Historic Assembly Hearing on the Use of Solitary Confinement in CA's Secure Housing Units (SHU)
Denise, Marilyn Anna, and I, with Harriett at the wheel, left West Oakland BART in the second carpool wave for Sacramento Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 9:30 AM to attend a pre-rally for the historic California Assembly Hearing on Solitary Confinement. Linda Evans was hosting the program when we arrived that muggy warm morning just in time to hear State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, chair of the Public Safety Committee of the California State Assembly, speak about the reason for a hearing to discuss the conditions in California’s Secure Housing Units (SHU). He said the legislators were all very curious. “This is an issue that gives Assembly people pause, (as) it is so politicized, but we have been able to tap into that compassionate part of people. They know that something needs to be done. They don’t necessarily want to be the ones who do it, but we will make sure that it happens.”
This legislative curiosity theme was affirmed by many All of Us or None members who’d lobbied legislators earlier that morning (the 7:30 AM BART carpool shift). One friend, Brother Fred Abdullah spoke of how clueless and uninformed about the situation most if not all of the four politicians he met with that morning were. Later on, the two rows directly in front of the panelists were filled with unidentified men and women, all members of the California legislative team or CDCR staff. I watched their shifting body language—arms folded across chests, legs crossed—boredom was not evident even in the face of such physical indicators of denial.
The State Capitol, Room 4202 was full from the balcony to the main floor—it was good the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation panel (CDCR) presented last. They would have been laughed out the room—their presentation so absent of any real data, especially when it came to the sentencing standards for prisoners sent to security controlled housing units or SHU. From the first panel with a former SHU inmate, Earl Fears, SOULJAHs, The Movement; a family member of an inmate at Pelican Bay, Glenda Rojas, and an articulate clergyman, Rev. William McGarvey, Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture, to the panel of experts presenting research perspectives on SHU, the lobbyists against SHU confinement presented irrefutable arguments. I called them the A-Team.
Fears eloquently shared horror stories of his incarceration at Corcoran SHU. There is prison and then there is prison, the SHU its own island within a horrific system of confinement. He said that any time grown men, hard and tough men would break down and cry, the terror had to be real. Rev. McGarvey gave a history of the introduction of solitary confinement, a Quaker practice, into corrections, a practice later suspended for 20 years because of its potential for abuse, then reinstituted. McGarvey echoed Fears examples that spoke to the brutality of California’s penal system, and spoke of the time when prisoners began to be given human rights. There was a lot of history about Pelican Bay, its construction and CDC’s hopes based on a new model addressing gang activity called the Security Threat Group Identification and Management Policy or STG. Certification, Debriefing, Observation, Risk Assessment, Security Threat Group (STG), Security Threat Group (STG) Member, Security Threat Group (STG) Suspected Member, Sensitive Needs Yard, Threat Assessment, Validation, heinous and contested policies can all be traced to the 2007 adoption of The Security Threat Group Identification and Management Policy which supposedly “incorporates national standards and approaches to the handling of security threat group (STG) members housed in California’s adult institutions” (CDCR Policy Statement).
The second panel shifted the narrative to an analysis of CDCR policy of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation with opening comments by Charles Carbone, J.D., Prisoner Rights Attorney. Carbone spoke about the whole gang culture paranoia which seems to define CDCR policies especially at Pelican Bay. He showed how having the high maintenance population in the SHU didn’t decrease crime or make the prison any safer. In fact, the opposite was true. The fact that these men were willing to sacrifice their lives for an opportunity to break the silence and expose the conditions of their confinement, sentences not based on a verdict by a jury of their peers, rather on the word of a bureaucrat at Pelican Bay on the word of someone forced to debrief or snitch for favors--was duly noted by the Legislative Committee members and chair.
Former SHU inmates speaking at the rally earlier that morning shared how they were recovering from solitary confinement, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychoses associated with such treatment, how they needed continual psychiatric help post-SHU, how the SHU permanently affected their ability to function in society.
Laura Magnani, Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee shared a report, “Buried Alive: Long-Term Isolation in California's Youth and Adult Prisons,” which she authored, that addressed the confinement of women and how solitary confinement stretches an already precarious and potentially sexually exploitative situation for women in isolation. She also defined torture and gave numerous statutes that pertained to human dignity and human rights. Dr. Terry Kupers, M.D., M.S.P., the Wright Institute and Craig Handy, Professor of Psychology at UC Santa Cruz, talked about the effects of long term confinement on inmates. All panelists gave concrete and useful suggestions to the Public Safety Committee, Assemblymembers: Holly J. Mitchell, Nancy Skinner, Curt Hagman, and Vice Chair, Steve Knight present, with two absences, Jerry Hill and Gilbert Cedillo, on how to make Pelican Bay into an environment that promoted rehabilitation. It got kind of testy at times, especially when CDCR presented. One could see where the assembly’s sentiments lay.
SHU inmates cannot have colored pencils or hobby crafts, photos or contact visits. One woman spoke of how her niece would like a photo of her dad. Mothers spoke of the prison’s refusal to allow their visits. One mother hasn’t seen her son in six years. Another mother said her grandson hasn’t seen his father since he was two, he is now thirteen. One man cried as he recalled the torture he was subjected to in the SHU. Holding his daughter he spoke of the arbitrary nature of the abuse which for him continued when he was released in the form of police harassment. Willie Sundiata Tate raised the name of Hugo “Yogi Bear” Pinell, who is the only member of the San Quentin 6 still behind bars and the longest held prisoner in the SHU, 30+ years, since 1969 (the trial ended in 1970). Kernan said earlier the longest anyone is held in the SHU was 6-8 years, rather than indeterminate sentencing. At his last parole hearing January 2011, Pinell was denied and told to return in 15 years. This was rescinded and amended to two years. Visit http://www.hugopinell.org/
Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of LSPC and All of Us or None, spoke of his first visit to Pelican Bay. Tuesday, August 23, was his wedding anniversary and he’d planned to go to the cemetery and reflect. He told the story of JT, who has been in the SHU since 1988. The man is losing his color despite melanin magic (smile). JT has been eligible for parole for 35 years. It’s these men, the leaders, who are targeted by administration, the ones who write the 602s, prepare writs and call into account their captors.
The final panel of two was CDCR. Of the five demands, none were addressed. It would have been so easy to say—SHU inmates can have photos taken for family members; SHU inmates will be allowed access to an open yard where they can see the sky—that the debriefing or snitching prereq for release is eliminated. Not a chance. None of the demands were met, articulated or addressed by CDC reps.: Scott Kernan, Undersecretary of Operations or Anthony Chaus, Chief of Correctional Safety.
That the head of CDCR, Secretary Matthew Cade could not appear at this important and unprecedented hearing was a further slap in the face of this process and an indictment as to how far Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and other elected officials will have to go to address this injustice.(http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/About_CDCR/Executive_Staff.html). Kernan’s response to the excellent testimony by people affected personally by the solitary confinement along with scholars and researchers trumped any potential salient comebacks or logical retorts—the man literally fell apart on the stand, at times stuttering; he was so ridiculous especially when asked by Ms. Mitchell to explain the arbitrary and unconstitutional process called: debriefing or snitching. What came out was that CDCR operates its own court system, outside California’s legal judicial system, sentencing and prosecuting inmates without due process —CDCR operates its own court and does as it pleases. There were several comments by Assemblymembers Mitchell and Skinner regarding the appeal process when one is said to be a “gang” member and sent to the SHU. When asked about this anonymous process where the convicted person has no opportunity to address or refute the accuser or the alleged accusation, Kernan admitted when questioned that nothing is going to change, if at all, anytime soon. I wondered at the futility of the entire legislative hearing process and could certainly see a reinstatement of the fast. Prisoners were waiting to see what CDCR meant by negotiations—absolutely nothing! Attendees seemed elated, but CDCR admitted to no wrong doing and to no concrete action. What one sees is how powerful, arrogant and out of control CDCR is. What does one do with a mad dog department? Dismantle it before it does more harm. I wonder if Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s Committee could force Gov. Brown to fire everyone starting with Cade and Kernan?
Again, it was the uninterrupted procession of voices from the audience: children, parents, friends and advocates that eloquently closed the day. One woman spoke of how CDCR denied her brother from donating his kidney to his sister, a match. The sister subsequently died. In the SHU for 19 years, this same inmate's mother has dementia from stress. He was put in the SHU for sending his family literature. Another woman talked about a point system which when tallied results in a SHU sentence. A point includes banned literature.
One terminally ill prisoner was promised a phone call and then at the last minute stipulations were given that he had to debrief first. A daughter wants a photo of her dad in the SHU; she was three when he went in. Initially, he was on the mainline; now the family has to drive 14 hours for a 1 1/2 hour visit on the weekends, Saturday and Sunday. Two women, one an attorney, were able to share first hand stories and relay messages from the men, whom they’d seen just a week ago. One of the requests was for better more nutritious food from vendors, tapes for mental health, proctors for educational exams, and a larger property allowance—now the men can only have one shoebox full of personal belongings.
Dr.Kupers, an authority on the mental health affects of solitary confinement, spoke about the supermax prison phenomena born in the 1980s which gave birth to 21 Pelican Bays between the late 1980-1990s—as a failed experiment. So under the radar was this new type of prison that in 1989 when Pelican Bay opened equipped with 1,056 cells “explicitly designed to keep California’s allegedly worse of the worse prisoners in long-term solitary confinement –8 X 10 foot cells made of smooth, poured concrete, no windows just 24-hour fluorescent light, food delivered through a slot in the door,” legislators weren’t aware until they received letters and legal complaints in the early ‘90s . I remember a 60 Minutes episode that showed a mentally ill prisoner, Vaughn Dortch who’d smeared feces all over himself dragged by guards from his cell and thrown into a tub of scalding water. His burns were so severe the guards jokingly called him a “white boy” (From Keramet Reiter, Ph.D. candidate, “A Brief History of Pelican Bay”).
The psychiatrist gave examples of prison programs that reduce violence such as one in Mississippi where officials reduced cells from 1000 to 200 in their SHU populations. “Ohio did the same thing, with similar results. In Indiana and Mexico prisoners are sentenced at most to six months and then given options to leave—programs that integrate them successfully back into society—prison society. This in itself is strange—acclimate someone to captivity—sounds like a wild animal at a zoo or in a circus (which is why I am not going to anymore circuses).
Suicide for people in the SHU is twice as high. An example was given of a man who asphyxiated recently on toilet tissue. “Despair breeds suicide,” Dr. Kupers said. “Dead time. The SHU is adding to an increase in violence. People leave the SHU (maladjusted, perhaps angry) and go back into general population—there is a lot of violence at Pelican Bay – one could get killed on the yard. These policies can be traced to the war on drugs or the Reagan-Clinton era war on black people and the increased prison population then up to the current trend that looks less at rehabilitation and more at punishment (Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow). I don’t recall the panelists bringing up the ever privatization of the prison system either, which I think is unregulated.
Assemblywoman Skinner asked about the human cost of prisoners locked in the SHU and the monetary costs compared to execution. With an average of about $49,000 a year, Ms. Magnani stated that the SHU is a higher end prisoner ($56,000).
With the A-Team already leading the charge into overtime the further public comments included: a school teacher representing 1100 teachers and counselors in the Pejaro area of California offered their support. A family member spoke of Brian, who was on the hunger strike—he has been in the SHU for ten years, incarcerated at 25, now 38; a woman spoke of her husbands 22 years in the SHU; James Harris, a social worker said the SHU was an attack on the working class and terrorism; Gale Brown, a part of Life Support Alliance has a brother in the SHU for 25 years. He is 65 years old. She asked: “How does the ‘R’ play out in CDCR?” A former battered woman spoke of her brother in the SHU for ten years now. Many people read letters into the record for SHU inmates like the prisoner whose first time in the SHU was in 1970, for 4 years and then again 1989 to now. He asked for better vendors so they have healthier choices. He hasn’t been able to have visits since then either. He asked for more than one box for belongings, to be able to send a photo to family at least once and year and to be able to have family photos. He also asked for mental health videos. Someone mentioned “The Lucifer Effect,” I found out later was a book. The next woman has two brothers in the SHU; still another woman, a third year law student said her brother was debriefed for having a book by George Jackson. The policy director of for mental health for the Probation Department in Alameda County spoke as well as Carol Stickman, Staff Attorney for LSPC and Carol Shane, policy director for LSPC. Mothers spoke about their children who are languishing in the SHU. One mother has been denied and denied and denied visiting rights and still another mother didn’t know what the SHU meant and now that she does, she is terrified for her son who is being moved there soon. Jack Bryson spoke of Kevin Cooper, on death row, whom he has been visiting for many years. Cooper who hasn’t seen the sun or stars for 24 years paints them. One woman said she was afraid to say her brother’s name. Her mom died and she hasn’t seen her brother’s face in 14 years. Her brother had been in the SHU for 19 years. Marilyn Smith from All of Us or None said, “We are dying.” Ann, an attorney spoke about the pipeline between validated school age children and adult prisoners. “SHU residents are the leaders inside,” Valerie stated about her 20 year old son whose father is in the SHU. The ANSWER Coalition was in the room, on the mic, as were people from Critical Resistance like Jay who just returned from Uganda and Rwanda. The issue of trans-people was raised, a population that is especially vulnerable. Ammiano mentioned a bill related to this issue that had been vetoed that he was looking to reintroduce. Marilyn McMann from CA Prison Focus suggested we look at the issue of “profit vs. people” and that we should take our concerns to the UN.” The prison system yield annually $180 million dollars, she stated. This is the real threat to public safety.
I wished I’d been able to get over to the Crocker Museum to unwind, reflect and process the experience—as it is, I sat in a TJ parking lot, writing under a street lamp, my car light shorted out.
The CDC tacks on the R—when the idea of rehabilitation in an environment structured to inspire fear is ridiculous. The questions Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell raised about the arbitrary nature of CDCR policies as relates to SHU inmates were on point and showed how out of control this California department is. At the rally when I spoke to the Assemblyman he said he was determined to host other such conversations, like one already on the death penalty. He said, he didn’t think there were two sides and that he wanted to shine some light on the subject and get people to start discussing this issue and coming up with remedies that (legislators) could push forward. He said he didn’t “want to be stonewalled too much—I understand things move a little slowly but I don’t want to be put off, so I plan to have other hearings, report back hearings (addressing) any commitment to change from the CDCR. We are looking at this (Hearing) as the very first step.”
Ammiano legislative policy supporters Skinner and Mitchell and Hagman gave strong comments and asked tough questions of Scott Kernan. We hope this hearing touched as the Chair said, the compassionate side of people in the room with the hope that change is not up to CDCR (smile). We also hope the next hearing is at Pelican Bay in Crescent City.
To stay abreast of Pelican Bay news check out: http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com and also check out several special shows on Wanda's Picks radio featuring Dorsey Nunn along with a mother, Dolores Canales whose son is in the SHU, Elder Freeman, Manuel La Fontaine, Linda Evans and Deirdre Wilson. Linda was the emcee at the rally August 23. Another recent interview is with LSPC attorney Carol Strickman: www.wandaspicks.asmnetwork.org
Wednesday morning, 6:30-8:30 AM will be a broadcast of the public comment portion of the Hearings on Wanda's Picks Radio.