Tucked in among the rolling hills of Ione sits Mule Creek State Prison, housing about 4,000 offenders. To those driving by, they see a sign and a road leading onto the prison’s 866-acre grounds. That’s as close as most people get to a state prison. Movies, books and television often paint an unflattering picture of those who work at a correctional facility.
Prison employees – custody and non-custody – lead the same lives as their neighbors when not inside the walls. They coach little league teams, lead scouting groups, celebrate their children’s birthdays and enjoy gatherings with their loved ones. When the big blockbuster movies end, and the criminal is captured, that’s usually where the story stops for the audience. But for those working in prisons, jails, parole offices and correctional facilities around California, that’s where the story begins.
Lt. Angelo Gonzalez has worked at the prison for two decades. As the institution’s public information officer, he’s the face of the facility. He handles interviews, coordinates tours for media and the public, and acts as the warden’s assistant.
Mule Creek, like every other state prison, is essentially a city within a city. Services found by the general public in their hometowns can be found within the walls of a prison. Ranging from medical and dental to police and fire, the infrastructure needs are the same.
“When I do tours, the one thing I tell everybody is to think of each yard as a city,” Lt. Gonzalez said. “Anything the inmate needs is there. It can be found on the yard.”
Inside CDCR caught up with the staff to pull back the curtain and shed light on how they keep the prison on task.
A message of hope
For 21 years, Correctional Officer Shea Corsaletti has worked for the prison. She believes a common misconception of officers is they are cruel and lack empathy.
“I think the public generally (has a negative impression and believes we) don’t earn our money, which is the common state worker misconception. What I would like them to know is we are hard-working peace keepers,” she said while sitting at the table in the prison’s parole hearing room.
Here she and fellow Officer Lorraine Kaiser, a 22-year veteran of CDCR, provide custody support during parole hearings.
“After someone gets in trouble out on the streets, that’s where the story ends,” Officer Corsaletti said. “We are what the end of the story is. That criminal out on the street wreaking havoc, we are dealing with that havoc every day.”
This room is where they also hear stories of hope.
“We get to see the other end of what an inmate can be. We get to see the change,” Officer Kaiser said.
For those serving life sentences, the ability to earn parole has been a game-changer.
“A lot of them are starting life for the first time. They may have been incarcerated from the time they were a teenager. A lot of the time, they see what (a positive) life can be for the first time,” Kaiser said.
As parole hearing officers, Corsaletti said they see a different side than most other correctional officers.
“We’re the community side,” she said. “We’re fortunate. When someone paroles off their life sentence, (many more) do better.”
Safety also comes down to food
State prison officials learned long ago that food is important for those serving their sentences as well as those serving the meals. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, riots over food quality were common. According to the staff in the main kitchen at Mule Creek, offenders appreciate the effort that goes into preparing their meals.
Acting Correctional Food Manager Michael Lee has spent most of his 19 years of state service at Mule Creek. His job, like most other support staff, is essentially invisible to the general public.
“They only worry about what the inmates and custody do,” Lee said.
Correctional Supervising Cook Luis Hurtado agrees. He’s worked at the prison since 1997. “There is a lot of ignorance about what we do. They ask if we feed them bread and water. No. We give them a balanced meal designed by a nutritionist.”
The structured timeline at the prison hinges on one thing – when the inmates are fed.
“If we don’t feed them, there are issues. Rehabilitative programming, health care, transportation, ducats – none of those happen until they’re fed,” Lee said.
From the main kitchen, food is prepared, cooked to food safety standards then thrown in the blast chiller. A few hours later, the food is frozen. Two to three days later, it is re-heated and served to the inmates at their dining halls on each yard. Offenders receive two hot meals – breakfast and supper – while they get a cold sack lunch.
The food goes through several steps and other areas before it’s on a plate in front of an offender, including preparation, cooking, packaging, distribution, shipping and receiving. The prison staff also adheres to how food applies to religious practices and dietary restraints.
“We have new diets like vegan, which is starting in July, then we have kosher, regular, halal and vegetarian. We also accommodate religious ceremonies like Passover, Yom Kippur, Ramadan and (native American) services,” Hurtado said. “If you just lock them up and throw away the key, you’ll get an awful inmate. They’re human beings. You can’t punish them through food.”
Lee said their goal through cooking is “to try to make them better inmates. (Special) touches like turkey at Thanksgiving or cabbage and carrots on St. Patrick’s Day let the inmates know they are thought of.”
They have roughly 40 offenders working in the main kitchen. “We have scullery, distributing, receiving and shipping, the bakery, kosher program and chill blast,” Lee said, not going into the full list of other areas.
Jewish faith Chaplain Joel Youngheim is a relative newcomer to the prison, having worked there just 18 months. He said he finds the work fulfilling.
Chaplains in state prisons date back to the mid-1800s when the governor at the time invited local ministers to offer services to the inmates at San Quentin.
It’s a long tradition Youngheim is proud to carry on for those seeking guidance in their rehabilitation journey.
“I enjoy it. It’s a very rewarding position. Being able to teach classes is one thing but being able to listen and give advice is something else,” he said. “I can see the difference with those who’ve gone through rehabilitation.”
When he notices someone has made a change in their outlook, he asks a simple question.
“I ask, ‘How long did it take for the light bulb to come on?’ It’s interesting the responses I get,” he said. “Usually it’s about 10 years until they can take responsibility for their actions and stop blaming others.”
He’s got your six
Jerry Galli, a 21-year veteran of the department, is the prison’s electronic technician. He said it can be frustrating when the public doesn’t understand what it takes to keep everything running in the institution.
“The outside public has no idea what goes on in these places at all. Unless you’ve worked here, you’re in the dark,” he said.
Galli’s responsibility is the safety and security of the institution.
“Since I work in Plant Ops and deal with all the sub-safety systems, I know what it takes. People don’t realize the structure required to run this place,” he said.
He said it’s difficult to explain to people that what might work in the private sector doesn’t work in a secure prison environment.
“Whatever works out there doesn’t work in here because of the structure,” he said. “Everything that’s done in here is done for a reason and needs to fit within that structure.”
Walking around the institution on an organized tour, a curious member of the public would find offenders learning job skills, earning their GED, visiting a physician, being transported for outside specialty medical appointments, studying in the library, walking the recreation yard, working jobs such as those found in the main kitchen, and seeking help through self-improvement groups.
Meanwhile, most of the outside public drives by the sign, unaware another city within their own is actively engaged in public safety and inmate rehabilitation.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor