Visiting Jon Andreas
Observations from John Van Dyk — 2009

Introductory remarks:

I had thought I could just pick a day for the visit, drive down, walk in, and ask the guards to have Jon join me in the conference room. A naïve plan! Like state education departments, prisons are bastions of bureaucracy. To get in, I had to request that Jon send me a “visitor approval form.” I filled it out and sent it back to him. Jon then submitted the completed form to the prison authorities for a background check. Normally the check takes up to six weeks, but by some miraculous intervention my request was approved within three weeks and sent back to Jon, who then informed me of the decision, just in time. But there was a clinker: The approval form relayed by Jon had my name misspelled (VanKyk instead of VanDyk). Technically this meant my entry could be refused.

There are strict rules for dress code and what you can take in. Visitors may not wear anything colored blue, green, or brown. I had read the rules, but failed to note that khaki or tan pants are not allowed either. Kay suggested I wear all black, as she and her husband Richard customarily do when they visit Jon. I have black slacks, but had left them at home in Sioux Center. So a few days before the visit I stopped by a thrift shop in California and picked up ill-fitting slacks for $2.00. Going into a prison, after all, is not like going to a retirement party. I decided to wear a white shirt with the black pants.

Another clinker appeared when a few days before the intended visit riots broke out at Avenal, which sent scores of inmates to the hospital, and, bad for us, put the entire system on lockdown. During a lockdown the inmates must remain in their bunks, and all visitation is suspended. Riots are common, and no wonder: the absurd overcrowding creates a powder keg ready to explode. Avenal SP is designed for about 2500 inmates. Actually there are close to 7000 packed together in quarters that have no air-conditioning – remember that Avenal is located in a virtual desert where temperatures regularly climb well above 100 degrees. Only the visitors’ halls are air-conditioned. Luckily for us, the riots were confined to three of the five wards, where the lockdown continued, even at the time of our visit.

Entering the prison:

Kay and I had agreed to meet in the handicapped parking space at 8:00 on Saturday morning, September 26. Since Susan and I were lodged in Ripon, I left for Avenal at 4:45 in the morning for the three-hour drive. Kay had given me the license plate number of her car, so I had no trouble finding it. Kay and her husband Richard were waiting for me. They are welcoming, congenial folks. They are musicians and attended Morningside College in Sioux City. They gave me a plastic bag in which I could deposit the items allowed: my driver’s license, the car key (without any attachments), and some dollar bills (for the vending machines).

Visitors enter according to their appointment times. Kay’s name was called at 8:15. We went through several checkpoints: the critical one was the guy who checked our names. He shuffled through a stack of papers, fiddled with the computer, and gave the stamp of approval on the permit we were to carry with us and turn in upon departure. We heaved a sigh of relief. After a final stamp on the back of our hands we were escorted through several gates to the visitors’ hall in Jon’s ward, a fairly roomy place set up with numbered tables and chairs. We were assigned to a table. Behind us was a bit of a play area for small kids (here to visit their daddy in prison), so rather noisy. That made it difficult to hear clearly, especially for Richard, whose hearing loss is only slightly worse than my own. But we managed.

Meeting Jon:

Various inmates filtered in. After a 15-minute wait, Jon was brought into the hall. I had not seen him since 2000 or thereabouts, just before his arrest, when he came out to a workshop I conducted at Bellflower Christian Schools. He was dressed in blue scrubs and jeans, with big letters on the back and on his pant legs: “Prisoner of CDC” (CDC = California Department of Corrections). Except for thinning hair and a generally older appearance, he looked much the same as I remember him. His smile was still the engaging Jon Andreas smile. I hugged him and then we sat down around the table. Paper and pencil are not allowed, so I did my best to memorize our conversations. Soon after I left the prison I stopped at a restaurant and wrote down what I remember. What follows are notes taken after the fact, so I may not always be accurate. And, of course, space prevents complete coverage.

Jon’s physical health:

There are two problems: Jon is suffering from skin cancer on his scalp, and his parathyroid glands are not functioning normally in controlling the calcium levels in his body. Apparently two of the four of these glands have been removed. Whatever the situation, the system does not appear to be working well, and he needs more medical treatment. Such treatment is hard to come by, as there are too few doctors and too many patients. On this point alone, prisoners are subjected to minimal and inadequate care.

Outside connections and emotional health:

Jon has a circle of friends who stay in touch with him, send him materials, and encourage him. Mail reaches him in two ways: via Kay, who sends stuff to Jon virtually every day, or by snail mail directly to his ASP address. It is clear that such contacts are vitally important if Jon is not to succumb to intolerable depression and thoughts of suicide. He singled out Henk Hart as one faithful source that has kept him going over the years. Apparently Henk has written wonderful letters and sent a variety of thought-provoking materials. As Kay reported in the note with the photo she sent, at the moment Jon appears to be able to cope. He is on regular anti-depressant medication.

Life in prison – some of the appalling realities:

I believe that Kay has kept you posted on the situation. Ostensibly the move from San Luis Obispo to Avenal signified an improvement. It turned out to be a cruel step backwards. In SLO he had a cell, a typewriter, and a radio. None of these vital items are available at ASP. He shares his living quarters with more than a dozen inmates in a dormitory-type setting (Kay sent a horrifying photo some time ago), and not a minute of the 24-hour day is spent in privacy: every aspect and every moment of the inmate’s life is public. The only way for Jon to experience privacy and isolation is to crawl onto his bunk and wrap sheets and blankets around his head. At his bunk is a cubbyhole where he may keep ten books. If more than ten, he has to get rid of some to stay at ten. There is a small library in his ward, but it is open only on Wednesdays from 11 to 4, a time in which he is occupied as a teacher’s assistant. Besides, the books in the library are mostly stupid romances or crime stories.

The entire atmosphere in the prison breathes violence. There is a television set up in the corner of the ward, but the programs, chosen by majority vote, are mostly crime and police dramas. Jon told an interesting story illustrating the inmates’ priorities. At one time he managed to watch the program “Earth” which showed migrating reindeer. Behind the reindeer came their young. At one point the film showed an approaching troop of wolves about to attack the baby reindeer. Normally, one would hope that the wolves would not get to them. But the inmates started to cheer on the wolves: “Go get them! Kill the m-f . . .”

Jon has been promoted to assistant teacher and now clerk. He earns 15 cents an hour, which gives him a few dollars to buy toothpaste or toilet paper from the canteen at the end of the month. The teaching itself is a joke: new inmates are randomly assigned to various “educational” classes, where they can obtain a general education degree. But there are only two curricula: Saxon math and language arts. In most cases, the “students” are mismatched. Some have MA degrees and have to sit through sixth-grade math. Many couldn’t care less about degrees. They are already conniving, planning to beat the system once they get out. In short, every day Jon faces a crowd of angry men. Only a very small minority are genuinely interested in education. The teachers in charge come from the outside but are incompetent and leave the actual teaching to the inmates. Luckily, Jon is now also the “clerk,” keeping track of records. This allows him to periodically sit at a table in the corner, where he can find a few minutes to be by himself.

Avenal State Prison is riddled with drugs. Jon explained the three ways in which drugs enter the facility. First, guards are bribed to allow the drugs to pass inspection, even actively bring them in and sell them! Secondly, women visitors hide drugs in their bodily cavities. And thirdly, the medical dispensaries are vehicles for conveying drugs.

The California prisons call themselves “centers for correction and rehabilitation.” As Kay’s husband Richard cogently pointed out, the prisons ought to be sued for false advertising. Rehabilitation is the farthest from the minds of big fat guards who earn up to $100,000 a year to “keep the bastards in line.”

Inside connections and emotional health:

For sensitive inmates like Jon, prison life would destroy him if he were left entirely on his own with no inside connections. In San Luis Obispo he found such connections in a Buddhist community, where the focus fell on coping with the terribly unjust and inhumane conditions of prison life. It allowed free and open, non-judgmental sharing. He shied away from Christian or evangelical groups, who, as Jon put it, were too prescriptive and dogmatic. At Avenal he has found kindred spirits with a small Jewish community. He meets with them every Friday evening at a religious service, where he sings and plays guitar. He gets along well with the Jewish chaplain (a woman). He learned a lot of beautiful Jewish music, he reports. In addition, he found a gay friend with whom he walks on the court yard (whenever permitted to be outside) and talk. Apparently this fellow‘s life is almost an exact parallel, even to the nature of the crime of which they were convicted. Jon (who is straight) and his friend (who is gay) walk the inner circle, to avoid the inmates who noisily walk the outer circle. Lastly, Jon also has good connections with a psychologist for whom he can tearfully pour out a soul filled with grief and misery. [I just learned from Kay that, sadly, the psychologist came to Jon yesterday and reported that she must take six weeks off (furlough) because of the lack of funds for the mental health services.]

Religious convictions:

In a recent letter to me, Jon said (following comments about the unfairness of California “justice”): “I’ve lost pretty much all faith in pretty much all the things I grew up celebrating: God, church, the American Dream, etc.” Indeed, it is clear that Jon’s faith is at what to us might seem like an extremely low ebb. What he is looking for is not theological certainties but ways of finding out who he is and how to learn to confront his predicament in constructive ways. Introspection is high on his agenda, and understandably so. One book that helped him immensely is Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person. This book describes categories of people, one of which fits him to a T: a person who needs time to be alone, who finds it hard to say no for fear of rejecting the person who makes the request, and the like. I must say, the description that fits Jon fits me as well.

Jon has recently begun to pay attention to his dreams. At night he frequently dreams that he is back in a classroom with happy children. Then he wakes up and the dreadful reality of incarceration overwhelms him. Just as we sometimes wake up from a nightmare to face a happier world, his dreams do just the reverse.

I shared with Jon my own religious struggles and growing doubts about the dogmatics of our Reformed theological and philosophical tradition. I believe that doing so helped Jon realize that, as far as reviewing former certainty is concerned, he is not alone.

The future:

During the last hour of the visit we discussed future possibilities. At one time Jon was working on a Ph.D. under the supervision of Danie Strauss at Bloemfontein. He wants to pick it up again, although he admits that what he would write would no longer include a required Christian perspective. Naturally I encouraged him to pursue the matter. Currently Jon is fascinated by the metaphor of “whole body knowing” as discussed by Mark Johnson (The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning). Jon is also keenly interested in George Lakoff’s work (Metaphors We Live By). I could relate to these interests, as Henk Hart and I discussed the meaning and role of metaphors on earlier occasions. Jon is thinking that these themes would provide excellent stuff for a dissertation. Whether Danie would supervise is, of course, an open question. But Jon has been in contact with Roy Clouser, who offered to be a reader for him. I asked Jon to continue as a “discussion partner” with me and with others. He is eager to do so.

As you know, Jon is a multi-talented individual. Especially his gift for writing is exceptional. Since he loves metaphor, fable and fantasy literature, I encouraged him to write, possibly about prison life, in order that others might benefit from his insights and experiences. I suggested that he not write academic or scientific essays, but cast his story in the form of allegory or fictional narrative, to make his points. My son-in-law Benjamin Groenewold has the same interests, and commonly inserted poetry, narrative and fable into the academic papers he submitted to his ICS professors. I hope that Benjamin and Jon can get in touch and share some of these interests. We agreed to follow up.

Concluding remarks:

In spite of the many positives, I found the visit to be a depressing experience. As suggested, the California prison system is totally derailed and on the skids, if you can picture that metaphor. The state spends more money on prisons than on education! The union of guards constitutes a powerful lobby bent on keeping things the way they are. Whatever now counts as “rehabilitation” will have only one guaranteed outcome: more violence.

Justice must be done, of course. What’s wrong with the current system is that justice has been separated from fairness and become closely linked to inhumane treatment instead. Jon’s crimes do not deserve 28 years of hell. The judge threw the book at him at a time when “being tough on crime” was in and the “three strikes” philosophy was popular. To see Jon suffer from a huge miscarriage of justice is very difficult to bear, and prompts moments of blazing, righteous—and helpless—anger.

Join whatever movement towards prison reform you can find.

Remember to pray for those in prison.

John Van Dyk
October 7, 2009

© 2009 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved.
Permission granted by Dr. Van Dyk for this report.