Posted by: outandequal | July 31, 2012

A Day at Atwater Penitentiary

Emma Mishel (2nd from left) and Justin Tanis (2nd from right) at the Atwater Penitentiary

by Emma Mishel, Out & Equal Operations Associate | Approximately 130 miles outside of San Francisco on a former Air Force Base called Castle lies Atwater Penitentiary, a high security facility housing adult male offenders. About 1,300 to 1,400 inmates are held in the 11 year-old penitentiary.

A few months ago, we received a call from a lovely teacher there named Valery who wanted Out & Equal to be a part of the penitentiary’s first Inclusion Day, a day for prison staff to celebrate, learn about, and address LGBT-related topics and issues in alignment with Pride month. This was the prison’s first year incorporating LGBT into their Affirmative Employment Program.

On a sunny Wednesday morning in June, Justin Tanis, former Out & Equal Communications Director, and I made the three-hour drive through Berkeley, to Modesto, to Atwater, California – population: 28,000. We arrived with time to spare and had lunch at a quaint little restaurant (and also the only restaurant we could find after driving around for a few miles) called Granny’s Pantry. Our sandwiches and homemade soups were quite tasty. Next door to the restaurant stood a few Atwater antique shops, which carried everything from old, antique jewelry and couches to a 1998 photo book on the Backstreet Boys. Soon, it was time to make our way to the penitentiary. I had personally never been to a prison before, so I had no idea what to expect.

When you arrive at a prison, security is a lot like airport security; you must remove your shoes, anything in your pockets, your jacket, and they need to see a government-issued ID. Prior to our visit, background checks were conducted. Upon arriving they needed our car’s license plate number and our social security numbers. Absolutely no cell phones were allowed inside. I tried to hide my slow-building separation anxiety, as my front pocket felt very empty.

We stepped through the metal detectors, assembled our belongings and slipped on our shoes.  Valery greeted us and accompanied us into the prisoner’s visitation room, the auditorium where the prisoners are allowed to socialize with visiting families and friends. Several murals of California sparked our interest upon entering, and a small “children’s visitation” space had been completely decorated with every Disney character imaginable. Today, however, the set-up of the large auditorium was quite different than the usual row-after-row of tables. Strategically grouped together in bundles stood the tables, colorful table cloths covered the tops, and on them were yellow and pink paper plates, curly sippy-straws, miniature sprinkled cupcakes, and homemade lemon-filled jars of flowers that served as the center pieces. Spring-colored balloons hung from the ceiling, and a myriad of snacks, appetizers and desserts were ready for the taking. This room was now the location of Atwater’s LGBT Inclusion Day.

About 50 staff members of Atwater penitentiary filtered in to attend the voluntary LGBT Inclusion Day event, from guards to correctional officers to the warden of the prison. As they sat down, facial expressions varied from strong stoic stares to attentive smiling faces. At 2:05pm, everyone had taken a seat and started nibbling on snacks, so Valery took the podium and began. She had a great introduction to the program and reiterated why it was important to talk about LGBT issues in the workplace. Justin was up next. He replaced Valerie at the podium and I commenced our PowerPoint presentation on the prison’s laptop. Justin did a superb job presenting Out & Equal’s LGBT Competency Training for the penitentiary’s staff members, discussing the evolution of federal protection for female, interracial, senior, disabled, and now LGBT employees; common myths and stereotypes about the LGBT community; and areas of focus to help create a comfortable and equal workplace.

The usual audience for our trainings are corporate companies, so we were a little nervous on how the prison guards would take in the information. To our surprise, several of the penitentiary’s staff members came to us afterwards and not only thanked us for coming but also said that the presentation was very informative, that they found it interesting, and that they learned a lot – which is what we love to hear. Also after the presentation, Atwater Penitentiary completely surprised us with beautiful, customized plaques just for speaking at their event. They even gave us a tour of the prison after the room had cleared, and I was interested to see how many programs they have in place for the inmates. In addition to a gym and a computer room, they provide GED programs, study rooms, several different organized sports leagues, and music and art classes for their inmates. It was quite interesting to see all of the keys the guards have to carry on their bodies at all times as well, since, if it were me, I think I would topple over.

Out & Equal commends the work done and time put into programs that work towards the goal of full LGBT equality in the workplace. As such, Justin and I were extremely humbled and proud to be a part of Atwater’s very first Inclusion Day, and it was a great experience for me to be a part of.



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