Ten inmates held in isolation at California's Pelican Bay State Prison for more than a decade sued the state Thursday, saying their conditions - which deprived them of virtually all human contact and any meaningful chance for release - violate international standards against torture and inhumane treatment.
The prolonged solitary confinement in the North Coast prison's Security Housing Unit is the harshest anywhere in the nation and "strips human beings of their basic dignity and humanity," the inmates said in a federal court suit in Oakland.
A proposed class action on behalf of the unit's 1,000 inmates - half of whom have been there for more than a decade - seeks court orders limiting their stay in the unit to 10 years, requiring regular review and barring what the suit described as "sensory deprivation" and "environmental deprivation."
The prison in a remote area of Del Norte County houses inmates classified as security risks, mostly because of gang activity. The suit said they are held in windowless concrete cells at least 22 1/2 hours a day, are fed through a slot, have no access to prison vocational or educational programs, sleep on a concrete bed with a lumpy mattress, and can be punished for trying to speak to other inmates.
Most inmates have never been charged with gang-related conduct behind bars, their lawyers said, and are kept in the Security Housing Unit on flimsy evidence - a tattoo, some artwork in their possession, shaking hands with the wrong person, or inclusion in an undisclosed list by an unidentified informant.
They said authorities have told them that the only way out of the unit is to "debrief'" - admit their gang ties and become an informer on other members.
The suit also alleged that state officials have adopted an unofficial but binding policy of denying parole to otherwise eligible prisoners while they are in the security unit. One inmate, George Ruiz, 69, placed in a security unit 28 years ago as a gang member, has been eligible for parole since 1993, but has been told repeatedly by parole boards that he will never be released while housed in the unit, the suit said.
That is "preposterous," replied Agathocelous. Although prisoners can have two two-hour visits per weekend, he said, they can speak to their visitors only through Plexiglas and are prohibited from physical contact.
The same complaints were the subject of two prison hunger strikes last summer and fall that spread to more than 6,000 inmates in 13 prisons. Afterward, state officials said they would ease some restrictions on prisoners' activities and on transfers out of security units, but inmates' representatives said Thursday the changes have been minimal.
"Prison authorities have given them a handball in the recreation area, and prisoners can buy colored pencils" for artwork, said Marilyn McMahon, executive director of the advocacy group California Prison Focus. "But the major demand was to stop debriefing. The department has made it clear that they have no intention of ending that."
Prison Grievances: when to write, how to write, offers both entertainment and education. In this section of the blog, I'll offer you pieces of the book so you can understand what all the tooting and rooting are about. It's a good book. 10/4/12. You can't write a grievance without understanding the Prison Litigation Reform Act. It requires, for instance, that you must first talk over your problem with a prison officer BEFORE you write the grievance (except in cases of injury or fear of death). That way, the officer has an opportunity to correct the problem before you take it to the Grievance Committee. 10/9/12. If the talk doesn't take care of your problem,then you MUST write a grievance. In Texas, that's a Step 1. In the federal prisons, the counselor will give you a BP 9. Answer all the questions. Be as specific as you can. Do NOT include legal jargon. 11/1/12. Make only one claim per grievance. 11/5/12. Do not repeat the grievance before the listed time is up. If it is an emergency, then go ahead! Otherwise, give the system time to respond. 11/14/12. If your problem is not resolved, and you see a flaw in the answer, then you can file a second grievance--but only about the problem in the answer: the reader got the facts wrong, the answer did not match your problem, etc. Do not write a second grievance that repeats your initial complaint--it won't get you anywhere. 1/20/13. If you get no response at all to a grievance, even after the allowed extension, then file the Step 2 with an explanation about the missing response. No, really, the main office is not under the control of the unit bosses (or Martians), and they will actually read your grievance. 2/14/13. Yes, a form-response is frustrating. It is difficult to balance the requirement to 'be specific' with the requirement 'keep it short with no attachments.' So your game plan: always include who-did what-to whom-when. Then mention the number of witnesses, for instance, but offer to discuss those details.
INFORMATION Behind the Walls. Jorge Antonio Renaud (University of North Texas Press, 2002). Should be required reading for families who need information on the practical aspects of prison life. With 24 chapters on elements of prison life (living quarters, craft shop, discipline), the book provides a comprehensive overview with marvelous concrete detail. I found the Apendices especially useful (custody level, medical/dental, libraray, commissary, recreation, good time, parole, officials, and resources). Do you know the difference between GP and PC? You will when you buy and read this book. Special mention: many formerly incarcerated have written about prisons; most can't write. Mr. Renaud was a journalist before his missteps, and the book is a delightful, easy read.
GRAPHIC NOVELS sentences: the life of M.F. Grimm. author Percy Carey, artist Ronald Wimberly (DC Comics, 2007). 5 Star, champagne flight best ever. The decline and fall of a former Sesame Street star is just as compelling as the edgy, unusual art. Although this book chronicles the life, the second life, the fall, and the eventual redemption of a rapper, prison conditions are always front and center. Would-be, wanna-bees need to read this graphic novel. If it doesn't spell out the consequences of fast money and bad decisions, then nothing will.
MEMOIRS Prisoner of Conscience: a memoir. Kenneth Kennon (XLibris, 2001). Could there be a more inlikely inmate than a Christian minister who was arrested for silently marching against the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia? Rev. Kennon intended to protest; he did not intend to go to federal prison for 6 months. This almost-daily log of impressions, insight, and poetry can help families understand the long, long days, the daily insults, the joy of receiving mail. Unexpected humor both in the prison and in Rev. Kennon's writing is especially endearing: a transportation guard asked him what a prisoner of "con-science" is; he had seen posters the Reverend's friends held up as he walked through the gates. Perhaps any word that begins "con" catches the eye?
This box will have reviews of some of my favorite books, movies and whatever else I might discover. Please send me your favorites, and I'll review them!