Corcoran Report

Kim Pollak

From Prison Focus Issue 46
Summer 2015

“He is so obviously intelligent and so obviously an example of the human resources that our society tosses down the drain…” CPF Legal Investigator

This report is based on information received through written correspondence and interviews with incarcerated men at Corcoran State Prison (COR). The interviews were conducted with over 25 men, in June and July of this year. To prevent retaliation, we have refrained from using names, and use random initials instead. All quotes are from incarcerated men at COR.

Treatment of CPF Legal Investigators by COR staff reflects the challenges faced by other prisoner advocates and loved ones who seek to visit COR SHU inmates and those at other facilities as well. One must question the underlying intentions of COR and CDCR officials in creating the unnecessary but numerous hurdles that potential visitors must jump through. When CPF investigators arrived at COR on the scheduled time, arranged and approved in advance, they were given the run-around. First they were told there was no record that they were coming and that they would have to reschedule. After insisting otherwise, they were sent to another location on the prison grounds, where they were also informed that there was no record of their visit. Finally, after much cajoling, someone took the names of the men that the CPF investigators had on their visiting list, and disappeared into an office. The investigators were sent to wait in an empty room. 55 minutes later and without a word from any guards, one of the CPF workers left the room to find out what was going on, and they were finally allowed in. The interviewees had been waiting for an equally long time, shackled and without explanation for the delay. Consequently, the interviews were behind schedule even before they had begun. Between visits, guards were nowhere to be found. Investigators had to spend time looking for guards to move men into the visiting rooms. As a result of lost time, several visits had to be cut short. During one visit, staff brought the wrong person for the visit, then refused to allow visitors to talk to him, and would not bring the requested person out.

Investigators stated that the prison was filthy, had roaches everywhere and dust covered every surface. This dust blows in from off of the Valley Fever-ridden Central Valley floor and from the ubiquitous, squalid feed lots, within the vicinity of which the prison is located. The visiting rooms were described as unbearably hot, dirty and uncomfortable. One room had swastikas carved into the glass, and another one had so many markings on the window it was hard to see through. The seats for the imprisoned individuals were awkwardly placed on the opposite wall as the phone so that most of the men either stood up or knelt on the floor throughout the entire interview. Those who used the chairs were forced to look across a line down the middle of the glass in order to see the visitor, who also has to crane around this line. The phone line had horrible static and were ramped up to top volume with no controls, limiting communication and clarity.

“State medical care at Corcoran is practically non-existent.” And the substandard level of care that is provided exasperates the already compromised health of men in the COR SHU. There are significant delays and one can expect to wait for weeks or even months to receive a response after submitting a medical request. It took RG two years to receive the appropriate treatment for a torn muscle. It can take two to three years of administrative hoops to receive surgery. Quick medical attention can be received only in extremely dire situations, and even then men may suffer or die from delays. Pain and other medications are denied regularly. Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requests are blatantly denied, as with one man who was not allowed to have his wheelchair in the cell with him, and consequently spent most of 24 hours a day lying on his cold, concrete slab, unable even to write.

Both high blood pressure and diabetes are poorly managed at COR and are exasperated by the lack of fresh or nutritious food. BK, who does not have access to diabetic meals, skips eating parts of his regular meals in order to restrict his sugar intake, but consequently restricts his nutritional intake as well. His strength suffers as a consequence. QY has been unable to acquire the glasses recommended for him by an ophthalmologist, and is unable to get the recommended surgery due to cost.

Men who participated in the hunger strike are still paying the price for their commitment. Many suffer from on-going health problems. (See more below). Medications continue to be denied and withheld regularly. Medical appointments (as well as time in the library) are reportedly counted as yard, and is marked in the records as yard time provided, and yard time taken.

Over the past few decades, prisons and jails have become the largest warehousers of Californians who suffer from mental illness. Huge numbers of mentally ill men and women languish within California’s solitary confinement cells - possibly up to a third of those in the SHU - despite recognition that solitary confinement worsens psychiatric conditions and causes severe suffering.

The following statement, made by an incarcerated individual at COR regarding mental illness on the mainline of California prisons is relevant to the SHU as well: The increase of prisoners suffering from mental illness reflects the “criminalization of mental illness upon the closure of state hospitals. Mainline prisons are insane asylums; inmates desperately need psych evals and are not getting it… The cops [guards] don’t know how to deal with mentally ill inmates. They just know how to [pepper] spray them… Some get meds, but they’re zombie meds.”

Corcoran (and other California maximum security prisons) have special solitary confinement units for the mentally ill, called Psychiatric Services Units (PSU) which separate mentally ill inmates from the rest of the SHU population. These units are part of what former state prisons director Michael Stainer’s described as his intent to "offer a robust mental health program" within "alternative segregated housing." The question of whether severe isolation could ever be consistent with successful mental health treatment is irrelevant, because men with severe mental illnesses are still being housed in the ordinary SHU. The men are told that this is due to space issues, but many are adamant that this is a method of retaliation against other men in the SHU.

We received conflicting reports regarding psychiatric checks. One man stated that the psych tech does walk-by check-ins every one-two weeks; Another man reported that psychiatric checks happen every 90 days. There is reportedly little to no mental health treatment provided, at least no treatment of substance. Also, it is difficult to attain one’s mental health records which may be needed for hearings, lawsuits, etc.

Men are also suffering from nightly sleep deprivation due to the poorly-named practice of “wellness checks,” which consist of guards banging metal against cell doors every ½ hour, 24/7. At Pelican Bay, it has been reported that they are no longer conducting wellness checks. However, we received reports from COR that they are happening and continue to be disruptive to the men’s sleep.

Many men are being transferred to COR from both Tehachapi and Pelican Bay SHUs. (Exact numbers not available due to lack of state or CDCR mandates to keep records.) As a result of all the transfers, many people in the COR SHU are being moved around right now. All of the transfers combined with understaffing is thought to be the cause of increased disruptions to yard, shower, infirmary and library access.

Conditions at COR continue to be reprehensible. According to PK, “The laundry is terrible and dirty; [The] buildings and everything in them is filthy.” Poor ventilation, which has been a problem at Corcoran for years has not yet been addressed by administration. The poor ventilation along with all of the dust and filth in the air is very problematic for everyone, and especially for those with asthma and compromised immune systems.. DV, for example, explained that the stuffy heat affects his respiration, ability to exercise and to sleep. TM explained that the air circulation is hot and slow in the summer and blows strong and cold in the winter. Prisoners are uncomfortable year round. Perhaps COR administration has not found the issue to be urgent as all staff areas reportedly have functioning air conditioning and heating systems. There has been no hot water in the 4A corridor for more than two months.

Men who have been transferred to COR SHU from other institutions systematically report that guards have lost, destroyed, or confiscated their property upon arrival. Many have been waiting to get their belongings back for 1-2 months. Some have never gotten their property returned. NB, who lost half of his belongings in his transfer from another prison, filed a 602 to get his property back, which was denied. MH has been waiting two months to have his special glasses returned to him, which were prescribed to him before arriving at COR, were expensive and paid for by his family. He also filed a 602 which had thus far accomplished nothing. PR described a cell search in which he believes coffee was intentionally spilled all over his books.

602s (APPEALS)
The 602s process at COR is not an effective system, and can barely be considered due process. 602s frequently receive blanket denials. Often there is no response at all after a 602 has been submitted. 602-related retaliation is a serious risk. BM voiced concerns that 602s are not treated as confidential legal mail. This creates more potential for COs to screen out 602s and to retaliate, and allows for greater delays then if 602s were to be classified as legal mail. SD has been placed in Ad. Seg. and the SHU repeatedly for purported gang-related offenses.

Write-ups are often issued over petty acts, and punishments are random and left to the whim of a given guard. Reports indicate that 115s are used as retaliation and to suppress the voices of those who speak up for their rights. JB explained that there are not too many write-ups being issued for talking, “except for certain people.” Those who are targeted are written up for the slightest missteps, such as greeting a friend in passing. If one received a 115 for participating in the hunger strike, and another one for saying “hello” in passing to somebody who is validated as a gang associate, or for sending a drawing home that allegedly has gang-related symbols in it, you are apt to spend more years in solitary confinement than if you kill a fellow prisoner. One man who was an avid participant in the hunger strikes has received three written violations since then; one for the participating in the strike, one for a strike-related drawing and one for a fictional piece of writing. All three were written up as “gang-related activity.”

There continues to be little access to programs and educational opportunities in COR SHU. Because of the cost for private courses and textbooks, education beyond a GED is inaccessible to many. PR, who reads at a 3rd grade level and receives no help for his educational pursuits, explained that working on his legal materials is very difficult. Others striving to educate themselves are frustrated at having their efforts at self-rehabilitation so thoroughly stifled.

Retaliation is routine and typically involves the issuance of 115s, moving men around within and between prisons and cell searches, which usually result in property loss and subsequent 115s. Withholding mail, showers and yard are among the many other methods of staff retribution towards SHU prisoners, especially those who outwardly challenge the system.

Mail service fluctuates and continues to be problem. It can bedelayed for up to two months, and then arrives all at once in a bundle. It is routinely lost or destroyed and prisoners believe mail is tampered with as a form of retaliation. Outgoing mail is often delayed or not received at all. Men from COR SHU voice their concern that some mail never leaves the facility at all. Another reported problem is that the confidentiality of legal mail is compromised and read outside of the presence of the prisoner, against regulations.

Family members now must use an online system called J-Pay to send money to their loved ones. There are no longer other options. This is a problem because it requires access to a computer and knowing how to use it. This creates increased barriers for those whose loved ones do not have these resources.

Access to the law library continues to be terrible.“You can only get library access if you make a fuss.” The waiting time can be months. One can only be sure of receiving library time if a legal deadline is approaching. However, even then one must wait before receiving their mandated time in the library. PP stated that this makes it difficult for men to prepare for cases in advance. As with medical appointments, time in the library is counted as a substitute for yard time.

Yard and showers are inconsistent, and even more so on weekends. Cancellations and disruptions occur regularly. If an incident occurs in one corridor, yard is suspended for everyone. Consequently, men are not receiving the full two hours, three times a week yard time that they are supposed to. Though sometimes staff offers make-up yard time, where one can get several hours at yard, all at one time, one is then at yard alone whereas normally the adjacent cages are full. At Corcoran SHU, this is one of the only times one is in the immediate presence of others who are not guards, though talking is still prohibited. But even make-up yard is inconsistent. We received a conflicting report that make-up yard used to be offered, but no longer is.
There has also been less access to showers lately, and some reported having no access at all. Consequently, men use their sinks to wash themselves. As reported above, there has been not hot water for showering or otherwise in 4A for weeks at a time.

Reports indicate that most of the men in COR SHU remain hungry most of the time, and that the food served at continues to be barely edible. The food is “worse than at Pelican Bay – much worse. Just garbage, in fact…and of course it’s dirty because the whole place is filthy.” Meals are delivered uncovered between facilities across the yard and arrive lukewarm and dusty. DV stated that the food is so bad that it has caused him to vomit on more than one occasion.. TR refuses to call it “food”. After the hunger strike there were reportedly more bugs and hair in the food, than usual. PR reported finding pincer bugs in his food. He also lost a filling when he bit into a rock in his food. He had been waiting over eight months to get his filling fixed, at the time of the interview.

Insufficient portions, which reportedly became smaller after the hunger strike, are especially problematic considering the lack of nutritional value of the food that is provided. Men remain hungry unless they are able to supplement their meals with canteen food, which they must purchase themselves. Those who are indigent cannot count on supplementing their food intake with canteen purchases. KJ explained that on the months when he is not able to go to the canteen he loses 1-2 pounds.

This June and July, Muslims observed the holiday of Ramadan, where they are required to fast during the daylight hours for a lunar month. This year was particularly difficult because Ramadan passed over the summer solstice, which is the longest day of every year. Individuals in the SHU observed Ramadan and were told that they would be provided with a feast on the final night, when the fast was to over. Despite that promise, they were not given any meal at all on that night. Instead, one was told that there would be a “feast” the following day. Of course there was no feast, and he received his regular hallal meal the following day, which included insufficient portions, as usual. A group 602 was submitted in regards to the withholding of a meal at the end of Ramadan.

Hunger strike participants (and even those who did not participate) continue to experience strike-related retaliation in one form or another. EA, who lost his visiting privileges without clear reason, believes this was an act of retaliation for his participation in the hunger strike. NG stated that the consequences for him have been problematic but that the strike was worth even the small changes he has seen. He explained that he now has a different relationship with food, and to eating in general, and often cannot face eating at all. Many hunger strikers are still suffering from subsequent health problems. MH said he has still has not gained all of the weight back that he lost, and he has had two undocumented “man downs” since the strike, due to his compromised health. However he also stated, emphatically, that despite his health issues and the retaliation, he is glad he participated in the hunger strike and that it was worth the sacrifice. Other participants voiced feeling proud of having been a part of it and hold no regrets.

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