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Feb 28, 2017

Formerly Incarcerated Advocates Speak Out At California Prison Focus's 25th Anniversary Event

By Kim Rohrbach

keywords: Cointelpro, New Jim Crow, Gary Webb, healing, Watani Stiner, Troy Williams, Mianta McKnight, Raymond Aguilar

From Prison Focus Issue 51

On November 12, 2016, California Prison Focus held its 25th anniversary commemoration at the First Congregational Church in Oakland. The highlight was a panel discussion with Watani Stiner, Mianta McKnight, Troy Williams, and Raymond Aguilar—all formerly incarcerated Californians. Together, their experiences span a significant half-century in this nation's history, from the Civil Rights Movement through what's being called the New Jim Crow era.

Before the discussion got underway, Kim Pollak greeted the public with an introduction into CPF's history and ongoing work. Bato Talamantez, a founding member of CPF absolved in the 1971 San Quentin Six trial, then weighed in with some personal remarks, excerpted here:

"Everything about California Prison Focus started around Pelican Bay a hell of a long time long ago. We didn't have a name at first. We just responded to our friends inside. We had a lot of friends and still do. And they were the ones who ultimately led the Hunger Strike twenty years later: They figured out that it's do-or-die time."

Sharing his recollections of Holbrook Teter, a co-founder off CPF who passed in 1999, Talamantez continued:

"He came to us and used the word 'torture.' And he told us he had been around the world where people had been tortured. And what was happening at Pelican Bay [SHU] was torture. We were saying 'cruel and unusual punishment,' 'the Eighth Amendment,' and all that stuff. That's absurd. None of that works. The constitution does not apply at Pelican Bay."

Each panelist had experienced firsthand—three of them, as mere juveniles—the torture that Talamantez described and had himself experienced: being held in solitary confinement or isolation.

Following introductions, Robert Monico, a CPF volunteer and a graduate student in San Francisco State University's Ethnic Studies Department, facilitated the discussion.


The senior member of the panel, Watani Stiner, informed the audience that he refers to himself as a Cointelpro[1] survivor, instead of a "political prisoner" or "ex-political prisoner." The term "Cointelpro survivor," he noted, acknowledges the government's role in his incarceration; a topic he briefly took up later.

Stiner spent his early childhood in the Jim Crow south. He remembered it as separate water fountains, separate beaches, having to enter the grocer's through the back door, and so forth.

When he was seven, his mother moved his family to Watts, California. Watts was "a whole different world" than the one he'd previously known. In the south, it had been a "sin" in the eyes of a Catholic-raised child such as he to drink from the whites-only fountain.

As a young adult in California, Stiner married his highschool sweetheart and landed a well-paying job at an aircraft company. But in 1965, Stiner's life was changed forever by the Watts revolt. At that time of the revolt, Stiner explained, "Young people across the country were breaking through racist barriers; we were raising questions about the unequal distribution of power and wealth … and the war in Vietnam." He himself got involved with the Us organization[2] and "found culture, identity" and "a way of resisting oppression." He enrolled at UCLA, and fought to a establish the Black Studies program there.

Stiner's life was soon to change again because of a 1969 shoot-out at the UCLA campus, in which he was wounded and two Black Panthers (Bunchie Carter and John Huggins) were killed. "At the time," Stiner said about the shoot-out, "I didn't know about Cointelpro, and how they instigated and … turned that whole incident into a violent thing, where it caused the death of two human beings." He and his brother were tried and convicted for the murder. They were sentenced to life and sent to San Quentin, then escaped and fled to Guyana in 1974. About twenty years after that, out of concerns for his family, Stiner finally turned himself in to the US Embassy and land back in San Quentin, in solitary confinement. When he was released from San Quentin in January 2015, he hadn't walked the streets of the US as a free man since 1969.

/ / /

Restorative justice advocate, journalist and filmmaker Troy Williams turned fifty in late December 2016. He would have been but a toddler during the heyday of resistance and self-determination organizations like the Black Panthers and Us. Williams prefatorily remarked that he often talks with Stiner (the two both live in the same community in East Oakland) about how the decline of the Black Power Movement gave rise to gangs.[3] "And I was sucked into that world," he added, "even though I didn't want to be."

Indeed, when Williams first learned from his brother at age ten what Crips and Bloods were, his response had been: "That's dumb. Like, why we fightin each other? That don't make sense to me." Yet, the reality was that violence was everywhere around him, and supposed role models, who preached non-violence, did not necessarily practice nonviolence themselves.

Before much longer, when Williams was thirteen, he found himself confronted by six fully grown guys who insisted that he fight. Two of them had beards. He couldn't fight six men, and was chased. He was faced with a devil's bargain: He could run in the direction of the sheriff's station (the scarier of his two options); or, he could try to make it to the other side of the park, where his pursuers wouldn't go, because their rivals would be there.

"I didn't make it," Williams remembered, "so I got stomped out … beat up with chains and all that. And, guess who came to my rescue?

"That rival gang showed up. And they ran the guys off, and next thing I know, I got thirty muscled-down men around me telling me how they got my back. Givin' me some attention that I wish I would have gotten in the household, but I didn't get."

So began William's involvement in "the lifestyle." Two years later, he was in juvenile hall for murder. That was just the beginning of a long story prefaced by getting into about thirty-six fights during his first year in juvenile hall."I've been in the hole [solitary confinement or isolation] countless times," commented Willliams, "I can't even count the amount of times that I've been in the hole in juvenile hall."

At some point after getting out of juvenile hall, Williams became a youth counselor and returned to school for cinemaphotography. Maxine Waters, then Representative for California's 35th Congressional District (which includes South Central Los Angeles), sponsored the organization he was working for as counselor.

Around that time—1996—Maxine Waters was calling for investigations by the D.O.J. and the House Judiciary Committee into journalist Gary Webb's revelations published in the San Jose Mercury News. Webb had exposed that: (1) the CIA-backed Contras in Nicaragua were using profits from cocaine trafficking to fund their guerilla effort to overthrow the (left-wing) Sandinista government; (2) this had been going on for the better part of a decade, with the US government's knowledge and tacit support; and (3) the cocaine being trafficked was being sold to the Bloods and the Crips in Los Angeles by the tons, leading to the crack cocaine epidemic that had spread from L.A. across the urban U.S..

"I was there when Gary Webb broke the story about Cointelpro and all the drugs coming into the community," Williams said, "and … I understood what had happened." Just the same, his understanding was at least initially somewhat superficial, or so he indicated. It wasn't until around 2005, after he'd received a life sentence and eventually got sent to the hole for a long spell, that he began to understand his "internal journey." Gradually he came to more deeply appreciate the connections between the external events that Gary Webb had written about, and his own life, decisions and actions.

"Sittin' in the hole, I started to realize what my part in all of this was," he explained. "Deep down inside, I knew that I was participating in something that I never should have been participated in."

/ / /

The youngest of the four panelists, Mianta McKnight, in her late 30s, and Raymond Aguilar, age 41, are children of yet a third era. When they were born, the so-called War on Crime declared by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 had been going on for a decade or more, having ramped up during Nixon's presidency. When they were around kindergarten age, the Reagan administration, proclaiming "Just Say No" on the one hand, was giving the wink and a nod to the Contras' drug trafficking on the other. And, within their lifetimes and before either hit the age of thirty-five, the incarcerated population within this country insanely ballooned by almost six hundred percent.[4]

McKnight and Aguilar were both arrested as juveniles and tried as adults.

McKnight grew up in San Francisco, California, and has been out of prison for about three years. She gave birth to a baby girl almost a year ago, and is employed with Justice Now, an organization located in Oakland that specifically works with people inside of women's prisoners.[5]

McKnight's parents divorced when she was young; a situation common to many born in the 1970's. Her overall circumstances as a juvenile and young adult, however, were less than typical. Regarding her arrest at seventeen, and her experience over the next few years after her arrest, she recounted in painfully clear language:

"My father had married somebody else, and she was molesting my brother and I. She molested me from the age of two until I was about eight, so that went on for six years. And when the sexual abuse stopped, the physical, mental and verbal started, so I held some resentment against her.

"At seventeen, I had a boyfriend—thought we were gonna be together forever—and we decided to rob my house. The ultimate goal was to make her feel what it felt like to lose something, not to kill her; and the end result is that she died in that robbery.

"I was tried as an adult; they did not want to hear what was going on in my house beforehand—because I did say something, I did tell, and nothing changed. So, that changed my belief system, in terms of: The truth mattered. And since I did not feel safe at home, I sought acceptance outside the house, and that's how I ended up with this guy to begin with.

"I made a decision, and my decision cost me something far greater than I was willing to bargain— —cost me the trust of my family; it cost somebody their life, and I ruined many, many things along the way.

"So I entered juvenile hall in Redwood City. They lied and told me I was going home. I didn't see home for a very, very long time.

"I was locked up in X Unit, which was solitary confinement … I did not know what day it was. There were no windows. I hadn't seen my parents yet; I hadn't seen my attorney yet; they came and opened the door and slammed it and told me I was never getting out. I believed them. I told my parents … that if they keep me forever, I'm going kill myself, and I meant it.

"I went through trial; I went to prison when I was twenty-one. … When those gates closed after I made it to prison, I had a panic attack because I knew I'm not gonna make it outta this place. … And, I was told as a young person coming inside, 'Don't worry about it: go ahead and get in trouble: You're never gonna get out; the only way you're gonna leave is in a pine box.' And I almost believed them."

Of how prison guards treat women and girls, McKnight stated, again in painfully clear terms:

"They have … batons now that they use, like they're Ninjas. … They have smoke bombs. They beat us, they rape us, they—kill us. … They would never cram eight dudes in one room, but they'll sardine us in there. … It's dehumanizing to have to ask for sanitary supplies, and prove that you're on your menstrual cycle and say, 'I really need a pad dude.' And still not get it. Use a sock."

Until 2005, male guards had free reign to violate incarcerated females under the pretense of conducting searches for contraband. But, as reported in Prison Focus Number 50, CPF successfully campaigned to prohibit male guards from conducting searches on females. Regarding the prohibition, McKnight had to say, "That was a huge victory, because we were being touched in every way possible by them. So, even if you had nothing on you, they … could grope, touch, grab, feel and everything else. And most of us had been sexual abuse victims; been raped; been beaten; been in abusive relationships. And they knew that and they would use it to their advantage to get us to 'submit': to get us to snitch and everything else under the sun."

Raymond Aguilar had been released from Tehachapi just four months prior to the panel discussion. He lives in Stockton, California, where he grew up, and works as a youth counselor for Fathers and Families of San Joaquin.

"As it stands right now," said Aguilar, "in Stockton—San Joaquin Valley—ninety percent of the kids that are in juvenile hall facing [a] life sentence are boys and men of color. Ninety percent." And, before voters approved Prop. 57 in November, he elaborated, juveniles as young as fourteen were being tried as adults.

"What does that say about the system?" What does that say about our community, that we are gonna give up on our youth and try them as … adults?"

Aguilar's childhood and adolescence, as described by him, underscore a common-sense point that can also be drawn from William's and McKnight's remarks: The lack of a supportive familial environment can have devastating long-term repercussions for a youngster. This is particularly true in a society that throws, foremost, its most oppressed members and those in most need of help into the gullet of the prison system.

Aguilar was tried as an adult at age sixteen after fatally shooting a man who'd robbed his grandmother a year earlier. He told the audience:

"At sixteen, I had a fifth-grade comprehension level. I wasn't going to school. [I] grew up out of a foster care system; I was in and out of shelter homes. … I was being adopted by foster parents who didn't care and who beat the shit out of me, and neglect was all that I knew. …

"When I was sent to the prison system … I was affiliated with an organization inside of prison, because, like brother Troy [Williams] said, that's my family."

At age eighteen, Aguilar was booted from the California Youth Authority into the prison system, and into Pelican Bay, no less. "I was— —young, foolish child thinking I was grown when I really wasn't," he observed.

Of his time at Pelican Bay's SHU, he recalled:

"I started reading books, I started reading newspapers, magazines, just readin to pass the time. … Most of the time, we're learning and educatin' about the organization, and the history of our organization and of our people. When I got to prison and I seen the California Prison Focus newsletter, I looked at it as another newsletter that I could read to pass my time. It took me many days, many months, perhaps even a few years to really understand what the Prison Focus was really teachin' me. …

"This is an intimidating magazine to a kid who don't have an education. I'm lookin' at the pictures. I'm looking at, 'Where's the color up in here?' You know what I'm saying? We're makin' clothes hangers out of this. We're using this as our napkins. One day, maybe I'm using the restroom. Maybe I need this. You know what I'm saying? And it wasn't until that Moses moment when I seen the light. I'm like—sittin' here—and I'm like, 'Should I use this to wipe, or should I use this to read?' So, I'm sittin' here, and I'm looking at this Prison Focus, and when I was done, I said, 'Man, I got to read this again'; I think, 'Somethin caught my attention.' And it was one of the bills that they were trying to pass to help juveniles like myself get out of prison. I said, 'Damn, well this can give me some kind of information that I could use.' "

These days, Aguilar doesn't like to define himself as a gang member, or an ex-gang member. "I'm a formerly incarcerated individual who has educated himself," he specified, "and I want a second chance at life."


A topic of the November 12 discussion, unsurprisingly, was the different challenges that release from prison entails.

With humor in his voice, Watani Stiner remembered, "I always thought that … the biggest challenge I would have is how to operate a cell phone; a computer." Instead, his relationship with his children proved to be far more fraught than learning to use digital technology.

"Prison provides this buffer between you and your … family," Stiner continued. "Once I got out, I had to deal with all the emotions, the sense of abandonment, the anger." No matter what he knew himself about why he'd turned himself in to the US authorities, it did not negate what his children had gone through during his incarceration. He had to learn to "stand there and accept the anger, and the love," and get to know his children anew.

Troy Williams, too, talked about his own difficulties in dealing with family, particularly when he got out of juvenile hall as a much younger man:

"Corporations didn't want me; jobs didn't want me. I really couldn't even relate to my family, because I didn't understand how the emotional things that I went through— —they was just put to rest; they never were really dealt with. So, as soon as I found myself back in the home, all of that stuff flared up, and I found myself not wanting to be in the home, but not knowing why."

The "not wanting to be in the home" left the younger Williams, who loved his family, feeling conflicted on top of everything else he was going through. Yet, at bottom, he did not know how to cope with, explain, or even understand on his own terms what he was experiencing on an emotional level. "And, in all of the rejection from everybody else in life," Williams added, "even in the appearance of rejection from my family, guess who never rejected me? Right? Duh. … I can go get whatever I wanted from them soon as I hit the block."

Raymond Aguilar described coming out of prison and the SHU thinking: "I'm gonna get myself acclimated … and try to make a difference in my community. Especially, for all the things that I've done wrong, let me now turn around and do something positive and constructive." As his remarks evinced, though, the tentacles of the prison system extend well beyond any prison's walls or the duration of anybody's sentence:

"When I'm paroled, part of my parole conditions is that, I'm on high control. … I'm a validated gang member, and I'm on a gang injunction. How am I gonna be a productive citizen in my community if I'm being paroled 'High Risk, Gang Injunction'? That's putting a bad light on me already. How do you then expect me to get out here and get a job? … How am I going to go into the educational departments and say, 'Hey, let me tell you something: I was once where you guys were at: Let me make a difference?' "

For Aguilar, the "how" was supplied in part by others who were there to extend helping hands. Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, an organization working with low-income fathers and men of color in San Joaquin County, including those formerly incarcerated, engaged him as an employee. In addition, a comrade, who'd himself been in prison and later started his own advocacy organization, also gave Aguilar a break.

Not everybody released from prison, though, meets with the same fortune as Aguilar. Relevant to finding a job and the significant practical hurdles that people face once free of prison walls, Mianta McKnight elaborated:

"One of my target projects [at Justice Now] is working on Prop. 47 and figuring out where the resources are going. … Where's the money going that's supposed to be there for people of color? Women of color; girls? Because those resources are not available. And, as a person of color … that has survived the prison industrial complex [PIC], I see the importance of the resources, and, not just getting out. Cause once you get out, then what? Who's gonna help you? Whose gonna support you? Who's gonna advocate for yourself out here?"


In prison, McKnight had to advocate for and rehabilitate herself. The CDCR does not do it for you, she emphasized; in fact, "they actually put every roadblock in your path." Nonetheless, she specified, the skills she acquired inside, that eventually aided her in paroling, are skills she uses each and every day. She fights against the PIC so that her infant daughter "will never see the inside of it." She does so, too, "to help the people inside that don't have a voice currently, as a result of trying to be snuffed and choked out by CDCR."

In contrast, Williams, whose final stop within the system was the mainline at San Quentin, benefitted from the relative abundance of educational opportunities available there. (In this regard, San Quentin is an outlier among the CDCR's thirty-five-odd institutions, thanks to outsiders' efforts.) While at San Quentin, he got a leg up as a journalist and video producer in the making, and as a restorative justice advocate. After regarding an ecology program run by Van Jones with initial skepticism—why should he be worrying about some trees when people died where he grew up?—he reconsidered. That "the way we treat the very thing that sustains us is reflected in the way we treat each other," he ended up realizing, "just made a lot of sense."

Despite having benefitted from the programs at San Quentin, however, Williams is clear on where the keys to personal and social transformation ultimately lay. If you're relying on somebody else to come in and take care of your community, that's "never gonna happen." Instead, people "need to stand up and figure out ways that work for us," regardless of "what comes at us" and "what's going on with this [Trump] election" and everything else. He explained:

"This system is running exactly the way it supposed to run. And if we don't stand up to make a change, then change is never gonna happen. … This is our generation: This is our time: It's not just about the old people or the young people. We gotta get out of that old Willie Lynch-type syndrome, right? And we all gotta figure out a way to come together so that …we can allow our communities to heal in the way that they need to heal. Because irregardless of what goes on, if I don't respond to it, then it has no effect. … An' when we really wanna stop the system, then we gotta stop feeding the system. We gotta stop allowing our young to be fed to the system."

Raymond Aguilar echoed these sentiments. In his hometown, Stockton, he said, politicians foster initiatives like gun buy-back programs; initiatives that happen to make for great publicity, but end up dividing neighbor against neighbor rather than helping anyone.He continued:

"What works is when we go, as formerly incarcerated brothers, and people in our neighborhood, and we take back our community. And we say, 'We are Stockton. We are Oakland. We are Frisco. … And we're gonna take care of our community because, for years, we have harmed our community.' "

A critical aspect of healing one's community, the panelists agreed, is engaging with the young. On this score, Williams remarked:

"I think it's critical that when we drive by a young dude, or a young lady … we stop and have some dialogue with them. Right? Like, 'Wha's up? How you doin? How was your day?'
"If I'm on the yard, we can be mortal enemies, but I'm gonna acknowledge that you standin' in front of me. Nowadays you will walk by … and people won't even acknowledge that you breathin'. Like, that's bad on your spirit. Right? So when we see our young people, let's—listen to them. Let's quit telling them how to think and how to be, and just hear them."

"Because they haven't been heard," added McKnight.

Watani Stiner commented furthermore on the older generation's role in "passing the historical baton" on to the youth. " But at the same time," he cautioned, "we can't just talk about all of the glorification … how great we were during the sixties."

"We also have to talk about … the mistakes, the weaknesses that we had, in order for them to understand and not make the same mistakes … I think that the older generation have that responsibility: Not to become this 'I know it all' or guru ... whose gonna pass that information on to them, but to interact and engage with the younger people. And I find so much hope in…young people today. I mean, I really find a lot of hope."


1 The FBI says at its website: "The FBI began COINTELPRO—short for Counterintelligence program—in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s, it was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party." FBI, "COINTELPRO," May 5, 2011,; last accessed January 26, 2017.

2 Us was formed by Dr. Maulana Karenga (famously the creator of the Kwanzaa festival) and several others on the heels of the Watts revolt. Organization US, "Forty-Eight Years of Struggle, Service and Institution Building," February 2, 2014,; last accessed January 27, 2017.

3 During the November 12 discussion, Stiner expounded on this theme, "Once you create a vacuum, that vacuum is filled by something." This phenomena, he noted, can be seen at even the international level—whether with the US in Iraq, or what happened in Syria or Libya. Stiner continued:

"What happened after the demise—or the destruction, the discreditment—of the Black Power movement and most of the other movements— — this vacuum was created and gangs emerged in that. … When I got to prison, I found out that some of the young men I met there are sons and nephews of people who used to be in the movement— —who got chased out of the country, or been killed, or in prison, or into drugs. It's just a whole other dimension."

4 See Mary D. Looman and John D. Carl, A Country Called Prison (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 12–13. By 2008, over 2.3 million adults in the US—or 1 out of every 48 working-aged individuals—was locked up. Less than 330,000 were locked up back in 1980.

5 Not everybody inside a woman's prison, as McKnight specified, identifies as a woman.

Oct 24, 2016

“Security/Welfare Checks” Update

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) Committee to End Sleep Deprivation

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 @ 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 and The American Public Health Association's letter opposing the checks at

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,, or our mailing address above.

Oct 19, 2016

Supreme Court Of Vermont Throws Out Case Against Jailhouse Lawyer

Annalee Davis

keywords: Jailhouse Lawyers

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.●

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.

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.

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.

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; 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

The Emergence of Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement

Verbena Lea and Willow Katz

keywords: Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement, Together to End Solitary

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 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]

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