDCR offers resources that can help you manage the challenging environment that we work in – I encourage you to read about them in the below links.
Peer Support Program: https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Wellness/psp.html
Employee Assistance Program for CDCR: https://intranet/ADM/DSS/hr/oew/Pages/EAP.aspx
 All names changed for security purposes.