Freedom Fantasy
by Sara Olson

 personal-narrative  prison-life  prison-industrial-complex  public-policy

In March, 2008 I was released from Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, California after over six years in prison. I won a writ, a portion of one anyway, in October, 2007 in Los Angeles that agreed with my attorneys that the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) had violated my double jeopardy right by adding a year to a sentence that a real court had already addressed. I got half-time, so six months were deducted from my sentence and the BPH commanded staff at CCWF to release me March 17, as the court had ordered.

I called my attorney, David Nickerson. He asked me if I’d received any sentence calculations other than my facesheet that lists my charges and time assessed by courts. “No,” I said. He told me that I had addressed my sentence with the proper authorities in prison and, obviously, they knew more than he or I know about how Case Records Specialists calculate sentences. Sometimes the ways of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) are simply mysterious. He asked me, “You don’t think that CCWF would release you in order to bring you back for a big splash, do you?” I replied, “I have no idea.”

There were comments, both inside and outside prison walls, that the circumstances of my case are unusual. That’s not true. In fact, to varying degrees, they are common. Rectifying these mistakes costs money in transportation and salaries for escorts. The costs of incarcerating an individual are well-known. In terms of psychic and emotional costs to prisoners and their families, those costs are negligible. There are no penalties assessed if miscalculations are made on inmate sentences. They are mistakes, that’s all.

When I was sent to prison, I initially landed at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW), right across a county road from CCWF. Together, they encompass the largest complex of imprisoned women in the world.

I met a woman there who told me she’d been out of prison for over ten years since her last trip inside. She was, of course, off parole and living her life. One day, cops came and told her there was a problem with her parole discharge. She had not been discharged from parole in the proper manner, she was told, and thus, she was a violator. She was rearrested and sent back to custody. She had been fighting this ridiculous situation for months.

I thought, “Right. I’m sure.” New to CDCR, I figured there was something she was not telling me. Why would this happen? What a colossal waste of state money to return a person, who was quietly living her life, to prison for something that could easily be handled by filling out bureaucratic forms in triplicate. Any additional punishment could be addressed, at worst, with a fine. But no! She was rearrested, transported under guard by three of the state’s finest and plopped into costly custody. Her life on the outside went to hell. It seemed improbable, and I discounted her story and thought no more about it until . . .

Cindy Villa was on parole. She paroled December 10, 2007. She had been imprisoned in the Honor Dorm on C yard where she had managed to forge a life that accommodated her many medical needs. She paroled to Riverside, California, arriving there at 10:00 P.M. on the bus from CCWF after a long ride. She tried to find a motel room, but, like so many parolees, she had no I.D. CDCR does not furnish one at prison for departing parolees. She found someone who was able to get a room for her. The next day, she had little money left from the $200 she got when she left CCWF. She had to pay for the bus ticket and the motel room: cost $71.00. She had to check in to the parole office and she had to find a place to live that cost . . . well, nothing, because she was broke. She went from one post-prison drug facility to another looking for a place to stay. They were all full.

Finally, she caught a break. She found a sober-living home that could take her immediately. She called her brother in Washington state with her last bit of money. She asked him to pay her rent with a credit card and the facility took her in. Finally, she found herself out of prison with a place to rest her head so that she could do what she needed to do to recoup her life. Cindy began working in the parole literacy lab, seeing her parole agent and her social worker regularly. She was working part-time to pay for her medications. She applied for general relief, food stamps, Medi-Cal, unemployment and Social Security disability. She filled out reams of paperwork. She reestablished contact with her children, some out of state. She was getting her life together.

On February 19, 2008, her agent picked her up, told her that her release date had been miscalculated at CCWF and that Cindy had to go back to prison. Now! None of this was “her” fault, she was assured.

When she was brought back, Cindy 602’d (appealed) Case Records. She found out that her sentence had been calculated from the day she first hit CCWF (03-15-06), not from the day of her arrest (10-13-05). The court had given her credit for time served in jail plus seventy-four extra days which the prison did not add to her calculations. Cindy Villa is doing time for possession of a controlled substance. Case Records also insists that she has two strikes when she had made a deal in court for one strike only. First, she had an out date of June 4, 2008. Then, Case Records recalculated and told Cindy she would parole 12-10-07. The prison put her out. Then they sent her parole agent to bring her back, drove her all the way north in one day, and told her that she made a deal for two strikes when she made a deal for one. Now, her release date is November 13, 2008. Oops!

When I was returned to prison, a woman got in touch with me. K. came to CCWF with eighteen months to serve. She wanted to go to firecamp at California Institute for Women (CIW) in southern California where she would have her sentence reduced to 35% and she could be near her mother and daughter who live in southern California. She needed to have at least fifteen months left on her sentence to qualify for firecamp where prisoners are trained to fight the state’s wildfires. When she came to CCWF, K. was told she had figured her sentence incorrectly and that she had only eleven months left. “Well,” she thought, “less time in prison.” Four months before her release date, she went to another classification and was assured that all was fine. She signed her parole plans and waited for her out date.

She called her mother and told her that everything was on track for her release. Her daughter repainted her mom’s bedroom. K secured a place in an aftercare program. The three women were excited.

Four days before her parole date, K. received a copy of a letter sent to her parole officer on the outside. It stated that her sentence had been recalculated and that she still had another year left to serve. K. received no personal notice of the change herself, only the letter sent to her parole officer on the outside. She went to her counselor and her yard captain and complained loudly. She pleaded to go to firecamp. She was told, “No”. She had less than fifteen months to serve so she was not qualified while, when she first arrived at CCWF, she was. Oops!

Melissa was paroling on January 24. She sent her television home so she would have some entertainment when she got out and found a place to live. She kept the t.v. rather than donating it because, realistically, she figured she would not be rolling in dough. She’d need the t.v. A few days before her release date, she was told that her sentence had been miscalculated and she had to stay until late May. Oops!

A while ago, I was standing in the strip search line after weekend visiting. I was behind a woman whose husband came to see her all the time. She was anxious to get out and to go home. Her daughter had had a hard time while her mother was in prison and ended up in the hospital. I asked, “What are you still doing here? You should be gone by now!” “Well,” she said, “A day before I was supposed to go, they told me I had another month.” I asked, “are you sure? One month!” Good luck. Oops!

One morning recently a woman came up to me in the dayroom in my housing unit. She was nervous. She had received a parole ducat the night before that indicated she was to parole that morning! She told me, “I’ve got another year on my sentence and a parole hold!” I asked her if her counselor had told her anything about this or if she had signed any parole papers. “No!” she answered. We went to the “cop shop”, the bubble in the middle of the day room. The C/O called R&R (Recovery and Release) and asked about her. “Oh yeah, that’s a mistake. She’s going out to court.” Oops!

On Monday, March 17, 2008 I was released on parole. On March 22 at 12:20 P.M. I was picked up at my mother’s house and driven to CIW in Corona, California in a security caravan that involved three Chevy Suburban-sized vehicles and several members of a parole strike team. I was deposited at CIW for one hour. Then another Suburban, a sedan and three cops drove me from Corona to CCWF. By 9:00 P.M. I was back in prison.

After I won a writ of habeas corpus in July, 2004, I had a year deducted from my sentence that had been augmented by the BPH from the original five years, four months with half-time to fourteen years with half-time in 2002. After another BPH hearing and a post-BPH classification in 2004, I got a facesheet that indicated my release date as September 2008. I knew that was wrong. The true date was September, 2009 .I called one of my attorneys. “What should I do?” I asked. “Tell them!” he replied. So, I did.

I went to my counselor, a CCI (CC-for Correctional Counselor). I told her that I owed CDCR one more year. She was sure I was wrong. Then I went to the CCII, the head yard counselor. She spent forty-five minutes assuring me I didn’t know what I was talking about. At my next annual classification hearing, I told the yard captain about my dilemma—who smiled at me like I must be nuts. In 2005, I went before the Institutional Classification Committee (ICC) because I was seeking approval to apply at the state level for an interstate transfer to prison in Minnesota where my husband and children live and where I, before landing at CCWF, had lived for over a quarter of a century. Since CDCR moves with the bureaucratic pace of a glacial ice age, I wanted to make sure that it was understood how much time I had yet to serve. I didn’t want Minnesota DOC to reject my transfer request because I did not have enough time left on my sentence. I stated to the entire ICC, headed by the Chief Deputy Warden, “Let me be perfectly clear. You forgot the bank robbery.” The Chief Deputy Warden looked at me with benign amusement and replied, “Thank you very much, Ms. Olson.” Oka-a-ay.

I thought that surely the error would be discovered. There was still time. Before one is released, there are recalculations, I thought. I could understand the lack of concern if the mistake was in CDCR’s favor but not if it was in mine. After all, Case Records Specialists had reportedly miscalculated around 32,000 inmate sentences statewide in the past couple of years, all to the CDCR’s advantages. Prisons want to keep everybody in custody forever, especially in California. The particular beauty of the California incarceration system, for the state, is that once a prisoner is caught up in it, it never lets you go. It is designed for release, revocation and re-incarceration over a lifetime; the famous “doing life on the installment plan” credo. The entire law enforcement industry is constructed to hold on to a body once it is captured in its clutches. There are regular parole sweeps on the outside when cops raid poor communities looking for parolees who are screwing up; in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe smoking pot without a medical marijuana prescription, involved . . . you know . . . in this or that, and other major crime. The raids are reported on the t.v. news in Fresno. I remember when I first saw a story about a parole sweep. I wondered, “What the hell is a parole sweep?” I had never heard of such a thing.

When I got out for those few days in March I had to go to a parole orientation meeting or, I was warned, “You’ll be revoked.” I went. Out of the thirty or so gathered group of parolees, I was the lone woman. The m.c., the head of the local parole strike team or some such entity, introduced himself. He told us the local parole office had an 80% recidivism rate, assuring most of us that we would be back in prison in no time. He recited the rules for the surprise raids on our domiciles by the strike team that we could all look forward to undergoing. Yay! There were tables set up around the room with people offering services to help parolees reintegrate into the “free” world. These services and “God” were looking out for our interests. We had to visit the tables and get the signatures of a specified number of people at the tables—about ten signatures—or “you’ll be revoked.” I walked out of that meeting feeling I had momentarily escaped the inevitable trip back to prison. I was right.

There was no parole revocation hearing for me. My attorneys filed a writ over my rearrest. Of course, I lost the writ. I never expected to win. My attorneys say the judge cited the case, Green vs. Christiansen, for the proposition that officials have the power to recommit a mistakenly released inmate. That’s all it says. There’s no decision or analysis of any circumstances. Green relies on a 1958 case that does the same thing; merely states that officials can do whatever it is they do. The 1958 case cites an 1898 case in which the state re-incarcerated a cattle rustler. So that’s it.. Cattle rustling.

All the publicity or whatever, the all-scandal-all-the-time-and-weather-and-sports crap which passes for news in contemporary U.S. media obscures what really is going on in the country and the world, that accompanied my re-incarceration, I can only explain as . . . “The War on Terror” People either buy it or they don’t. It is propaganda and it is distracting. If one is distracted, then the propaganda worked. In my case, there was no “story.” There was simply a short-lived family reunion.

A friend sent me a copy of a L.A. City Council resolution that implores the governor to force me to spend my one year of parole in California for, perhaps, a bit more punishment for me and for my husband and our girls. That is L.A., eternal vengeance. One of my co-defendants, now long released and off parole, had no problem paroling to his home out-of-state but his case was not from L.A.

My husband calls Los Angeles “the toxic center of your subjugation.” I just call it “Chinatown”.