The Men Of China Hill

One doesn’t usually see hills within prison walls.  Prisons are customarily built upon flat ground. This allows the surrounding gun towers to have a clear, steady line of sight upon the perimeter, ensuring a clear shot towards any desperate convicts who might choose to make a break for the wall.  Folsom Prison, unique in so many ways, is perhaps the only prison in America to have a hill within its walls.  Called China Hill, it sits nestled within the Western bend of Folsom’s granite walls, peering down upon the compound below.

Rumor has it that China Hill was named after the migrant workers who helped build Folsom Prison.  They quarried the granite stones into the one-ton blocks that eventually became the formidable, 30-foot wall that would envelop the notorious prison for the criminally insane.  In the late 1920‘s, once the work of quarrying was completed and the wall erected, China Hill became the only open land within the walls of Folsom.

Historically, food grown for an inmate population was either tilled on land outside the prison, where low-security inmates could be used for labor, or purchased from local growers.  China Hill presented a unique opportunity to the prisoners of Folsom.  Because it was located within the perimeter, the high security prisoners, accustomed to labor in confined areas, could be used to grow fruits and vegetables in order to supplement the meals in the chow hall.

The hill was terraced and fruit trees were planted.  Depending upon how one chooses to define employment, inmates were hired or forced to till the soil and grow squash, peppers, tomatoes, peas, corn, lettuce, pumpkins, and beans.   It was a win-win situation for the prison authorities: cheap labor with subsequently cheap food, and happy inmates who had the opportunity to perform fruitful labor outside their 40 square foot cells.  This mutually beneficial arrangement remained in place for many decades.

By the time I got to Folsom Prison in 2007, there were no longer any fruit trees on China Hill, and it was covered with the knee-high grass typical of the Sierra Nevada foothills.  The stories as to why inmate agriculture on China Hill was shut down vary and they depend upon the people telling the story.

According to inmates, there was an incident that happened on China Hill in the late 1990’s.  A dispute between two drunk convicts eventually led one to kill the other with a shovel, and the man who perished bled beneath the shade of one of the hill’s many fruit trees.  The guard in the gun tower adjacent to China Hill said that he may have been able to stop the incident, or, at the very least, get medical attention to the victim, were he able to see what was going on.  Instead, the incident went unnoticed by the gunner, thanks, in part, to the restricted view through the trees.  As a result, the trees were cut down.  Some inmates think the trees were cut down simply because prison officials were tired of the convicts making pruno, prison wine, and the best way to stop that was to remove their unregulated access to fruit.

Undoubtedly, these stories have an element of truth in them, though they do not explain why inmates weren’t allowed to continue growing low-lying vegetables like squash and beans.  My guess, if I were to make one, is that China Hill could no longer support the increasing prison population, and, simultaneously, it became cheaper to purchase food from the industrial food market.  All of these circumstances combined and resulted in the closure of China Hill to prison agriculture.  This doesn’t mean, however, that China Hill ceased to produce food.

My first job at Folsom Prison was as a landscaper, and I was assigned to the unit atop China Hill.  There were about twenty of us up there and our job pretty much entailed weed-whacking.  China Hill was covered with grass and weeds and it was our assignment to make sure that it didn’t get out of control, i.e. tall.  Our work day was a bit longer than 6 hours, yet we were only expected to work for two or three of them.  For the remainder of the day, the guard, who was our supervisor, would let us do whatever we wanted.  And that included gardening.

Technically, we weren’t allowed to garden, but that didn’t stop us from doing it.  The unspoken agreement between the guard and the inmates was that we would keep China Hill from becoming a jungle and he would pretend that he didn’t see any of our vegetables growing there.  It was fine enough motivation to keep the guys working.

The vegetables we grew were few, and none of them made their way into the chow hall’s meals.  We had squash, chile peppers, bell peppers, watermelon, green onions, and tomatoes.  China Hill was divided up into sectors, just like the prison yard.  Black guys had the land in one spot, the Southsiders in another, the white boys near the Southsiders, and the Others near the Blacks.  It sounds very divisive and, in a way, it was, but at the same time it was peaceful.

If the Blacks didn’t have squash seeds, they could trade with the whites for them.  If the Southsiders wanted to eat some peppers with their burritos, they could trade a watermelon to the others.  Food on China Hill, just as throughout the entire prison system, was the currency of trade.  It just so happened that our food was good, it was fresh, and we grew it.  Top Ramen may have purchased myself a cigarette in the cellblock, but it wouldn’t get me a pepper on China Hill.

The guys on the yard would get jealous when we’d tell them how we’d eaten watermelon that day.  Many of the men we lived with hadn’t tasted a watermelon, a bell pepper, or a squash in decades.  We, the men of China Hill, knew that we had something special, but there was no way it could be shared with the rest of Folsom’s population.  Any food we grew was strictly prohibited from leaving China Hill and we were stripped naked on the way back to the cellblock in order to ensure that it remained that way.  Bend, squat, cough.

There was another aspect of working on China Hill that wasn’t usually shared with the fellas on the yard, which nonetheless made it one of the best jobs in Folsom Prison.  It was the peace.  It was the potential for solitude.  It was the lack of noise.  It was the feeling of belonging to the Earth, and having a small part of it belong to me, to us.

My plot was about a 30 foot by 30 foot square and I had dug small irrigation trenches all about it to make watering easy.  When I would get to the hill in the morning,  I would turn the water on at the spigot and let it fill the trenches slowly while I went off to work.  When I was finished a few hours later, I would bring my lunch down to my plot, sit on the bare earth, and watch the plants grow.  I’d watch the bees go from one orange, squash blossom to another, and I’d watch hornets pick up little balls of mud from the edges of the trenches and carry them off to their homes.  I’d pinch any dead leaves off my plants and place my watermelons and squash on beds of rocks to keep them from getting rotten on their undersides.

And I would just sit.  From the bare patch of dirt in my garden, I could look over the wall to the south and see the free world outside.  I could look over the electrified fence on the northern perimeter and see the river and the granite cliffs it had carved out over many millennia.  I could feel the wind and place my hands in the mud.  From China Hill I could see the horizon, something very few prisoner ever get to see.  These were moments of peace.  My time with the vegetables was also the only time I had to myself because once I left China Hill for the day I had to reenter the world below me.  I had to return to the cacophony that was the cellblock, the yard, and the restrictive space that was my cell.

One day, an announcement was made to the men of China Hill.  The gate that we normally passed through in order to get to and from work was going to be undergoing construction and we’d be forced to use a different one.  Initially, this didn’t seem like a big deal, but it became a big deal once we started to use the detour gate.

They stopped strip searching us at the new gate.  We just received a pat down.   That’s it.  Because of the wide-open nature of the temporary gate, the guards were unable to strip us out of our clothes before letting us back into the cellblocks.  Imagine our excitement.

Suddenly, bell peppers started making their way into the cuisines being cooked in Folsom’s cells.  Fresh jalapenos were included in homemade burritos.  Lifers had a watermelon for the first time in decades and, for many of them, the last time in their lives.  My cellee and I watched “Prison Break” on t.v. and munched on fresh peas.  One cell even had a small pumpkin in it, sitting atop the bookshelf, perhaps reminiscent of the occupant’s fall decorations back home.

We were never able to smuggle enough vegetables for entire meals.  We smuggled in morsels. We smuggled in happiness.  We smuggled in the momentary taste of freshness.  We smuggled in the rekindling of long-lost memories…taste-memories, memories of freedom, memories of the last time somebody had eaten this vegetable or that.  We smuggled in something worth sharing.

The vegetable smuggling lasted for maybe one or two months.  I was transferred to a different job in the welding shop shortly before the newly constructed gate was completed, at which point the strip searching resumed.  But for those few months, the men of China Hill brought the farmer’s market down to the cellblock.  I bet there’s still a few men in Folsom Prison today who joyfully recall the last time they ate a watermelon.  They ate it in their cell and, for that moment, they were free again.

Note: An adaption of “The Men of China Hill” is also available as part of the “Life Inside” series, a collaboration between VICE and The Marshall project. That piece can be found at Vice.com and TheMarshallProject.org.

18 thoughts on “The Men Of China Hill

  1. It is easy to judge harshly and dismiss those who now spend their days behind walls.
    Strip away the offense and bravado of the actor and we are left with tragedy of a wasted human life.

    1. Not all of the life in prison is wasted, though it may seem that way to those outside the walls. To the outside world, we seem to just disappear, yet, on the inside, life continues on, however unusual it may be.

  2. This story is so special, Matt, because it is so thoughtfully written from your heart – it always brings tears to my eyes. Love, Mom

  3. I truly hope you continue writing. Your style is so real and lets me see what you saw. My son is still in prison after 16 years and your little insights lets me see what he won’t tell me. Makes me more determined to fight for him and others through prison reform. Thank you.

    1. I’m glad my writing is providing that for you. It is providing it for me as well. Sometimes I don’t make sense of what’s happened until I start putting it on paper.

  4. Great story. I can’t imagine what it would be like living on the inside. Are any of the inmates training service dogs?

  5. Enjoyed your writing a lot Matt. The way you describe the ability to see rampant land and the horizon outside the walls from your vantage perch is beautiful. Those moments of feeling free and priceless and we need those moments every where. – Rama

    1. I had a cellmate once that had been down so long (more than 30 years) that he wondered if he would experience what he called “horizon sickness” if was ever set free. He couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to look so far into the distance.

      1. Amazing writing my friend. You have a gift!!! You give a glimpse into life in prison that is rarely heard about

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