I'm seriously thinking of writing a travelogue to California's federal prisons. I've done Victorville a number of times already, Lompoc, and yesterday Taft.
Let's just say that I am not shopping for a vacation home.
The federal medium-security facility (that's the one with the barbed wire) and camp (that's where white collar criminals go) at Taft are located within the town limits of, well, Taft. Interesting facts about Taft: it used to be called "Moron," changed its name to honor our fattest President, and holds an event called "Oildorado," during which tradition dictates that all men should grow bearsd.
If a man does not grow a beard, he must pay for a permit and wear a bolo tie or lapel pin called a Smooth Puss Badge. If he is caught clean shaven without his badge he may be arrested by the Posse, a group of men dressed in western garb, sporting pistols and rifles filled with blanks. The man will be placed in a jail truck called "The Hooscow" and driven around town for an hour for all to see. Warrants may also be purchased to have somebody else arrested and placed in The Hooscow.
Taft is in a desert two hours north of Los Angeles. I got up at 5:00 to get there for an early attorney visit. There's some stunning natural beauty on the way there, particularly in some stretches of the Grapevine, where vast, smooth wheat-colored hills roll into the distance. But near Taft, not so much. Hazy rocky mountains frame the horizon, and then there's desert. Not pretty desert. Desolate desert. This-makes-Mad-Max-look-like-The-Blue-Lagoon desert. It also features periodic rigid, featureless, dusty crop fields that look shockingly out of place, like the corn crops at the end of the X-Files movie. There's also occasional nondescript-yet-somehow-still-menacing Exxon facilities of unknown provenance, which are immaculately maintained but lacking any visible life.
Also, this stretch of desert seems to have more than its share of abandoned cars and burned-out hulks thereof. About five miles from the prison — which is about 20 miles from the nearest highway — I spotted an ancient bus-sized bookmobile, fifties-style paeans to the joys of reading still visible but fading on its side. I was very tempted to stop and hike off the road to investigate and see if it still held books, but I was wearing dress slacks. (I always wear dress slacks to prison, because I can never keep track of whether it's jeans or khakis that will get you either barred or dragged into a mop closet and shivved. Prison is fun!)
I was driving my brand new fuck-you-mother-nature-mobile, and so had punched in the nominal address of the prison camp into the nav system. I became suspicious when the calm voice began to inform me that I was half a mile away, but I couldn't see jack anywhere. A moment later the nav system primly announced that we had arrived. Nothing was there. Was my new toy defective? Or was I so far from civilization that within a few miles was close enough, as far as the nav system was concerned? I drove another few minutes into the desert, turning off the nav system to silence its increasingly agitated attempts to help. Eventually the prison and camp became visible in a long depression in the desert. I drove in and sought out the camp.
The difference between an FCI and a camp is stark, all the more so when they are right next to each other — the FCI is low, surrounded by fields of gravel and huge piles of razor wire, with barely a hint of greenery within. The camp, by contrast, could be the headquarters of a utility or minor municipal office of some sort. It has nicely maintained lawns and flowers (plenty of free labor, you see) and the doors are wide open; the prisoners can come in and out with only an occasional challenge from the guards as to their business. It's not like they can go far; it's about 8 miles through the desolation to town (where a large part of the population is probably made up of prison employees with off-duty weapons), and a hella long walk through California desert in any other direction. I suspect they don't chase down these guys; they just wait them out and watch for the buzzards circling.
Inside, the lack of serious security and casual atmosphere were shocking. No one put me through a metal detector or wanded me. They let me bring in boxes of files unsearched. I met my client in a private attorney room out of view of anyone. Prisoners came and went without any apparent schedule or supervision. The air of menace to which I was accustomed at other facilities, seen in the eyes and set of the shoulders of the prisoners and the forced brittle laughter of the guards, was missing. I would not want to be staying there, but it beat the hell out of every USP and FCI I ever saw. I'll dwell on it next time a client gets sentenced.
While there, my client introduced me to four former public officials.
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