Seeing it from the inside: New Board Member Richard Gutierrez talks about his first prison visit

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Since 1846, the Correctional Association has used its special legislative authority to enter prisons and report on conditions of confinement to policymakers and the public. Still, only a small number of people can enter the prisons with the CA, leaving prison life largely hidden from public view. In the following interview Richard Gutierrez, who joined the Correctional Association board last year, relates his impressions of prison life from a January 2003 visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison for 2,300 men.

Mr. Gutierrez is a criminal law and personal injury attorney, currently in private practice. At the start of his career, he worked for three years at the Legal Aid Society. Though Mr. Gutierrez has interviewed incarcerated individuals-clients in visiting rooms, his trip to Sing Sing was the first time he experienced prison ” from the inside.”

How did the prison visit work? What did you do while you were there?
We first met with the superintendent and several other prison officials. We talked about what we were going to do during the day and how we were going to break up the group. Some of us were going to go into the yard, some into the gym and we needed security. We covered most areas of the prison. At the end of the day, we met again with the superintendent and discussed what we saw as problems. I was pretty amazed at the way the prison officials received us and interacted with us. They listened to what we had to say.

Did you have any conversations with incarcerated individuals that particularly struck you?
There were several people I interviewed who, unfortunately, were HIV positive. They told me they didn’t get the care they thought they should receive. I must have interviewed 15 or 20 incarcerated individuals throughout the day and about 6 or 7 of them were HIV positive. There is no confidentiality, either. They were telling me that’s a big problem in the institution.

Did anything strike you about life in the prison?
How regimented it is, how sad it is.

Despite all the improvements that I’m sure have been made in the last 50 years in prisons, it’s still the same day in, day out monotony. The incarcerated individuals live in cells that are very small. 2 They don’t have enough programs to make their day varied. I could never cope with that, the same routine day in, day out. But then again, you’ve got to remember that they are convicted felons. But I looked at them in a different perspective than just being “inmates.” I just looked at them as human beings interacting in this environment.

What else should people know about prisons?
Even though I practice criminal law, I was truly amazed at the way prison life is actually lived. I’ve read about it in books; I’ve seen it in movies. But to experience it first hand was really eyeopening. I think it changed the way I see “criminals.” It’s hard for me to explain, but for two weeks after the visit, it was all I thought about. It doesn’t affect you until you see it