A View from the Inside
California Lawyer

A View from the Inside

by J. Tony Serra

April 2013

J. Tony Serra

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Letter from Lompoc December 2006

Criminal defense trial lawyer J. Tony Serra served ten months at the federal prison in Lompoc for willful failure to pay taxes. Here is an excerpt from his 2012 book Walking the Circle: Prison Chronicles (Grizzly Peak Press), which recounts his experiences at Lompoc's low-security facility.

The "real" Lompoc Prison has outdoor spaces between the old, decrepit, block-like steel-boned buildings, and between the buildings a double fence with curls of razor wire on top and in between. The outdoor spaces are flat, dry brown grass: nothing green, no flower, no plants; a blanched, bleached downtrodden earth with deadened grasses, a threatening sterility, not of nature but defacing nature.

Severely contrasting the prison grounds is the campgrounds, my abode for ten months. Our buildings and the entire compound are surrounded by lush green, well-mowed grass, with flowers, plants, cactus, and bulbed protrusions. It is a camp within a garden setting, the pride of the inmate gardeners.

My position in the camp, my job assignment is to water, to flood, to wash, and to rain upon all living vegetable matter. I am the camp's rainmaker. I am the conduit for the life-giving water supplied to the garden. I turn on the sprinklers; I work the hoses; I sprinkle the flowers; I inundate the growth with a steady stream of dancing, gurgling, spraying liquid.

I sing with water. I sow with hose. I am the maestro, the symphony leader with hose, not baton. I make music with my water. I am thrilled with my job assignment. Birds follow the path of watering. New life springs from the dazzle of the spout. It is almost religious to be a rainmaker in a prison camp.


Saturday is work-free. Breakfast is at 7 a.m. rather than 6 a.m. We sleep an extra hour. I rise, sleepily stumbling to mess hall. I have milk and cereal, and return to the barracks.

Suddenly over the blurred P.A. system, it is announced "Count time, count time." It is about 8 a.m. "Count" on weekends is always at 10 a.m. Something is amiss. All inmates, all 350-plus of us, must return to our bunks. There is the buzz of conversation. Some inmate has left, has escaped, is the deduction of the inmates. This count is unusual! While we wait, the stories flow about prisoners who have left, have run, have sneaked away, and have left notes in their locker - like "Bye bye warden." We smile at the prospect that someone has vanished.

But it is Saturday. Visiting starts usually at 9 a.m. Families have come from afar. Visiting will be delayed. We empathize [with those] who will have shortened visits because of this abnormal count time.

We line up in front of our bunks. Some inmates still [are] not dressed fully. Some standing and reading: others chest out, attention military style. Two guards, one behind the other by several feet, march briskly in the aisles. Their counting is seen by watching their lips move as they pass. ... Up and down three aisles they pass, then return to their office at the extreme end of the barracks near the front door.

All inmates stand in place waiting for the P.A. announcement that count has been "cleared." We are impatient. Today is the day we do not have assignments. It is a free day. We are anxious to do things we have scheduled for ourselves to do: washing clothes, running laps, playing softball, and calling loved ones, reading, writing letters, playing chess, and watching the news on TV.

The count is depriving us of precious free time. We are primed to leave the barracks. But over the loudspeaker sounds the guard once again: "Recount, recount."

We snidely smile. Someone really has escaped! Our inconvenience is moderated by the hope that the inmate will not be caught.

After a protracted silence, we are informed that we may now exit the barracks. The long line of us rushes out. A Saturday at prison camp resumes normalcy.

Why the recount? Did someone escape? The whole event submerges in lost memory as quickly as it occurred.

J. Tony Serra is a criminal defense attorney based in San Francisco.

Reader Comments

Azar Elihu - April 6, 2013
What a lovely story! Thanks for sharing your experience. What surprised me is your active status with California State Bar, while it sometimes disbars members for minor misconducts. Cheers, Azar Elihu Criminal defense attorney Los Angeles CA

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