A Big Yard for the Big House : Prison: Life is no picnic for state inmates in Lancaster despite a sprawling 3 1/2 acres of recreational space.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From his perch within the prison yard, convict David Garcia watches the ravens--the big, black birds whose free flight is a cruel and constant reminder of the minutes, the days and the years he has wasted behind bars.

Like indifferent prison guards, they roost atop imposing watchtowers. With a mocking call, they hop about the metal workout barbells, strutting with the confidence of winged weightlifters.

"The only difference between us and them is that they can leave this place," said Garcia, who is serving a 30-year sentence for a string of convenience store armed robberies. "They can up and fly away whenever they want to. But we can't. We're here to stay."

Garcia is one of 2,755 inmates at the state's newest penitentiary--the California state prison at Los Angeles County in Lancaster, home to convicts doing time for crimes ranging from drug sales to multiple murders.

And despite the reminder of the ravens, Garcia knows of only one spot in this God-forsaken place to flee the fact that he is not a free man.

The Yard. The place where convicts go out to play.

Inside, they call it The Zone or The Pit. Every prison has one--an often barren, walled-in landscape where inmates can escape the restless rhythm of penitentiary life, step into the sunlight for a bit of exercise and fresh air.

On The Yard, rumors fly like the birds overhead; the talk in a language created by cons: barbells are housed in the Iron Pit, your family is your people, ducats is money. And talk centers on your next date in the Bone Room, the prison area for conjugal visits.

From dawn to dusk, The Yard is the place where the prison community gathers to mimic life on The Outside, to recreate the tensions of the street. And rarely--with the blast of a high-powered bullet or sudden thrust of a shank-knife--to imitate the violence of The Hood.

Both convicts and prison guards agree, however, that Hollywood's portrayal of The Yard--a treacherous killing field with imaginary lines and shadows, a place where ruthless gangsters call the shots and where convicts turn violent on a daily basis--is not true.

"We've all seen our share of bloodshed," said Conrad Joseph, a 48-year-old New Englander serving 10 years for computer fraud and armed robbery--one of three inmates selected by prison officials to discuss life in The Yard.

"This is prison, not a country club. You can't escape the violence. But veterans know the movie images just aren't true."

Part of the reason is that new prisons like the one in Lancaster--located about 60 miles north of downtown Los Angeles--have made penitentiary life a bit less menacing, officials say.

The Yard's modern architecture has reduced dangerous blind spots where inmates once avoided the gaze of the guard towers and trouble often brewed.

Still, prison officials are mistrustful, even fearful, of the inmates they oversee as well as the image of prison life they might portray to The Outside. During a recent visit, officials would not allow a reporter to enter The Yard without an escort or talk to inmates at random.

In the eyes of one veteran, such precautions, at least for safety purposes, are unnecessary. The Yard, he says, is like a comfortable weekly television show.

"Day in, day out, the place is like a neighborhood bar--like that place on Cheers," Joseph says. "It has its characters. And of course we're all regulars."

*

The Yard.

Sometimes, it seems more like the surface of Venus than the good, green Earth. On hot days--and there are many of them in the Antelope Valley--thermometers explode like a killer's mood during a crime of passion.

There is precious little shade. And no grass. Just a sprawling 3 1/2-acre dirt lot--the size of two football fields--surrounded by slate-gray buildings with aqua-green doors.

On days when temperatures soar past 100, convicts cluster in groups, huddled in the thin shade of a single light pole. Glistening with sweat, tattoos bared in gruff warning, some bench-press in the open-air weight pit, shrugging off the heat like an insult.

Others play basketball or handball. They do pushups, chin-ups. Raising a trail of dust devils, they sprint up and down the rectangular yard or jog around the ringed Tarmac pathway--human lab rats in a maze with no exit.

Mostly, though, during their hour to five-hour daily visits to The Yard they stand just inside The Line.

That's the thick yellow stripe around the yard's perimeter, separating inmates from a row of low-slung administration buildings. Guards rarely, if ever, cross the line. And inmates must receive permission to pass over it, or risk punishments ranging from increased sentences to additional work duties.

Its purpose: separating the guards from the guarded.

"Out there, that's their turf, and we don't enter it unless we have to," said Lt. J.R. Andrews, a prison spokesman. "That's their domain."

At the Lancaster prison, inside the tall fences topped by spiraling concertina wire, there are five identical yards--one for minimum-risk prisoners, four others for medium to high-risk inmates.

Lt. Darrell Downs has patrolled them all, his reflector sunglasses hiding his stare.

Sternly, he watches the prison's A Yard teem with hundreds of the prison's toughest convicts--some dressed in ill-fitting prison dungarees and denim work shirts, others wearing sweat pants, shorts and tank tops.

Downs, 35, who grew up in Pomona, has seen a decade of life on yards at several different prisons. He has known three generations of one family--father, son and grandfather--doing time on the same yard. He calls many inmates by their first names.

The reason: He attended grade school with some of these men, even went to the same church.

"To me, this place is no different than the old neighborhood back home," he said. "Guys going to the park. Some lifting weights. Some looking for an education. Others looking for trouble."

The Line is just one attempt to preserve the fragile prison peace.

Before the first inmates arrived in February, each yard was swept with metal detectors, raked with picks and shovels, to make sure that construction contractors did not drop scrap metal that prisoners could fashion into weapons.

Inmates now are searched each time they enter or leave. The bottom rung of The Yard's entire chain-link fence has been painted a gaudy yellow so guards can spot attempts to cut through the barricade.

Earlier this month--in a first for the 5-month-old penitentiary--two inmates escaped from a minimum-security area of the prison. Guards are confident that won't happen in The Yard.

"In older prisons, there were too many blind spots," prison spokesman Andrews said. "Here, officers in the tower have a 170-degree view of The Yard."

He motions like a guide on a nature tour: "Look at that handball wall. We can see both sides at the same time. The toilet? Same thing. Now, everywhere an inmate goes, someone can see what he is doing."

While the national trend is for smaller prisons, California has a prison population bursting at the seams--115,000 inmates in 26 state prisons. As a result, the state has been forced to build larger prisons with inmates separated into individual exercise yards in order to keep each population to a safe minimum, said Conrad Holmes, a state Department of Corrections warden in charge of new prison construction.

Still, The Yard can be a dangerous place. More than 90% of violent acts committed in prison take place there, some experts say.

Much of that hostility stems from a prison's ethnic makeup. At Lancaster, for example, 35% of the inmates are black, 23% are white and 36% are Latino--a racial fault line that prison officials say could at any moment release its tension.

Besides the racial mix, the types of prison inmates are also shifting.

Now, along with the killers and rapists has come a newer breed. Drug-related sentences have risen twelve-fold from 1980, statistics show. And the number of gang members is also on the rise.

Unlike life on the streets, officials say they experience fewer problems among gang members in prison. At Lancaster, Crips and Bloods use the weight pit at the same time.

"It's a small society," said one official. "It's hard to explain why more violence doesn't break out between gangs in here. We don't know. Maybe it's the constant surveillance. The threat of doing even more time."

On The Yard, the old prison yard hierarchy still prevails: murderers command the most respect, sex offenders the least.

"Hatreds are acted out here," Garcia says. "We're just waiting for that child molester, waiting to see him die in prison. The cells or the yard, wherever it happens."

*

With the butt of a high-powered rifle resting on his knee, Correctional Officer Ralph Lopez scans The Yard like an owl at dusk.

He watches for any show of force, for one race of inmates to begin clustering in the center of The Yard--a sign of an impending rumble. Although inmates are searched at the gates of The Yard, he still must keep watch for overdressed convicts hiding a cell-chiseled sword or shank knife.

For Lopez and other officers, there is tension to the $30,000-a-year job. Many guards just don't like convicts. They don't like the jokes. One went: After the Lancaster prison hired its guards, there wasn't a fry cook to be found in the entire Antelope Valley.

He knows his job is not easy. Nationally, prison yards have been an infamous site for bruiser brawls and attempted escapes. Last year, at a central California prison, convicts used barbells to pummel one another in a brawl that injured 20.

"It's tough," Lopez said. "You try to get cooperation from these guys by using the megaphone. All they do is stare at you. They flip you off. Or they cuss at you. They've got no respect."

*

There they were, 200 convicts standing in the middle of The Yard earlier this year, necks craned, gawking upward at a bungee-jumper ready to leap from a hovering hot-air balloon launched from outside the prison walls.

Like New Yorkers gathered under a distraught ledge-walker 40 stories up, they yelled and they cajoled.

"Half of them, they were yelling for the guy to jump. The others were screaming for the cord to break," said convict Joseph, with a laugh.

While such entertainment is in short supply, The Yard nonetheless brings relief from the cramped 10-by-6-foot cells, where the often putrid smells of the cellblock drift, and the yells and taunts from fellow inmates echo like the jungle at night.

On The Yard, they can hear the roar of passing truck engines. Looking northward, they can see the peaks of the nearby Tehachapi Mountains, listen to the chirp of a bird.

"It's the only place where you have a freedom of choice," said Joseph, serving 10 years for computer fraud and armed robbery. "When I run, I decide if I want to stop. Nobody makes that decision but me. No guard. No inmate. Nobody. That's the thing about prison. You make no decisions here."

After a decade in prison, Garcia has become a patient observer of his grim confines, a witness to the agonizingly slow tick of prison's emotional clock.

At dusk, he strolls The Yard in long straight lines, ignoring the men, the sounds, the smells and the controlled chaos all around him--dreaming about what life will be like when he finally gets out of here.

And when darkness falls, "You know that one more day in prison is behind you, another 24 hours behind bars down the drain," Garcia said.

"And that helps you sleep at night."

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