MOLLYCODDLING MISCREANTS: Or, “Palm trees? In prison?”

If your own foibles strike you with bemused embarrassment, then the instant you realize that the current one you’ve been nurturing is particularly asinine, you face two rather similar choices:

1     Take your own life; or

2     Batter your bespattered self-esteem further by posting it on your blog

F’rinstance:  The first time I walked inside the courtyard of the California Institute for Men, I saw something I couldn’t believe–palm trees. They had palm trees in the prison. Everywhere you looked, there was another one. I thought (& nearly said out loud, thank God for small favors): “Palm trees? In a prison? I know California’s a permissive, libertarian land, but this is absurd! They really do mollycoddle criminals out here!”

In my cryptic defense, this was 2001, and it was my first time in CA. I’d only been there a week when these thoughts occurred to me. In that week leading up to that moment, I’d spent all my time in a Cal State-Fullerton computer lab learning PowerPoint and constructing a 63-slide presentation that I intended to use in my first-ever correctional library management course. Except for the morning walk to the school, I never saw the light of day–only the inside of that lab. Yes, of a morning I walked from the hotel & across the beautifully-landscaped eastern side of the campus. Yes, there were palm trees there! But these were the grounds of a major California university, and you’d expect to see palm trees in a place like that.

After the 6-day course was over, I had three days to myself before my return flight home. So I drove places. I walked places. And I saw my first palm trees outside of a prison. I began to see them in people’s yards, which I considered a tad extravagant. Until I realized what everyone else with commonsense already knew — they were in everyone’s yard. They were on the grounds of the In-N-Out burger chain. In the parking lots of used bookstores. Framing the front entrances of churches. They were so commonplace it became an odd site not to see them as part of the landscape. Finally, the light went on.

I’d realized that all my life I’d equated palm trees with luxury and leisure. It never occurred to me that palm trees were as ubiquitous here as evergreens & pines were back home. I thought you had to be stinking rich to own a palm tree. Myself, I blame Robin Leach.

That same day, we spent the afternoon at the CA Institute for Women. They had palm trees in their courtyard, too. The Lieutenant giving the tour told us of the time an inmate hid in one of these trees for nearly three full days, and no one but the inmates periodically sneaking food out to her knew where she was. I very much wanted to ask the good Lieutenant why for pity’s sake didn’t they cut the tree down, but dare not embarrass a fellow corrections employee who also happened to outrank me. But soon after the story I saw something that compelled comment — a palm tree right next to their outer-perimeter cyclone fence, a tree which had grown tall enough potentially to tempt some enterprising lady to shimmy up & leap over the razor wire and into freedom. When I took the Lieutenant aside & mentioned this, he sighed. “We’ve all told them again and again about that, but nothing gets done.” He then looked at me and repeated the same observation I’ve heard offered too many times in my career to count: “It’s corrections.’

Understood. “Palm trees in a prison! The very idea!”


5 thoughts on “MOLLYCODDLING MISCREANTS: Or, “Palm trees? In prison?”

  1. first of all, welcome to california. some of my friends that came from other parts of the country had similiar reactions, i recall one of them saying: “things are so different here…”

    but as far as palm trees goes, i actually like the idea. being that prison often times contributes to an incarcerated individual’s lower self-esteem, the existence of palm trees could actually brighten a person’s day. after all, it not just about locking people up, it’s about healing them to better fit the society.

    but on other hand, it’s frustrating that everything makes sense by saying: “its corrections…”

    • I’m not sure that your palm-trees-as-therapy notion works–at least not for Californians in Californian jails–being that these trees are indigenous to the area.

      If I’m here in jail and see an evergreen on the quad, it’s not going to put a fresh spring in my step, because I have seen evergreens wherever I’ve gone in the northeast. Even confined to my prison, I can see them beyond the 20-ft. high perimeter wall. It has to be the same thing with native Californians and their palm trees.

      I remember gushing to one of my students, “Aren’t palm trees breath-taking!” and she said “They are, unless you’re a gardener.” Apparently, palm trees require a helluvalot of water, and are therefore a detriment to the other plants in your yard, including the grass.

      • Again, welcome to (southern) California – land of sunshine & palm trees & pink stucco homes (at least in the 50’s and 60’s)!

        I live in the Central part of the state, where palm trees are not indigenous, but landscapers have brought them in over the years and now the birds are constantly transferring the baby trees everywhere … I’m constantly digging little tiny palms out of my yard before they grow into big hulking trees. They are messy shedding things (the old fronds need to be constantly trimmed or rats set up housekeeping) …. Let me know if you’d like a few — I’ll be glad to box them up for you!

    • “It’s corrections,” roughly translated, means:

      “There’s a problem here whose solution is obvious to me, and the solution has been suggested to those in a position to implement it, and nothing’s been done.”

      I wonder how many other business offices, departments, agencies, committees, etc. this idea can apply to?

      My guess is the kind of frustrated resignation communicated by “It’s corrections” can be applied to many other business / government arenas. The sentiment can even be applied to a person’s private life.

      • Large family-owned companies are the same way …. oftentimes change is slow in coming.

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