The Star-News


Prison is no place for kids

Sat, Sep 03 2011 12:00 PM Posted By: Tom Basinski

I have been inside Donovan Prison many times. These visits happened when I was an investigator with the District Attorney's office.

I would go to the prison to give training to the corrections officers on courtroom demeanor or to conduct interviews either with staff or inmates.

Before I went I would call my contacts at Donovan and tell them I'd be coming. Upon arrival, the guard in the shack would check my name off the list and wave me through. Nothing to it.

After retirement, I went there in 2008 as a civilian writer to interview the killer of a San Diego prostitute. That interview and other research resulted in the almost-best selling book, "CROSS COUNTRY EVIL."

When I went to Donovan as a cop, I was treated like royalty. When I went as a civilian, the climate changed.

For example, no writing or recording materials are allowed. I reviewed the dress code and knew enough not to wear denim (that's what the convicts wear).

I phoned the institution a few days before to make sure everything was in order. I told the lady I was a writer who was writing about this murderer's case. I told her I was an ex-cop and wouldn't glorify this guy's story. "What can I bring?" I asked.

With cheerful state efficiency she said, "Bring a good memory." I got the idea.

To visit a prisoner, you check in at a trailer where they give you a number. After about an hour wait my number was called and a bus took a dozen of us to the center where I waited another hour for another bus ride to the yard where my guy would be.

While I waited, I noticed most of the visitors were women. This is natural because all of the inmates are men. The prison has strict dress rules that make sense. One can't wear something too tight or too low cut. It might drive the inmate crazy. I wore nothing too tight or low cut.

The visit was an educational experience. The corrections officers merely tolerate the visitors. The officers are not helpful or cheerful. They are barely civil. I guess I don't blame them.

What I really didn't like was that many of the women brought young children to the facility, presumably to see their fathers.

My problem is that when you bring a child to prison, the youngster learns early on that prison is a normal part of life. After dad gets arrested and goes to prison, you go visit him. A kid gets socialized and eventually accepts that prison is okay.

Just as the experts say there is a cycle of domestic violence, I think there is a cycle of believing prison life is just something that will probably happen.

Who gives me the right to be that judgmental? No one, I guess. Who would deprive a child of the right to see a dad, and who would deprive a dad the right to see his child?

The truth is that a first-time offender rarely gets sentenced to prison unless the crime is very serious. A crook gets probation several times before he earns a place in the state slam.

I wonder how much truth is told to the little tyke about why dad is in lockup.

Mom doesn't need to tell the child that dad is bad. She should tell the youngster that dad did some bad things though, and when you do bad things you have to go to a place like prison, and that's not good. They can even call the convict's action a "mistake," although I would debate that.

It's a shame that any child has to see his or her father in prison denims. Let's hope the parents are giving the right treatment to the incarceration.

Basinski is a retired 35-year police veteran.


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