From Prison Focus Issue 51
This is a summary of present conditions at Corcoran State Prison, with data from a legal research visit in January 2017 as well as letters written to CPF. As with all prison reports published by Prison Focus, in order to protest those who write and visit with us, we do not use any names that will identify any of the people visited. Initials used to identify speakers are not representative of names, and the repetition of initials does not indicate it is the same person both times.
When we arrived in Corcoran, the stench created by the dozens of cattle feed lots and dairies surrounding the prison was overwhelming. It had been raining hard for days and the cattle waste smell was everywhere, including inside the prison itself, as we quickly discovered.
At the first station, the guard in charge was baffled by our appearance. He insisted he had no record of any kind of any legal research visits – or indeed, any other visits. Eventually, he decided to send us to the SHU entrance. At the SHU station, we were informed that one on “the list” – which he had in his hand – had declined. The fact that the duty guard at the entrance did not know about us, but these two SHU guards had both the information and a list of those to be visited that day shows a typical level of lack of coordination between guards and units within a prison.
Once we went through the door of the outside room for the SHU, the guards kept us waiting a long time in front of the sally ports, which are outside. It was 40° and drizzling so this was, needless to say, unpleasant. Once we got inside, we learned that more of those on Monday’s list had “declined,” including one who had asked for special legal attention and for which Patricia had received additional information. Once we got inside, we had to explain our situation again to whom seemed to be new guards. The visiting booths we were provided had plexiglass and phones, as expected; however, the phones were permanently set at the highest volume, so the sounds from the phones traveled, making us concerned that the guards could hear the content of our communications.
CORCORAN: A PRISON OF TRANSITION
Corcoran is, in many ways, a prison of transition. Unlike previous visits, where the individuals were exclusively or mostly in the SHU, this time the individuals we met with were both on the mainline and no longer in the SHU. Several of those we visited were in Ad-Seg, including individuals who in our opinion should not be housed in such conditions, due to serious mental difficulties, grave physical illnesses, among other factors.
Likely due to the dramatic decrease in the SHU population due to the Ashker v. Brown settlement in September 2015, it appears that Corcoran has closed an entire section of what had been the SHU (unit 4B), which now sits empty, while much of the other unit (unit 4A) is housing for people who are in transit from a SHU to a mainline elsewhere. These are essentially SHU-like conditions and many are held for inordinately long periods of time. These individuals expressed frustration with getting stuck in transition, as they have neither their possessions, which are held by property until they are permanently housed somewhere, nor access to regular family visits or programming of any kind.
Mr. B reported that he was transferred from Pelican Bay and brought down to Corcoran, where he was placed in a unit with known enemies. He wrote to us after an incident resulting in numerous stab wounds. He is now in grave physical condition.
As well-reported in previous issues of Prison Focus, the facilities at Corcoran are in a constant state of disrepair, including leaking in the roof and extremely poor water quality. Mr. V complained that the water at Corcoran is often yellow and smelly, which does not surprise anyone who has taken a breath there. Bottled water is available at the commissary but of course not all prisoners have funds for this.
Poor housing conditions are exacerbated by the freezing air pumped into cells in Ad Seg all night long by the night shift guards, who are, in at least one man’s words, “rogues.”
Compounding the poor living conditions are issues involving basic movement in and out of cells. Mr. A reported that one week not long ago, his unit was made to go over four days without showers, and the day showers were scheduled they were skipped, ostensibly because a football game was on during that time.
Mr. O reported that he was in a bad living situation with his cellmate, and alerted staff that he needed to be moved. Three full days later, after several requests, a small confrontation with the cellmate over the lights resulted in Mr. O getting punched in the face. He later learned that the cellmate had several previous 115s for in-cell fights in close proximity.
HEALTH AND MENTAL HEALTH
We interviewed at least four men who are in dire mental health straits. Mr. T confessed to being in a lot of mental trouble; he is in Ad Seg and terrified of his condition, especially since he was a long-termer in the SHU at Pelican Bay who had adjusted there. He found that he could not adjust to the main yard population but instead, felt himself becoming terribly anxious and frightened of everyone and everything. Ultimately, some incident put him back into isolation at Corcoran where he has been asking for help every day in all the ways he knows how to ask. Similarly, Mr. O had a hard time holding a conversation, and continued to repeat the same narrative over and over and over, in the same words. He was very jumpy and physically uncomfortable.
Mr. S reported that he was permanently in Ad Seg because of “mental health” issues. There are apparently no regular counselors available for anyone. Mr. R reported severe levels of anxiety which he credited to his recent release from the SHU; he does not get the support he needs, and notes that the failure of CDCR to treat his medical conditions seriously affect his mental health.
Many of the men with whom we visited are in dire physical condition. They explained to us that despite regular requests for care, doctors under-diagnose and under-treat many illnesses, leading men across the prison to be in daily pain and often with worsening conditions. For instance, Mr. C described how he had fell during a seizure and seriously hurt his wrist. He did not realize it was broken until the terrible pain drove him to plea to see a doctor. That doctor said it was “sprained” and gave him acetaminophen (which in not an anti-inflammatory and thus unhelpful to his condition, but the only pain medication allowed in these prisons). Mr. C could not sleep because of the continuous pain, so he put in for another medical visit. This time they x-rayed the wrist and told him it had actually been broken but that there was nothing they could now do because it had healed too much without proper care. Not only did it continue to hurt but it became unusable so he put in for more testing. After over 90 days, they ordered another x-ray. This showed that the wrist had healed into a visible knot (which he showed me). He is now in chronic pain and unable to use his hand. In the outside world, he would likely need surgery so that he could ever have hope of using his arm again. Unfortunately, with the long sentence he is service, he is not likely to ever be released, so effectively he now only has use of one hand for the rest of his life.
A second interviewee, Mr. L, also had complaints of poor orthopedic care. He has a permanently damaged hand due to a surgery where a prison doctor apparently removed the carpal bones. He is in constant pain as a result, and another surgeon informed him that only fusing the bones permanently would possibly relieve the pain. He has no use of the hand and has no word on whether the prison will provide this surgery.
Mr. W reported a lack of medical attention to two severe conditions, a back injury and diabetes. Despite his documented back injury, Mr. W has been given a work assignment that requires high levels of physical labor. He has asked and asked to see a doctor for the pain but when he finally got taken to medical, he was kept in a tiny holding cell for 6 hours while he waited to see what turned out to be a foot doctor. He lives with this pain as he tries to do his work assignment. For his diabetes, he has been instructed to take his diabetes meds only on a full stomach but the nurses who provide all the medical services force him to swallow the medication in front of him whenever they deliver it, in order to avoid trafficking of contraband and because they do not want to come back by his cell at mealtime. He also noted that his diabetes exacerbated by the freezing air pumped into their cells in Ad Seg all night long by the night shift guards (see above on Facilities).
We also heard from prisoners with a condition common to many California prisoners, which is complications due to Hepatitis C. Mr. F, who is terminally ill with cirrhosis of the liver due to Hep C, reported that he had had decent medical care at various prisons but in Corcoran, he has not been provided with the appropriate housing. Since he is wheelchair-bound, he is entitled to special housing in a “medical cell,” so that there are less chances he can hurt himself by falling out of the wheelchair. He is presently in “transit” to another facility, but is terrified of leaving Corcoran because this would end his relationship with two doctors who have been caring for him. Transfer creates long term disruption of care and is a major inhibitor to delivery of care.
Mr. I, who has also been diagnosed with Hep C, stated that he has never been treated for his condition.
Mr. W reported he had “mild” brain damage and indeed, this meant that he could hardly focus on any question. He sat smiling throughout the interview, although was unable to respond to questions. We quickly realized that an interview was impossible and we terminated it. He did report that he receives no treatment for this brain damage or the condition.
Mr. M reported that he has chronic dizziness, ringing in the ears, and nausea, leading him to believe he may have a brain tumor, but the prison will only send him to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, who does nothing to help him.
Several men reported serious issues with access to dental care. Mr. Y has a really bad tooth that had cracked during a fall. He first saw one dentist, who put peroxide into the hole in his broken tooth and told him to continue this treatment. When informed that inmates are not allowed to have peroxide, he said salt would do. Of course inmates are also forbidden salt. This reveals the lack of awareness and training that prison doctors have regarding the harsh limitations on prisoners ability to care for themselves, as well as an unnecessary lack of collaboration between medical and custody, such that effective medical treatment is functionally impossible due to such high levels of bureaucratization.
Mr. K had seen a dentist whom he decided was deliberately trying to injure him by putting a needle in the roof of his mouth. He left the visit because of this and hadn’t seen one since.
While outside the prison, we did encounter a dentist who was visiting from Arizona and seeing patients at the prison. Given the severe needs of dental care, it seems patently unacceptable not to have full time dentists on staff at or near the prison.
Access to effective vision care is also a challenge. Mr. H reported that when he tried to get a new prescription for his eyes, he was told that he was not allowed to get the lenses replaced on the glasses he has had for years, but would only be allowed to buy prison glasses. This is a clear violation of Title 15 which allows one to purchase glasses from an outside vendor.
We found that racism is endemic throughout Corcoran. While both Latinos are African Americans suffer the impact of racist guards, it is understood that Black men experience the worst of it. Interestingly, the Black men interviewed all talked about the racism but said they expected it – as indeed they should, given US society and US history! Several noted that their court cases – including parole hearings – had been affected by various racist assumptions expressed, in one case, by the parole board that decided that the man was clearly a “criminal type” because he had been in trouble once as a youth of 14. Latinos noted the racism – but often noted, too, that it hit hardest on the Black men. One white prisoner interviewed revealed a typical response of those in (relatively) privilege by stating that he did not witness any racism against anyone.
Mr. N confirmed, as many of our correspondents do, that while not all guards are bad, and many try to be decent, those who are nice quickly become outcasts and are treated poorly by their peers, which makes it difficult for them to “do the right thing.”
Property is held for inordinately long periods for those men transferred from long-term SHU. Mr. U reported that it takes 4 to 6 weeks just to receive prison-issue clothing. Several told us that once their property was returned, items were missing and that there was no recourse because when their property had been brought to them and they had asked for receipts, they were all told that the prison had no receipts so that there is no record of the items delivered. This is a clear violation of Title 15, and we encourage prisoners in this situation to file 602s if they are in this situation.
30 MINUTE CHECKS
All interviewees told us that the 30 minute rounds continue unabated. Most said that the day shift guards are pretty good about keeping the checks as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. But at night, especially when substitute guards are on, the checks are deliberately as loud and intrusive as possible. Keeping everyone awake seems to be the purpose, and sleep deprivation continues to have negative and long term effects on everyone.
All reported that the X-ray search machines continue to be the “old style ones,” which we take to mean metal detectors rather than x-ray scanners, and aren’t used that much. The metal detectors are used whenever there is movement in or out of units for work detail or visits. When individuals are moved to different cells, they are usually “wanded” by hand.
Most of the men we met with told us that access to the law library is nearly impossible. Several of our correspondents are jailhouse lawyers and in active litigation. They universally stated that there is a dearth of material and all of it was outdated, making it difficult to keep up with important (and possibly positive) changes in the law.
Work assignments are, as many know, only available to prisoners on the main line. While a few of those we interviewed had work assignments, those in the SHU, in Ad Seg, or in transit did not. Many were just waiting for assignments since they had been recently released from the SHU. Work assignments were few and far between, with long waiting lists, many over one year.
Many of the individuals we spoke with had requested programming but were not provided any. Waiting lists for educational courses are apparently long and all those in transit are ineligible. They all expressed frustration about this. We note that as individuals are moved out of the SHU and become eligible for parole, it is extremely frustrating to see individuals request programming, be rejected, and then denied for parole based on lack of programming. CDCR has an obligation to make programming and rehabilitative services available to those it confines.