Dec 01, 2020
Greetings, by way of introduction: I am a 42-year-old male prisoner serving a life sentence. Over the course of my years living inside the California prison system I have become a jailhouse lawyer and legal activist working to improve the conditions of my, and others', confinement and to create a more just criminal legal system.
Most recently, I have worked with (and become an active member of) the San Francisco Chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild’s legal clinic, the Prisoner Advocacy Network (PAN), to challenge the implementation of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) non-designated program facilities policy (NDPF). This policy of CDCR’s is intended to integrate differently classified groups of prisoners who were once separated for administrative and security reasons. I write to you today to explain why CDCR’s NDPF policy is counter-productive to the policy’s stated purposes and dangerous for the affected prisoners. I implore you to take any and all actions at your disposal to end CDCR’s ill-conceived and implemented NDPF policy.
Mainly, this is being done to shut down the Special Needs Yard (SNY aka protected custody) program facilities that were originally conceived as a reprieve for certain groups of prisoners from General Population (GP). Instead, the result of the NDPF policy has been tumultuous due to CDCR’s lack of providing a safe and productive environment. Offering a more successful integration back into society would require CDCR to provide work, education, and therapeutic programming opportunities to prisoners—all of them. The current system fails to provide these opportunities, especially under the current conditions created to halt the spread of COVID-19 in California’s prisons.
From the outset, the SNY program was set up for failure and has emasculated the individual. This has caused prisoners to feel emasculated while incarcerated, creating one of two effects in a prisoner’s psyche: (a) a demoralized state of crisis, or, (b) an assertion of dominance through bravado and violent machismo. The SNY program has propagated the need for prisoners to assume either a “prey” or “predator” mindset, instead of developing each individual’s inherent self-worth -- which would allow them to grow into a better person and rise above the violence that otherwise seems necessary to survive life in prison.
The NDPF policy functions as it was designed to - i.e., to keep us in psychological as well as physical chains, in a perpetual state of guilt and condemnation. As a misperceived, easier way to control us. Though the NDPF policy is seemingly effective now, in the long-term the policy will cause unusual, bizarre, and awkward situations for CDCR to address by subjecting us to degrading, dehumanizing, and indignant treatment. The whole goal of the NDPF policy is purportedly to break the mainline GP, and stop the use of indefinitely solitary confinement.
Anecdotally, there was a lawsuit in the mid 2000s after prisoners were issued pink linen. The plaintiff prevailed because the pink linen caused demoralization. Although this is a small example, in principle the NDPF policy has the same impact as did the pink linens. The only difference here is that those of us who have been classified as SNY have become house broken - meaning, we don’t have the wherewithal to stand up to any authority (whether CDCR or fellow inmates on GP).
CDCR’s NDPF policy came about in response to the findings of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division- Criminal Section investigation into the SNY programs at High Desert State Prison in 2016, Pelican Bay State Prison in 2017, and California Correctional Institution in 2018. The investigation uncovered and reported egregious abuses of CDCR’s authority at those facilities, and allegations of gross misconduct by CDCR staff there. To be clear, the violations of law uncovered by the investigation were not novel, just well hidden from public scrutiny.
THE NDPF POLICY IS ARBITRARY AND CAPRICIOUS
I can understand why people living outside the walls of a prison would think that prisoners deserve this type of treatment. “It’s part of the incarceration experience” or people “just don’t care about criminals.” But it does matter because most prisoners will eventually be released back into the general California community, from which they originated, back to a lack of family cohesion, and back to limited opportunity for economic or personal development.
There is no longer any question that punitive measures, alone, do not work to rehabilitate a criminal mindset. Instead, purely punitive measures exacerbate things. California prisoners have already been incarcerated and deprived of the people and things we cherish and hold dear in addition to our freedom of movement and self-autonomy. This is punishment enough. The NDPF policy is not conducive to reformation of the criminal mindset, rehabilitation, or healing. We’re not supposed to come to prison and get worse.
The only viable solution is expanding the freedoms and opportunities of each prisoner by allowing us to be politically empowered with economic visions unseparated from security aims of CDCR, and honoring the constraints formed on each upstanding Californian on the basis of public and private morality. Prisoners will observe respect and show their trustworthiness if given an opportunity. People cannot thrive and reform their criminal mindset unless they are free from oppression. This is a basic tenant of the American system fought for in the Revolution (innocent until proven guilty). CDCR does not operate under this tenant.
The fact that the State of California runs the prison system on a $12 billion annual budget (half of which goes into salaries) and is willing to pay an average of $70,000 a year to house a single prisoner, but will not pay for any Californian to pursue a college education at similar cost, emphasizes the current power imbalance and disparity in distribution of State resources. Only by taking affirmative steps for a constructive and productive experience for prisoners, one that promotes work ethic and financial independence with the ability to earn an honest living while incarcerated and after, will the prison system become truly effective and rehabilitative. As structured now, the prison system rewards behavior that the larger California community cannot condone. The current prison system facilitates recidivism.
As things stand, only a fraction of the prison population has the opportunity to become rehabilitated. Of that small group with access to valuable programming in a relatively safe living environment, only few people are able to succeed because programming and job opportunities are doled out on the basis of seniority—many prisoners are therefore spending years of their sentence without any work assignment. Furthermore, if a person with a work detail gets into any trouble (which is hard to avoid considering the dangerous conditions inside California’s prisons) then they must give up their employment (and any skills they were developing) and go to the back of the line to receive a job assignment. Everyone with the desire to work and gain employable skills should be able and encouraged to do so. In the current system, this is impossible for many. If it truly were CDCR’s intention to create a safe, secure and productive prison population that the larger California community could welcome back into the fold then CDCR would appropriate resources to each prisoner’s rehabilitation. Instead, each prisoner must grapple with living in conditions of despondency and desperation, devoid of dignity, integrity, or decency.
The California prisoner system doesn't have any credibility among prisoners, and many of us have no vested interest in redeeming ourselves beyond managing to survive. This pushes people into the underground/gang subculture to find a measure of protection, stability and support. Still, I have never met a prisoner (no matter their station in life) that didn’t want to do better for themselves. We are just inept to do so while living inside the walls. First CDCR excludes us from participating in social systems designed to rehabilitate us, and then once we are finally permitted to participate in them, penalizes us for not knowing how to succeed.
While recognizing the issues I’m describing inside CDCR are part of larger social issues faced by the United States and the West, they speak to the heart of how marginalized and disenfranchised people are treated by mass incarceration and recidivism. This is further compounded by early trauma, abuse or neglect from interested entities that have something to lose by helping others.
The NDPF policy is going to bring things to a head inside CDCR, and in determining the next phase of criminal justice policy reform in California. The policy will either further subjugate prisoners—ruled by vigilante justice—or, liberate us from the despondency of tyrannical control and coercion. In light of CDCR’s opposition, undermining and fighting true rehabilitation for prisoners at every step of the way, the California legislature recently enacted criminal sentencing reforms that will hopefully create a more equitable process for convicts. This should go a long way to mitigate prisoner’s and former incarcerees’ frustration and aggravation towards the system. The next step is to ensure that prisoners and former incarcerees can vote and exercise their civil rights. OPTIMAL REDRESS
The truth is that CDCR just wants to be exempt from any scrutiny and criticism. CDCR wants absolute power as it allows ineptness, incompetence and cruelty to prevail in the absence of any transparency, accountability or responsibility to the prison population. The only reason for this is that prisoner are criminals. There is no other sector of private or public industry that enjoys the level of immunity that CDCR has. This is abhorrent, and contrary to the fundamental principles of democracy that is America’s system of check and balances.
This is why the work we prisoner activists and litigants do is so important. Instead of being fair and rule abiding, CDCR resorts to any means necessary to thwart complaints by prisoners coming to the attention of watch-dogs or the general public. Instead of addressing underlying issues of the system operates, CDCR takes any grievance made against it as a challenge to their authority. That is unfortunate because grievances are a prisoner’s only means to engage in the civil and political process to improve the conditions of confinement for everyone. CDCR’s reaction to grievances leaves prisoners without a voice, and ripe for exploitation.
In the California Inspector General’s Salinas Valley State Prison-Special Report issued February 2019, it outlined the arbitrary process of investigating and addressing allegations by prisoners of serious staff misconduct. The Inspector General concluded that CDCR could not be trusted to conduct its own investigations due to the conflict of interest. The Inspector General recommended that an outside entity by engaged to review grievances and 602 appeals in California prisons. As of yet, no substantive action has been taken in response to the report.
The PIP is a good example for this problem. Those with the worst traumas are able to get treatment which motivates people to seek further self-improvement. My psychologist told me that when the program was under federal receivership, some patients were given coaches and others could earn a monthly allowance if they showed improvement. Eventually, these people were discharged from PIP back into SNY or GP yards. She thought the program was more effective because individuals were incentivized to rehabilitate themselves.
Most patients here in my PIP yard are schizophrenic (though, they are more lucid than you’d think). They respond well to positive stimulation and medication, and know a sweet deal when they see it. I consider some of them my friends. However, now that CDCR has taken back over the PIP, it has begun to phase out incentives to rehabilitate. As a result, patients are choosing to stay in PIP longer. Currently, the guards union (“CCPOA”), is in a battle with the Colman case/settlement (monitored by the Rosen, Bien, Galveston an Grunfeld law firm and the Prison Law Office) regarding the firing of all of the Medical Training Assistants (“MTAs”) who already have some officer training. CDCR wants to hire more corrections officers instead of MTAs. Ultimately, CDCR will prevail as they are in charge and prioritize “security”.
I was admitted to PIP over a year ago for “delusions” after I continuously got sick while eating my meals (all prepared by CDCR or other prisoners). PAN and my attempts to stop this retaliation by CDCR against me in the form of contaminating my meals have been to no avail because we must rely on CDCR to share the relevant information and proof of the retaliation. I just need safe food to eat so that I can carry on my work and activism.
I appreciate all the time and consideration that you have given to this letter. If I can be of any further assistance, please feel free to contact me. Until then, I wish you a happy, healthy and fulfilling journey. Take care for now. •