© 2022 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Crosscurrents logo 2021

Dispatches from the Inside: An interview with inmate Richard Gilliam

California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

For over a year, inmate Richard Gilliam has regularly sent us dispatches from prison as part of our Dispatches from the Inside series, to give us a lens into the prison infrastructure housing about 120,000 people in California. During this time, Gilliam has told us about the arbitrary nature of enforcement of the rules, race relations, and watching a cell mate wait too long for critical health care.

After ten years of incarceration, Gilliam was recently released on parole, and Holly Kernan had the chance to interview him for the first time to find out what life has been like for him since his release.

"Going from a highly regimented environment to sitting on a bus with everyday citizens," says Gilliam. "It was almost surreal seeing people going about their normal, everyday lives. There was no neon sign over me that said, “Hey this is a parolee or an ex-felon”, I was just another part of society."

Gilliam’s last dispatch as an inmate from inside California Men’s Colony state prison describes his observations while preparing to get out of prison:

March 26, 2013

The Import of Meeting Behavioral Expectations in the CDCR

As a prisoner, I quickly learned the consequences of unauthorized or prohibited behavior. An inmate caught breaking any rule is swiftly penalized. Depending on the gravity of the infraction, he might lose good-time credits, or privileges such as access to yard or entertainment appliances, or he might be placed in Administrative Segregation if he is deemed a threat to others. But how does the CDCR acknowledge and address positive behavior by inmates? Does the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reward those prisoners that strive to obey the rules and comport themselves as “Model Prisoners”? In theory, it does; if an inmate can stay disciplinary-free for long enough, he may be able to transfer to a less restrictive institution, but not always. But how does the CDCR reward those prisoners at individual institutions for following the rules and staying disciplinary free? The answer is that the CDCR personnel give little consideration to prisoners who behave well. Well, the other day I personally discovered just how much CDCR personnel value exceptional behavior.

I was transferred out to CMC West about two years ago. After implementation of the state’s Realignment Plan, some of the 90-man dorms here were reduced to 45 men. I was lucky enough to be housed in one of those dormitories. Living in the dorm that housed the number of men it was actually designed to handle was like winning the prison lottery. I no longer had to wait in a line to shower, or shave, or sit on a toilet. I could walk the length of the building without bumping into or dodging another man. And it was so much quieter. So, correctional personnel were quick to convey the understanding that remaining in this less-stressful environment was now a privilege; break a rule and there were plenty of people waiting to take that spot. I was okay with that; I think continued good behavior should be rewarded, and that those rewards are spelled-out. I also believe that the consequences of unwanted behavior should be just as clear.

But here is where reason departs. The other day, my former dorm officer (whom I’ll call Officer Rugburn) informed me that he was moving me to another dorm (not a forty-fiver) to make room for some other inmate. He did this under the guise of needing to “ethnically balance” the dorm’s inmate population, but we all understood this to be a ruse to justify moving inmates around without real cause. The ethnic balance was not so off-kilter that it needed immediate modification. I tried reasoning with him, explaining that I had less that one month until I would be paroled, after which he was free to move anybody he wanted into the bed I would be vacating. Of course he knew I was disciplinary-free, or I would have been removed for cause already. But Officer Rugburn (as well  as the interchangeable Sergeant on duty that day) nonetheless decided that my two years of positive behavior counted for nothing, and moved me anyway.

As of today, I have ten days until I parole. And in the larger scheme of things it probably won’t matter that Officer Rugburn and his ilk didn’t give my positive behavior any value whatsoever. But prisoners are people too. How dismissed as inconsequential?

When positive behavior is ignored in the prison setting, then what is the point of striving to excel? Ignoring positive behavior promotes apathy. Why should I try if my efforts are not recognized? This attitude is counter-productive and will follow formerly incarcerated individuals into the communities. And apathy in the communities leads to failure. See how a little thing like this can have substantial consequences? It all starts with a little due consideration. And really, is that too much to expect?

You can read all of Gilliam’s past dispatches here