Soledad, CA Site Summary
SITE: Soledad, CA DATES: June 22-26, 2011
ATTEND: 3,100 ESCORT: 0 PHOTO’S: 5
As you walk around outside, inside your home, or just get in your automobile to drive to work or to go shopping; this freedom to go and come as you please is taken for granted. With this thought in mind, we were contacted by the inmates of Soledad CA correctional facility to bring the Wall That Heals to the prison. These inmates, Edwin Munis and Michael Piper started the first Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter, inside a prison. There are more than 150 Vietnam Veterans in this prison facility and more than 300 total veterans held here, with over 6,000 total inmates. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was contacted by mail by these two veterans. With the planning and logistics of this over the course of a year, this was finally approved and occurred.
To start Bob and Brenda’s big adventure we entered what is known as the Sally Port, which is a huge steel enclosed cage with razor wire all around the enclosed area. When that door slammed shut, Bob and I looked at each other and said “What the H**l have we got our self into”. We gave them our identification and removed anything that could be used as a weapon, including our tire thumper from inside the cab of the truck, to include all tobacco products. The gates open and we entered the prison yard. An officer got on the running board and directed us around the yard to take us through several gates to turn the truck around, then back by the Sally Port to approach the gate that entered the prisoner’s yard. As Bob attempted to make the curve to swing in the gate the left rear corner of the trailer touched a fire hydrant and took off the ABS warning light on the trailer. At this point, it was determined by all that the truck was not going to be able to go through that gate. The warden, Randy Grounds, was called and came out to greet us and to observe the situation. They decided to cut the fence and pull it back so that we could gain entrance to the yard. This process took about 45 minutes so we were escorted back out to have lunch.
We went back into the yard got in the truck and drove on to the yard. The Vietnam Veteran inmates came out and the guards proceeded to do an inventory of the items we use to set up the Wall That Heals, such as the steel plates with a rod attached to support the Wall panels, the steel spikes we use to hold the plates in place in the ground, along with 3 sledge hammers used to drive the nails in the ground. According to the guards anything that wasn’t nailed down would be stolen and they advised us to hide anything of value. This was a very scary feeling.
We then began the process of setting up the Wall That Heals in our normal fashion. Everything went very smoothly as normal. After the Wall That Heals was totally assembled, the guards did a second inventory of nails, hammers and equipment. The inmates were very courteous and respectful. We did not setup the tent to attach to the trailer as normal as it would block the view by the 4 guard towers surrounding the yard. At exactly 4:00 p.m. a very loud warning goes off that all inmates are to return to their cells for a head count. We were informed by the guards if we heard that sound any other time that meant there was a problem inside the prison and would cause an automatic lock down.
On Thursday, we entered the guard house signed in, gave them our driver license and we were escorted in through the building where the prisoners are held. As you walk down the hall way there are two stripes painted down the center and that is the safe zone. We walked past the tiny little office of the Veterans Representative, Edwin Munis and Michael Piper. The office was the size of a broom closet, but it has served the purpose to help inmates that are Veterans. We then proceeded on through the building without any instance or disturbance.
Quickly the yard filled with the inmates and they started coming up to the window to find the names on the Wall. Bob and I had a continuous line in front of us until all were called back in at 4:00 p.m.
If we heard the words Thank You once, we heard it a 1,000 times for what it meant to everyone inside to have the Wall That Heals brought behind prison walls. As you see these guys, some tough, tattoos all over their arms, harden, yet when you hand them a piece of paper with the name and location of the fallen soldier, their brother; they break out in tears and walk away to look at the Wall That Heals, to stand before that panel to reflect; as if frozen in place.
On Friday, we were still inside the prison locating names until 12:00 p.m. when the Veteran inmates that assisted in putting up the Wall That Heals helped us disassemble and pack it back into the trailer. We followed the same procedure as when putting it together by taking inventory of all nails, spikes, sledge hammers, and tools, all items accounted for. As we started saying our goodbyes and thanks to the prisoners, they all shook my hand, then they shook Bob’s hand and gave him a hug. The guards did not stop them even though there is a no physical contact rule on the yard.
As we were escorted out of the yard back through the second guard entrance, we were informed that only one driver was allowed in the truck at a time. So Bob drove the tractor inside to pick up the trailer. Even though I was given permission to take photos of the inmates on the yard, I couldn’t get the pictures of where the fence was opened or video of the tractor and trailer going through it. I used my cell phone and took a picture of the tractor behind the fence and when being inspected in the Sally Port before departure of the prison.
We pulled around the traffic circle on the grounds and went to the visitor parking lot where we were met by Robert the maintenance supervisor for the correctional facility, several members of the American Legion, and Captain Rivera of CTF-SVSP (Correctional Training Facility-Salinas Valley Soledad Prison). The Captain made a call and shortly two fire trucks pulled up and out come 8 guys in orange suits with CDC on the back. These are inmates that have been given special fireman status as they have proven to be trust worthy and model prisoners. They live on the prison grounds but in a compound that does not have bars. According to Lt Chamberlain this is quite an honor and a privilege. They have also been outside the prison facility to assist in firefighting in California’s wild fires.
With team work and willingness to go, the fireman/inmates assembled the Wall That Heals in record time of 2 hours 15 minutes. We were duly impressed.
On Saturday morning a short opening ceremony was held with posting of the Colors by: several speakers including warden Randy Grounds who thanked the inmates Edwin Munis and Michael Piper for their part in making it possible for TWTH to visit Soledad.
With a closing prayer by a native born Vietnamese, currently serving in the US military as a chaplain, spoke of how well the American soldier’s treated him when he was young and that is why he joined the military when he came here.
On Monday the fireman/inmates returned to assist in disassembling the Wall That Heals and packing everything back in the trailer. Everything went very smoothly and packed up ready to leave in record time of one hour fifteen minutes. We had a two man escort from Soledad to Lost Hills CA.
-Bob & Brenda Dobek
Site Managers, The Wall That Heals