WelcomeTo My World

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

California Prison System Has no Place in Civilized Society




Today my loved one will start starving himself not because he wants to, but because he feels he has to, to stand in unity against injustice. He will refuse bland, colorless, tepid taxpayer-funded food that often includes stale bread, wilted lettuce and overcooked meat filler, served through a tiny slot in a perforated door on a dirty wet plastic tray.
If he continues to refuse state food for nine consecutive meals, he will be officially reported as on hunger strike. He does not live in Iran, China, or Guantanamo Bay, but in the Golden State of California, where Gov. Jerry Brown recently proclaimed that the state’s prison system is being returned to its “former luster.”
Thousands of inmates in solitary confinement, their families, activist supporters, international human rights groups, and mental and medical health experts would beg to disagree— all those who witness that prolonged isolation and deprivation are torture.
In 2011 at Pelican Bay State Prison, in an isolated but painstakingly beautiful region of remote northwest California, inmates in the Security Housing Units (SHU) decided they’d had enough of inhumane and unconstitutional living conditions and broken promises by Corrections officials for improvements. A few prisoner representatives issued a list of five “core demands” in advance of a nonviolent protest that July. Demands ranged from better food and warmer clothing to an end to the process of “gang validation” by which inmates are sentenced indefinitely, often for decades, to the “hell hole”—the prison within the prison of extreme sensory deprivation—in violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments regarding due process and cruel and unusual punishment. By the protests’ height some 12,000 prisoners statewide had joined to raise awareness of the brutalities of this clandestine situation and to bring real reform for the first time since the “lock-em-up” mentality that build so many supermaximum-security prisons in the 1990s.
Many inmates have been driven to mental illness or suicide under these conditions: They do not see color, hear natural sounds like dogs barking, or enjoy a loving touch, being confined 22 hours a day to an 8×10-foot windowless concrete cell.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), partly in response to the 2011 protests, began implementing a two-year gang management pilot program in October 2012, wherein inmates are reviewed for placement in one of five steps including release to general population. Of nearly 4,000 prisoners in solitary confinement statewide, some 400 have been reviewed and slightly over half let out to the mainline. Some personal property allotments have been increased, but the most substantial reforms remain unanswered.
And so begins the third nonviolent protest. Indefinite confinement continues, with no guarantees that those released will stay released; the regulations and evidence for placing someone in the SHU remain intact; and rehabilitation programming is shaky at best, despite a $25 million surplus in those funds as revealed by CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard in his recent confirmation hearing in Sacramento.
Why should we care? These are criminals after all, getting what they deserve, correct? Not unless we believe that crime is indelible to the character and beyond redemption: There is no penological justification—certainly no moral one—for punishment’s extension into a torturous and arbitrary excess beyond criminal sentencing. As Chief Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said: “Prison walls don’t form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.”
When livestock, farm animals and pets in California can enjoy more legal rights and public sympathy than human beings locked in cages for decades without adequate legal protection or public oversight, when rehabilitation programming is insignificant even though many of these prisoners will be released back into society, when the public turns a blind eye to mass incarceration believing these people are “the worst of the worst” without questioning, then we must stop and seriously inquire within: Is this the kind of society we want to sanction?
Even the Supreme Court has said that California’s Corrections system is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.
Please contact Gov. Jerry Brown and elected representatives asking to bring this protest to a rapid and equitable conclusion before human beings die—not from starvation, but because of neglect and indifference.
Sincerely,
Beth Witrogen

Mike Farrell

Actor, 'M*A*S*H' and 'Providence'
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-farrell/

A Civilized Society

Posted: 07/08/2013 11:56 am

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

"A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." - Nelson Mandela

"... even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity" - Justice William J. Brennan

Today, more American men and women struggle to survive in prison than do the citizens of any other country in the world. And here correctional officers, staff, administrators and wardens are virtual royalty, holding unquestioned authority over the lives, circumstances and futures of those entrusted to their care. This is ironic because 'care' is a word ill-used to describe the situations of many who today suffer abuse, discrimination and in some cases torture at the hands of the often ruthless "public officials" who wield power over Secure Housing Units (SHUs) for selected inmates and an Adjustment Center (AC) for the condemned.

He tells me the hardest thing to bear is the lack of human contact. In the SHU, you can't touch people; you lack sunlight, even noise. It is total sensory deprivation. - Wife of a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner.

You lay there in your concrete tomb trying to block out the cold especially in the winter when this place is like a morgue. The wall I lay next to is an exterior wall... it's like sleeping next to a block of ice...sometimes the floor is warmer and there I sleep. - Inmate in the Pelican Bay SHU for 16 years.


For the cynics among us, so what? A prisoner is an animal, a monster; he's getting what he deserves. But the law, like the men quoted above, says otherwise. You and I have a legal and moral responsibility to see that incarcerated men and woman are treated fairly, appropriately and decently. As Justice Brennan held, their innate humanity is not forfeited by whatever act requires they be separated from society (assuming they committed the act in the first place, but that's a different question).

Today, rank indignities abound with seemingly few limits. Authorities fail to provide basic clothing like long underwear for cold weather or sufficient socks to those in the SHU. AC prisoners often have needed medical treatment vetoed by non-medical custodial staff and are routinely strip searched in front of dozens of others.

With no ethical overseer apparently willing to condemn the abuse being meted out to the helpless men in California's most extreme prisons, inmates no longer able to hope a formal report will bring relief have taken to relying on themselves. As with the hooded helpless in Guantanamo, inmates at the infamous Pelican Bay State Prison are saying "enough" by refusing to eat, accepting the risk of death by starvation as worthwhile, their only hope in the face of inhumane incarceration and unyielding authoritarianism.

In 2011, Pelican Bay hunger strikers demanded an end to solitary confinement in the absence of disciplinary infractions and were met with the imposition of punitive solitary confinement for having the audacity to ask for fairness and reason. As a result, another SHU hunger strike will commence today, and this time fifty to sixty AC-confined death row inmates will join in. San Quentin's AC hunger strikers are denouncing the promulgation of a harsh set of rules applying only at San Quentin that blatantly violate standards governing the CDCR while not subject to oversight by any branch of government.

Our Constitution's 8th Amendment, which spawned Justice Brennan's finding, is at the heart of a petition from San Quentin's AC hunger strikers, who ask that contact with their families be comparable to that of other condemned inmates. AC inmates are permitted no phone calls and are restricted to shorter visits behind 2 inches of glass. Unable to touch, much less hug, their loved ones and hundreds of miles from home, these men suffer having their children grow up without seeing or speaking to them, their relationships limited to mail which, due to slow processing, can take months to reach a recipient.

Contrary to the claims of those who control every aspect of their lives, these men ask for nothing that threatens "the safety and security of the institution;" they intend to protest peacefully with the only means available to them: starvation. For them, basic human needs - the ability to maintain bonds with family and access to necessary medical treatment - are nothing more than their due as human beings.

As federal judges press Governor Brown to release inmates from overcrowded, unsafe conditions lacking proper medical care, indications are that many imprisoned in other facilities in our state's bulging system will take similar actions to protest the excessively cruel, inhumane conditions of their incarceration.

As Justice Brennan reminds us, "... it is because we recognize that incarceration strips a man of his dignity that we demand strict adherence to fair procedure and proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before taking such a drastic step.... And our adherence to the constitutional vision of human dignity is so strict that even after convicting a person according to these stringent standards, we demand that his dignity be infringed only to the extent appropriate to the crime and never by means of wanton infliction of pain or deprivation."

Have we forgotten who we are?

Mike Farrell
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