Eric Phillips | Ordinary Cruelty

By Eric Phillips

I met Cori Thomas three years ago at the Media Center at San Quentin. She was working with Lonnie Morris on obtaining information on all the intricacies of prison life with which Lonnie, being incarcerated over four decades, provided a lot of valuable information. About a dozen of us at the Media Center got to view the play in a videotaping Cori brought from New York, and were rather impressed by the realism even of the props.

I believe the play, LOCKDOWN, displays to the public the realities of what we’re really like and what we really go through at the [hords] of state and federal correctional systems. Being that we’re in California, it sheds some light on this correctional system as an example. It brings up two questions: 1) how much time is enough to incarcerate, and 2) is incarceration’s goal to continue to punish, to dole out punishment daily? In regards to the first question, Lonnie is one example. The main character’s loosely based on him, having been incarcerated for an extraordinarily long time. The “extraordinarily” is actually ordinary, as California conducts their business of incarcerating individuals, lifers, three strikers, and some determinately sentenced people. (I know someone here who’s not a lifer who got 97 years!) Many of these people in California prisons, including myself, have been incarcerated between 20 to 40 years. They are classified as low-risk to public safety by the California Correctional System (CDCR) due to age, rehabilitative efforts, lack of post-conviction disciplinary history, and viable outside support. This is especially the case at San Quentin, with so many volunteers and positive programming. 

With this COVID-19 pandemic, these people are the highest risk for complications from this deadly virus. Many are over 50 years old, and some elderly, with many of these inmates having pre-existing conditions. In January 2020, due to a botched mass transfer from Chino of infected inmates, San Quentin suffered over 2,100 cases, and 28 inmates died from this virus. Because of this, a California appellate ordered San Quentin to reduce their population by 50% to create social distancing. This was to be done by releasing and transferring inmates. The most logical conclusion would have been to release the more vulnerable and low-risk to public safety with the characteristics I described above. 

What does CDCR do? They initiated a mass transfer, trying to transfer the entire population down to 50%! Those they would transfer included that same population I described, and they would be transferring them to other prison hotspots! CDCR already transferred a few already, and would have continued if the federal halver hadn’t intervened on December 16 and stopped the transfers indefinitely!

CDCR would rather transfer medically at-risk people than safely release them to shelter-in-place at a home or hotel room, where they’re properly socially distanced! There seems to be their overall mindset. Let’s look at the main character of LOCKDOWN. He’s been incarcerated four decades, from when he was a juvenile, denied parole numerous times by the parole board, despite being older, wiser, prosocial, and empathetic. Upon getting to know this character, you realize if you placed him into society, you’d find he would blend in as another upstanding citizen. If you didn’t know him, upon meeting him and spending time with him, you would have never known he was in prison. If there were any markers of incarceration in him, it would be the PTSD incurred from decades of trauma from the violence, the isolation from society, the oppressive prison regulations, and psychological warfare experienced from prison authorities, the criminal justice system, and other inmates.

From this, the audience should take away this: those in prison are human beings, and most are here behind: alcohol and drug abuse, poverty and disenfranchisement, system[ic] racism, childhood trauma ext. Most of us are guilty, some are actually innocent. There are a lot of different backgrounds, including ex-college professors, ex-NFL players, actors, attorneys, and other professionals. We are a cross-section of society. So the criminal justice system must stop “demonizing” us and consider the whole individual. I will say that there are people who need to be in prison, but people can also change. If politicians, law enforcement, and others stop using us as a political football and dehumanizing us, especially black and brown communities to justify excessive sentencing and using scare tactics to deny early releases to the clearly rehabilitated, there could be true prison criminal justice reform. Look into restorative justice and reconciling survivors and perpetrators to turn violence and victimization into empathy, mutual support, and mentorship to change the narrative. There would be less punitive measures and more community, cooperation, and compassion for all. 

Fonda Shen