Aug 20, 2015
From Prison Focus Issue 46
“People are coming out of the SHU skinny and pale. Their minds are effected… It start to change you.” Anonymous
This report is based on information received through written correspondence and interviews with incarcerated men at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP). The interviews were conducted with 38 men, in March and June of this year. This report does not cover the Step Down Program (SDP) or Department Review Board (DRB), both of which are covered in a separate SDP/DRB report. All quotes were made by incarcerated men at PBSP.
The medical care at PBSP has not improved. CPF continues to receive reports of denied, untimely and less than inadequate care. It is widely believed among prisoners that withholding medical care is used as a method of retaliation. Doctors reportedly do not listen to the men and are falsifying information in prisoners’ charts. Some falsely claim that their patient turned down treatment. They downplay the symptoms and undermine men's claims in order to withhold medications and treatments. For example, one person reported that medical staff misrepresented his medical issues in his records, downplaying the degree of pain he was experiencing, and was consequently denied pain medications. Another person reported a severe skin condition that was classified as cosmetic and treatment was denied.
Medications are frequently confiscated upon arrival at PBSP, including from those with severe conditions such as chronic degenerative disc disease. After one person’s pain medications were confiscated, he was “barely able to get aspirin.” When a condition is chronic, such as allergies, instead of automatic renewal of their medications, they must make a medical request for an appointment each time their medication runs out, and pay for each appointment. Others have been told that their medications will be returned once they get to the mainline. In addition, some men refuse to go to the infirmary because it is “too risky” and “too dirty”. One reported that he will not even go to the infirmary, for fear that he will lose the medications he already has.
Items such as glasses, compression stockings for high blood pressure, back braces and canes are regularly denied or confiscated, from both the men already at PBSP, and those just arriving from other prisons. One man reported that he had his back brace confiscated when he arrived from Corcoran. He had to put in a new request, and go through the lengthy process of reacquiring the necessary items, a process he presumably already went through at Corcoran. Another man had his reading glasses confiscated upon arrival at PBSP and was made to order new ones through the prison canteen.
Men who suffer from Hepatitus C, which is rampant in California prisons, are not given access to medications known to prevent the onset of symptoms. MERS, a potentially fatal respiratory infection, and staph infections are not being treated properly. High blood pressure is widespread. Substandard food and excessive amounts of stress contribute to widespread hypertension and diabetes. Poor environmental conditions aggravate pre-existing health problems, while creating new ones. The alternate blowing of cold or hot air into the cells exasperates men’s aches and pain and promotes the flu and other illnesses.
Even if decent medical care was provided, the health of all men in solitary confinement would remain compromised due to the horrible conditions, food and abuse. Those who are in good health when admitted inevitably develop health problems that will almost certainly go left untreated.
Few challenge the fact that solitary confinement and extreme sensory deprivation negatively effect mental health. Men who did not suffer from mental health problems before solitary confinement, report developing problems that worsen with time spent in the SHU. Simply put by one person, “It starts to change you.” One man, recently released from the SHU to the mainline and allowed to have contact visits again, described how his deteriorating mental health and auditory hallucinations affected his visits with his wife. He explained that the movement of shadows was disconcerting, “like [the shadow of] a bird on the yard; you can’t figure out where it comes from and it’s paralyzing.”
Other reports describe memory loss, and becoming over- reactive to sounds while other sense are dulled. Aggression and depression escalate. Tempers are ignited with little or even no provocation.
We were informed that at some prisons mental health professionals distribute games and puzzles, but this does not happen at PBSP. Nevertheless, some men engage in activities such as math and mind games that help to stimulate his mind. One such example is a man who said he is trying to stave off losing his sanity “like my neighbors have.” Mental health check-ins are reportedly happening about once a week through the cell door.
CONFISCATION OF PERSONAL BELONGINGS
Cells are often searched when the men are not present but are at yard, in the shower or at a hearing of any sort. The prison confiscates many personal items, like letters and photos, that provide these men with some of the very few comforts they have. Items that one has had in their cells for years may be suddenly removed without explanation, and/or become a piece of evidence used towards validation, such as a photo of a friend or parent that the prison alleges is a gang associate. “IGI is saying that playing cards and pictures with puppy dogs are contraband.” One reported that photos and address book and family photos which were confiscated over a year ago have not been returned because, he was told, they are part of a pending IGI investigation.
The loss and destruction of important court papers is especially problematic. One individual had to start over on a prop 36 resentencing petition after IGI confiscated his legal papers, claiming that the witness list was a prohibited 3rd party communication.
Men arriving at PBSP from other prisons are systematically having their belongings taken or lost. Again, important documents frequently come up missing. The men are rarely allowed to keep all of the items that were approved at the prison from which they arrived, including medications, medical aids, extension cords, headphone extensions, FM tuners, grey sweatshirts and black shoes (shoes must be white), as well as the more personal items; photos, address books, drawings, legal papers and so on. “Anything they give us, they find a way to take. They will find something out of your control and use it against you.”
Most individuals in PB SHU are still only entitled to one package a year. The staff continue to arbitrarily deny package items that the catalogs state are approved. The vendors state that each item in their catalogs have been preapproved by the CDCR office of standardization. COs are reportedly supposed to open the packages in front of the men, however this often does not occur. The contents of one’s package are delivered in a bag, having already been rummaged through and missing items of which the recipient may or may not be informed.
One person who was sent a $360 book order by his family, but the individual was told that the books were on the disallowed list, which the family says is not the case. The books were never returned to his family, and has been unable to get a refund for the books. Others reported that their families tried to send annual packages, only to be told by the vendors that they could not send that person anything at all. Sometimes the delivery of a packages is so delayed that some of the food inside it goes bad.
602s are so frequently lost, delayed, uniformly denied or cause for retaliation, that some men no longer consider them as a resource worth using. Frequently, no responses are received at all. GG stated that he does not bother anymore because he “knows it won’t make it out of the building.” The process was described “as a joke” by one inmate. “The IGI is sent to investigate themselves,” he explained. “They lie and there is no accountability.” One person reported that when he filed a 602 appealing a 115 he had been issued, they sent the same officer that gave him the 115 to investigate it.
The risk of retaliation for submitting 602s is high. Nevertheless, many continue to submit 602s despite these problems. Each man is permitted to submit one 602 for a single issue every two weeks. This causes problems because if you have multiple issues to challenge, you can only appeal some because the others will no longer be eligible for appeal due to filing deadlines. For instance, if you received multiple mail stop notices during one week, you could only challenge the disallowment of one piece of mail. The others could not be 602’d later due to filing deadlines.
The IGI is slowly but surely returning to the use of innocuous, speculative information to issue 115s for STG/Gang activity. Primarily, imprisoned men who have been labeled leaders or members are being targeted, however, other people who have made complaints, submitted 602s or have litigation against CDCR are also targeted.
Though 115s are meant for specific behavior violations, PBSP IGI often do not identify a specific behavior, but rather write the all-inclusive term, “gang activity”. 115 violations are a serious consequence and can have real impact on the length of time an individual spends in solitary confinement.
There has been a notable increase in 115 write-ups that are mail-related, for alleged gang-related communications and activity. Following are a few such reports. One man was accused of “communication with the streets” after he wrote to a family member asking if they could help arrange for him to be celled with a friend of his, also at PBSP. He had been single celled for about eight years, and remains so at this time. Two men who were both writing to the same person received violations for a mutual “link” to somebody on the outside, and therefore, to each other. Another prisoner received a postcard asking if he had “heard from T.R.” When he responded that he had not, he was written up for gang-related communications, based on IGI’s claim that the initials were a code name for a gang associate. This sort of arbitrary denial of mail “chills the likelihood” of sending out letters, becoming yet another factor leading to the isolation of men from their friends, families and communities on the outside.
115s also continue to be issued on a regular basis for alleged gang-related communications, for talking to others in the law library, in the yard or on the way to a shower. One person reported that he does not go to the yard or law library because he fears false allegations of partaking in gang-activity by association.
According to men that have been in both PBSP General Population and the SHU, the mail service in the SHU is significantly worse. Outgoing letters to loved ones and others, as well as time sensitive legal papers, are not reaching their destination in a reasonable amount of time, and often not at all.
Individuals are sometimes not even informed their outgoing mail is blocked. One individual reported that he had no idea that his outgoing letters were being blocked until he finally received a postcard from his family asking why he had not been writing.
There has also reportedly been an increase in the denial of incoming mail. Often men are not informed of the confiscated letters, though they are supposed to receive a mail-stop notice. The “13 oz rule” for packages, which was not previously enforced, is now being enforced suddenly and without explanation. Several men have had their incoming mail returned for this reason.
IGI has been readily issuing mail-related 115s for alleged “gang-activity”. IGI frequently claims that certain addresses are connected to a gang. Men are denied letters from family members who are labeled as gang associates by IGI. In one report, a man received a 115 based on a letter from his elementary-aged daughter. IGI claimed that there was a coded message within her letter. (He 602d the 115 and it was dropped.) (See section on 115s for more on mail-related violations.)
One reported that he had a money order denied because the money, received from a pen pal who had won the money gambling, legally, was classified as “funds from an illicit source.” Another man reported that his money order was held for months, when it should have been deposited into his account right away. Another had his money order returned because it allegedly came from a gang-related address.
LACK OF EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
The majority of incarcerated individuals with whom we meet and correspond express a strong desire to engage in educational activities. Despite it being common knowledge that education expands ones’ mind and contributes to the rehabilitation of troubled individuals, as well as key to success upon release from prison, the opportunities are scarce, to say the least. There are a limited number of people in SHU that are permitted to participate in educational programs, reportedly due to lack of funds and understaffing. Sometimes approval is based on release date, and lifers are given the lowest priority.
Most educational programs available to men at PBSP cost money, and those that are free are often full. Requests to enroll in college courses are met with either unreasonable delays or no response at all. Even AA and NA materials are difficult to acquire, making it a challenge for participants to work the 12 Steps. One individual, while housed in Ad-Seg, was permitted to attend a group/class, but would have been required to do a strip search each and every time he went to class. As a result he chose not to participate. Other prisoners eager to take college classes are unable to enroll because he has no ability to obtain a copy of his birth certificate or documentation of California residency.
A GED course is offered to SHU inmates, though it is unreliable and slow due to long delays. Most students have no access to an actual teacher or tutor. Homework can be submitted through prison mail, for feedback. There are reportedly many obstacles to accessing proctored exams. Exams that must be returned through the mail may be caught up in mail room delays, leading to an automatic fail. In Administrative Segregation (Ad. Seg. or ASU) there is no access to the GED course at all.
PBSP still refuses to provide less library time than what the other CDCR SHUs provide and less than what regulations require. See CCR § 3123(b). Computer access in the law library is also a problem. Even when men get the opportunity to get on a computer, they rarely have the skills or receive the guidance they need to complete the necessary tasks within the limited time they are permitted. “They put you in a room and say, ‘figure it out’.” Staff are reportedly unhelpful and uninterested in supporting prisoners in finding what they need.
We received a report that after the hunger strike COs retaliated against the men by liquidating their library. Many books were destroyed or removed, and though staff has reportedly begun to reassemble the library, the list of available books is much smaller now. Books ordered from catalogues, or legal cases requested from the law library, may take between one and two months to arrive, or not at all. This can have serious consequences for those working against inflexible court deadlines.
115s are issued for talking in the library. Some men who will not use the library, for fear of being written up for participating in “gang activity” if another inmate speaks to them, or if the COs think they hear something. Others are discouraged to go due to concern that their cell will be raided once they are gone.
While visits have reportedly increased for those in the Step Down Program, there has been an overall increase in the scrutiny of visitors at all California Prisons. Reports include descriptions of family members with criminal records are summarily denied visiting privileges, regardless of the nature of the crime or time since punishment was served.
Prisoners are not provided adequate notice that loved ones are coming to visit, even if the visits are scheduled. As a result, visitors are made to wait hours and visits are cut short, due to timing and capacity restrictions. This can be devastating to families who have not seen each other in years and even decades, and for family members who have saved money, taken time off work and traveled over 800 miles to visit.
In order for each inmate to receive his mandated hour and a half of yard time each day, staffneed to begin releasing men to yard between 7:15 to 7:30 a.m. Often staff “lounge around talking” until they feel like releasing yard, which is frequently after 8:00 a.m.. As a result yard time is frequently cut short for many, and the last person usually only gets a half hour. Yard is often cancelled for entire pods and blocks, due to DRB hearings, staff birthday parties, trainings and so on. If there is an incident, yard may be cancelled for everybody for the entire day.
Food is described with adjectives such as soggy, cold, spoiled, under-cooked, over-cooked, processed, artificial, tasteless, lacking anything fresh, and insufficient in quantity. Food is overly processed and has different taste or texture than natural foods, such as substitute cheeses do not melt and overly-processed peanut butter that give people cramps. The portions are small and men express waking up and going to bed hungry every day. Many substitute the meager portions with over-priced, nutritionally-lacking food from the canteen. Men drink a lot of water to help them feel full, and voice their conviction that poor quality food is used as a weapon to weaken them.
Men describe eating in their cells like eating in a bathroom.
STAFF BEHAVIOR AND MISCONDUCT
Guards continue to act with little or no accountability, behind a wall of silence. We are told that guards stand up and protect one another, even when some cross the line. One man stated, along similar lines, “The prison guard culture here is a big problem. Because of the hunger strike, some changes were made in Sacramento, but the guards have not changed. They are resistant to reforms… because it is considered to be a harsh place, where they can do what they want: Stop mail, give rule violations for innocuous things, deny mail, packages, property...”
Following are incidents that were reported to CPF. One man was sprayed with pepper spray because he was eating paper and reportedly refused to stop when the guards demanded. A serious violation was issued, (to the prisoner, not the guard) but was later dropped to a warning. Another was harassed for whistling while at yard. The guard opened and slammed his door and yelled at the man to be quiet. When the man refused, the guard went into his cell and destroyed his belongings. Another guard allegedly slammed a man’s face on the wall because he thought the man did not move close enough to the wall when other people came by in the same corridor.
Officers harass men who are involved in litigation against PBSP or CDCR with anything from the issuance of 115s, to taking their legal papers from their folders or manilla envelopes and ruffling through and disarranging them.
The so-called “random” urine tests are reportedly targeted and used as a method of retaliation as well.
One guard told a prisoner that he was dedicating his life to keeping him and others in the SHU.
THE AGREEMENT TO END HOSTILITIES
We continue to hear encouraging feedback about The Agreement To End Hostilities. Men voice their enthusiasm, saying that there is peace between groups in ways that there was not before. “Progress is being made.” Prisoners have reported that he would never have brought up issues on behalf of others from different races if it were not for the hunger strike and the growing solidarity between prisoners. He stated that they are “fighting together now” and that “everyone looks out for each other.”
Some guards continue their efforts to undermine this growing solidarity. One CO was heard saying, “I can’t believe you Mexicans are letting a black guy talk like that. You need to keep the African guy in check.”
MISCELLANEOUS REPORTS WORTH NOTING:
• The speakers in the pods are very loud, which is extremely disturbing and anxiety causing to men who are over sensitive to sounds of any volume due to extended periods of sensory deprivation.
• Relative to Corcoran and other CDCR facilities, PBSP offers the men the least amount of human interaction; it is the most isolated.
• “Potty Watch” searches continue to be practiced at PBSP. Men suspected of swallowing weapons or drugs have to undergo a cruel and humiliating contraband search procedure that lasts, at a minimum, as long as it takes the men to have three qualifying bowel movements, while being watched by at least 2 guards, which usually lasts between three and five days. Other states have far less abhorrent ways of searching for contraband, yet reportedly more effective. Potty Watch cannot be described as anything less than cruel and unusual.
• Phone privileges continue to be denied for the large majority of men in the SHU.