From California Prison Focus Issue 50
The following report is compiled from correspondence with individuals at Pelican Bay State Prison and from an in-person visit with legal investigators conducted in September 2016. To prevent retaliation, we have refrained from using names and use random initials instead. All quotes are from incarcerated individuals at Pelican Bay.
FROM THE SHU TO GENERAL POPULATION
During this visit, as in March 2016, we had the opportunity to meet with people who are now in general population (thanks are due to the Ashker team for their incredible work in making this a reality). While it is universally the case of those we spoke with that people are happier on the mainline than in SHU, there are great challenges as well, such as intense sensory overload.
While the stories of those released to the mainline are heart-warming, not everyone has had such opportunity. For instance, Mr. E reported that he was identified as a potential victim in a conspiracy plot, and now has been placed in Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) for “his own safety.” Also, as a recipient of mental health services, he feels the segregation is damaging to his mental health and frustrating, given that no one is even pretending that he did anything wrong.
Another set of individuals released from the SHU, which some refer to as “SHU Kickouts,” have been moved to the Restricted Custody General Population (RCGP) unit. This is a special housing unit that was created under the Ashker v. Brown settlement. (See Prison Focus issue 49 for more information about this unit). Individuals are placed in the RCGP if they are identified as STG-related and are identified as having safety concerns, refusing or failing to complete the Step Down Program or if one receives a rules violation report while in the Step Down Program. Mr. T has been in RCGP for three months, allegedly due to “safety concerns,” but he does not believe those are real. Individuals in RCGP are promised contact visits every two weeks, limited phone calls, and packages. Depending on their individual circumstances, they may get to exercise in a group yard instead of a cage, and spend an hour in the day room every week or every other week. There are exercise cages for individuals whose alleged safety concerns preclude group exercise. Mr. Q complained there are no real education opportunities in RCGP nor law library access. The C-Section of RCGP has solo “yard” and no visits, phone calls or canteen.
We also received reports from individuals about erroneous placement on Work Group C, or “C-status.” Under Title 15, sec. 3044(b)(5)(A), C-status should be reserved for: “Any inmate who twice refuses to accept assigned housing, or who refuses to accept or perform in an assignment, or who is deemed a program failure.” See the Ashker Bulletin in this paper for more information about C-status prisoners. It should be noted that many times people refuse housing assignments when asked to share a cell with somebody they know to be hostile or unsafe to share a cell with.
Security checks refer to the thirty-minute rounds that guards make throughout each unit which have led to conditions of severe sleep deprivation. (See page 17)
Though attorneys in the Coleman suit sought and received a permanent order from the court on August 31, 2016, that guards should conduct the checks only once per hour, from 10pm to 6am, at least one individual in the SHU reported that the checks continue every half hour and continue to prevent people from sleeping.
Several people we met with confirmed previous reports we’ve published on this issue. The checks are extremely loud; keys slap guards’ legs while they come into the pod at a fast pace. Guards continue to bang the “pipe” (a metal wand used to electronically register that a check has been happened), against the wall and hit eyes with the flashlight. If there are people on the top tier, the guards run, taking the stairs either one at a time, or skipping a step at a fast pace, which is extremely loud. Mr. K reported that he wears earplugs every night, but that the noise “wakes me up all the time.” Some reported that they could hear the checks from two pods over, and certainly in the pod closest to their cell. To top that, the main door always bangs open and shut.
When confronting CO’s about this issue, they just grin and state that they are just doing their jobs. Like many others, Mr. S filed an administrative grievance form (“602”) about the noise. He reported that COs were playing games with him. First they returned the 602, saying it was incomplete. Later, when he checked in on it, they told him that the 602 did not exist and they never received anything from him. He thankfully had sent a copy to an outside advocate, who sent the copy back to him, allowing him to prove it had been submitted. As of the time of our visit, Mr. S was still awaiting a response.
At one point, guards were required to put a decibel reader in an empty cell in order to monitor the amount of noise created by the checks. Mr. J reported that the guards put tape over the button to stifle noise, and did not hit the button on the empty cell while the reader was there. He believes that they were messing with the test in order to keep messing with prisoners and damage their credibility about the amount of noise they endure.
Mr. R reported that likely due to the monitoring of Ashker attorneys at Pelican Bay, staff are more subtle than they used to be in retaliation. Delay in mail delivery has always been an issue, and because it happens to so many prisoners, it is difficult to prove that it is due to retaliatory intent. Mr. V noted that arbitrary cell searches for no apparent reason are common, but most often happen to Ashker class members. Mr. D confirmed the use of cell searches and raids as a tactic to keep prisoners scared. At the time of our visit, there had been four cell raids in the past two days, without notice and without the guards finding any contraband.
RULES VIOLATION REPORTS (115s)
We received several reports that in general population, guards hand out 115s for very petty reasons. Mr. K stated that there have been a lot of 115s given out for reasons ranging from keeping fruit in your cell (“they say it’s for making wine”) to having excess laundry. Mr. G reported that he has heard of 115s issued for not following orders, walking out of bounds, and for asking directions. This is especially challenging for SHU Kickouts who do not know how all the rules work yet and are not given adequate direction.
Mr. R reported an incident where two cellies reported a broken sink to the CO. They asked if there were any programs available that would teach them basic plumbing so that they could fix the sink themselves, and would have training upon release. The guards must not have liked that question, Mr. R explained, because the next time the two cellies left their cell they returned to find it ransacked. The COs tried to issue 115s for weapons in the cell, but they were eventually dropped as no weapons were in fact found.
Mr. C felt that COs were actively trying to link 115s to an “STG nexus,” because they know that will cause more trouble for the individuals. (STG is the acronym for “Security Threat Group,” aka gang. A rules violation with an STG nexus can put you back in the SHU, or keep you there.) For instance, Mr. A reported that he received a 115 for gang communication simply because he was speaking to his gang-affiliated cellmate and knew a little about his family. Similarly, but possibly worse, Mr. T reported that he was given a 115 for making direct eye contact with his wife. This was characterized as gang communication.
ADMINISTRATIVE APPEALS (602s)
Many of our correspondents utilize the 602 process, but as noted in previous issues of Prison Focus, it rarely leads to solutions to prisoners’ problems. Mr. E reported that after every 602 he has submitted, he has experienced retaliation and harassment. The guards would raid his cell and destroy things they knew were important, like family photos.
Mr. N noted that he is always encouraging people to write 602s and teaching them the process. Guards are always discouraging new arrivals from filing 602s because the “big dogs” there will get mad. He felt that while guards will not acknowledge that a 602 is warranted, it will sometimes be effective. For instance, he filed one three weeks ago because he hasn’t been getting his legal mail. Although the 602 was formally denied, he started receiving legal mail again right after he filed it.
Reports on medical treatment continue to reveal grave deficiencies in care. First, new arrivals to the facility have often reported that custody staff are taking prescribed medications and all medical devices, including inhalers, knee braces, and glasses. Our most recent visit confirmed this is an ongoing issue. For example, Mr. O reported that he was removed from his seizure medication upon arrival at Pelican Bay. After advocating for medication, a registered nurse attempted to put him on a medication he was allergic to; a fact documented in his file. Mr. P reported that an ADA arm brace was taken from him and despite his multiple 602s, it had not been returned. Shortly before our visit, a Sergeant from the ADA (disability access) department met with him and asked if he still had his arm brace, showing that staff are aware that he needs one. As of the time of our visit, the brace still had not returned it to him.
Second, we heard many reports of failures to take prisoner complaints seriously and refusals to provide needed medications. Pelican Bay’s medical staff, we repeatedly heard, is worse than other facilities in refusing care and telling prisoners that their condition does not warrant treatment, no matter what level of pain they report. Mr. K was told by physicians at four other prison facilities that he needed surgery on his spine. However, as soon as he got to Pelican Bay, medical staff told him they felt he was lying about his condition and thus he did not need surgery. He had medical records diagnosing his condition going back several years. Eventually, after many months, he underwent the surgery, and the surgeon recommended pain medication for up to six months. The COs took him off the medication within 36 hours. Even after the surgeon advocated for him, custody staff refused to provide it to him. Failures to treat and/or provide medication are especially frustrating given that individuals are charged for medical visits. This is the case even if they are pulled out of the cell and not seen by a physician, or if the physician sees the patient but fails to provide needed care.
In a similar case, Mr. L underwent surgery while at Lancaster State Prison that left him in a great deal of pain. He was told the pain was just part of the “healing process.” After six months of requesting care, medical finally performed an MRI and found a calcium deposit from the surgery. He was told that he needed surgery again to remove the calcium. Before that happened, he was moved to Pelican Bay, and had to start the process all over again, including filing medical 602s in order to access care. A physician at Pelican Bay took him off all pain medication and told him he did not qualify for surgery because his condition was not severe. They put up a video camera in front of his cell to see how he was moving his arm around as a test to see if he indeed was in pain. Eventually, he was able to convince medical that he wasn’t “manipulating” and had corrective surgery about 5 months ago. He now receives physical therapy, which he feels is beneficial. He was not given any pain medication while in recovery from the corrective surgery. He is still in pain, but nowhere near what it was prior to the second surgery.
Mr. F also reported that he was refused pain medication after undergoing a recent surgery offsite at St. Joseph Hospital. He too was told the pain was just “part of the healing process.” After several days, he convinced custody to move him to the infirmary. He said that if he hadn’t advocated for himself via medical 602s, he never would have received the surgery. He was still in severe pain at the time we conducted our interview, often stopping mid-sentence and appearing to have difficulty moving.
Long delays in care, as described by our correspondents, lead to permanent injuries and lifelong disabilities. Mr. A presents one such case. Years ago, he underwent a procedure while in a different facility where his eardrum was unnecessarily removed. CDCr has not acknowledged their role in damaging his hearing and has done nothing to fix it. Occasionally, medical staff would provide him with medication and “ear flushes.” Only last week, he saw an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor for the first time and was told that the ear flushes further damaged his hearing. So much time has elapsed since the damage to his ear, any surgical fix would be incredibly complex, and there is “no way CDC will fix it because it will cost way too much.”
Mr. L also reported that he was made to wait years for care; in his case, an MRI related to a past injury. When they finally made an appointment, it was on the same day the Warden had scheduled a meeting with him. Forcing unnecessary choices like this are incredibly frustrating. Knowing he may never get another opportunity for an MRI, he chose the medical visit. The good news is that the Warden agreed to meet with him at another time.
Several people reported challenges in accessing treatment for Hepatitis C, which has reached near-epidemic levels in California prisons. A registered nurse told Mr. S that the prison will not treat Hep C unless the condition is at least at stage 3, at which point the liver is already scarred and may be beyond repair. The lack of access Hep C treatment at Pelican Bay also recurrently came up when we visited Pelican Bay in March of this year, as we wrote in Prison Focus #49.
Finally, CPF heard reports that many people are suffering from prostate problems and are not getting any testing or treatment at all. This makes for a difficult situation when at the Law Library or in visiting, because bathroom breaks are not allowed.
There were several comments by our correspondents that visitation is extremely strict at Pelican Bay. Visits are often cancelled for no apparent reason and without notice. This is particularly concerning given that the prison is close to the Oregon border, and houses a large population coming from Southern California. Getting there is not easy for working families, many of whom are under resourced. When visiting is available, guards harass visitors, making visits uncomfortable; visitors are kicked out for accidentally brushing up next to someone or putting a hand on someone’s shoulder. People identified as SHU Kickouts are especially targeted for this treatment.
The most common complaint from our correspondents is that Pelican Bay does not follow Title 15 regulations and takes an arbitrary approach to what property is allowed. Several people who came from other SHUs or ASUs to Pelican Bay were frustrated to find that Pelican Bay would not allow the same pieces of property that were acceptable in the previous facility. Common items that are disallowed include clothing, papers (regular and legal), pictures and artwork.
Several people also reported long delays in receiving one’s property upon arrival to Pelican Bay. COs tell people that it will take at least 60 days, but delays of this length are not standard across the prison system. Mr. X reported that he missed court deadlines because his legal paperwork took so long to get delivered.
Another issue is that custody is not consistent in distributing basic sanitary supplies to the cells. Cleaners, toothbrushes, and tooth powder are distributed at most, and often skipped entirely. Writing supplies and stamps for indigent prisoners are rarely provided, despite Title 15, section 3138 stating that “upon an indigent inmate’s request, writing paper, envelopes, writing implement, and the postage required for five 1-ounce First-Class letters per week shall be supplied.”
On average, it takes mail approximately 20 days from the date it was sent to arrive at a cell. Some people we spoke with reported that it takes up to two months, and many times not at all. Mr. B reported that he will write to family and hear from them months later, asking what happened to him and why he hadn’t written. Mr. U reported that the artwork that he sends out to family and friends usually never gets to them. Yet, he is never told it was confiscated or gang-related or anything.
There are limited programming opportunities at Pelican Bay. SHU Kickouts, new to general population, are overwhelmingly excited about the opportunities to have education and programming. Unfortunately, not everyone has access. Mr. Y was told that you are not eligible for education, programming, or jobs until you are four years away from release. Everyone else is put on an indefinite “waiting list.” Despite this rule, for which we were not able to find support in Title 15, some people reported to us that they have access to college courses and/or computer classes. (College courses however have to be paid for individually, which sharply curtails access.) There is also a self-help program, Getting Out by Going In, which is available to those in general population.
Mr. Q reported that they have only one vocational training program at Pelican Bay, an electrical training program. This is a problem for people who must go before the parole board (both lifers and those eligible for SB 260/261 hearings). Mr. Q’s understanding is that the parole board requires two vocational certificates and/or one vocational certificate plus a high school equivalent to be eligible for parole. Mr. O stated that there is no reason why some people are approved for programming and others are not. He suspects custody staff are paying attention especially to lifers and preventing some from accessing the programming they need to appear favorably before the parole board.
Mr. C let us know that while there are more educational and programming opportunities than previously, guards are quick to cancel programming for flimsy reasons.
AGREEMENT TO END HOSTILITIES
Nearly everyone we spoke with confirmed that people at Pelican Bay are upholding and following the Agreement to End Hostilities. It is obvious, Mr. L said, that “people are focused on their own thing and not plotting against each other.” Mr. U noted that the Agreement has benefitted everyone, because instead of the prison staff having excuses to take things away from them, now there is more access to programming and educational courses.
Mr. G stated that thanks to the Agreement, it has been peaceful at the Pelican Bay yard for nearly a year straight. Mr. O talked about a basketball tournament the other day on the yard that included groups that wouldn’t have previously been peaceful towards each other. We heard about similar tournaments back in March, and have since been informed that similar activities are taking place at a couple of other prisons. ”