Table of Contents
2060 Fairmont Drive, 94578
knife, paper, rubber cement
Brain Freeze in a Quiet Room
Solidarity and salutations to you all, my Beloved Readers and Listeners! See below for a rather raw account of my incarceration by the State of California. WARNING: I simply cannot recommend reading this essay without understanding that the facility's purpose is to break the spirits of all who enter it. This piece is offered up in a hopeful spirit of abolition to all who care to read it.
"Have you been taking your medication?"
On my downslide into State custody in 2018, I reached a breaking point with my abusive landlord in Oakland, California. I called 9-1-1 over and over again in an effort to get some sort of help. Oakland Police Department officers would come over hours later, if at all. Their utter lack of aid left me mocking them and cursing them out. Sometimes they would disrespectfully ask me, "Have you been taking your medication?" Part of why I bristled at that repeated question is because I had tried my damnedest to get in with community-based mental health services. But no, I was not on my meds, other than cannabis and nicotine, complete with occasional binge drinking.
One cold morning, OPD had their fill of my disruptions in the normal swing of things. They bruised both my upper arms with hand-shaped dark blue-green blotches by pushing me against a fence then shoving me into the back of a cruiser. An officer opened the door on my left to ask me a simple question: "Do you want to go to John George or Santa Rita?"
Not knowing what either of those places were, I told him a simple answer: "I want to be free." They stuffed me into an ambulance, drove me off towards Highland Hospital for intake, drugged me unconscious, then trafficked me for tax dollars. That's how I woke up incarcerated inside John George Concentration Camp.
Name-calling in the name of justice
Why do I call it a concentration camp? That filthy psychiatric detention center's reason for existence is to be a trashcan for people deemed disposable, including for people like me who fling heartfelt insults at cops. Its campus takes up a small physical area into which Alameda County politicians, cops, and petty bureaucrats opt to expensively, brutally, illegally, and unnecessarily concentrate us Medicaid crazies. A pile of shit by another name would smell just as nasty, but for clarity's sake, here are a few names of the place:
John George Concentration Camp (JGCC—a descriptive name)
John George Psychiatric Hospital (JGPH—a respectable name)
John George Psychiatric Pavilion (JGPP—a frightening NewSpeak name)
John George Hospital (JGH—the most frightening name of all due to its drab neutrality)
Or simply, "John George," not to be confused with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors member John George, who championed the opening of JGCC in 1992 as a mental health system reform to keep us locked up, yet not in the overflowing jail.
Its physical and mailing address is 2060 Fairmont Drive, San Leandro, California 94578. Find more contact information at the Alameda Health System website.
Feds rush in (slowly)
I thought I was a failure for not being able to find mental health care in Alameda County because surely that was a failing on my part. As it turns out, an adequate network of community-based mental health clinics did not exist in the run-up to my time at JGCC. To quote the findings titled "Investigation of Alameda County, John George Psychiatric Hospital, and Santa Rita Jail" from the U.S. Department of Justice (issued on April 22, 2021):
"...After carefully reviewing the evidence, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that Alameda County and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office violate the ADA and engage in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations in the conditions at the Santa Rita Jail, and that Alameda County violates the ADA as interpreted by Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581, 607 (1999). Specifically, we have reasonable cause to believe that:
Alameda County violates the ADA by failing to provide services to qualified individuals with mental health disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs by unnecessarily institutionalizing them at John George Psychiatric Hospital and sub-acute facilities;
Santa Rita Jail fails to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care to prisoners with serious mental health needs, including those at risk of suicide;
Santa Rita Jail’s use of prolonged restrictive housing under current conditions violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of prisoners with serious mental illness; and
Santa Rita Jail violates the ADA by denying prisoners with mental health disabilities access to services, programs, and activities because of their disabilities..." (from page 2).
The DOJ's scathing report details how Alameda County's top administrators' actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution by funneling us to JGCC and Santa Rita Jail. Now comes a dancing game of reform between the feds and Alameda County top dogs, when in all justice, JGCC should be emptied and burned down. While I am no fan of the feds, I do enjoy them putting Alameda County officials onto a flaming hot-seat for interrogations.
Blood, filth, and nail-biting
JGCC is filthy! I cannot overemphasize this point. I cleaned my room with paper towels and soapy water from the bathroom in a drink cup because staff refused to clean my room. The dusty, smeared filth disturbs me even now when I consider it. Someone had flicked blood underneath the desk by my bed. I did not clean that, but it did make me have a panic attack. Discovery of the blood finally convinced staff to call a staffer of lower status to clean it. Even once it was "clean," bloodstains remained.
A fellow prisoner left menstrual blood on communal furniture. Another prisoner wore a single blood-spotted outfit for a week. She picked and chewed on herself endlessly, tearing herself apart pick-by-pick and nearly extirpating her fingernails. Sometimes her screams from her room lit up the entire block like a scratch on our lizard brains. Those seemingly wordless screams factor into my flashbacks and nightmares, though she was pleasant enough to chat with.
My first roommate was smelly with a sweet demeanor and little to say. Boils covered her backside from sitting in her urine and feces. How could staff not have noticed that she stunk and never went into the bathroom? Eventually, staff laid her out across her bed in our room and popped the boils. They did not clean up well afterwards. Ooze-covered gauze littered the floor. She seemed relieved.
Two quiet rooms
Staff twice dragged me into sound-dampening solitary confinement chambers, also known as "Quiet Rooms." "Quiet like a graveyard," I thought to myself. "I'll be damned if I walk myself into anything like that." I refused to walk in both times, and both times they injected me with something twice. On the first occasion, I snagged a bag of trash with my legs while staff dragged me. The trash sprayed across the room in a victorious moment of praxis before they drugged me into unconsciousness in "The Quiet Room." Blood from the brutal injections stained my panties.
On my second occasion in a Quiet Room, the need to urinate led to a breaking point. To avoid the dried-up vomit with pills in it on the floor, I urinated on top of dry urine in a corner of this second Quiet Room. I also respectfully avoided the chunks of torn-out hair that my fellow(s) left behind. To get me into that torture chamber, staff picked me up by each limb, dropped me on the back of my head, and dragged me into the middle of the Quiet Room. As I attempted to crawl out towards relative freedom, I saw the door slamming shut towards my outstretched arms. Presented with the choice of tactical retreat or broken hands, I jerked my hands back in a moment that plays out in my thoughts—over and over, crimson and clover. In the depths of my nightmares, I still know I made the correct choice not to let my captors destroy my body as they attacked my mind. Chemical restraints were unavoidable at that moment; smashed fingers were optional.
The pressure of my blood
High blood pressure nearly became my breaking point. It was dangerously high during my time at JGCC. Staff claimed to measure my blood pressure multiple times a day and sometimes collected my blood at the same time (same for all of my fellows). One morning, they slammed a cart against my bed's frame, which made me scream in fear and left me in tears while they took the reading. Staff used automatic blood pressure measuring machines that would pump up many times per reading. Once the machine pumped up about six times. My arm hurt for several hours afterwards due to the restriction of blood flow. I complained to staff with zero response, so I went on strike and refused to let them measure my blood pressure for the rest of the day. It was still not under control when they flung me out into the street after 2+ weeks of so-called "medical care."
Verbal abuse from staff included threats to get me prosecuted and further imprisoned on harassment charges. I took the opportunity to double-down on this sort of recalcitrant hard-ass: "Get the fuck out of here with that shit, literally. Leave if you don't like me. I'm a bipolar psych detainee with pressured speech, which means that I can't leave, and I can't stop talking. If you can't take the pressure, get out of the biz. If you don't like to sweat, get the fuck out of the kitchen." Eventually, I took to explaining to certain staff about their being dishonorable cowards for getting their kicks from torturing us as a career: "Remember, every bit of your paycheck-bought food should taste like blood, shit, and tears. But don't get comfortable on it, as it will be garnished soon to pay the settlement." "What settlement?" "The settlement you're about to pay me for being an ass hole for a living and hurting me. You're going to wish you had put your kids' college money into a trust fund, but soon it will be mine. What do you think—Saab or BMW?"
Cops heard similar things from me in the weeks leading up to my incarceration. This flexing of free speech rights contributed to cops sending me to JGCC and contributed to them kicking me out of the place eventually, too. Cops and staff all made guilty faces and/or ashamed mannerisms and/or shitty-angry comments. It got under their skins to wonder if I might actually strike back at them in court as singled-out individuals.
Fox-hole humor side note: they have several flocks of semi-wild turkeys living at the camp. The therapy turkeys look much more like colorful hand-turkeys than the arguably-more-lucky snow-white corporate-bred turkeys who get pardoned by today's presidents before they die. Some of the staff would let us feed them our snacks through the yard cage—humans on the inside of the cage, of course, with turkeys roaming freely. Some staff would half-heartedly tell us, "Get away from the fence"—no exclamation point at all. They knew we couldn't get out that way. I write this to you in a humorous spirit. The turkeys were fun. They are part of why I did not lose myself completely at JGCC.
A frightened animal
In the middle of the night, during suicide-foiling bed-checks about a week into my detention, I broke when staff shined me like an illegally hunted deer. Due to staff members' incessant noise, I was awake when the bright light hit my retinas. In the beam of light, I froze, screamed, and ran past two staff out into the day room. I saw red; it all went red; I cracked; I went into beast-mode; I was a frightened animal—however one wants to conceptualize the moment. I sat and sobbed in the safest place I could find on the fly: the corner of the day room farthest from the staff desk, next to the recycling bin. I was delirious in bed for a whole day afterwards and even missed going outside to yard time. Something primal was afoot, and I don't claim to understand what happened at that particular breaking point of mine.
A radiant mountain of a man visited me after I got shined. In a sternly sweet voice, he told me, "You have to run this place. You can do it. You have to keep your head up. Remember that." That was a breaking point for me: a breakthrough to another plane of mental freedom for me and my liberatory antagonism towards staff.
What human beings perceive as heat is yet another manifestation of light; light is a symbol of the Sun, hope, growth, and happiness to me. As my light-giving visitor walked out, one of my fellows hurried over to feel the heat in his former seat. "I keep wondering if he was real....." she explained with a trailing-off intonation. Without moving her hands from the chair, she asked me, "What do you think?" I assured her that he was indeed quite real, makes killer BBQ, and that I had met him at a memorial show for those who died in the Ghost Ship Fire. "It's good to hear some God-damned good news for once." I was taken aback, and she responded, "Not the fire, you idiot. I guess my meds are working....."
I took his advice to heart and began to act and speak in a more dominant and take-no-shit manner towards staff to get what I needed, such as paper, nicotine gum, and crayons to soothe myself. Staff reacted in an amazing way, such as by not slow-rolling my nicotine gum demands quite as torpidly. The change in my sentences' structures seemed to enrage a few staff members. That was cool with me, too. Since their lizard brains are accustomed to taking orders, the brains directly behind their foreheads were ripe for entertaining my commands/demands much more than my earlier approaches with requests/questions.
Escape attempt ideation
The staff often accused me of trying to escape. They were correct. I was freeing my mind by laughing at them and organizing towards my release by contacting loved ones, making origami, drawing, and exercising vigorously.
Seeds buried in the cold ground
Towards the tail-end of my hard time at JGCC, staff wheeled an emaciated man onto the block who looked to be in his 70s or 80s. He said, "I'm stuck in the Oakland Icebox again," over and over again. "Oakland Icebox. Oakland Icebox! Stuck in the old Oakland Icebox again..." When I noticed that he shivered and had way fewer clothes on than I did (and I felt cold from the penny-pinching heating system), I carefully approached him within his line of sight and asked him if he was feeling cold. Staff told me to get away from him, but I willfully disobeyed them towards justice yet again by aiding him.
By that point in time, the staff seemed to have collectively given up for the most part in attempting to squelch the fiery mutual aid efforts of my fellow prisoners and me. "Yes, yes, yes, in the Oakland Icebox again..." When I pointed out that blankets lived in the laundry cart right next to him, he didn't respond directly. When I asked him if I could get him a blanket, he smiled: "Yes, yes yes, yes yes..."
I laid the first blanket from his chest down across each of his bare feet, tucking in the corners, so his feet stayed covered. The second blanket draped across his chest, shoulders, and arms while leaving his hands uncovered. His smile got bigger and bigger as I tended to his need for homeostasis with thinly woven cotton: "Finally, someone can hear me."
For years, I have been a seed loitering beneath the snowy ground, waiting until conditions changed to strike back. Some seeds need to freeze before they will sprout. As the weather underground warms, the soil loosens up to make space for my growing roots. They buried us at JGCC. I assume they doubted anyone would come up out of the grave at them, as I have done in this essay. Flaming-hot written materials warm the environment and melt the PTSD that freezes me into inaction, self-doubt, fearfulness, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and self-loathing.
Thank you for taking the time to read my essay, particularly if it is difficult for you to get through. When I saw the pain on my loved ones' faces upon telling them that I was preparing this essay, I let them know that I would understand if they simply chose not to read this essay due to the vicarious trauma visited upon them from watching me suffer after the degrading "rehabilitation" during my time locked up. I hope expressing my pain in this format has a healing effect for more people than just me and that it warms people up to the idea of the abolition of all cages, including mental asylums.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Sarah Vitberg is a Disabled artist who focuses on storytelling through Analog collage, using an Exacto knife, paper and rubber cement as her tools. Her art comes from many lived experiences and the experiences of others she knows, but mostly, her art comes from joy, joy of being here and joy of creating.