Here you can search for articles that have been published in our newsletter. Our newsletter is primarily written by and for prisoners, their friends, and families. You can receive a paper copy at your home (or send one to your relative or friend in prison). We request a donation of $20 or more for four issues to help cover editing, printing, and mailing costs.
Please visit our archive if you would like to download pdf versions of our past issues.
Click on an article's title to see the full text.
Oct 24, 2016
keywords: Security/Welfare Checks, Sleep Deprivation
From Prison Focus Issue 50
Guards have been jarringly waking prisoners in solitary confinement every thirty minutes in the name of “security/welfare checks since May 18, 2014 in Central California Women's Facility and in Pelican Bay SHU since August 2, 2015. The practice has now spread throughout all CA prisons' solitary confinement units. Loudly disturbing and waking people every thirty minutes is serious, ongoing sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation is a form of torture. These “security/welfare checks,” purported to be for 'suicide prevention,' are being used as a blanket practice, whether prisoners are suicidal or not, and despite the fact that denial of sleep is devastating for the human mind and body.
Our Committee to End Sleep Deprivation has received a flood of letters from people enduring these checks in California's SHU's, Ad Seg, and Psychiatric Units, explaining their suffering and trauma. Since late Aug, 2015, our grassroots campaign, legal action by prisoners and the Ashker legal team, and an official Complaint submitted to the UN have attempted to halt the checks. CDCr, claiming authorization from the federal lawsuit Coleman v. Brown decision which is supposed to address inadequate mental health treatment for seriously mentally ill CA prisoners, has ignored prisoners' individual and group complaints and has done nothing to ameliorate the mental and physical problems resulting from or exacerbated by the sleep deprivation.
We believe Lindsay Hayes, the suicide expert, and Matthew Lopes, the Special Master charged with overseeing prison reform and compliance concerning care of seriously mentally ill inmates under Coleman, could stop these "security/ welfare checks," but they have ignored the hundreds of letters our committee has generated from prisoners, mental health experts, and concerned individuals protesting that the checks cause sleep deprivation torture.
If you are suffering from “security/welfare checks,” please write Lindsay Hayes. Explain how the checks are affecting you and what you think true mental health and suicide prevention would entail. If you experienced the checks and are now out of solitary, please send a letter about how they affected you.
Either send a copy of your letter to all three of the below addresses or, if it's easier, send one letter to the PHSS Committee and we will forward it to the suicide expert (Hayes) and the Special Master (Lopes).
We understand that if you are sleep deprived, it is difficult to focus and write.
Hayes and Lopes have received many letters since we directed people to contact them. We also have forwarded many of the letters to Coleman Attorney Michael Bien who should be protecting prisoners from this harmful practice rather than supporting it.
The Committee has also recently contacted federal Receiver J. Clark Kelso, responsible for bringing medical care in California prisons to a standard which no longer violates the U.S. Constitution (Plata v. Brown), about the medical affects of the checks. Keeping someone awake 24 hours a day, or jarring them 40-48 times a day with loud metal on metal noises, stomping, beepers, and flashlights in their face not only torments the mind, but has severe adverse effects on the body. Disrupted sleep, or sleep deprivation, causes and increases the risk of serious, even fatal, illnesses. Many prisoners tell us that when they see prison medical or psychiatric staff about the effects of the checks, they are told “ You really need some sleep.” These “security/welfare checks” serve no welfare or security purpose; they're only causing serious psychological and physical harm. They need to stop. Sleep deprivation is a debilitating, internationally-condemned torture technique.
Organizations and individuals not in prison, please write Lindsay Hayes who claims these “checks” are suicide prevention, and urge him to stop the checks. Share with him the voices of the people suffering from them. Find instructions, sample letters, quotes from prisoners suffering the checks, articles, expert reports, and more @ https://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com under the “Sleep Deprivation” tab. If you have professional or personal experience with mental health issues, medical healthcare, suicide prevention, counseling, sleep disorders, or surviving torture and trauma, please share your specialized understandings of the necessity of sleep and the effects of sleep disruption/deprivation.
Find quotes from prisoners suffering the checks at http://tinyurl.com/zc3qbn6 and The American Public Health Association's letter opposing the checks at http://wp.me/P1BB1k-27L.
If you are able, please send your letter to all three of the following addresses:
Mr. Lindsay M. Hayes
40 Lantern Lane
Mansfield, MA 02048
Matthew A. Lopes Jr.
Pannone Lopes Devereaux & West LLC
317 Iron Horse Way, Suite 301
Providence, RI 02908
PHSS Committee to End Sleep Deprivation
P.O. Box 5692
Eureka, CA 95502
We will work to end the sleep deprivation torture until the “security/welfare checks” stop. For more info, contact us at 510.426.5322, email@example.com, or our mailing address above.
Oct 19, 2016
From Issue 49
August 6, 2016: Vermont Supreme Court dismisses case against inmate accused of illegally practicing law without a license – Acknowledging the vital role of jailhouse lawyers nationwide.
In a unanimous decision, the Vermont Supreme Court has dismissed the State’s information against Serendipity Morales, an inmate at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Center, which alleged that Morales engaged in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) by helping fellow inmates in their cases, including performing legal research and drafting motions.
The allegations were: 1) the inmates had heard Morales was familiar with the legal process, 2) the inmates asked Morales for assistance in reviewing and preparing various legal filings on their behalf, 3) Morales assisted each of them, including drafting handwritten motions which the respective inmates reviewed and signed, and 4) Morales did not request or accept any payment for these services.
The high court ultimately found these facts alleged by the State – whether or not they were true – did not meet the elements of the crime of UPL.
Justice Beth Robinson, writing for the court, aptly addressed the fundamental legal question of the case “concerning the scope of the offense of UPL, particularly as it relates to the rights of prison inmates to access the justice system.”
The court acted upon its duty to meaningfully examine the state’s interest in prohibiting non-lawyer assistance, and in so doing considered the applicability of the prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law to the activities of a jailhouse lawyer.
In this, the court noted its decision was guided on two particular factors – first, that jailhouse lawyers are a “well-established fixture in the justice system” and second, that “incarcerated inmates face particular challenges in accessing legal advice, and those challenges raise serious public policy, and in some circumstances, constitutional concerns.”
Prohibition of UPL exists to protect the public from unqualified and incompetent practitioners. Advocates also promote the prohibition of UPL with the concern that unprofessional filings would pollute the courts and lessen the integrity of the justice system. Prisoners are no longer eligible to a state-appointed attorney post-conviction (unless on death row), and most cannot afford to hire a “street” lawyer. A system that restricts a chance at justice to only those who can afford a private attorney surely hurts the integrity of the so-called justice system far more.
While there exist inherent risks of entrusting one’s liberty in another who is not licensed to practice law, for many, it would be their only avenue to the courts. The prisoner’s right of access to the court trumps the UPL public protection rules that were enacted and better fit for the outside. The laws governing those on the inside ought to be tailored to serve those individuals. Prison populations are notoriously largely poverty-stricken and undereducated and therefore individuals often cannot afford an outside attorney and/or do not have the reading and writing skills necessary to fight their case on their own. Such ‘well-meaning’ laws initially enacted to protect individuals from incompetent representation would ironically inhibit them from accessing the justice system altogether. UPL rules must not further discriminate indigent and illiterate prisoners.
The court was not without warning, emphasizing that if a litigation attempt is unsuccessful, the prisoner could be left worse off than if the jailhouse lawyer had done nothing .
Prisoners receive help from jailhouse lawyers where they are not entitled to an appointed attorney, mostly for petitions for a writ of habeas corpus and civil lawsuits regarding inhumane or improper prison conditions. The procedure and standard for filing appeals and writs are incredibly complex, even for experienced licensed post-conviction attorneys. These intricate rules hinder prisoners’ and jailhouse lawyers’ ability to be successful in such filings. Petitions can be dismissed by the court for a technical reason such as an “untimely” filing or for failure to properly articulate their claim. If an inmate discovers a different or better claim after their initial filing, the court may not allow it to be presented later.
If the reviewing court believes there is merit to a petition, it may appoint an attorney to represent the inmate in conducting the hearing or with further briefing. However, this occurs only once the petition is filed successfully and contains an argument persuasive enough to convince the court to do so, making strong legal research and persuasive writing skills all the more critical.
The Vermont Court stated it does not hold that an inmate may sign and file pleadings on behalf of another. Additionally, it did not determine whether selling legal services or receiving compensation for providing legal help is engaging in UPL. Nonetheless, it declared jailhouse lawyers play a vital role of upholding prisoners’ rights to access the courts; to prohibit such non-lawyer assistance would be unduly harmful to those individuals and raise gross constitutional concerns.
While this decision is not binding on courts in California and states outside of Vermont, the decision acts as persuasive authority that outside courts ought to consider. The decision establishes precedent to preserve the rights of prisoners (at least in Vermont) to provide and accept legal guidance inmate-to-inmate, under the conditions set forth, and it has raised public awareness of the rights and needs of the incarcerated.
NOTE: The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook published by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild. This Handbook explains how a prisoner can start a lawsuit in federal court, to fight against mistreatment and bad conditions in prison. Because most prisoners are in state prisons, the authors focus on those. However, people in federal prisons and city or county jails will be able to use the Handbook too. This is the fifth edition, revised and printed in 2010. To receive a hard copy, please write to:
National Lawyers Guild—Prison Law Project
132 Nassau Street, Rm 922
New York, NY 10038
Donations of $2 (or more) to help offset postage and shipping are greatly appreciated.●
Jul 01, 2015
From Prison Focus Issue 46
On April 30, shortly after the publication of our last issue (#45), the Office of Administrative Law approved amended censorship regulations proposed by the CDCr last year. The amendments, titled "Obscene Materials," are to California Code of Regulations, Title 15, sections 3006 and 3134.1. (All subsequent citations herein are to California Code of Regulations, Title 15.) Now in effect, the amendments are essentially indistinguishable from those initially proposed and published by the Department in April 2014, which drew sharp public criticism.
In response to the public criticism, the CDCr said that the public had misunderstood its intent and announced that it would be going back to the drawing board. Later, on October 20, 2014, the Department re-noticed the public on further changes. Despite talk of going back to the drawing board, the October revisions were minor and were limited to section 3134.1, subdivision (d), and section 3135, subdivision (c). (Section 3134.1, subdivision (d) was non-substantively revised to harmonize language with amendments that had been approved and adopted, on October 17, 2014, concerning "security threat groups." Otherwise, a few words were added to section 3134, subdivision (d) to provide minimal clarification of language initially proposed in April 2014.)
In initially justifying the changes, the CDCr repeatedly raised concerns about publications containing the "propaganda" of groups that are "oppositional to authority and society" and/or "deviant in nature." The Department claimed it necessary to disallow the publications of such groups, as well as publications indicating "association" with such groups, to ensure the safety and security of its institutions.
Many read this as a declaration of the CDCr's intent to ban rights-oriented periodicals that publish articles and letters by incarcerated persons, such as this publication, The Rock or the San Francisco BayView—all of which have been censored or withheld in the past.
EMPTY ASSURANCES FROM THE OFFICE OF ADMINISTRATIVE LAW
In a memo dated April 30, 2015, Mark Storm, Senior Attorney with the Office of Administrative Law, wrote that his agency's action in approving the amendments "eliminates disparity among institutions regarding processing and clarify [sic] existing statutes on obscene materials in institutions." A plain reading of the amended language, though, shows that said "disparity" is not eliminated and ample room is left for ambiguity and abuse.
Granted, pursuant to amended section 3134.1, subdivisions (d) and (e), ultimate authority to place text-only publications on the CDCr's Centralized List of Disapproved Publications rests with the Division of Adult Institutions. However, individual officers ranked Captain or higher may be granted authority to "disallow" correspondence at their personal discretion under (unamended) section 3135, subdivision (a). In addition, amended section 3134.1, subdivision (d), permits institutions to "temporarily" withhold individual issues of periodicals even if those periodicals do not appear on the Centralized List of publications.
Pursuant to section 3135, subsection (b), officers are not supposed to disallow mail due to "disagreement with the sender's or receiver's morals, values, attitudes, veracity, or choice of words." Yet, this is cold comfort given that qualified officers have free reign to disallow mail. This includes personal mail containing materials they consider obscene, and containing materials or photographs they think indicate "an association with validated STG [security threat group] members or associates." (See § 3135, subds. (c)(12) & (14); the latter paragraph which is newly added.)
Newly added section 3135, subdivision (c)(14) dangerously expands the reach of censorship rules because of loose regulations permitting a person's validation as a "security threat group affiliate," and the severe consequences that attach to being validated.
For readers unfamiliar with the term "security threat group" or STG, the CDCr defines it (in section 3000) exactly as it defines "gang." Both are so broadly and vaguely construed as to be applicable to most any "group of three or more people" that can be implicated—however insubstantially, tenuously or inconclusively—in "misconduct" of any type. (See § 3000.) By the same token, "Security Threat Group (STG) Behavior" is circularly defined as conduct "demonstrating a nexus with an STG." (See § 3000.)
As most of our readers are painfully aware, being validated as an STG affiliate is tantamount to a second sentence on top of the underlying (court-ordered) sentence one is already serving. Validation is determined by investigation and affirmative conclusion reached by the CDCr alone. There is no independent review of any kind, much less a judge or jury. Affiliation with a security threat group is based on association with a person, or persons, already or formerly validated; or, with a person not yet validated who later is. (See § 3378.2, subd. (b).) It requires no violent behavior or prohibited conduct of any kind.
Once validated, a person is sent to the SHU, without any further determination of violent or criminal behavior. Individuals are held in isolation on a prolonged or indefinite basis, spending up to twenty-four hours a day in tiny concrete-and-steel box. Such treatment constitutes torture according to internationally recognized standards, and moreover is an affront to commonly held notions of dignity and humanity.
Back to the topic of disallowed mail: As earlier stated, written materials and photographs are subject to being disallowed if they "indicate an association with validated STG members or associates." Practically speaking, this means possession or receipt of disallowed materials can be used to validate or re-validate a person as an STG affiliate. (See, e.g., § 3378.2, subds. (b)(5) & (6) (regarding written materials and photographs).) For example, if your uncle is validated and if you've written down his address next to his name on a scrap of paper, this may be used as a "source item" counting against you. As such, it may be combined with equally flimsy “evidence” to validate you as an affiliate, or to retain you in the SHU if you're already validated.
CENTRALIZED LIST OF DISAPPROVED PUBLICATIONS INCLUDES WINDOWS 7 FOR SENIORS FOR DUMMIES AND YOUR CHILD'S DEVELOPMENT FROM BIRTH TO ADOLESCENCE
The most recent Centralized List of Disapproved Publications of which this writer is aware is dated June 1, 2015. It is fourteen pages long. Conspicuously absent from the list are many political works that the CDCr has previously deemed "gang-related" and/or has used as "source material" supporting validation (e.g., The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; Soledad Brother by George Jackson). There is one possible exception here that this writer has noted: The World of Jack L. Morris, a book that apparently features poetry, artwork and writing of a man kept in Pelican Bay's SHU for some twenty-five-plus years.
The bulk of the items named on the list, such as Hustler or On Our Backs, are (or are plausibly named as) sexually explicit publications. The California Penal Code affords prisoners no right to read, purchase or receive "obscene" publications as defined by the Penal Code. Of course, Hustler and similar magazines are legal for sale to adults on the outside who enjoy their full First Amendment rights.
Other titles, although few that this writer has noticed, play into CDCr's interest in maintaining the "safety and security" of its prisons. One example is US Army Special Forces Guide to Unconventional Warfare: Devices and Techniques for Incendiaries. However, if the CDCr were truly concerned about safety and security, whether in its prisons or anywhere else, then it would do best to focus on promoting an atmosphere and culture in which people are treated with dignity and as humans, rather than focusing on censorship or even more coercive approaches.
The numerous other titles named on the June 1, 2015 Centralized List of Disapproved Publications include 500 Fairy Motifs, Basic Drawing, Thirty Something Magazine, Color for Painters: A Guide to Traditions; Complete Anatomy and Figure Drawing; Drawing and Illustrations; Drawing the Living Figure; Felon Fitness: How to Get a Hard Body Without Doing Hard Time; Life Drawing; Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People; The Big Book of Drawing; The Art of Faery; Windows 7 for Seniors for Dummies; Windows 8 Application and Development for Dummies; Window 8 Quick Step; Your Child's Development from Birth to Adolescence.
One might infer from these titles that the CDCr doesn't want those under in its control to be able to communicate their feelings or experiences through artistic pursuit, or to draw any peace from it. One might also infer that the CDCr doesn't want people who've been released after prolonged incarceration and privation to enter the world equipped with basic skills needed to operate the digital technology that permeates our lives; or, to be prepared for parenthood.
LACK OF NOTICE REGARDING DISALLOWED PUBLICATIONS
Pursuant to former and amended section 3134.1, subdivision (e), a centralized list of disapproved publications "shall" be distributed to each of the Department's institutions. How often such a list must be updated or distributed, and whether or not the list must be provided to all people in custody, is not stated. In any event, this writer was recently unable to locate a copy of any centralized list through the CDCr's website, and only obtained the copy discussed herein as the result of another person's public information request.
This presents an issue for those with family or loved ones inside: How can they know in advance whether or not any given publication (or any other material) that they may want to send in will be rejected? And, how can they know in advance if an item will be deemed obscene and/or used as the basis for disciplinary action against a loved one? The amended section 3134.1, subsection (d), only clarifies that "prisoner addressees" must be notified upon a publication being withheld—i.e., after they have wasted their money buying and shipping the publication.
In June and in November 2014, two vigorous public campaigns were mounted to oppose the censorship regulations now in effect. People on either side of the walls expressed their views in printed periodicals, via the internet and/or directly to the CDCr. During the two campaigns, a total of over five hundred comments were cumulatively submitted to the CDCr through one organization, Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Some percentage of all the comments received by the CDCr, which were overwhelmingly negative and included comments independently submitted by individuals and organizations, have since been "responded" to in digest by the Department. These are included in the Department's Final Statement of Reasons dated April 30 (available at http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Regulations/Adult_Operations/docs/NCDR/2014NCR/14-05/Adopted%20Regulations%20Effective%204%2030%202015.pdf; last visited August 4). A single concession won through the campaigns can be pointed to: The Final Statement of Reasons, in contrast to the 2014 Initial Statement of Reasons indirectly referenced in the third paragraph of this article, omits all references to "groups deviant in nature, opposed to authority and society."
Aug 20, 2015
keywords: Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement
From Prison Focus Issue 46
Here we are, after three extensive peaceful hunger strike protests by California prisoners, the last of which was the largest hunger strike in world history, involving over 30,000 people and lasting 60 days, strikers and their loved ones have met cold-hearted retaliation from California Department of Corrections. Yet people in solitary and their families and supporters continue to keep putting on the pressure, educating the public, and organizing to stop the brutal prison practice of solitary confinement. California keeps people in cages and concrete cells in extreme isolation for years, with no human contact, no natural light, no phone calls, and access only to horrible food and negligent to abusive ‘medical care.’
A new massive state and now nation-wide mobilization called Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement began on March 23, 2015 and will continue on the 23rd of each month.
Ever since the spring of 2011—when prisoners in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU) Short Corridor sent five human rights demands, in writing, to CDCr officials and sent those demands out to their families, human rights organizations, and anyone else who might listen—solidarity organizing on the outside has attempted to match the intensity, geographical span, and astute human rights work begun by the prisoners. During the three hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, people all over the world were inspired to act, outraged at the exposed realities of solitary confinement. The prisoners' courageous actions prompted worldwide media and United Nations attention, legislative hearings, proposed legislation, some CDCr changes, and national and international solidarity actions. Indeed, most media formerly refused to even acknowledge that California holds people in solitary confinement and has had individuals locked up for decades. Now, major media openly reports “The horror of solitary confinement—which often masquerades under names such as ‘prison segregation’ or “restricted housing”— remains clear today.” (Washington Post editorial, July 1, 2015).
However, the public at large seemed to lose momentum once the massive hunger strikes halted. While hunger strikers, in unconscionable living conditions, try to recover their health and restore their organs, damaged by refusing food for so long to get the world's attention, the public buzz about the horrors of solitary and the talk in classrooms and churches about the moral imperative to abolish solitary quieted down. People seem distracted from thinking about the thousands of people tortured in extreme isolation.
“We don’t want them to have to hunger strike again.”
Recently, in response to a proposal from people incarcerated in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU involved in the momentous 2011 and 2013 California Hunger Strikes, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) initiated Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement.
Statewide Coordinated Actions are re-focusing the spotlight on the torture of solitary confinement, from the grassroots, and revitalizing the general public’s attention to end it.
Since March 2015, community organizations, loved ones of people in solitary, and human rights advocates have been mobilizing monthly actions in cities across California, including Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Culver City, San Diego, Oakland, Arcata, San Francisco, Pasadena, San Jose, Manila, Pt. Reyes, and Santa Barbara, on the 23rd of each month.“Our outside supporters…across the state [are] publicly rallying on the 23rd of each month for the purpose of keeping the subject of our endless torture in public view, and thereby exposed to the world!!! The 23rd of each month is symbolic of our 23-plus hours per day in these tombs-of-the-living-dead-and it is hoped such rallies will spread across the nation!!!” (Todd Ashker, March 30, 2015)
Indeed, Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement are spreading across the nation. Organizations outside of California and outside of the United States are excited to join this effort. There are over 75 endorsers and co-sponsors in California, nationwide, and globally, and organizations and prominent individuals keep adding on. Groups are organizing 23rd actions in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania (soon also in Colorado, Utah, & Washington, D.C.). People mobilizing in numerous locations at once are circulating much needed information and putting the realities of solitary confinement and other prison human rights abuses in the forefront of national concern.
Locations for actions on the 23rd range from busy downtown centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Oakland; the site in San Francisco where tourists wait to tour the torture chambers of now closed Alcatraz prison; university and college campuses; gorgeous seascapes on the Pacific coast of California; Chuco's Justice Center, base for the Youth Justice Coalition and others; the Kinetic Sculpture Race, a bicycle "Triathlon of the Art World," 70 miles south of the Pelican Bay torture chamber; to a major metropolitan commuter transit center in Boston. All this activity is in stark contrast to the sensory deprivation of solitary confinement torture cells.
Actions have included public rallies with speakers, including members of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC) and formerly incarcerated persons; informational booths; performances and discussions of If the SHU Fits - Voices from Solitary Confinement: A Reader’s Theatre Performance; rolling fasts; massive distribution of literature at big festivals and fairs; chalk-ins about solitary confinement; educational encounters with passersby; press conferences; letter-writing to incarcerated persons; a giant puppet performance of the people defeating the prison industrial complex and use of solitary confinement; public screenings of the documentary Breaking Down the Box [ ]; and letter-writing in support of California Senate Bill 124 to define and limit solitary confinement of youth.
Participants have given out thousands of handbills about the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, the prisoner-class led human rights struggle, the CA Hunger Strikes, the Agreement to End Hostilities, how to get subscriptions to publications for people locked inside, invitations to help grow CFASC in Northern California, Human Rights Pen Pal applications, etc. All of those materials are available at the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website, so anyone may have the ability to set up an informative action.
These mobilizations outside the prisons help bring hidden torture into the public eye, show the world that folks who are incarcerated have support, update people on the conditions inside and the needs and work of the Prisoner-class-led Human Rights Movement, and make clear that solitary confinement is unacceptable.
The courage that prisoners continue to demonstrate after the three Hunger Strikes, while upholding their Agreement To End Hostilities across racial/ethnic and geographic lines, should give us all the strength to organize in our own communities. It is up to us to demand that the torture ends. People suffering in solitary confinement don’t have time for silent bystanders or toothless legislation.
A massive public movement is essential to end this torture. We must break through the silence and pressure the courts, legislatures, halls of power, and media to act to end solitary confinement. We do not want the people in prison to have to risk their lives in another hunger strike! Please become part of these important mobilizations on the 23rd of every month.
"We will be with the prisoners...in the courts, in the legislature, and out in the community. We will use every venue available to us, UNTIL THE TORTURE IS ENDED.” [Marie Levin, California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC) and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition]
Oct 10, 2015
keywords: Pelican Bay State Prison, California prison conditions, prison conditions, "welfare" checks, sleep deprivation, "security" checks
From Prison Focus Issue 47
Correspondents at Pelican Bay State Prison SHU report that as of August 1, guards have implemented “welfare checks,” occurring every thirty minutes, or forty-eight times per day. Guards are conducting the checks in an aggressive manner, routinely banging the metal wand against doors, stomping through the corridors, slamming doors, and shining lights in prisoners’ eyes while they are trying to sleep. Given the reverberation of noise throughout the concrete and steel pods, this results in virtually non-stop disturbance throughout the cell.
As a result of the Coleman settlement regarding the treatment of mentally ill and developmentally disabled prisoners, CDCR was ordered to conduct “welfare checks” on prisoners in regular intervals. It was left up to the Department to design a system for implementation of these checks. CDC implemented a system with electronic wands which the guards must connect to a metal button by each cell. The wands beep with every connection, and due to the concrete and steel design of the SHU pods, each sound reverberates loudly throughout the pod, as well as in adjoining pods.
Although it is possible to conduct these checks quietly, and that the beeping should be turned off turning the night, guards are showing no awareness or respect for how much noise they are creating while making rounds. Many are convinced that the guards are using these checks as a method to harass prisoners and disrupt their sleep, as well as an excuse to disrupt programming throughout the day.
Sleep deprivation and relentless exposure to loud noise are known methods of torture. Some prisoners are considering going on hunger strike again as a method to combat CDCR’s latest tactics. As one prisoner wrote in a letter to Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of CDCR, "Deprivation of sleep is a common form of torture and has no place in a civilized society. Sleep is a basic human need and a fundamental constitutional right and I shouldn't have to be starving myself so I and my fellow prisoners can get some sleep."
In addition to the disruption of the checks themselves, guards have used the implementation of this system – required in numerous CDCR facilities – as an excuse to disrupt what little programming exists at the SHU. Reports include that food services are running hours late, showers are not provided at regular pace (usually they can do 3 or 4 showers in an hour, but now they are saying that showers are taking over an hour each), and that yard time is not starting until after 9am some days, when yard time must start at 7 or 7:15am each day in order to ensure that everyone will get yard time that day. In August, lawyer representatives for CPF who came to visit Pelican Bay were denied visits to nearly half of those on their approved visit list, told only that there was no way the guards would be moving one person per hour for the visits, which had been scheduled weeks in advance. The rationale for all of these delays is that guards are simply unable to keep schedule with the new responsibilities of the welfare checks.
We have heard reports of these checks presenting a severe nuisance and disturbance from other SHUs as well as Pelican Bay, including Corcoran and Tehachapi. In the other SHUs throughout the state, reports have been consistent for over a year that while it was possible to conduct the checks quietly, particular guards would be extremely noisy, and that the consequent sleep deprivation was creating agitation and high levels of anxiety throughout the SHU pods. Conversations between individuals, already challenging, are dampered because people must try to get sleep whenever they can. A perverse outcome given the name and nature of these checks, those with mental health issues report exacerbated symptoms due to the levels of anxiety they are experiencing.
In all of the SHUs, including Corcoran, Tehachapi, and Pelican Bay, guards have encouraged people inside to file 602 forms complaining about the practice in hopes that Sacramento will stop the program and they will not have to do the work involved. In October of 2014, a group of individuals at Corcoran filed a group 602 on this issue, based on the fact that checks are not effective. On the outside, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition has taken action and encouraged its network to write letters to Warden Ducat at Pelican Bay and is in dialogue with Coleman attorneys, who are aware of the distress resulting from the checks.
The following is a letter to CDCR officials from Michael Bien, one of the lead counsel on the Coleman case, explaining why the current situation is not an acceptable implementation of the court’s orders in Coleman.
Letter from Michael Bien:
We write to raise very serious and emergent concerns regarding the recent implementation of the Guard One system in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU. We received correspondence today indicating that at least one prisoner is on an active hunger strike and that a group hunger strike is planned. The Warden at PBSP must assert control over custody staff in the SHU and their efforts to undermine the implementation of this CDCR policy.
We have received multiple credible reports from multiple prisoners that custody officers in the SHU are intentionally awakening each and every prisoner in the SHU every 30 minutes through not only aggressive use of the Guard One wand system and excessive stomping/key jingling noise throughout the rounding, but also by repeatedly slamming the door to the Pod, and shining their flashlights into every prisoner’s eyes. We have also received several credible reports that multiple prisoners have required medical attention due to the resulting effects of sleep deprivation and that many others are experiencing severe psychological distress. As you know, CDCR has experienced resistance to the implementation of welfare checks and Guard One in other prisons and segregation units, which appears to have been successfully addressed by supervisors at those locations, including death row.
PBSP either lacks adequate custody staffing or as part of the job action, they are so contending that they are unable to carry out the rounding requirement while maintaining basic regular programs in the SHU. We are reliably informed that yard time, canteen, mail, and shower opportunities have been severely curtailed since the implementation of Guard One, and that prisoners are being told this is due to the lack of staff available for any activities other than the completion of welfare checks. We are also informed that access to basic hygiene supplies (shavers) and to clean laundry has been interrupted due to the alleged shortages in staffing resulting from Guard One implementation. We ask that you urgently review the impact that the Guard One implementation has had on the regular PBSP program and that any necessary staffing adjustments be made immediately. Correctional officers have made clear that they are forced to restrict these other activities on the Unit as a result of Coleman requiring them to do Guard One rounds. Other forms of retaliation have been a new policy to restrict ventilation on the unit by closing the door to the yard.
Finally, we ask that the apparent campaign of misinformation on the part of PBSP’s custody staff immediately end. We have received multiple and consistent reports that custody staff is telling prisoners that Coleman counsel are specifically responsible for the implementation of the Guard One system in the PBSP SHU and for the harms that prisoners in the SHU are experiencing as a result of the misuse of the system, and that their complaints about the system can only be addressed by us and not through the normal grievance process. Encouraging prisoners to write to us rather than to use CDCR’s grievance process reduces command staff’s and headquarters’ access to information about conditions in the SHU and hinders your ability to monitor and correct these serious concerns. We will, of course, respond to inmate correspondence, but we continue to encourage prisoners to use 602’s and medical grievances to complain about the deprivations they are suffering in the sHU.
As you are well aware, Guard One was CDCR’s chosen method to implement a long-standing requirement of regular welfare checks in CDCR’s segregation system. We certainly did not ask for, and we most strongly object to, the retaliatory and dangerous manner in which PBSP staff have chosen to implement this valuable tool in the SHU.
Thank you for your immediate attention to what appears to be an increasingly dangerous situation. Conditions in the SHU, even when it operates routinely, are very difficult for human beings to tolerate. Whether or not the conditions cause permanent harm will be decided by the Ashker court. CDCR has now substantially worsened conditions in the SHU by its mismanagement of the implementation of Guard One.
-Michael Bien, Attorney