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Dec 01, 2016

Rethinking Parole for Long-Term SHU Prisoners

PHSS Coalition Parole Committee

keywords: PHSS Coalition, parole, SHU

[The end notes and references have been omitted from this outline. If you are interested in obtaining the document with all the end notes and supporting references, please contact the PHSS Parole Committee at P.O. Box 5586, Lancaster, CA 93539.]

I. Major changes are taking place in California corrections, mirroring trends elsewhere. The Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) will want to ensure that its policies and practices are also aligned with these changing trends.

A. One sweeping change in state prison operations is the end of CDCR’s indeterminate gang lockup program. After 30 years of trying to address the issue of prison gangs by locking prisoners up indefinitely unless and until they “debrief” (inform on other prisoners), the Department has implemented a significant shift in policy and practice:
1. Thousands of prisoners have been transferred to general population after years, in some cases decades, in SHU
2. For the most part, long-term indefinite SHU terms can no longer be imposed in California.
3. SHU terms must now be based on behavior, not on perceived status.
4. Prisoners no longer have to become informants to get out of SHU.
5. CDCR is joining many other states in greatly reducing its use of solitary confinement.

B. We are concerned that BPH policies which developed to align with CDCR’s discontinued policies have not changed to reflect and support the State’s current direction. Prisoners who were in SHU under these discontinued policies find that:
1. Parole panels and Forensic Assessment Division (FAD) staff are still telling them they must debrief to be found suitable, (despite no connection to SHU confinement or suitability criteria).
2. Parole panels and FAD staff are penalizing them for long SHU terms almost universally condemned as unconscionable or even unconstitutional, while discounting the accomplishments and progress prisoners achieved while in SHU.
3. Parole panels and FAD staff are penalizing prisoners for participation in peaceful hunger strikes that led to CDCR’s dramatic policy changes.

C. What are the specific concerns with these BPH practices?
1. The CDCR policies they were based on were a failure by every reasonable measurement.
2. They do not reflect the Board’s own standards of suitability.
3. They are out of step with societal and community standards, and with the State of California’s direction.

II. How Did We Get Here?

A. The Incremental Development of BPH Policies
1. SHU Housing:
a. The Board traditionally viewed SHU time as a meaningful reflection of bad behavior. Before CDCR’s mass gang lockup policy, even administrative SHU was tied to behavior.
b. Before 1985, SHU terms were determinate or limited in time. With a few rare exceptions, no one stayed in SHU for many years, and certainly not decades.
c. When CDCR initiated its gang lockup policies in 1985, it imposed a new meaning and a new set of facts on SHU time – it became a permanent fact of life for thousands of prisoners, many with no disciplinary issues. However, the Board continued to view it as it always had – a meaningful reason to find unsuitability.
d. Prior to the gang lockup program, the lack of programming, loss of good time and other disabilities of SHU time were temporary (and less onerous – family contact was rarely restricted for SHU prisoners). Within a reasonable time, the prisoner had another opportunity to demonstrate progress. Under CDCR’s gang lockup policies, these disabilities were allowed to accumulate for an unconscionable period of time for reasons often beyond the control of the individual prisoner.
2. Debriefing:
a. CDCR developed its “debrief or die” policy in the mid-1980s. Unless a prisoner debriefed, he could not get out of SHU. As a result, the unwillingness to debrief became synonymous with long-term SHU housing.
b. Because of the historical tie between SHU and bad behavior, as described above, the Board wanted prisoners to get out of SHU before being found suitable; thus, the Board started advising prisoners to debrief so they could get out of SHU.
c. While CDCR viewed the unwillingness to debrief as evidence of continued gang activity, in many cases Board panels conceded there was no evidence of gang activity, yet still counseled prisoners to debrief to get out of SHU.
d. Before 1990, the Board never asked anyone to become an informant in order to be suitable for parole. Today, the Board is asking prisoners, even those designated “inactive” (and in some cases, even non-validated prisoners) to inform and go into protective custody in order to be suitable for parole.
3. Participation in the hunger strikes:
a. The hunger strikes carried out by thousands of CDCR prisoners in 2011 and 2013 were instrumental in leading to reform of failed policies that were grossly out of step with traditional correctional philosophy and with current ways of thinking about corrections.
b. The issue raised by the Board about prisoner participation generally relates to rule violations issued by CDCR for participation in the hunger strikes, but also has been viewed as indicative of gang affiliation or sympathy. This may align with CDCR’s media posture about the hunger strikes, but is inconsistent with its view of the 115s in making custody decisions, and with recent case law addressing the legality of the 115s.

B. Why did CDCR’s policy of indeterminate lockup and debriefing fail?
1. It was a system that operated, contrary to accepted correctional philosophy, without regard to individual behavior.
a. Prisoners who debriefed progressed to the highest privilege level regardless of how bad their behavior was before debriefing; they remained there regardless of bad behavior after debriefing. They remained classified as “dropouts” regardless of new gang-related behavior.
b. Prisoners who did not debrief remained in SHU at the lowest privilege level regardless of significant clean time and efforts to program within the confines of SHU. They remained gang validated in spite of no meaningful evidence of gang or criminal activity.
2. The lack of a behavioral-based reward system resulted in a system plagued by increased management problems, recidivism and the growth of new gangs.
a. Violence in California prisons has increased over the course of this program, as has the recidivism rate;
b. Widespread media reports (L.A Times, major network news and others) now describe the growth of gangs in CDCR as unchecked, with the greatest expansion occurring in the SNYs (Special Needs Yards, formed by CDCR to house “gang dropouts” – those who got out of SHU by debriefing). According to the FBI and other sources, gang activity and violence is bleeding out from these yards onto the streets. According to news reports and correctional sources, the SNYs have experienced unprecedented numbers of riots and injuries over the last decade or two.
c. CDCR housing is a growing patchwork of protective yards, with growing numbers of potential enemies who have to be separated for safety.
3. As a result of its flawed gang validation and debriefing policies, CDCR vastly overused expensive security housing by wrongly tagging hundreds of prisoners as security threats, and obtained virtually no reliable or usable intelligence on prison gangs and criminal activity.
a. Validations were based largely on the unverified allegations of prison informants fueled by an intense desire to escape the SHU, unrelenting pressure from gang investigators and, in many cases, more questionable motives.
b. Informant allegations are notoriously unreliable and the use of them in many contexts has been greatly limited by law, policy and practice.
c. The forms of information and evidentiary standards used by CDCR to validate prisoners have been widely criticized and found wanting by the courts and others. CDCR’s gang investigators have foregone real investigative work for decades.
d. The flawed processes of CDCR provide a strong incentive to lie, and in many cases require prisoners to commit felony perjury.
4. CDCR can produce no evidence supporting the effectiveness of its three-decade experiment with gang lockup.
5. CDCR has been inundated with litigation over its use of solitary confinement. The litigation has not only cost the state millions, but has opened CDCR to continuing civil liability for erroneous and unsupported gang identification and validation, and for the unconstitutional practice of imposing long SHU terms based on the refusal to debrief.
6. The cost of corrections escalated greatly, based in part on the gross overuse of solitary confinement, which adds at least $20,000 a year per prisoner. This contributed significantly to the state’s budgetary problems.
7. Long term isolation in SHU inflicted well-documented psychological pressure on prisoners, leading to increased anxiety, panic, paranoia, memory and concentration problems, agitation, suicidal thoughts, mounting anger and sleep disruption. Prisoners in SHU for more than a decade experienced additional symptoms of self-isolation, emotional numbing and despair. Some prisoners were unable to withstand these pressures and experienced irreversible psychological damage.
8. The use of long-term SHU confinement has come under almost universal condemnation as both inhumane and counterproductive – from Supreme Court justices, the President, the United Nations and the Pope; from the courts, professional organizations such as architects, psychologists and health care workers; and from the legislative branch, which called it “aberrant.”
9. Other major states were far ahead of California in discontinuing similar failed policies. California’s policies were generally viewed as more extreme and harsh than other states. CDCR’s debriefing policy was always out of step with the majority of states and the federal system.

C. What is the effect of CDCR’s change in policy?
1. Some in CDCR warned that the release of so many prisoners from long-term SHU would result in a “bloodbath” in the general population; what has actually happened?
a. At the time of the Ashker settlement, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard reported that 1100 prisoners had already been released from SHU in a pilot program “and there have been minimal problems.” This success paved the way for the settlement.
b. Over 1400 more have been released since then; by all reports, large numbers of them are adjusting, programming, following the rules, and enjoying the fresh air and their first real human contact in years or decades.
c. Significantly, many are exerting a calming influence on previously tense general population yards, adhering to the Agreement to End Hostilities developed after the first hunger strikes.
d. Preliminary reports indicate disruptive incidents have decreased in general population yards where these prisoners are placed.
2. CDCR operations are gradually returning to a more rational behavior-based system of rewards and privileges, with more emphasis on opportunities for positive programming. While problems remain, and some elements resist change, the state’s clear direction is to move toward these more tried and true correctional practices.

III. How Should BPH Practices Change to Re-align with Changes in State Corrections?

A. Long-Term SHU Housing
1. The Board needs to develop an alternative framework for reviewing prisoners who have been subject to long-term SHU under CDCR’s misguided policies. Judging them through the same lens as the average prisoner is inappropriate for many reasons:
a. As stated above, long-term SHU under CDCR’s gang-lockup/debriefing policies was not a traditional behavior-based punishment, and did not correlate with an individual’s behavior and rehabilitation.
b. Long-term SHU for these prisoners resulted from widely condemned and discredited policies that were found by at least one court to be unconstitutional.
c. Many of these prisoners have been incarcerated far beyond any reasonable base term under the Board’s matrix; many are far beyond the age that is considered an important determinant of suitability under accepted correctional theory. Many have developed health problems that will cost the state millions of dollars over time. Requiring them to demonstrate many more years of progress to make up for lost time is in essence a sentence of life without parole.
d. Many of them have made extraordinary efforts to maintain a positive direction and influence within the confines of long-term SHU, overcoming formidable state-created obstacles:
(i) They obtained and completed some form of programming within a system designed to prevent it;
(ii) They remained disciplinary-free in a system providing no incentive or reward for it;
(iii) They maintained strong family support in a system designed to destroy family ties;
(iv) They remained psychologically stable and resilient in spite of a system known to inflict psychological damage.
e. CDCR policies prevented SHU prisoners from receiving laudatory chronos and other positive documentation, while maximizing negative paperwork.
2. In addition to taking into account the special circumstances of these prisoners’ long SHU terms, the Board needs to ensure they are reviewed based on individual factors rather than broad general assumptions about the long-term SHU experience. These assumptions can create an unfair bias that leads to determinations of unsuitability unsupported by the facts. For example, panels are:
a. Assuming prisoners had no programming in SHU despite the fact that many engaged in forms of programming available to them in the restricted SHU environment;
b. Assuming family support was inevitably eroded, despite evidence of strong current family support;
c. Discounting discipline-free time in SHU based on the assumption that the restrictive environment somehow prevented misconduct, despite clear evidence to the contrary;
d. Assuming a lack of positive documentation is evidence of a lack of positive behavior, given CDCR’s manipulation of file documentation; and
e. Assuming psychological fragility where it is not warranted.

B. Debriefing
The BPH should discontinue any consideration of debriefing, not only as a factor in determining suitability but as the basis for any negative implications regarding a prisoner.
1. Debriefing and questionable gang validations no longer determine the long-term static custody – SHU housing – that automatically led to continuous parole denials.
2. Debriefing itself does not have any rational relation to statutory suitability factors.
a. As noted above, debriefing is not tied to any record of positive change prior to debriefing, or improvement in behavior after debriefing; SNYs, where prisoners who debrief are housed, have become significant management problems, spawning new violent gangs.
b. Debriefing may be inversely related to the development of insight into prior criminality; it is a sanctioned way to avoid accepting responsibility and understanding past wrongs, and encourages rationalization of personal actions.
c. As noted above, debriefers were and are often under pressure from corrections and law enforcement for perjured testimony. The faulty debriefing process creates an incentive to lie in order to successfully debrief.
d. Because CDCR takes the position that debriefers are under threat of violence from those they inform on, traditional sources of support on parole may be fearful and hesitant.
e. As noted above, the unwillingness to debrief does not correlate with negative behavior or attitude. Many long-term SHU prisoners have many years of discipline-free behavior with no evidence of any gang or criminal involvement, and have had a positive impact on general population yards.
3. The more recent Board position (since release of Ashker class members from SHU to general population) that success on an SNY is preferable to success in general population is contrary to all historical precedent and lacks any convincing rationale.
4. The debriefing requirement is cruel and callous and shows a deliberate indifference by the BPH to known safety risks, psychological issues and corruption, including forced perjury.
5. Sadly, the BPH and the FAD are both relying on the questionable and discredited confidential information disclosure forms previously produced by CDCR’s gang staff to validate and retain prisoners in SHU, to assign risk ratings and deny parole to the same prisoners.

C. Participation in the Hunger Strikes
1. The Board should not penalize prisoners for their participation in the hunger strikes leading to CDCR’s reform of its gang lockup policies.
2. Rule violations for participation should not be considered equivalent to other rule violations; participation is not evidence of gang ties or activity.
a. In reviewing prisoners for release from SHU after the Ashker settlement, the state did not use CDCR 115s issued for participation in the hunger strikes against prisoners in determining their eligibility for release to general population.
b. A court recently ruled that a prisoner’s participation in the hunger strikes was not disruptive to the institution and its essential functions, and therefore was not an adequate basis for a CDCR 115.
c. Since over 30,000 prisoners participated in the hunger strikes at one time or another, it cannot be reliable evidence of gang affiliation or activity.
3. The hunger strikes were in the time-honored tradition of peaceful, non-violent protest that is the hallmark of great political and social movements throughout American and world history.
a. The goal of these strikes was to end a practice that has been roundly condemned (see section II.B.8 above) and which CDCR has now abandoned. As former Secretary Beard himself said, the resulting settlement "moved California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing,” adding that “[w]e don’t believe that its good for anybody to keep them locked up for 10, 20, 30 years.”
b. The hunger strikes were initiated as a last resort, after years of filing 602s and appeals to the courts, and after appeals to lawyers, the legislature and the media were unsuccessful in drawing attention to the issue of indeterminate SHU confinement.

D. Continuation by the Board of practices that align with and support policies and practices now abandoned by the CDCR exposes the Board to the same liabilities, discredit and condemnation that the CDCR has experienced.

IV. How does BPH Psychological Staff (FAD) improperly contribute to and support these BPH policies?
A. By improperly using them as indications of a “criminal mindset” and as the basis for a diagnosis of personality disorder or psycho-pathology.

B. By improperly using them as evidence of continuing violence potential.

C. By improperly assuming a prisoner’s psychological development, maturity and insight remained frozen in time for the duration of his indeterminate SHU term.

D. By using CDCR confidential informant reports for risk assessment without disclosing this fact, or without disclosing the content, date and other relevant information to the prisoner with an opportunity to respond.

E. FAD evaluators’ practice of using their professional status to support the CDCR’s former gang lockup and debriefing policies runs against the tide of many psychiatric and health care professional organizations that have taken stands against just such practices.

F. Template language for Comprehensive Risk Assessments needs to be changed; Forensic Assessment Division staff needs to be educated on new standards.

This outline and the End Notes were prepared March 2017 by Pamela J. Griffin, Attorney at Law, on behalf of the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, a coalition of California prisoner rights organizations, family members and activists.

Mar 07, 2018

PTSD SC: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Solitary Confinement

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa and Baridi J Williamson

keywords: PTSD, trauma, SHU, solitary confinement, prisoner author

(Published in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper:

California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation (CDCr) had been locking classes of prisoners up in solitary confinement since the ‘60s as part of CDCr’s para-military low-intensity warfare, to break the minds and spirits of its subjects, California’s prisoner class. CDCr’s solitary confinement has two operating components: 1) punishing you and 2) physically and mentally destroying you.

In the 1970s, CDCr’s report to then Gov. Ronald Reagan on revolutionary organizations and gangs resulted in Reagan ordering the CDCr director to lock up all radicals, militants, revolutionaries and jailhouse lawyers who were considered “trouble-makers.”[i] And a 1986 report by the CDCr task force stated that during the ‘60s and ‘70s, California’s prisoners became “politicized” through the influence of outside “radical, social movements.”
And conscious prisoners began to “demand” their human, constitutional and civil rights,[ii] as exemplified by those politicized prisoners of war (PPOW) like W.L. Nolen.[iii] In the late ‘60s, Nolen and other PPOWs filed a civil rights class action case challenging the inhumane, degrading conditions and institutional racism that was prevalent at Soledad Prison’s solitary confinement O-wing,[iv] as well as throughout CDCr’s prison system to date.

The 1986 CDCr task force report recommended that CDCr build “supermax” prisons for this politicized class of prisoners, which was echoed by the California prison guards’ union (known today as CCPOA) in continuing their low-intensity warfare upon California prisoners up into and through the ‘80s.
Shortly thereafter, California government through its apparatus CDCr, built its solitary confinement torture sites, such as Security Housing Units (SHUs) and Administrative Segregation (Ad-Segs) at Tehachapi in December 1986, New Folsom in December 1987, Corcoran in December 1988 and at Pelican Bay State Prison in December of 1989. All were designed with the malicious intent to destroy human lives through their diabolical low-intensity warfare scheme of mass validation – group punishment – indeterminate SHU classification and enhanced “debriefing” interrogation, known as “snitch, parole or die!”

Each of California’s governors and CDCr cabinet secretaries from 1977 to 2015 knowingly enhanced their system to become more repressive upon the prisoners held in solitary confinement in the SHUs. We prisoners have known for the past decades that California citizens have not condoned the torture of California prisoners. Nevertheless, since the ‘60s, each state governor and legislature knowingly sanctioned solitary confinement torture.

California’s CDCr – with the winks and nods of lawmakers and judges – has held countless prisoners in solitary confinement, whether it is called Ad-Seg, Management Control Unit, Adjustment Center, SHU or Administrative SHU, longer than any prison system within the United States, ranging up to 45 years of torture and acts of racial discrimination from Soledad Prison’s O-wing to PBSP’s new form of solitary confinement torture.

The case of Madrid v. Gomez was the first acknowledgement on the part of California authorities and judiciary recognizing the harm that CDCr had been causing – mental torture – to those held in solitary confinement across the state’s prison system.[v]

We prisoners have known for the past decades that California citizens have not condoned the torture of California prisoners. Nevertheless, since the ‘60s, each state governor and legislature knowingly sanctioned solitary confinement torture.

The Madrid case touched on the harsh conditions and treatment toward the solitary confinement prisoners at PBSP. It is a clear fact that during the years 1989 to 1994, PBSP had one of the most notorious Violence Control Units (VCUs) in the U.S. CDCr-PBSP officials utilized the VCU for to violate prisoners’ human, constitutional and civil rights by beating us and destroying the minds and spirits of so many of us for years.
An example of how some prisoners would find themselves forced into PBSP’s VCU is when the CDCr bus would arrive at PBSP and park outside the entrance doorway to solitary confinement – Facilities C and D. A squad of goons dressed in paramilitary gear with black gloves, shields and riot helmets would be there waiting. They called themselves the “Welcoming Committee.”

These guards, describing themselves as the Green Wall guard gang, using “G/W” and “7/23” as symbols for “Green Wall,” would roam through the SHU corridors assaulting, beating, and scalding prisoners. See Madrid v. Gomez.

The Welcoming Committee would select one or more prisoners and pull them off the bus – usually choosing those the transportation guards accused of “talking loud.” They would take each one to the side and jump on him, then drag him off through the brightly lighted doorway.

These guards, describing themselves as the Green Wall guard gang, using “G/W” and “7/23” as symbols for “Green Wall,” would roam through the SHU corridors assaulting, beating, and scalding prisoners.

When the rest of the prisoners were escorted off the bus into the corridor to be warehoused in the general SHU cells, they would see those beaten prisoners dragged off the bus “hog-tied”[vi] and lying on their stomachs or crouched in a fetal position, sometimes in a pool of blood.[vii] Later, they were dragged off to the VCU, where they were targeted with intense mind-breaking operations.

When these prisoners were eventually taken out of VCU and housed in the general SHU cells, they mostly displayed insanity – smearing feces all over their bodies, screaming, yelling, banging cups, throwing urine.[viii] And it was only when prisoners began to go public about the VCU at PBSP that CDCr ceased those practices.[ix]

The effects of solitary confinement at PBSP compelled CDCr to establish Psychiatric Service Units (PSUs) in response to the Madrid ruling for remedying the conditions that were destroying the minds of all prisoners who were held captive from the time of the Madrid ruling in 1995 through 2014, but they were poor and ineffective. Those released to the PSU from SHU fared no better than others held in solitary confinement at PBSP.
Prisoners in SHU continued to suffer mental, emotional and physical harm with no remedy made available by CDCr until we were released out to General Population units by the Departmental Review Board (DRB) between 2012 and 2014 and the Ashker v. Brown class action settlement in 2015.

These released prisoners were coming from a torture chamber, where by necessity they created coping skills like self-medicating. Typically, when coming out of solitary confinement, women and men prisoners show signs of depressive disorder and symptoms characteristic of self-mutilation, mood deterioration and depression, traumatic stress disorder, hopelessness, panic disorder, anger, obsessive-compulsive disorder, irritability, anhedonia, fatigue, feelings of guilt, loss of appetite, nervousness, insomnia, worry, increased heart rate and respiration, sweating, hyperarousal, serious problems with socialization, paranoia, loss of appetite, as well as cognitive issues, nightmares, muscle tension, intrusive thoughts, fear of losing control, and difficulty concentrating.[x]

Prisoners in SHU continued to suffer mental, emotional and physical harm with no remedy made available by CDCr until we were released out to General Population units by the Departmental Review Board (DRB) between 2012 and 2014 and the Ashker v. Brown class action settlement in 2015.

The California prison system realized that these prisoners held initially at PBSP and subsequently at Tehachapi and throughout the system had their constitutional rights violated under the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process of the law, for decades.[xi]
Jules Lobel of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead counsel in Ashkerstated:

“The torture of solitary confinement doesn’t end when the cell doors open. California’s continued violation of the Constitution and new evidence of the persistent impact of prolonged solitary confinement requires CDCR to make essential changes in their conduct and rehabilitative programs, and, more broadly, demonstrates the urgent need to end solitary confinement across the country.”[xii]

The Ashker v. Brown class action, settled in 2015, is a historic lawsuit exposing those violations and the harms they cause. We, as California prisoners and citizens of this state, deserve to be treated for the intentional cruelty caused by state-sanctioned torture. This is especially so for the hundreds of solitary confinement prisoners who have spent more than 27 months in any form of solitary confinement, which constitutes torture, according to the Ninth Circuit.[xiii]

CDCr has continued to shun its governmental responsibilities and has not effectively remedied the pain and suffering of thousands of solitary confinement prisoners who have been released to General Population through the DRB and Ashker. All of them are suffering from various aspects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Solitary Confinement (PTSDSC).

We, as California prisoners and citizens of this state, deserve to be treated for the intentional cruelty caused by state-sanctioned torture.

If you are reading this, join us in writing, emailing and calling Gov. Brown (916-445-2841 or, Secretary of CDCr Scott Kernan (916-324-7308) and Sen. Holly Mitchell (916-324-7308 or, who chairs the Public Safety Committee overseeing CDCr, and demand the following government actions be taken to remedy the decades of damage done to us:

That CDCr provide statewide men’s and women’s PTSDSC support groups modeled after the “Men’s’ Group” program we created at Salinas Valley State Prison Facility C, which has been approved by the administration – wardens, community resources managers (CRMs) – for our PTSDSC class and is only awaiting locating a sponsor to get started;
That CDCr allow all PTSDSC prisoners to go through this six-month relief program at their respective GP locations;
That CDCr provide effective in-service training of staff in fairly and respectfully dealing with PTSDSC class members, including in appeals, disciplinary and medical matters;
That CDCr adopt all recommendations in the 2017 report of the Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Lab at Stanford University, detailing the ongoing negative health consequences that Ashker class members have suffered following their release from long-term solitary confinement into GP:
Provide peer-facilitated support groups for all PTSDSC class members; and
Provide independent psychiatric care for all PTSDSC class members to receive PTSDSC mental and emotional health and psychological services in this form.
That Gov. Brown and the California legislature order the Board of Parole Hearings to stop denying our PTSDSC class members who are serving life sentences a fair opportunity to be released home, thereby doubly punishing and torturing us because we were unlawfully kept in solitary confinement without due process and exercised our constitutionally protected right to peacefully protest with hunger strikes to be released, refusing to debrief and become their snitches.

In struggle!

Prisoner Human Rights Movement
©Dec. 1, 2017, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa and Baridi J. Williamson. Send our brothers some love and light: Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (R.N. Dewberry), C-35671, and Baridi J. Williamson, D-34288, P.O. Box 1050, Soledad CA 92960.

Jul 01, 2017

Pathology of the SHU (Security Housing Unit)

Ifoma Modibo Kambon (Corcoran State Prison)

keywords: prisoner author, SHU, trauma, PTSD

Prison mirrors society, surrounded by a landscape of electrified barb wire fences, warning signs for trespassers and gun towers, concrete structures of pathological incubators which breed psychological trauma. This experience was especially true for thousands of men subjected to decades of prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation in a restrictive environment. Not a single individual was unaffected nor immune from the state’s repressive program of behavior modification. In its extremity, the mind is decapitated from the body, the body decapitated from the spirit. ‘Pathology of the SHU’ is based on my personal observations and reflections on the systemic mental incapacitation of other human beings. Born out of the initial shock of imprisonment, a dehumanizing process set in motion an idea that regarded some human beings’ worth or value to be less than other human beings. Their personhood became less valuable than a chimpanzee imprisoned at the local zoo. Stripped of the moral or ethical values of our human identity, our lives became viewed from within the prism of a concrete cage. The moral justification in considering prisoners as less than a human person is based on the pseudo-science of criminology. This is the same science that once determined what constituted criminology by the measurement of a person’s skull or smile. We became ‘worst of the worst’ without any redeemable qualities.

Decades of being warehoused inside an unnatural environment produced unnatural thoughts and behavior. Captivity robs us of identity. Think for a moment about the common threads between prisons, circuses, and zoos. Such an approach will help us better understand how many men lost their human spirit. The commonality between the three is the feature of denaturing. People by their very nature are social beings. Both their individual and collective identity is formed through their interaction with other people within a social context. What this means is that who we are as human beings is forged by the reciprocal nature of our basic needs, wants, and desires - how we work and play with each other, and how we cooperate with each other in building networks, families, and other types of relationships. So it’s easy to see how this environment breeds internal emotional conflicts and psychological damage. Its effect on humans is the transformation of some men into a domesticated, docile, passive new species.

Imagine living in an unnatural environment where any social interaction doesn’t produce experience or knowledge that has some utility value. Experience is only limited to the past in the form of meaningless, senseless stories with no productive value. Our individual struggle is how to make ourselves meaningful and relevant both inside and outside these walls, especially when our physical, social, mental, and spiritual needs are controlled by Administrations of these human warehouses. My struggle is to maintain my self-respect, respect for others, dignity, and integrity, when everything around us stinks of broken minds and rotting flesh.

So my story is about how human beings became invisible and different. It wasn’t until my experiences at Folsom and San Quentin that I began to seriously take note of the psychological effects prison life was having on other prisoners. I began to reflect on all the horrors I personally observed. I concluded that the dependency complex is the source of the psychosis. At times this complex borders on anxiety, stress, mild depression, frustration and alienation. Often the cause of the complex is putting up with the constant bullshit and denials. How do we cope with the denials and responsibilities of being men, fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins and friends?

The dependency complex also creates disappointment and anger. These reactions were the result of promised visitors that didn’t show up, mail that’s never received or answered, money orders that were never received, and other bullshit denials. The disappointments led to mood swings, loss of interest, and restlessness. Some individuals became so lethargic they took on the behavior traits of a pigeon: eat, sleep and shit in order to pass the time. Others felt hopeless and helpless, losing their spirit to fight. Some chose to deal with their pain by suicide, others chose self-mutilation. I also heard the deafening screams, cries, and incomprehensible mutterings of men’s minds succumbing to madness. They became victim to the pathological incubator.

Because I talked about my 38 years of being warehoused inside the security housing unit (SHU), I was given a 9 month SHU term for a rule infraction, ultimately being warehoused in SHU indefinitely. I was told by the administrators of these golden gulags that I was a threat to inmates, staff, and the security of the institution. I am always asked how I survived decades of solitary confinement. The SHU back then was structured like a university or school of higher learning. It was an environment that gave me guidance, direction and purpose. It was during this era that I developed a new political consciousness. I began to learn about human rights, liberation movements, history, world events, justice, racism, women’s rights, etc. The environment was conducive to learning and teaching, because each one of us were held accountable for our actions. During daytime hours, we had quiet periods in which no talking over the tier was allowed. This time was used for self-reflection. There was a quiet period for both study and exercising. At no time was loud, disrespectful conversation permitted over the tier. We existed as a community. It was here I rediscovered my humanity, and it was here we practiced community values. I was introduced to the book Autobiography of Malcolm X. Most importantly he showed me the possibility of change, transformation, and redemption. The possibility of rebirth.

My early education in SHU challenged me to think before acting, and made me understand that our strengths and courage are forged by our willingness to not be afraid or undaunted by the challenges or difficulties.

But this is not to say I was unaffected by the psychological sufferings of other prisoners. The continued years in SHU produced migraine headaches, for others it marked the endless engagements in self-dehumanizing acts. Physically I was beginning to undergo internal changes that neither ‘will’ or ‘determination’ was able to resist. Some prisoners who were experiencing the same impulses acted differently. They reacted by throwing food, feces, or urine, and kicked on the cell doors, exemplifying the behavior of a caged animal who is now on display at the local zoo.

In order to cope with the stress, I adopted a vigorous program of exercise, meditation, reading, and playing chess. As time passed, even infallible prisoners, though using constructive physical and mental exercises in restraint, find themselves expressing bitterness and anger in a destructive manner. My only way of doing time had been interrupted, my tolerance snapped. I began hollering at those who I classified as fools, telling them to shut up or hang themselves. The noise was nerve-racking and disruptive, to say the very least. Somehow my own humanity was under assault. I became argumentative with folks suffering mental problems. Instead of separating people suffering from mental trauma, the administrators mix them in with other prisoners. No one was immune from the psychological incubator.

The past always informs the here and now, so I am never forgetful of the horrors at Vacaville State Prison, where medical experiments were conducted on human bodies. Prisoners became guinea pigs for drug research and testing. Years later, these experiments took on a new form: behavior modification. Another manufactured virus was unleashed in the prison environment which produced mindless zombies, broken bodies. After being targeted and selected for extreme psychological torture, I was sent to Pelican Bay. The germ unleashed into the environment was called Boogey Man. It was based on fear-mongering that led to the moral justification to subject human beings to solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. Their strategy was to break the minds and spirits of men viewed as a threat to inmates, staff, and security of the institution.

The classification committee’s job it is to determine whether a SHU prisoner is eligible for placement in general population. The only possible eligibility for placement in the general population placement was our willingness to submit to the classification terms for release. These terms are anchored to a process which entails prisoners informing (snitching) on other prisoners. Information may not be new or true. Year after year, decade after decade, we were exposed to pathological conditions that ruined hundreds of minds.

Can you imagine being invisible, without a voice?

Can you imagine being constantly told that the only way to gain relief from these conditions is if we debrief by becoming informants? Hundreds of men chose this path rather than suffer prolonged isolation. For others it meant becoming invisible. It meant having shit and piss thrown on you by the broken minds as a condition of internment. It meant the screaming and yelling of broken minds. It meant mail never received in its real time and space, because of the gang censors. It meant that presumption and fear-mongering became the new regulations. It meant parole denials, because we refused to become rats. It meant the constant bullshit of denials one puts up with daily. It meant no human contact or telephone calls with family or friends. It meant living in a dungeon for decades. It meant being told that the only way to better health care is if we debrief. It meant that we were allowed only a 15-minute phone call when a family member passed away. It meant 15 goddamn minutes to express condolences, and to listen and talk to people for the first time in decades. It meant living in a prison hundreds of miles from home. It meant having to share a jacket with other prisoners. It meant having to us a dog toothbrush because regular toothbrushes were security threats. It meant constantly appealing to the courts for relief, but being denied time and time again. It meant visitors behind glass, and visitors being subjected to the disrespect of the guards. It meant little children unable to embrace their daddies.

I became tired of being so tired, but kept on pushing. Culture and prison activism were criminalized. It meant the criminalization of dissent. It meant the criminalization of art. It meant the criminalization of assembly, speech and association. It meant that through dehumanization we were ‘the worst of the worst’. It meant walking everywhere in your shorts or having to squat and cough to go to the yard by yourself. It meant the State-paid psychologists supporting the inhumanity of solitary confinement. It meant overwhelming stress from the violence of gun shots and stabbings.

It meant hearing your father’s voice for the last time. It meant feeling the guilt of not being there for family and friends in a meaningful way. It meant no phones while you awaited the news no one wants to receive, death phone calls. It meant that after a year of not hearing from my mother, when I finally heard some news about her she was given two weeks to live, but died days later. It meant the enormous grief, pain and resiliency of watching my father, mother, sister, son, brother, all dying in consecutive years.

This story is about struggle, pain, hope, suppression. Most importantly it is about the men whose spirit, minds, and bodies survived. It was the bond that we had with each other that helped forge the courage and strength to resist the campaign to destroy our minds, bodies and spirits. This story is not only about me, but rather the community of men who understood that there’s strength in our commonality of struggle. We put aside our artificial differences and answered the revolutionary call to organize, to put aside our differences and build collective will and purpose. This is for the men who maintain their self-respect, dignity and honor.

In kindred spirit,

Ifoma Modibo Kambon

Dec 01, 2017

The Continuing Legacy of Mary Rubach

Katherine Rubach

keywords: mary rubach

Mary was born on February 3rd, 1924 in London, the first child of Ernest and Dorothy Pigott , he, a sales representative for Watermans Pens and she, a dance teacher. The family, Mary now with two younger siblings, Joy and Robin, were not well off, but fortunately inherited a house from an uncle in Bournemouth, where they moved. Attending Queens Mount on scholarship, Mary was hailed as the school’s first student to have ever successfully passed the High School Certificate. Mary was also quite sporty, becoming captain in the field hockey team. She was a good swimmer and learnt lifesaving skills, which were soon put to use when as a 14 year old, she saved a drowning girl at sea. Mary frequently attended a Spiritualist Church with her mother.

At a time when girls of her class did not go to university, Mary did, studying geography and history at Exeter. The family was little touched by the war, though her father did serve in Africa. She was part of the land army during her summer holidays which meant picking fruit and digging potatoes. With 21 years and a degree and teaching diploma, Mary got a job at a Boys School. Later she moved to a school closer to home where her help was needed. (Her father, having depression, was given a leucotomy operation. This lead to a life in a wheelchair.) Mary struggled to maintain discipline in her classes and after four years she gave up teaching, feeling like she had failed and not knowing what to do next.

She volunteered in London at the Bermondsey Settlement, which offered social, health and educational services to the poor of its neighbourhood. It had a particular focus on music and dance. She was impressed by her mentors in this work, and later saw this time as deeply formative. This was the beginning of a lifetime thread which found Mary working with people on the fringes of society. After a year, she trained as a probation officer and social worker, and worked with delinquent children, and then assisted in school medical examinations. This was her first experience of feeling capable in a job.

In 1953, at a Fabian Society meeting, she was told of a conference taking place at Bedford College with Dr Ernst Lehrs. This led to regular visits to Rudolf Steiner House for lectures, eurythy and painting classes. She was 29 years old when she went to Dornach for the Mystery Dramas and met Hermann Rubach, 18 years her senior. He was German, but had been living in the U.S. for the last 29 years. They married on his birthday, May 1st 1954 in London with Reverand Heidenreich and sailed on the Queen Mary for New York. They settled in San Francisco and then Berkeley. He became a life-insurance agent and she trained in social work.

Christoph, was born to her in 1959, and Katherine in 1963. Mary was a thoroughly dedicated mother, alongside supporting her husband in the anthroposophical society. Herman became a Class Reader and chairman of the Anthroposophical Society in Northern California, as well as at times being West Coast Representative. The Rubach’s held a weekly study group at their house on the hill, through which many people passed. They advertised these at the UC Berkeley campus - home of radical thinking in the 60’s and beyond. Mary played an important part in the founding of the Christian Community in San Francisco, although she was not at the time an active member she was seen performing her name sake in the Oberufer Christmas plays. She enjoyed water colour and studied different approaches including Collot d’Bois’, as well as giving painting classes in her home. The couple often hosted visiting anthroposophical lecturers and thus they met Francis Edmunds, leading to a year sabbatical at Emerson for the family in 1971. Mary helped found the local Rudolf Steiner School (too late for her children), and taught aspects of the “Extra Lesson” by Audrey McAllen. She also tried in various ways to introduce aspects of the Waldorf curriculum into the schools her own children attended, often as a storyteller. For 12 years she volunteered at The Creative Living Centre, a day centre where people could go who had recently been discharged from a mental hospital. There she offered eurythmy, art appreciation and drama to the attendees.

Mary decribed how after working with anthroposophy for 33 years, she began to question its role in her life. She wished to make a difference in the lives of people who were suffering. Mary’s concern for the disadvantaged led her to seek ways of helping the homeless. She co-founded and lead a drop-in centre for homeless women and children which was enriched by the arts and crafts, she encouraged.

Herman became increasingly dependent on his wife’s care over a 7 year period. Iscador had often been of help in the family. Herman had paid for his cousin Gisela to receive treatment for cancer in Arlesheim. She lived for another 40 years cancerfree. Mary’s mother lived for 20 years after treatment. Now Herman was diagnosed with prostate and advanced bone cancer. He made a complete recovery and regained his vitality, but suffered multiple small strokes loosing his speech and mobility. Mary nursed him at home until his death in 1992. After this trying period Mary was suddenly free to pursue new interests. She traveled to the UK and Germany and made cultural trips to Greece, Ireland and the south western states in America. She attended the Anthroposophical Schooling Course at the Centre for Social Development in Sussex and hosted the English Eurythmy Theatre on their tours of the USA. She did storytelling in the community and enjoyed ‘clowning’.

It was at this time, that she began to work for prisoners, both writing and visiting them. She worked for a small organisation called California Prison Focus, whose aim it is to defend the rights of prisoners who were regularly mistreated in the Californian prison system. With this work she experienced that she had found a real task in life, and she dedicated much time and effort to it over a 12 year period, traveling to San Francisco to work in the CPF office 2 to 3 times a week as well as working from home. She used her car to drive small groups to Pelican Bay (super max high security) Prison, where prisoners rights were clearly being violated. This was a day’s travel and Mary was 80. They interviewed and supported prisoners. Only through this organization could prisoners have their voice heard, and the law regarding confinement of the mentally ill was changed because of it. Mary’s children sadly had to encourage her to give up this work, in 2007 bringing her to England, but she remained very connected and continued to write to prisoners she had come to know. Prisoners clearly felt deeply grateful to Mary and continued to write to her even when she could no longer reply.

Mary moved into the annexe of her daughter’s house in Forest Row, and immediately became active in the anthroposophic community. She attended study groups and went regularly to lectures and conferences. She tried to connect with the prison system here to visit prisoners, but this proved not possible. She will be remembered by some for her clowning, which brought out a side of her that longed to be on stage. With her money Mary had always supported multiple charities with small donations. This continued in England. Most of the charities were connected to human rights, animal rights and agriculture.

Mary’s memory become increasingly weak. She lived in the moment, but could still say things that were very too the point. In 2014 she had a bad fall, and a live-in carer became necessary. She remained active until the end, taking regular walks and enjoying the company of friends and family and even attending lectures. Three days before she crossed the threshold she came down with a chest infection and she was able to cast off her earthly garments on September 22nd as dawn broke.

Her contentment with life, and the gratitude expressed to those around her was inspiring to many. People spoke of her uniqueness, her humour, her straight forward way of expressing her thoughts, her generosity and selflessness. They frequently expressed how lucky they felt to have known her. Mary has left behind her two children, Christoph and Katherine, and her four grandchildren, Amanda and Simeon Rubach and Daniel and Brendan Beaven. Peace be with her. ●

A chapter completed,
A page turned,
A life well-lived,
A rest well-deserved.

Apr 30, 2018

Idaho's "Inmate Companion" Suicide Watch Program puts California to Shame

Kim Pollak

keywords: suicide watch, welfare checks, suicide

More than 200 Idaho incarcertaed individuals volunteer to help prevent prison suicides by helping staff stand watch over suicidal people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Eight of Idaho’s ten prisons, housing about 8,ooo men and women, have what are known as companion programs. Though some were skeptical when the Inmate Companion Program was started in 2004, the program has proven to be successful. Since it was launched, no individuals under the suicide watch program have completed a suicide. (Idaho reports an average of two successful suicides per year.)

People who want to volunteer must have good speaking, listening and writing skills, be physically healthy and mentally stable, and show respect for all people, according to the department’s inmate companion program guide. Participants receive four hours of training and attend co-watch shifts with experienced companions before taking shifts on their own.

When an inmate tries or threatens suicide or displays other mental health symptoms, medical staffers evaluate the inmate and place him or her under one of three types of watch:

1. Acute suicide watch, for actively suicidal inmates who have already injured themselves or threaten suicide with a specific plan. Staff members maintain constant, direct observation at all times, and inmate companions are not used.
2. Nonacute watch, for potentially or inactively suicidal individuals who either express tendencies without a specific threat or plan, or who have a recent history of self-destructive behavior. Inmate Companions assist the staff.
3. Close observation, for those with increased psychotic or mental health symptoms that (supposedly) require placement in a holding cell for stabilization. Inmate Companions assist the staff here, too.
4. Each companion takes a three- to four-hour shift. Every 15 minutes a prison officer or health worker checks on the the individual who is suicidal.

One companion explained that when she’s assigned to a suicide watch, she starts by introducing herself and asking a few questions, trying to find a connection and to learn which topics to avoid. The volunteers are taught to keep what the inmates tell them in confidence.

Kevin Kempf, Idaho Director of Department of Corrections states that what makes the inmate companion program so successful is that the companions are peers. “...a lot of good things comes with peer support.”

The peer support program provides an opportunity for healing to both the individuals under suicide watch as well as for their support companions. According to one companion, “It is therapeutic for me to feel like I am there for someone.” Another stated, “As someone who suffers from depression, it helps me to get outside of myself."

Source: ●

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