The afternoon I entered California, almost two months ago, I pedaled past Pelican Bay Prison and stayed at the home of that prison’s social worker. More than one thousand miles later, I spent my last night in the Golden State with career veterans of the state’s penal system. Bill Meister was a prison guard at a California State Prison in the Imperial Valley for twenty-five years; he retired four years ago. His wife Teresa has been a prison nurse over nineteen years. She will retire in 289 days, a number she recites like it’s the end of a sentence.
The Meister’s are deeply Christian. Bill reaches out by hosting hundreds of cyclists in their home. Teresa and her daughter have travelled to Haiti and Uganda on missionary work. Teresa used to see her prison work as an extension of her ministry. “The few guys who stay out have developed a faith. Christian based redemption programs have the best track record.”
But Teresa is discouraged that so few men reform. “The recidivism rate is 94%. There’s a very powerful gang, the Mexican mafia, that started in prison. It is very far reaching. All the murders in prison are gang related and racially motivated. I used to be able to block it out, but recently I can’t. The guys are so young and so clueless.”
California’s 34 adult prisons, the largest prison system in the country, was placed under Federal receivership in 2005 for violating the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment by providing insufficient medical care to inmates. Ten years and billions of dollars later, inmate medical care has improved. But from Teresa Meister’s perspective, the pendulum has swung too far. “Our inmates lead a comfortable life. They get free legal, medical, three squares a day, special diets. The media will not pick up on this. These guys are coddled.”
Among Teresa’s many examples of questionable care, one stands out to me. “The guys fight all the time, so we do a lot of hand surgery and orthopedic surgery. The first question they ask is, ‘When can I make a fist again?’ We spend the money to fix it, and they break it again and again.
“We spend gobs of money addressing conditions they would never address on the outside. It’s so depressing; all these young guys whose lives are pointless. The criminals get better care than our elderly who’ve worked their whole lives.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“We have to become more simple. We are too far from our necessities. We have to stop letting everyone do everything for us. Grow your own food; make your own things; become more community minded; become less passive. I am guilty of all these.
Again, I go back to food. Look at the seed lines. Look at the housing crash. We thought we could trust the guys with the money. But they’re not looking out for us, they’re looking out for themselves. Personally, I have been too passive. You let life draw you along. You get spoon-fed. My goal in retirement is to grow my own food, learn to cook, ride a bike to errands. Tomorrow will be full of difficult surprises.” – Teresa