An attorney approaches the door of the Humboldt County Correctional Facility.
Since the passage of California’s “Public Safety Realignment” laws in 2011, convicted criminals have been serving longer sentences inside county jails. In the years leading up to those historic laws, state prison populations had swelled to nearly twice their design capacity, leading to deplorable and inhumane conditions for inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Brown v. Plata, ordered California to reduce its prison population by roughly 46,000 inmates.
Part of Governor Jerry Brown’s solution to this crisis was to shift responsibility for certain individuals — those convicted of specific felonies deemed non-serious, nonviolent and non-sexual — from the prison system to local county governments. Now, instead of being bussed off to prison, many of those people are serving multi-year terms in places like the Humboldt County Correctional Facility, which were not designed for such lengthy stays.
Humboldt County residents often complain about the “revolving door” at the county jail (which, arguably, is another side effect of public safety realignment, along with last year’s Prop. 47, both of which have led to more people returning to the streets sooner after being convicted of crimes). It’s not hard to justify this analogy. Even with some inmates serving sentences of a year or more, the average stay at the Humboldt County jail is only 14 days.
But the Outpost wanted to get a better understanding of what life is like for those who remain behind that revolving door week after week, month after month. According to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, there’s only a handful of inmates currently serving lengthy sentences under the terms laid out in realignment. Of the five such male inmates, none agreed to an interview. One female inmate, 45-year-old Heather Amador, said she would do it. She’s currently more than nine months into a “straight” two-year sentence. Under the provisions of realignment, which allow for one day’s credit for each day in jail, she will only serve half that time.
We met her last week inside an interview room on the bottom floor of the jail, which, she said, is much better than the Del Norte County jail, where she has also served time. Below are some highlights of our conversation.
Outpost: Mainly I’m interested in what a typical day is like in here.
Heather Amador: Well, in here they have females from the [general population] dorm working in the kitchen. We get up in the morning, we get ready to go to work, and we wear white in the kitchen. I personally am the baker, so I make all the muffins — for the whole jail. But I’ve had all the jobs in there, in the kitchen, cuz I’ve been here since July 12 , and I get out July 6 of this year.
Outpost: That’s not too far off.
HA: No, thank god. They call us down there [to the kitchen] at like 8:30, and we work all day, do our jobs ‘til 1 o’clock. Then we eat. They feed us [kitchen workers] what the officers eat for lunch in there. And then we go back to the dorm. We have from the time we get back — usually around 2 o’clock — ‘til we get off lockdown at 4 for dinner. Then we eat dinner. Then lockdown again until 7. And then from 7 to 11 we’re off lockdown. [We] watch TV, write letters, whatever, in the day room. And then we lockdown at 11 until 6 in the morning.
Outpost: What happens during lockdown?
HA: We’re on our beds, being quiet. Supposed to be quiet. Some of the girls have a hard time being quiet, reading books. Right now there’s a lot of girls in there. There’s like 40-some girls in there. But I think the lockdown period is mainly for us to have quiet time, because we’re hearing these girls all day long, working and in the dorm. It gets kind of crazy, you know? So lockdown time is kind of for silence, or to read our books, write letters.
Outpost: What’s your work shift like?
HA: It’s like five hours. But it’s not easy in there. We’re tired when we get home.
Outpost: What are the other jobs?
HA: There’s baker, back-line cook — cooking meals for inmates. There’s a [professional] cook from the kitchen helping. Washing pots and pans, janitor — she goes around emptying trash cans, breaking boxes down. There’s a morning cook, comes in at like 3 [a.m.]; afternoon [shift] comes in at like 10 [a.m.]. I cook the muffins for the following morning. The guys’ crew cooks the breakfasts for the following morning. [In the mornings] there’s somebody fillin’ cups, cuz at lunchtime they [inmates] get milk, soup, a sandwich and a banana. There’s two girls filling cups, two girls make sandwiches.
Outpost: How is the food you and the guards get to eat different from what other inmates eat?
HA: They make, like, enchiladas, tacos, meatloaf. Barbeque chicken was today for lunch, for the officers.
Outpost: So it’s better?
HA: Yeah, it’s quite a bit better. Me, myself, personally? I’m kinda over all of it. I’m tired of all the food in here. Most of the girls eat [lunch] ‘til they’re really full so they don’t have to eat the dinner at night.
HA: It’s just, everybody’s tired of it. It’s not bad; the food here compared to Del Norte County [jail], it’s way better. And they feed you way more here. … I starved in there [Del Norte], so I imagine some of the guys really starve, especially if you don’t have money on your books to buy commissary and whatnot.
Outpost: What else is different?
HA: Here compared to there, they’ve got, like, school here. Like the inmates can go to school, get their GEDs in here. And I’ve noticed where they’re trying to bring more programs in here.
[Note: Programs currently offered at the jail include Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous counseling, meditation classes, Framework for Recovery and Seeking Safety (cognitive behavioral therapies) , GED Preparation, non-credit math and English classes through College of the Redwoods, Moral Recognition Therapy and knitting classes. Humboldt County Sheriff’s Compliance Officer Duane Christian told the Outpost, “We are hoping to allow inmates to receive certificates for stuff like work readiness, résumés, food handlers and custodial services in the near future in hopes of inmates being able to leave jail with skills to get a job. We have also begun reaching out to some local organizations that may be able to assist in getting them jobs as soon as they are out of jail.”]
Outpost: Have you taken advantage of some of these programs?
HA: Yeah, I’ve gone to school. And every 10 hours you go, you get a day off your sentence. I have my high school diploma, but I think it’s great that, you know, the inmates can get their GED if they don’t have it. I really don’t have nothin’ bad to say about this correctional facility. At all.
Outpost: I’ve read reports saying Public Safety Realignment changed the culture in county jails, making them more like prisons, with gang activity and violence.
HA: I don’t really see that in the female dorm. For one, the housing officers in there are more on top of — like, if the girls are getting in a verbal argument or something, the housing officer’s on it and separating them. The other thing is, we have more respect for our housing officers, and same for them with us. Like, we can talk to ‘em. If there’s any problem we can just let ‘em know and talk to ‘em. I don’t see a lot of violence in the female dorm. At all.
Outpost: Can I ask: what are you In for?
HA: Sales [of heroin]. And I personally chose a terminal disposition [aka a straight prison sentence] as opposed to three years’ felony probation, cuz I just didn’t want to deal — I was on felony probation for five years up in Del Norte County, and I just swore I’d never do it again. But I don’t plan on comin’ back. So when I leave here I’m not on probation or nothin’. That’s what two years with a cap means — no parole, no probation, nothin’.
Outpost: Do you get to read, watch TV?
HA: Yeah, when we’re off lockdown. There’s a TV in the dorm. One TV, so all the girls have to agree on what they want to watch, which since I’ve been in here hasn’t been a problem.
Outpost: What are some of the regular things?
HA: A lot of LMN.
Outpost: What’s that?
HA: Lifetime Movie Network. Just a lot of movies, you know. The girls like to watch a lot of movies. Or we’ll get on one steady show that’s on once a week. Like Sons of Anarchy. Or like American Horror Story. They don’t like to watch, like, Lockup or Cops or any of that stuff since we’re already here, you know.
Outpost: Do you get to listen to music?
HA: No, because — we used to watch music videos when we were getting ready for work, and they suddenly took off all the movie channels.
Outpost: Do you know why?
HA: No. We were kind of bummed about that. So we watch The Voice, so we can hear our music. Then there’s like girls who don’t even watch TV. They’ll play cards, you know, or cribbage or write letters. I’m not really into cards. I write. Not in here. I have a friend down in Soledad that I write, but not in here.
Outpost: Have you made friends in here?
HA: Yeah, I’ve made a lot of friends. A lot of them [are] girls I knew before I got in here.
Outpost: Do you think you’ll stay in touch with anyone you’ve met in here?
HA: I don’t know. I really don’t. There’s a couple of girls that went to HRC [Humboldt Recovery Center]. See, I’m older. I’m one of the older girls in the dorm. I’m 45. So most of the girls call me “Mama Amador.” So I’m kind of like a mother figure to ‘em. Cuz a lot of the girls are between 23 and 28, so I try to be a role model for ‘em.
Outpost: In terms of how you behave in here?
HA: Yeah, exactly. Cuz some of ‘em are just young and immature and act like they’re still in juvenile hall. …
Outpost: What do you mean, like mouthing off?
HA: Yeah, exactly.
Outpost: To other women in here? Or to officers?
HA: Mainly other women. There’s not too many girls in here that get attitudes with the officers. There’s a couple that come in who have never been in here before, and they don’t know that if you show the officer respect they’ll show you respect. So they’ll get mouthy and end up sitting in the multipurpose room. … We call it the panic room, but it’s closed off. It’s where they have school or church, cuz church comes in. Or some of the girls, if they want to go where it’s quiet to write letters, they’ll go in there.
Outpost: Why is it called the panic room?
HA: That’s just what we call it — cuz girls who are freakin’ out, they’ll put ‘em in there. For time out, or whatever. … Most of the quads, there’s three or four beds in. And then there’s an upper tier upstairs where, like, it’s mainly the kitchen workers. … There’s 12 permanent girls that have been here awhile and that are gonna be here longer. … Downstairs is for when the girls first get here, so the housing officers can watch ‘em.
Outpost: Are the beds comfortable?
HA: Actually, ours are very comfortable cuz they just gave us new mattresses and they’re hella — they’re thick.
Outpost: How old were you when you first got arrested?
Outpost: And how many times have you served sentences?
HA: Oh my god. I don’t know [laughs]. A lot. Actually, from this time ‘til the last time I was in? It was eight years.
Outpost: There are a lot of people who want everybody who commits a crime to be locked up, and of course we don’t have enough cells. I’m curious about your perspective on whether or not serving time is a deterrent. When you’ve been free, when you’re out, do you think about the prospect of being arrested?
HA: Oh yeah. Yeah. I do. Especially since I’m older. The younger girls? I don’t know. Because I’ve seen so many of these girls have a [substance abuse treatment] program pick ‘em up, and then they just bounce. It’s like they use it as a way to just get out of here, and then they run from the program, which kind of irritates me because if you don’t really want to do that program, don’t take their funding. And don’t take that bed, because there’s other girls that really want to go to that program.
Outpost:You said you’re determined not to come back again this time. What made you decide that?
HA: I’m just tired of it. I’m gettin’ too old for this. And, um, a lot’s different cuz I was with my ex for 17 years and now we’re not together no more, so a lot of my using and stuff was partially him. I can’t blame it all on him. He used, so I used with him, you know. I really don’t — cuz, drugs come in here all the time.
Outpost: How do they get in?
HA: Just people. People bring ‘em in. I’ve been offered, and I [say], “No, I’m cool.”
Outpost: What gets in here — heroin?
HA: Everything. … Usually they [guards] are on top of it, but it does happen, so… .
[Note: Asked about this via email after the interview, Officer Christian responded, “Unfortunately there are drugs in the jail, and staff take measures to stop them from getting into the facility. One of the most prevalent methods to get them in the facility is the human body. We recently have gotten a drug K9 that is assigned to the correctional facility to help find the drugs when they do get smuggled in. We have looked at other things in the past such as body scanners but they cost a couple hundred thousand dollars.”]
Outpost: Do you have friends and family in community locally?
HA: I do. I haven’t talked to them in years. My dad was born and raised in Fieldbrook. My grandparents, who raised me part of my childhood, lived in Arcata. They’re both passed away now, but I still have cousins in the area.
Outpost: When you get out do you feel you’ll have a social network, a support system?
HA: Yeah, I have a boyfriend now that, he’s never used in his life. He works, you know. So, yeah.
Outpost: Do you have any windows in here? Do you get to see outside at all?
Outpost: Never? How long’s it been?
HA: Ten months.
Outpost: Since you’ve seen anything outside?
Outpost: You miss it?
HA: Yeah. Bad. Oh actually? I take that back. The rec room, it’s, like, you can kind of see outside. It’s like walls and then, like, screens. But I don’t go out there.
Outpost: Why not?
HA: Cuz it depresses me.
HA: Yeah. To smell the air and hear the cars driving on Fifth Street. Yeah, I just, I don’t go out there. But you can see the sky. That’s about it.
Outpost: Even at Pelican Bay they [general population inmates] get to go outside.
HA: I know. Seventy days [left before release].
Outpost: That’s not bad.
HA: I know. It’s gone by pretty fast, actually.
Outpost: What’s the longest term you’ve served?
HA: This is.
Outpost: What do you think is the biggest misconception about being in here?
HA: It’s not like girls getting beat up all the time. It’s not like that. There’s a lot of drama — like, this group talking about these girls over here, you know. But it’s not like girls gettin’ killed. Prison is. I had a homegirl from Crescent City I’ve known for twenty-some years. They transported her back up here from CIW [California Institution for Women] cuz she had an old charge here. She said it’s just not pretty down there. But she said it’s so packed full, and they [only] have so long to get so many girls out of there, they’re sending girls home on ankle monitors; they’re sending girls to McFarland [Female Community Reentry Facility]; they’re sending girls to Folsom Prison. She said she watches lifers walk out of there every day, like two or three lifers, because they’re so full.
I can’t really say anything bad about here. It’s really clean. They make everybody get out of their blankets at seven o’clock and make their beds really nice, and we’re always cleaning our quads out. … And we clean after every meal. After breakfast the floor gets swept and mopped, and the toilets and the showers get scrubbed, after lunch and after dinner.
Outpost: You say you don’t have anything to complain about, but you also don’t ever want to come back.
HA: No. Course not. But if I do have to do any more jail time ever? I’d, you know, I’d want it to be here.
Outpost: Do you see other inmates turning their lives around?
HA: Yeah, a few of em. And then there’s girls who’ve come back three times since I’ve been here. Three and four times.
Outpost: What does it take to get somebody to change?
HA: I don’t know. Maybe prison. Half those girls up there probably wouldn’t make it in prison, you know? Just their attitudes and stuff. But I don’t know.
Outpost: Was detoxing rough for you?
HA: It took about five days for the actual like really bad [effects]. But then I didn’t sleep for like two months. It took me like two months to be able to sleep good. It takes awhile to fully detox. I hope, I pray to god I don’t start when I get back out.
Outpost: How are you gonna — .
HA: I just got to stay away from people that do it.
Outpost: If it’s presented to you is it pretty hard to resist?
HA: Oh yeah. It’s very hard. So … . [The sentence was left unfinished.]
In each of the last three years there have been more than 10,000 bookings into the Humboldt County Correctional Facility. Roughly 25 percent of those were women.