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Feb 17, 2017
From Prison Focus Issue 51
This is a summary of present conditions at High Desert State Prison, as collected by CPF through letters written to our office and a legal research visit conducted in November 2016. 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.
Longtime readers of Prison Focus may note that reporting on High Desert is a relatively new practice for us. In previous years, we exclusively reported on the conditions in the SHU, at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and occasionally Tehachapi. In recent times, however, due to the vast movement out of the SHU resulting from the Ashker v. Brown settlement, we have begun to hear more and more reports of the harsh and inhumane conditions in many of the other prisons, especially those places where former SHU residents have been moved. Accounts of extensive lockdowns, long stays in ASU, and lack of programming expected on the mainline have drove us to increase our attention to the level 4, high security prisons, where according to many SHU “kickouts,” conditions are as bad, if not worse, than the SHU. As one correspondent wrote, “High Desert has the thought that since it is in the far corner of the state, not too many people will care what happens.” We reject the idea that distance and isolation give CDCR a pass on following its own rules, and its obligation to treat humans with the basic dignity all deserve.
GENERAL CONDITIONS AT HD
The cell conditions at High Desert fall grossly below basic standards for livability. Inmates are responsible for cleaning their own cells, yet they are not provided with cleaning supplies. Mr. B reported that he has only received cleaning supplies, scrub pads, cups, and spoons twice in the months he has been at HD. The mattresses are stinky and tiny. Mr. U reported that his cell was leaking when it rained. He requested work order repair, did not receive anything, and was forced to personally patch the leak. He used soap.
In the day rooms, there only one phone. Even at Pelican Bay there were two phones per section.
The temperature in the cells at HD vary significantly based on locations. Mr. O reported that in his block, the temperature is warm, but elsewhere, he knows there are constant complaints of cold air pumped into the cells. Individuals in Ad Seg reported very cold temperatures.
Cell searches happen randomly every day. Each shift has to search 6 cells a day at random, according to an internal CDC memo. During searches the COs drag the mattress onto the nasty dirty ground.
Several individuals reported that laundry gets picked up but it comes back dirty every week.
Despite these conditions, one individual who was at HD from 2010-13, left, and recently returned, noted that the new Warden is making changes and is much better than the previous one.
As reported elsewhere in this issue, CPF has heard reports from across the prison system that X-ray Scanners are getting installed and used on a regular basis. At HDSP, interviewees told us that machines had been installed in early November 2016 on the way to the visiting area, but not yet in use. It was Mr. T’s understanding that they would be put into use in early 2017, after guards were trained on their use (we have not received any updated reports on their use at HDSP at the time of publication).
Until such time as the X-ray machines are put into use, the “regular” metal detectors are still used, but only when there are incidents on a unit.
RULES VIOLATIONS REPORTS (115S)
Several individuals we met with had not had trouble with arbitrary or false 115s. Others did report instances where 115s were issued based on poor evidence. For instance, Mr. B reported that one day, he was randomly handcuffed and told to stand in the back of my cell. One of his enemies walked by and threw a weapon from his sock into the cell. He was then convicted on constructive possession, which landed him in the SHU. Another individual reported receiving a 115 for constructive possession when his cellmate was found with a weapon. He is appealing this and his 602 is currently pending at the third level. He felt his due process rights were violated, as he was found guilty by association.
Mr. H reported that he had heard of someone getting written up for having toilet bowl cleaner in his cell. This was surprising given that cleaners are commonly allowed in other prisons.
Petty 115s are extremely frustrating to prisoners, as they affect people’s ability to transfer, and more than anything, people desperately want out of HDSP.
Mr. V reported a situation where he was told that legal mail addressed to Mr. Jones contained narcotics and did not pass through inspection. At the hearing, the guard admitted he had no proof Mr. V requested such drugs, however, he was still found guilty. His visits were taken away for one year, contact visits for two years, and yard for 30 days.
GRIEVANCES/ADMINISTRATIVE APPEALS (602s)
Several of our correspondents fully exercise their ability to file 602s. We commend these efforts, as they are the first step to access to the courts and an important mechanism for getting one’s rights enforced. Mr. H reported that most of his 602s are “partially granted,” but none are fully approved. This is frustrating because it limits his ability to appeal up the chain.
There were a few successes with the 602 process. Mr. I relayed one success with a 602 concerning his mail; he tried to mail a drawing of his daughter to his daughter, but it was returned back to him for not being suitable. He included copy of Title 15 in his 602 and was able to send the drawing. Others we correspond with feel that writing 602s are pointless because they are so rarely successful.
Mr. D reported that he had to file a 602 on his property, as it did not arrive for nearly 3 months following a transfer from another institution. He did finally receive (most of) his property.
Mr. M filed a 602 regarding a “stripped down” mattress. He never received a written response on the 602, but within two days, he received a replacement mattress. He was pleased this was resolved at his cell door, without a written response.
The general consensus is that doing time in general population at HD is like being in ASU or SHU but with less yard time. Mr. O stated that he had been at HD since May 2016 but had only been to the yard a total of 10 times.
In the fall, Mr. X reported a consecutive two month lockdown. They were told there were threats to staff and security, but a full search (which could be done in a single day) was not done. After that, the unit was put on a modified yard schedule due to construction on the yard for a wheelchair ramp. During modified programming, each tier gets dayroom every other day, but it's not consistent. The first official yard was the week prior to CPF’s November visit, the first time since August.
In another unit, Mr. K reported rolling lockdowns: two weeks on lockdown, back to yard for a week, then another lockdown. Reports guards are making up excuses for a lockdown, claiming “weapons” or “metal missing,” or even something like a cup missing in the chow hall, but then the guards do not conduct the typical searches associated with those risks, if they were real.
A couple interviewees did state they had regular yard access, although sometimes yard is cut short due to staffing issues, or will inexplicably start very late.
On the yard itself, there is extremely limited recreational equipment, and there are often fights. According to Mr. H, guards do not get involved, but instead throw small hand grenades at people to try to stop fights, or shoot at the wall.
Mr. L explained that HD law librarian does not have a contract with the state, so the library is only open when she is available. As a “Priority Legal User,” he is supposed to get a minimum of 4 hrs/week in the library, but it is inconsistent. “General Legal Users” have an even harder time, with a wait list of over 200 to gain access. On the week of our visit, the library was only open two days. Mr. E stated that he regularly waits up to two months between visits, which makes researching for a case he intends to file essentially impossible.
The law library is even more difficult to access during lockdowns. Mr. D noted that he had to file a 602 in order to gain access to the library because there are so many lockdowns.
It is almost unnecessary to state that our correspondents describe medical care at HD as grossly below basic standards. Mr. S stated that others in his yard have cancer but are not getting needed medications, and do not regularly see medical. Mr. Q told us that he had a knee injury over a year ago and immediately after, the doctor recommended an MRI for him. He has now seen the doctor two more times since then but has never received the MRI.
In one urgent case, Mr. X described a severe heart condition as a result of a stabbing at a different institution. He had emergency surgery, but was left with a hole in his heart. It is his understanding that there is no full-time doctor on staff, but only one on call, and that the closest hospital is quite small (only 25 beds) and prisoners are never transferred there. A nurse practitioner confirmed the facility cannot support his condition, but has not had success in advocating for his transfer.
The treatment of Hep C is especially frustrating to individuals. It is rumored that under CDCR policy, Hep C must reach stage 4 before individuals are eligible for any treatment. Mr. W told us that he receives no treatment whatsoever for his Hep C. When he does see a doctor, he checks his blood pressure and sends him on his way. As a result, Mr. C has very high anxiety about his health. He said that in the SHU at Pelican Bay, he had a significantly easier time getting prescription medication than at HD. Mr. J told us that his cellmate, who has late-stage Hep C, was hospitalized for two weeks and upon return received no follow up care.
Dental care is also difficult to receive and many prisoners expressed dissatisfaction with the level of care. Mr. C stated that the dentist is quick to pull out teeth rather than fix them. He had severe tooth pain and it took about 6 months to see the dentist after putting in a request. Others reported a delay of only 2-3 months to see the dentist. Mr. E stated that he has put in requests for a cleaning, but that is considered not serious enough to warrant an appointment.
“There is a different breed of prison up here. They follow their own rules.”
Mr. Z reported that ever since the 2015 Ashker settlement, SHU prisoners and other activist prisoners who promote positive programming are harassed either by getting removed from jobs, or through limitations on movement access, designed to deny them the ability to promote positive activities.
One individual who visited with CPF reported that he received threats of retaliation immediately after the visit for speaking with CPF. We condemn this behavior and the chilling of constitutionally-guaranteed access to the courts that it leads to. “The meetings will not go unheard or unnoticed in High Desert’s eyes…”
Mr. G reported that some guards are better than others, but many are not ready for change, such as new programming. Anything that requires guards to work harder is resisted.
Mr. H stated that the guards at HD are more petty than at many other institutions where he has been housed, such as yelling at prisoners on intercom for extremely minor violations.
Mr. V confirmed that sentiment, stating that this is the worst prison out of all of the Level 4's that he's been at (almost all of them) because of the guards. They hold a lot of tension and aggression toward prisoners.
Mr. U felt that because he doesn’t interact with the guards, the guards leave him alone. He reports that the guards only “bug” the inmates who speak out to them.
In one especially troubling report, Mr. B described a “Fight Club” where guards put prisoners of different races into the yard together when they are at war with one another. They set up controlled situation and allow prisoners to “clear the air” while they place bets on the winner.
More than some other facilities, CPF receives a lot of reports of violence at HD. Mr. I reported that there are rumors that three prisoners died in October alone at HD. One person reported that someone was killed the day after our visit. We do not have details on whether the suspected killer was another prisoner or a guard, but regardless, it is the responsibility of CDCR to ensure the integrity of every individual’s life in their care. Failure to protect other prisoners from violence is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Reports of the quality of food were varied. Some stated it was bearable, although they would prefer more variety and access to a healthier diet and especially more vegetables. Others reported that the quality of the food was very low: undercooked, cold, and tasteless. Mr. W stated “I prefer the food at Pelican Bay, and that’s saying something.” Mr. E stated that he is regularly served rotten milk, bruised apples, or moldy bread, but the food is not replaced if he complains. This is especially difficult for those who are indigent and thus don’t have access to the canteen.
One of the biggest issues with access to mail centers around the censorship of an allied newspaper, the SF Bay View. Many people across the California prison system, including those at High Desert, did not receive the Bay View Sept/Oct issue, but never received notice of censorship, as required by Title 15.
Mr. H reported that it took 4 months for his cellmate to receive a letter from the Bay Area. Another individual stated that he is in the process of filing 602s about timeliness of mail. Most reported a delay of two or three weeks before delivery, including for legal mail. Several individuals reported that in the lower D yard, a big stack of mail was thrown in the trash. Large bulk of mail for prisoners from all races/ethnicity. It was discovered by kitchen workers.
There is a new rule about magazines and many people complained that they are no longer allowed magazines if they are not “educational.” This is frustrating to people who have paid for magazine subscription but believe they are getting thrown out.
Programming and Work Assignments
There are very few educational and programming opportunities at HD. Mr. K reported that there is one GED class and two college classes for the whole prison. The classes are apparently not at capacity, although there is a waiting list of over 100 people. Mr. K received a letter stating that the wait list for college classes is approximately a year and a half.
Mr. Y had heard that starting in 2017, HD is supposed to receive more programming opportunities, including autobody, electrical, building maintenance, as well as a pre-parole class for individuals who are less than two years out from release. There is presently a re-entry hub, that has classes on substance abuse, family relations, anger management, and criminal thinking, but it is not available to most prisoners, including those with the longest sentences.
Mr. T reported that even though he received a GED and AA degree, but they are not reflected in his C-file.
Mr. C described access to a self-control program, which consists of essay assignments inside the cell two times per week. He liked it. It is the only program he's had since he's been at HDSP.
He signed up for anger management, never got called.
Several of our correspondents reported that they did have work assignments, including yard crew, a recreational clerk on the yard, and a law clerk. Mr. U explained that there are also opportunities to work porter jobs, laundry, canteen, medical, kitchen, and in the educational department. In general, however, there are not enough jobs for everyone and people expressed frustration at the forced boredom of their lives. Mr. H stated there are only 42 jobs available in his whole unit. Several prisoners volunteer to do work without pay just for something to do.
Several correspondents, especially those transferred out of the SHU, noted that it took weeks, if not months, for their property to be delivered after their transfer to HD from Pelican Bay. Some reported that all of the property arrived, others described items of personal importance that they are still missing. Mr. E told us that when he arrived at HD, he was told many pieces of property he had at Pelican Bay were not allowed at HD. He was told he could send the property home, but his family has never received it. He filed a 602 about this issue, but has not received a positive response. Technically, the prison is supposed to compensate him for missing property, but he is not hopeful.
Feb 07, 2017
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.
Oct 21, 2016
keywords: Ashker v. Brown
From Prison Focus Issue 50
This bulletin is informed, in part, by in-person interviews conducted at Corcoran and Pelican Bay State Prisons in August and September, 2016, as well as by letters recently received from both prisons. It is also informed by the record and documents in Ashker v. Brown (N.D. Cal. No. 4:09-cv-05796) and reports from the Ashker plaintiffs' litigation team.
As usual, the identities of individual interviewees/correspondents have been safe-guarded through the use of anonymous designations.
A note to those new to the Prison Focus newsletter and/or unfamiliar with Ashker v. Brown: The majority of our regular readers are incarcerated in California, most of whom are directly impacted by Ashker in one way or another. They are generally familiar with matters discussed below, and this bulletin is primarily oriented towards them. That being said, some background info is provided here and there for those of you who are unfamiliar with the lawsuit and the issues surrounding it.
To begin with, Ashker is a federal class action (now settled) brought primarily on behalf of people held in indefinite solitary confinement/isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit (SHU). All of the named plaintiffs spent a minimum of ten continuous years in Pelican Bay's SHU, and some were so caged for decades on end.
This was a result of the California Department of Corrections having deemed them gang (or in the Department's current parlance, "Security Threat Group," aka STG) affiliates. So long as a person's status as a gang affiliate remained "active," in the Department's estimation, that person remained in the SHU. Remaining "active" did not require, and to this day does not require, any actual misconduct or criminal activity. But under the settlement reached, being an alleged active STG affiliate alone does not suffice to get you a SHU sentence.
Class members in the lawsuit also included alleged gang/STG affiliates who prospectively stood to be confined in Pelican Bay's SHU for ten-plus years. The lawsuit contended that long-term isolation in Pelican Bay's SHU is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the US Constitution, and that class members' due-process rights under the US Constitution were violated.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (referred to CDCr herein ) has repeatedly denied that solitary confinement is used in California. This is false. Of the 865 total individuals remaining in California's SHUs, according to recent statistics, nearly seventy percent were single-celled —i.e., alone without cellmates (not that sharing a concrete-and-steel bunker the size of a parking space, where you spend up to 24 hours each day, isn't without its own problems). Meanwhile, others suffer similar or even worse torture within the CDCr's Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs) and other isolation or maximum-security facilities.
PROGRESS OF CASE REVIEWS REQUIRED BY THE ASHKER SETTLEMENT
As of August, 17, court records indicate, the reviews of everybody who is going to receive a review under Ashker were "almost complete." This was substantially confirmed by the plaintiffs' litigation team, who informed us that initial ICC reviews were on schedule to be completed within the one-year deadline mandated by the settlement. Only about 75 people were still waiting for initial ICC reviews as of early August.
That being said, there is a bottleneck in cases that the Internal Classification Committees (ICCs) have referred to the Departmental Review Board (DRB) for further review. Details of the situation with the DRB will be discussed in a moment.
The most recent COMPSTAT data available , published in July, show that as of July 2016, there were:
• 440 people in Pelican Bay's SHU (as opposed to 1124 in July 2015)
• 324 people in Corcoran's SHU (as opposed to 1229 in July 2015)
• 76 people in Tehachapi's aka CCI's SHU (as opposed to 484 in July 2015)
• 25 people in New Folsom's aka SAC's SHU (as opposed to 52 in July 2015)
Given the progress of initial ICC reviews, it appears that Ashker class members presently constitute only a very small percentage of the people currently in the state's four SHUs. Others remaining there are ostensibly serving determinate SHU sentences based on alleged misconduct, as clarified below.
BOTTLENECK AT THE DRB; PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO COMPEL COMPLIANCE
In early June, the litigation team informed us that about 80% of people receiving Ashker reviews were being released from the SHU immediately. Of those referred to the DRB for further review, about half were getting out of the SHU after seeing the DRB. These figures seem to hold true at present. Yet, as of June, there were some 100 people whose cases had yet to be reviewed by the DRB, and the DRB was only reviewing around six to eight cases per month.
Prior to the settlement, when case-by-case reviews by the DRB were happening under the Pilot Program, the CDCr had represented that it would be training/implementing additional DRB teams to conduct reviews.
At that time (February 2014 or thereabout), there were only two teams of two up and running. This substantially delayed the DRB's progress. During the two and a half years intervening, however, the DRB's capacity does not appear to have increased.
Meanwhile, the CDCr has increased the capacity of its Institution Gang Investigators (IGI). Earlier this year, the Department requested millions of dollars from the California Legislature to employ new IGIs. The legislature ended up approving $2.7 million (which paid for 22 new IGIs), despite adverse recommendations from the state's Legislative Analyst Office.
Because of the bottleneck at the DRB, the Ashker team filed a motion to compel compliance with the settlement agreement (SA) in June. Specific time-tables were requested with respect to completion of the backlogged reviews. Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas however denied the motion in August. In his opinion, the CDCr was substantially compliant with its obligations set forth in the SA pertaining to reviews.
OTHER ISSUES BROUGHT TO THE COURT BY THE ASHKER TEAM
Since the settlement, a number of issues have been brought to the attention of and litigated before Magistrate Judge Vadas and/or (District) Judge Claudia Wilken. Due to limitations of space and publishing exigencies, we regret that only a couple of these issues can be summarized here.
Recruitment as a "SHU-eligible" offense
Attachment B to the SA, the SHU Term Assessment Chart, lists offenses punishable by a determinate (fixed) SHU sentence under the SA. "Recruiting others to become an STG affiliate or to take part in STG activities that is behavior [sic] listed in" the SHU Term Assessment is one such offense: It can land you in the SHU for up to eighteen months.
As such, "recruiting" is punishable whether or not you have recruited anybody to engage in any misconduct or criminal activity whatsoever—a state of affairs that the litigation team had objected to when settlement negotiations were still underway. A premise of the Ashker class action was that affiliation in and of itself should not be treated as misconduct.
In addition, it's possible, although unreasonable, that the CDCr could at its discretion construe "recruiting others" to include nothing more than greeting or talking to somebody on the yard. That class members lacked due-process rights was in fact one of two causes of action in Ashker. (The CDCr determines a person's placement in the SHU without any judicial oversight or review).
During settlement negotiations, the CDCr had verbally assured that the language around recruitment would be revised. When it was not revised, Plaintiffs' objected in a December 2015 letter brief to Magistrate Judge Vadas.
During a subsequent conference with Vadas on December 28, 2015 (roughly one month before the settlement agreement received the Court's final approval), the CDCr verbally agreed to formulate a policy concerning recruitment "that incorporates a coercive element." This was to be done no later than March 28, 2016. But when March 28 rolled around, the state's counsel emailed the litigation team, saying that the defendants were "unable" to revise the language defining recruitment to include a coercive element.
Plaintiffs responded by filing a motion for enforcement of the December 28 agreement. They were denied by Vadas and took the matter to Judge Claudia Wilken, requesting a determination de novo ("from the new"). Judge Wilken too refused Plaintiffs on September 14, 2016. In both judges' estimation, the December 28 agreement was not enforceable as a modification of the SA.
Alleged conspiracy by class members still retained in SHU
Another still-pending matter taken up by the litigation team is the situation of several (initially six) class members still being retained in the SHU. As of January 2015, when the CDCr began investigating these individuals for an alleged conspiracy to murder a fellow prisoner, each had been serving indeterminate SHU sentences due to their "validation" as STG affiliates. By that time, they'd respectively done between 16 and 25 continuous years in the hole (as the SHU is colloquially known).
The CDCr continues to justify keeping four of the six accused in the SHU based on the alleged conspiracy. No murder or harm ever happened, however, and when the case was referred to the local DA for prosecution, the DA declined to prosecute. Administrative charges against two of the men initially accused have furthermore been dropped.
In dispute has been the CDCr's use of old and newly introduced confidential "information" in administratively prosecuting the accused and finding them guilty. Plaintiffs have challenged a lack of transparency in the CDCR's and the Court's processes. They have further contended that the Department's use of confidential information is in violation of the SA's provisions concerning such use.
The dispute has gone back and forth between Magistrate Judge Vadas and Judge Wilken during the past several months. In response to Plaintiff's latest motion, Wilken most recently (on September 6) issued an order: (1) denying Plaintiff's request that she conduct an evidentiary hearing de novo; (2) granting Plaintiff's request to file, under seal, documents in support of their argument that the CDCr is in violation of the SA; (3) recommitting the motion to Vadas to consider the parties' new information and arguments.
RELEVANT REPORTS FROM CORCORAN AND PELICAN BAY
California Prison Focus's latest interviews with people at Corcoran and Pelican Bay happened in late August and early September. Of California's four SHUs, the SHUs at Corcoran and Pelican Bay have historically held the largest numbers of people (the remaining two SHUs are located at CCI, aka Tehachapi, and at SAC, aka New Folsom).
What is discussed below is supplemented with information provided within the past few months by correspondents at both prisons. The overwhelming majority of Interviewees/correspondents whose remarks are drawn from are Ashker class members, who recently or fairly recently got out of the SHU.
Particularly concerning in these remarks is the appearance of animus, or stigma, that emerges in regard to prison staff's conduct towards class members. Individuals provided a variety of accounts lending toward this appearance, but we only have space enough to elaborate on a few of the most recurrent or critical ones.
While retaliation towards class members is specifically prohibited by the SA, convincing a court (in this case, a judge or judges, rather than a jury) of retaliatory intent is a difficult thing. This is especially true when you're dealing with occurrences unwitnessed by third parties/outsiders, prisons largely impregnable by the public, and an entity whose independent discretion is as enormous as the CDCr's.
Uptick in Rules Violation Reports (115s) reported by class members; 115s being issued for petty reasons
A number of our interviewees report that people are being issued more 115s than usual and/or report having received new 115s themselves. Around 70+% of these interviewees are Ashker class members, judging from information that they either gave us or that we already had before interviewing them.
Several described receiving 115s for petty reasons (the equivalent of rolling though a stop sign out here). Details are given in the Pelican Bay Report and Corcoran Report in this issue of Prison Focus.
A 115, if sustained in a hearing by staff, results in discipline. In the worse-case scenario, you can be thrown into the SHU for months, even years, if the alleged offense is a SHU-eligible offense. 115s can otherwise affect your work group status and your ability to parole or obtain a parole date, if you are eligible for parole.
Disproportionate placement of class members on "C" status; "underground" rules for those on "C" status
Multiple class members have shared their observations about people being placed on "C" status, i.e., being assigned to Work Group C.
Mr. YB compiled a list of over a hundred people on "C" status, the majority of whom are class members, he says.
The CDCr assigns various "Work Group" statuses to those in its custody. (See California Code of Regulations, Title 15, § 3044, Inmate Work Groups."Work Group" is a misnomer, in that so-called jobs are hard to come by. And many are simply not permitted to work for the cents per hour that the CDCr pays, because they are prohibited from doing so by their work group status.)
The "privileges" you're granted in prison are commensurate with your work group status. i.e., the amount of money you're allowed to spend at the commissary, the restrictions placed on your visits with loved ones and on your out-of-cell exercise time, your permission or lack thereof to make limited phone calls and to work, etc., all depend on the Work Group you've been place in.
Relevant to our interviewees'/correspondents' comments,"privileges" for those specifically in Work Group C are even less than those for those in SHU (See § 3044 and its subparts pertaining to those place in Work Groups C and D).
Moreover, Mr. ZA additionally informed us, individuals on "C" status are being subjected to mail restrictions. These include certain individuals whose mail was restricted after receiving correspondence from California Prison Focus. What these specific restrictions may be, we don't know. But we do know that, regardless of your work group status, Title 15 regulations around mail remain the same. (See §§ 3130–3153.) The withholding or partial withholding of mail, for example, is authorized only in limited instances, and according to the procedures set forth in Title 15.
Along similar lines, other interviewee's comments suggest that those on "C" status are receiving special treatment not authorized under Title 15.
Mr. QW, who is preparing his own list of persons on "C" status, likens being on "C" status to "stop-and-frisk" on the outside. You get petty 115s. Your cell is raided, and the cops just barge in yelling and telling you to get on the ground, rather than following the standard procedure of cuffing you up prior to before raiding your cell. People on "C" Status don’t really know what legitimate rules adhere outside of the SHU, but staff expects them to know. At any rate, they do know what the "underground" rules are.
Mr. JJ mentioned that appliances (TVs, e.g.) are being taken away from those on "C" status. But he also heard about a memo going out from Sacramento instructing cops not to do this.
Mr. RE believes that the cops are using 115s ten or fifteen years old, and petty 115s, to put people on "C" status. It's not clear whether or not he's a class member, but he told us that's he's spent time in the SHU.
Ongoing repercussions of information supplied by confidential prisoner-informants
The SA does not substantively address the CDCr's taking into consideration of confidential information when making administrative decisions, including decisions about housing/SHU assignments which are at the heart of Ashker. It only states, at ¶ 34, that the CDCr shall follow its own rules set forth in Title 15 and shall "develop and implement appropriate training for impacted staff members" making administrative decisions. (Training requirements are an issue that the Ashker's litigation has brought to court in recent months.)
Confidential information is largely supplied by debriefers or "drop-outs", meaning those renouncing/denying any gang affiliation and supplying information to prison staff. That such people would feel strong incentive to talk (truthfully or not) is clear enough. Failure to debrief, for example, has been cited as a reason to deny parole to many.
When confidential information is used to an individual's detriment, Title 15 does not require that the specific content of that information be disclosed to that individual. Instead, s/he is issued a Confidential Information Disclosure Form (1030) stating the general nature of the information.
Once issued, any 1030 stays in your central file forever and can generally be invoked in support of a variety of actions adversely affecting you. The only limitations of which this writer is aware are those set forth in the SA, pertaining to 115s and the manner in which they're used in determining housing assignments.
How the use of confidential information—a critical topic for all people in California's prisons—will play out for class members in coming months remains to be seen. Yet, the potential for ongoing abuse is apparent.
Mr. TE indicates that people awaiting Ashker reviews are being told by the ICC, during 180-day reviews otherwise required under Title 15, that their cases have been referred to the IGI. Mr. TE is an apparent class member. In 2010, he received a 1030 concerning information allegedly proffered by somebody he'd allegedly disrespected. He mentioned this within the context of saying that his case had been referred to the IGI a couple of weeks earlier. Prior to being so advised, he'd been advised that his Ashker review was soon forthcoming.
This raises the questions: To what extent is confidential information being used by the CDCr to justify housing assignments? And how many people receiving initial Ashker reviews are having their cases referred to the DRB based on confidential information?
Mr. OU believes that debriefers are increasingly being used to get people off the mainline, i.e. out of the general population and into more restrictive housing units such as the SHU or Ad Seg. The CDCr can no longer do so (under the SA) by just saying they're gang members, he notes. Mr. OU is a class member who spent well over a decade in the SHU. He was released from the SHU earlier this year, then was put in Ad Seg scarcely more than two months later. The IGI informed him that this was because of a 1030 they'd received from a prison where he'd previously been held, to the effect that he was subject to attack by other prisoners.
The SA specifies, at ¶13, that the CDCr shall not place anyone in an ASU or SHU on the basis of validation status (status as "gang" or "STG affiliates) alone. But it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that the use of Ad Seg is not otherwise addressed in any detail by the SA, since it is outside of the scope of Ashker. (As explained at the beginning of this article, Ashker was brought on behalf of those confined at Pelican Bay's SHU for ten years or more, and on behalf of those subject to being so confined. It was not brought on behalf of those confined at Pelican Bay's or any other prison's ASU.) It too cannot be emphasized strongly enough that, while California's prisons for women do not have SHUs and are to that extent out of the scope of Ashker, they do have ASUs. All prisons in this state have ASUs.
Oct 21, 2016
keywords: Extended Lock Downs
From Prison Focus Issue 50
The following report is compiled from correspondence with individuals at High Desert State Prison (HDSP) and from an in-person visit with legal investigators conducted in June, 2016. To prevent retaliation, we have refrained from using names, and use random initials instead. All quotes are from incarcerated men at HDSP.
CPF investigators traveled to High Desert on June 20, 2016, and interviewed five men out of the seven visits they had scheduled. According to the Correctional Officer (COs) who escorted the investigators, two men refused their visits. The guard stated to investigators, “I have never heard of an inmate refusing an attorney visit,” but insisted that one person refused even after he offered the visit five times. Overall guards were polite to investigators and made the visits go smoothly.
The visiting sections were far apart from each other, a long walking distance in the hot sun and wind. The visits were conducted in rooms with two-way mirrors, and the two guards that accompanied investigators were behind those mirrors throughout the visits. When leaving the prison and returning ID badges, investigators saw a flyer inviting guards to a July 4th BBQ and raffle where the winning prize was an AK-47.
This was the first visit from CPF for all of the men we met. This is not surprising as it is the first time in many years that CPF has conducted a visit at HDSP. Average time in CDC custody ranged from 3 years to 11 years, with some much longer. Three were survivors of solitary confinement in the past. Most of the men were currently housed in close custody units.
In 2010, High Desert received a directive from headquarters stating that they cannot have lockdowns that last longer than two weeks without permission from Sacramento. However, we heard many reports of extended lockdowns lasting for up to a month or longer without explanation. In general, the men felt lockdowns were put in place arbitrarily and used as a tool of retaliation when guards were unhappy.
At the time of our visit on June 20, B-unit and D-unit had been on lockdown since May 6. Several men had heard the lockdown would continue until the end of June. Mr. G reported that there was a small fist fight in early May which triggered the lockdown, but there was no need to lock down the whole unit. News reports have labeled this incident as a riot involving 65 prisoners. Punishment of an entire group for one or two individual’s actions is an ongoing and serious problem throughout CDC. The men did not believe there was permission from Sacramento for the extended lockdown, because no high level officials had come to visit, as they have done in the past. For over a month, the men were not allowed yard time, access to canteen, or delivery of quarterly packages.
During the lockdown, they replaced all kitchen workers and for four days, they fed everyone on paper plates, 1/3 smaller portions. All the new kitchen workers were Mexican. That ended on Tuesday of the week prior to our visit, the day after the warden came to visit with them.
Mr. G reported that on Monday, June 14th, the day after letters arrived to prisoners noticing the upcoming CPF visit, the Warden came into D unit and talked to several people about “what can be done to resolve this issue.” The very next day, canteen slips were passed out. On Thursday, quarterly packages were delivered. On Friday, there was fully integrated yard with no problems. The men speculated that the lockdown would end, now that the visit had occurred. Mr. G suspected that the Mexican prisoners would be the last off lockdown, even though they have not been fighting and are respecting the Agreement to End Hostilities.
The B Unit had also been on lockdown for close to 30 days at time of visit. No one was provided with a reason. One block has been designated as a “program block” about a week prior to the visit. It is the only one that receives any programming out of the entire B Unit. According to one man in B Unit, the men who qualify for the program block do so because they “kiss guards' asses.”
Yard time in High Desert is rare due to the frequency of lockdowns. Yard is cancelled with no notice about one or two days a week. Another man confirmed that his yard is also canceled about once a week. The guards claim this happens because they don't have enough staff, or because they have to go to a different yard. Day room is also cancelled on days when yard is cancelled.
Mr. V described B-yard, “They [prison guards] run this yard like a 180 yard, but it's a 270.” The men have to be cuffed wherever they go. His particular yard, B-5 which is a SNY, doesn't get night yard, and that is the only one. On normal programming, B-5 gets yard about every other day, and two buildings go out at a time. In D-unit, even when on normal programming it does not meet the 10 hour per week requirement for yard time. When on normal programming, prisoners who don't have a job get yard Tuesday and Thursday, then on alternate weeks get yard three times in a week. During those alternate weeks, they only get about an hour or so at yard. If prisoners do have a job, they get yard Saturday and Sunday for only an hour.
RETALIATION, RACISM, ABUSE BY GUARDS
“This is a violent prison because the guards make it that way.”
We received consistent reports of violence, retaliation, and aggressive treatment by guards. Mr. O, a Latino man for whom English is a second language, was accosted by guards calling him gay; one guard grabbed his buttocks twice, while other guards laughed. This man has heard that this CO does that to other Mexican prisoners regularly. Mr. O also reported that he was hit by a guard with baton a month prior to our visit. Two other men had been fighting on the yard. Everyone was told to get down, but one guard told him to move. When he didn’t go down, another guard hit him. When this man brought it up with custodial staff in his unit later, they just laughed it off.
Mr. K, also Latino, described to us how he was forced by prison guards to pick a gang and be classified as a Northerner. He does not consider himself in a gang, and does not relate to any gang, “at all, or any of that.” Mr. P said that he is afraid to speak specifically on guard harassment. He reported that once while he was in B-3 block and out at yard, tower guards opened his cell door to let other prisoners run through his cell, taking his appliances, and messing with his papers. Mr. Y reported that there is discrimination and abuse focused on a transgender prisoner in his unit, which includes guards calling her “princess,” “cupcake,” and other sexualizing, diminutive names.
Mr. V, who had been to High Desert previously in the 1990s, repeatedly stated that all of the reports of corruption at High Desert is all true. Informants are easily branded as such, for no reason. Guards pressure people to inform more here than other places.
SHU kick-outs are especially subject to harassment. The gang investigation unit (IGI) has targeted those men more than usual since December 2015, around the time a lot of DRB kick-outs came to High Desert.
Reports indicate that COs still employ contraband watch, i.e. “Potty Watch.” This is an investigation tactic used by IGI when individuals are taken from their cell, put in a barren cell with no clothing, and forced to wear an adult diaper for several days in order to observe for contraband. One man reported that he saw one man all taped up, taken away, and then released a short time later.
Mr. G explained to us that there is only one doctor, and he did not know how many days that doctor is on the premises. At High Desert prisoners get bunched together to go to medical and so they have to wait in a long line. Sometimes people leave because of the long wait.
Two men stated that they have been pressured to take psych meds, rather than pain killers. Mr. U stated that he has pain related to scoliosis, but instead of providing him with pain medication and physical therapy as he’s requested, they have prescribed him a psychiatric medication, which he refuses. One investigator did some research into the medication he was prescribed, Trileptal, and found that it is indicated for treating seizures and epilepsy in adults and children over two years old. The drug has serious side effects and could have a substantial impact on his cognitive abilities as well as physical health if it is not needed. This man says that it is common for medical doctors to try to get prisoners on drugs like this, which make people go crazy, so they can keep them in isolation. At the time of the visit, Mr. U had been waiting for a doctor appointment for 3 weeks to discuss his physical health. He is at third level 602 regarding inadequate medical treatment, and will go to outside court if denied again.
Mr. B also reported that he was not diagnosed with any mental health concerns but was “badgered” by the medics to take Trileptal. He had been on medication for paralysis on his right side for ten years. Now High Desert is saying that his medical condition, neuropathy, is actually a mental health condition and has placed him on Trileptal and Lyrica. He has tremors with the Trileptal. His pain is a lot worse now, and his muscles are so constricted that he does not go to chow hall but rather eats in his cell, and he can't go to yard. The guards told him that soon he would lose permission to eat in his cell and would have to come to the chow hall, since he no longer had a documented physical condition. He felt that if he had outside contacts who wrote to him, the medics would know better than to do this and would leave him alone.
Mr. S had requested appointments with a doctor since December, but had yet to see one. He has a torn ACL and was awaiting cortisone shots and physical therapy. His last cortisone shot was in May 2015, before he was transferred to High Desert, and his physical therapy stopped without notice in December 2015. He felt the physical therapy was inadequate, which was a treatment consisting of 15 minutes of electric shocks without stretching or exercises, but he still felt that it was better than nothing.
EDUCATION AND PROGRAMMING
The overall sense investigators got during the visit is that High Desert has very few opportunities for programming. Programs supposedly offered at High Desert include building maintenance, mechanics, computer literacy, Spanish language courses, and some educational opportunities. However, we did not talk with anyone who was enrolled in any of this supposed programming. Mr. R explained that there used to be a computer class, but the instructor was escorted out when guards saw movies being shown on the computer, and the instructor has not been replaced. As noted above, only one block in unit B was getting programming at time of interview.
People also reported that there are extraordinarily long wait lists to receive any of the educational opportunities. Mr. L had his GED and had signed up for a class at Lassen Community College, but he has been waiting to start his class since shortly after he got to High Desert because of a long waiting list. Mr. T had a high school diploma, but was told he needed to raise his TABE score before he could enroll in community college. Mr. M explained that only 10-12 men in his unit are in college classes at a time.
The Law Library is only available two days a week for limited hours. The Inmate Advisory Council has requested access Monday through Saturday, 8am-2:45pm, as is available at other General Population institutions. Mr. A had put in a request in for library use a month prior to our visit and was still waiting; another man filled out the form when he got to High Desert eight or nine months prior to our visit, and had only just received the ducat when we saw him. He believes this may have been related to our attention to the facility. Mr. H estimated a backup of at least 300 prisoners who needed to use Law Library and did not have access.
Mr. W stated that there used to be a Law Librarian who genuinely helped prisoners, but he was put under investigation and removed. He believes that it was pure harassment by the IGI because the librarian was helping prisoners.
Mail is consistently slow to move through the facility in both outgoing and incoming directions. Mr. L reported that mail typically arrived two to three months after it was mailed, even though it was just coming from Redding. His cellie had just received mail from February the week of our visit in June. However, legal mail had been coming in just a few days. Other men reported an average of two weeks to receive their regular mail, and that their legal mail was coming through much faster.
The consensus from all of the men we spoke with was that the food at High Desert is not good. Sometimes it is cold or comes late; sometimes the prison serves spoiled milk and moldy bread; other days it is OK.
The largest issue with property is related to transfers into High Desert. Two men received their property relatively quickly (i.e., within two weeks) after transferring to High Desert; one from Jamestown, and another from Calipatria. Others reported much longer delays. Mr. P reported that his cellie arrived in April and had just gotten his property a few days before our visit in June. He explained that the guards had been making rules up since January 2016 such as “A-yard is starting a new gang with Nike symbols” so they wouldn't let prisoners keep items in their packages with that symbol.
GRIEVANCES AND APPEALS (602s)
While people do use the 602 process at HDSP, we did not hear about the process leading to a satisfactory outcome for anyone. Mr. J had two 602s at the time of our visit; one regarding property theft, and another for receiving the wrong medication (psychiatric instead of pain). Both 602s had been denied and were at the third level review. Similarly, Mr. D was suffering due to a prescription for the wrong kind of medication. He filed a 602 shortly before our visit because medical staff had taken him off a medication for neuropathy and replaced it with a psychiatric medication. The other area where men had filed 602s was in protest of the extended lockdown on the D-5 block. We were told several men filed individual 602s, and there was also a group 602 filed challenging the legitimacy of the lockdown.
Because High Desert is a general population facility, contact visitation is allowed. However, the rules at High Desert are arbitrary and more severe than at other facilities. There is a patio outside which is supposed to allow for outdoor visiting, but no one has ever seen it in use. Mr. T reported that guards are very strict about physical contact: nothing more than hand-holding is allowed during visiting, and when taking photographs no touching at all was allowed. Just recently, at the end of August, CPF received correspondence that this rule was changed and now people in High Desert can take photographs together while touching, as long as their hands are visible. This is due to the advocacy efforts of a friend of someone in High Desert, after she wrote an email to the warden about this seemingly absurd rule.
Mr. I reported that that Southern Mexicans are the first to be kicked out of visiting if it becomes overcrowded, instead of following the first-in, first-out rule as written in Title 15.
Oct 21, 2016
keywords: Welfare Checks, Sleep Deprivation
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. ”