From Prison Focus Issue 50
The following report is compiled from correspondence with individuals at Corcoran State Prison (COR) and from an in-person visit with legal investigators conducted in August 2016. To prevent retaliation, we have refrained from using names and use random initials instead.
We woke up before dawn to get ready for our visit to Corcoran State Prison. Upon entering the grounds we immediately noticed the sheer volume of the economy it takes to run a prison: big-rig trucks entering the facility to make deliveries, cubicles dividing up large office spaces, and various sectors managing specific issues in their respected departments, going about their business of warehousing human beings. We saw firsthand how human suffering within prisons not only generates profit based on misery but also feeds thousands of public-state employees that depend on this irrational system for their livelihood. From an abolitionist perspective, dismantling an economy that employs this many appears extremely challenging to overcome.
As we make our way to the prison where individuals in the SHU are housed, a sense of normalization and matter-of-factness is carried on among the Correctional Officers (COs, or “guards”). They are dressed up in military fatigues, carrying bags and coolers for their lunches that barely get inspected by the front desk guard. They flash their IDs and are waved in without incident or hesitation.
After we clear the front desk and doubled barbwire gates, we wait for COs to let us in. As the doors open up, we are led down hallways – a bureaucratic maze of sorts that felt as though it was intended to cause confusion. The hallways open up to the end of an area that looks like a cafeteria meal room, we are told the last four rooms are for legal and private visits. The air conditioning is running low and this room is filled with mildly humid dense air. The guards proceed to notify us that no one will be in the room so we can leave our doors open for ventilation. Needless to say, we decide to keep our doors closed in order to preserve the confidentiality of the visits. As we wait for the men to be brought out, we notice there is a cage near the private rooms that is no higher than four feet; it is there for the children of visitors and perhaps the prisoners. There was a small box overfilled with toys, puzzles, and other various games. A small table intended for preschool age children with miniature chairs are next to this table. My collegue offers an opinion that perhaps the cage material was left over from constructing the prison. We turn our attention to the legal rooms and wait patiently for the men to arrive. They slowly start to come in one at a time and we began to conduct our interviews via glass in the 4x6 rooms. We pick up our phones, make the proper introductions, and proceed with our interviews.
Movement from SHU to General Population
Several of our correspondents are “SHU kickouts,” individuals who went to the Institutional Classification Committee (ICC) in the past year pursuant to the Ashker settlement and were moved out of Security Housing Units (SHU) to the mainline (general population, or GP). (For more information about the Ashker settlement, refer to the Ashker bulletin in this paper and PF Issue 48, which covers the settlement in great length). Many of these individuals were already on a step in the Step Down program when they were moved to the mainline.
During this visit, we heard confirmation of previous reports that the B unit at Corcoran is currently undergoing construction to convert from a SHU to a general population unit. All SHU prisoners are presently consolidated in the A unit.
Movement from the SHU to GP was done for most without advance notice or planning. Mr. Y was not given any warning as to when he would be leaving his cell. A few weeks after his visit to the ICC, he woke one day and was told to pack. Mr. S noted that after his ICC hearing, he was moved to the mainline that very day. Mr. P went to see the ICC and immediately filed an administrative appeal (602 form) requesting special housing due to safety concerns. His case was elevated to the Departmental Review Board (DRB) in Sacramento, but when he went to his hearing the DRB had no record of his 602 request. He did note that thanks to the advocacy of the Ashker attorneys, he had access to extra privileges while he remained in SHU on this special status.
Mr. O was pleased to report that lifers in GP are now receiving family visits at Corcoran. This is due to a legislative addition to the California state budget for the 2016/17 fiscal year.
Security checks continue unabated every 30 minutes around the clock in the Corcoran SHU, although reports indicate they are not occurring at all on the GP yards. (See the Pelican Bay article in this issue for further information and background on the security checks). Mr. F reported that guards have become more respectful recently and appear to be trying to keep quiet during the rounds. Mr. P confirmed that most guards conduct the checks quietly, but a few “do not care” and are very loud.
MEDICAL AND DISABILITY CHECKS
Nearly every person we spoke with on this visit had serious medical issues and were not receiving adequate care. Mr. O reported that medical staff refused to provide any treatment for his Hepetitis C condition because it had “not progressed far enough.” This is similar to what we have reported at Pelican Bay, where Hep C levels must progress to late stage 3 or stage 4 before individuals are eligible for treatment. At stage 3, Hep C begins to cause irreversible damage to the liver.
One positive note is that access to pain medication and other needed medications are more available at Corcoran than other facilities. Mr. H reported that when he was moved to High Desert State Prison, he was removed from all pain medications entirely. He suffers from nerve damage in his leg and foot as a result of an assault by COs in years past. He still has trouble walking. Once back at Corcoran, he had to use the HC 602 process but was eventually provided with his medications again. (Compare with the Pelican Bay report in this issue, where medical staff refuse to provide any pain medication above Tylenol).
Mr. L stated that there is one medical technician in particular who is very difficult and mean to patients. She constantly cancels appointments late in the process such that patients are still charged for the visit.
Two individuals we spoke with were wheelchair-bound. One, Mr. D, described conditions that fall far below the requirements for accessibility as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There are no hand railings or curbs along walkways or in the showers, so he is unable to access the showers and other facilities. He rolls up his mattress in order to remain upright while sleeping, but it is extremely difficult given the structure of the cells. Mr. D stated that it is very difficult to obtain medical care. He is provided with some pain medication, but he is not given any physical therapy, and was denied an MRI to evaluate the extent of his condition. He has filed multiple Health Care 602 forms (HC602s) with very little success.
Mr. W is also confined to a wheelchair. He has a number of medical conditions, and is concerned that the medical clinic does not keep accurate or secure records. He wears hearing aids in both ears, one of which is broken. This has prevented him from accessing educational programming, which is only offered through a TV/headphone setup (he can’t wear headphones due to hearing aids). They have made no attempts at reasonable accommodations for access to programming, as required by the ADA. He spoke with an ADA Representative, who told him that a doctor would need to order special headphones, but has not gotten an appointment with a doctor yet.
While a few reporters stated that there has been a positive change in the attitudes of guards, others had reports of racist language and violence from COs. Mr. O witnessed someone “thrown down” by guards for standing up and stretching while in the medical clinic. Mr. H witnessed a guard pushing a prisoner against the wall and beating him up while handcuffed. The prisoner was subsequently put in the SHU for “attacking a guard,” but it was obvious he was the only one who was injured.
One troubling report we received after our last visit to Corcoran in March was that on the walk back from a visit with one of CPF’s legal investigators, a CO slammed a correspondent against the wall and told him, “get me, punk.” He knew the guard was trying to set him up so he stayed calm and did not take the bait. This level of instigation from COs immediately after an attorney visit could constitute a chilling of access to the courts, which is a violation of prisoners’ First Amendment rights.
Mr. Q noted that on the mainline, many COs are former gang investigators (IGI) and employ IGI tactics such as aggressive and violent cell searches, taking personal property that is allowed under Title 15 regulations, and confiscating books with political themes. There is one guard in particular who was removed from his position due to inappropriate behavior.
Mr. M reported that guards in general do not like prisoners advocating for themselves and are more hostile toward jailhouse lawyers and SHU kick-outs. Many are targeted for cell searches, which lead to guards taking property and issuing write-ups for petty things.
General population yards are notoriously understaffed, so it is difficult for some to access basic privileges, such as phone calls and canteen. At times there is only one CO in the building at a time. Possibly related to this issue, Mr. D reported that prisoners are now confined to tables during visits, which was not always the case. This makes visiting difficult especially when loved ones are mobility-impaired.
RULE VIOLATION REPORTS
The common thread among other prisoners who have received Rule Violation Reports (115s) is that more often or not, the violations regard conspiracy and recruitment to gangs/Security Threat Groups (STGs), which automatically makes the violation a more serious offense. This uptick became noticeable since the Ashker settlement went into place in October 2015, which eliminated the ability of guards to put people in the SHU exclusively for gang membership without any accompanying behavior. Mr. C also noted that there are more 115s issued for petty and frivolous things than before. He believes these are used as a tactic to keep prisoners from having access to things the guards view as privileges, such as programming and yard time.
Mr. G stated that he has noticed more random drug testing lately.
Our correspondents reported that they do use the 602 process and that it is occasionally successful. Mr. P filed a 602 in order to get copies of transcripts from an education class for his parole application; it was granted and he was provided the documents he needed. On the other hand, Mr. W filed a 602 challenging a transfer decision, and went he went before the DRB, there was no record at all of his appeals on the matter. Several noted that they must use the HC602 process in order to access medical treatment.
Mr. C said that there were two issues he is actively appealing, both custody/housing related: one for higher-quality razors, as the ones that are provided are painful and cause skin problems; and another regarding the laundry process. He explained that currently, there are not enough laundry bags, so the clothing exchange for the laundry, which should be every Wednesday, is delayed, sometimes for weeks. When he does get laundry back, clothing is ripped and not properly washed. Mr. D has filed a 602 regarding clothing because he was issued clothing that is 3x too big for him and COs refuse to exchange for properly fitting clothes.
YARD AND HOUSING CONDITIONS
Mr. U reported that similar to the conditions in the SHU, general population cells are in terrible disrepair. Leaks are persistent and the ventilation is awful, creating an environment where it is stiflingly hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Mr. K noted that COs are keeping SHU kickouts on single cell status for no reason.
Many complained that yard is consistently cancelled. Excuses from COs include kitchen renovation, security checks, and low staffing. Mr. T reported that in the past month his unit went two weeks without any yard time, and the month before there were three weeks without yard. Mr. D, in a different unit, also confirmed that his block will regularly go up to a week at a time with no yard. Only one correspondent stated that his block receives yard time on schedule. Mr. V, who is wheel-chair bound, noted that the yard is not wheelchair/ADA accessible so he is unable to take advantage of certain privileges & facilities.
Mr. G noted that the COs have been cleaning the facilities more lately, including using disinfectants and re-painting in places, but overall the facilities are old and filthy, especially the plumbing and laundry.
An excess of mold and other sanitation issues caused the main kitchen to shut down for the past several months and at least through November. Food is now heated in each housing building and delivered on carts to cells. While meals are consistently delivered on time, the food is often undercooked or overcooked, and portions are smaller than other prisons. “I thought the portions couldn’t get smaller than at Pelican Bay, but then I came here.”
Accessing the law library is “one of the hardest things to do at Corcoran;” “almost impossible” to get in. If you have a pending case, you are more likely to get access, but you still must wait several weeks at times. If you do not have a pending case, typical wait time is 3-4 months before you will be allowed into the library. Mr. K was denied access to the copy machine because he was still at the 602 appeals level and had not yet filed a lawsuit.
Each visit to the law library is only two hours, which does not give sufficient time to research all of the case law one might be looking for. Mr. E also stated that you are not allowed bathroom breaks while in the law library.
EDUCATION AND PROGRAMMING
Generally, our correspondents are frustrated with the lack of meaningful programming opportunities. Especially for those who are trying to work toward a SB 260/261 or lifer parole hearing, who are required to complete a certain amount of vocational certificates in order to be eligible for release. Mr. W explained a difficult situation where there are some people in programming classes who do not want to be there, but they are not allowed to drop the classes and give their spots to others who want to be there more.
Mr. M stated that he has tried to access college classes but it’s next to impossible to get signed up and to get required books on time to meet class schedules.