Dec 01, 2020
Prison yard violence is commonplace in California prisons. It is rooted in a "survival of the fittest" mentality within a "conquer and divide" environment created by the prison administration.
Mass incarceration relies on violence and racial discord- both in the streets and in the prisons - to sustain itself. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation purports that "gangs" are the root of prison violence, while violence is the very thing correctional officers and police rely on for long-term job security. Since successful movements of resistance and change are built on a foundation of solidarity, cohesion between racial groups is a threat to the livelihood of CDCR staff and correctional officers.
One can presume that this is why CDCR - as reported in hundreds if not thousands of accounts by CPF correspondents and interviewees over the past 30 years - regularly promotes policies that disrupt unity and incite violence between racial groups and individuals.
In his book The Social Order of the Underworld, David Skarbek, provided anecdotal evidence from incarcerated people that it was stated and unstated prison policies— including the expectations of correctional officers—that led them to affiliate only with their race.
Group divisions are manufactured by CDCR officials through the preferential treatment of one racial group over another, as with the incident at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), and through policies such as the disastrous Non Designated Programming Facilities (see Prison Focus, Issue 59). CDCR has also obstructed prisoners’ efforts to promote unity, such as the Agreement to End Hostilities (AEH).
The AEH was issued in August 2012 by 16 human-rights activists at PBSP from four different racial groups, who recognized the significance of solidarity in their struggle to liberate themselves and future generations from decades of physical and psychological torture by prolonged solitary confinement. The AEH promoted an end to violence and hostility between groups, and was the foundation for what turned out to be the largest ever prisoner hunger strike, and ultimately the end of indeterminant solitary confinement in California prisons. The men who created the AEH are the same men that CDCR, for three decades,presented as the worst of the worst, a safety risk to PBSP’s general population, and justification for long-term torture.
Agreement to End Hostilities: “...From this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end... and if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues!!”
According to CPF investigative prison reports, and letters received by CPF, especially those coming from the state’s Maximum Security Prisons, the AEH played a huge role in reducing race-related violence in California prisons. One would think that CDCR would embrace prisoner efforts to end gang violence, both at PBSP and throughout the state of California, inside and outside prison walls. (A street version of the AEH, targeting youth, was issued as well.) However, as organizers of the hunger strikes attempted to disseminate and promote the message of non-violence to all California prisoners, CDCR obstructed their efforts. In Prison Focus Issue 42, Mark Cook states in his 2014 article “One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back”: “...The prisoncrats with their modified ‘step [down] program’ create new divisive groups…, tempting prisoners to break the solidarity that was gained among California prisoners over the past three years.”
CDCR’s response to the peace-making efforts of the men in their custody is also reflected in numerous issues of CPF’s quarterly Pelican Bay Prison Reports, subsequent to the issuance of the AEH:
Pelican Bay Prison Report, PFIssue 45, Spring 2015
Pelican Bay Prison Report, PFIssue 48, Winter 2016
Pelican Bay Prison Report, PF Issue 49, Spring 2016
Prison Focus issue 50, pg. 7, Fall 2016
So despite blaming uncontrollable gang violence for incidents like the one on May 24, 2017, CDCR actively obstructs the AEH’s full potential as a tool to end violence in California prisons. To add insult to injury, after years of trying to squash prisoners’ peacemaking efforts, CDCR spokespeople - with the help of mainstream media - boost PBSP’s image by publicizing the positive impact made by AEH, while failing to acknowledge that 13 of the 16 elders who authored it continue to languish in prison today. The news story below gives a false account of events, stating that the AEH was created after the men were released from SHU, failing to acknowledge that it was created as a strategy to be released from the SHU, and that if it weren’t for the unity resulting from the AEH, those men would still be suffering in solitary confinement today. (Activist Hugo “Yogi” Pinell was tortured by CDCR in solitary confinement for 45 years.) “When the incarcerated individuals that were housed in the now-dismantled SHU were released, they initiated the Agreement to End Hostilities between races. Once they were out on the yard, they started the P.E.A.C.E group, Prisoners Embracing Anti-Hostility Cultural Evolution, substituting violence with conflict resolution and direct communication between different races. This opened the doors for the prison to begin providing a host of programs.
….Before the hunger strikes and the formation of the P.E.A.C.E group, Woods said “there was no unity among prisoners and everyone distrusted each other... Pelican Bay isn’t even the same place,” Woods said. “There was so much division [before the AEH]. You had every faction separated and there was no line-crossing.” 1
Then in a May 2020 article published on the CDCR website, CDCR employee Capt. Marlaina Dernoncourt declares, “Positive attitudes can improve the atmosphere in an institution… Giving inmates positive and productive ways to express themselves and focus on others and also encouraging them to set the example and be positive role models themselves has started to really change the culture within the prison system.”
So while CDCR employees congratulate themselves for promoting a positive attitude in California prisons, the elders who created the AEH are still not being recognized for their historic role in improving race-relations behind the walls, nor acknowledged as principle thinkers (problem solvers, strategists, scholars, humanitarians) who are badly needed in their communities. These men had to starve themselves for two months in order to be heard.
“It’s only because of The Agreement to End Hostilities that I am now home, after 18 years. It’s because the Agreement created a positive self-help environment where each group can now safely engage in the cultural exchange of materials, tools and ideas, in unity. It is because of these Principal Thinkers that there are no more mass race wars within California prisons, despite the false propaganda orchestrated by CDC small r, that these men are violent, dangerous ongoing threats to public safety. We must liberate the elders.” Min. King X
Despite the monumental accomplishments of these men, despite the excessive “tough on crime” sentencing laws that sanctioned CDCR to confine and torture them for decades, despite good behavior and their participation in programming and community building and activism inside prisons and out, and now despite the threat of COVID-19, these elders remain locked up for more than 20, 30, or even 40 years, under the pretense of their being the “worst of the worst.”
Yet manufactured violence enables CDCR to get away with it. If guards were not triggering violence through their excessive use of force, provocation of racial tensions, or policies such as the forced yard merging of “enemy” groups, thousands of people could go home. So perhaps it's time to stop and ask ourselves, who is really the worst of the worst?
CDCR claimed that the signers of the Agreement to End Hostilities presented a major threat to the safety of the general prison population and held some of those men in solitary confinement for more than 30 years, and none for fewer than ten.
It's actions - refusal to release these elders even as a pandemic rages through the prisons - now imply that these men pose a threat to the safety of the public. Thirteen of these men remain behind bars today. Their average age is 59; between them they have had 56 parole denials, despite years of good behavior. Five have been eligible for parole since the 1990s. Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa aka Ronnie Dewberry, referred to as the Nelson Mendela of the yard, is in his mid 60s. A scholar, educator and activist, he has been incarcerated for almost four decades, and has been eligible for parole for more than 23 years. CDCR refused his release even after he suffered a stroke in early 2020 and became wheelchair bound. In November Sitawa was hospitalized with COVID-19. Another elder and co-author of the AEH, Louis Powell, incarcerated since 1978, continues to promote the AEH to youth on the yard. He is 69 and recently recovered from pneumonia.
1 William, W. (2020). ‘Pelican Bay: Unlocked,’ Red- headed Blackbelt.