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Being labeled the worst of the worst

December 8, 2011

by Richard Wembe Johnson

This is the Pelican Bay SHU D corridor, where Richard Wembe Johnson and other hunger strikers live. After the first round of the hunger strike this summer, on Aug. 17, CDCR allowed a few reporters a rare press tour of Pelican Bay, but they were denied access to this corridor. - Photo: Julie Small, KPCC
From the very first day of my incarceration, I was placed in security housing for no justifiable reason. Now, nearly 17 years later, without reprieve, I find myself still in a security housing unit in the absence of a single serious rule infraction.

The excuse given that I’m in the SHU is because I am an alleged gang member, even in spite that my criminal charge nor conviction has nothing to do with gangs. At the same time I’m told if I debrief, confess to being a gang member, and become a rat, a stoolie, an informant for them by debriefing, then I could eventually be released to a general population, of course conditionally to a sensitive needs yard along with others who have given their souls for a piece of property outside the restrictions of SHU life.

I’m told if I debrief, confess to being a gang member, and become a rat, a stoolie, an informant for them by debriefing, then I could eventually be released to a general population, of course conditionally to a sensitive needs yard along with others who have given their souls for a piece of property outside the restrictions of SHU life.

I can’t speak on the behalf of others, but I can speak for myself and how I perceive the underlying and fundamental flaw with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s entire concept of turning men into spineless individuals who would rather crawl on their knees instead of standing tall on their feet under the weight of prison atrocities.

Granted everyone is different in most conceivable ways and have dissimilar points of views on issues that confront them. With this in mind, there exist organic and vital substances that are principal to every man who is confined under the worst or best of conditions, more so the worst. Pride, self-respect, honor, scruples and integrity, just to name a few, surmount all else, regardless of the prevailing winds behind the lines of prison.

Everyone has various basic innate character flaws, but when you renounce and relinquish your manhood for prison tidbits, what you have left is nothing but a shallow existence with absolutely no self-worth to speak of. I understand that survival is taught to be a first primal law of nature, yet there are greater purposes that far precede selfish acts of self-centeredness exhibited by those willing to do whatever it requires in order to be able to move about beyond the SHU atmosphere.

What is tantamount to manhood is called virtues. A man without morals is someone who can be corrupted as defined under the manly code of ethics. That is a gift to every man at birth. Ideally speaking, in a perfect world the thought of men not living up to expectation would be unheard of, but the truth is this isn’t an ideal world and given this fact each of us are left to our own devices of making smart choices that either help or hurt us as a collective or individually.

Correct or not, we’re judged by our deeds or misdeeds, good or bad. When someone elects to forgo his birthright for perceived trappings that in the full scheme of things are nonsensical and irrelevant, then the consequences are his and his alone. Being labeled the worst of the worst, justified or not, is indeed a heavy burden to bear, yet equally more dire is wearing the dubious dishonor of being a gutless sanctimonious squealer.

Being labeled the worst of the worst, justified or not, is indeed a heavy burden to bear, yet equally more dire is wearing the dubious dishonor of being a gutless sanctimonious squealer.

There’s an exclusive difference between a person who informs versus a lying turncoat rat, even though they’re both off the same tree of forbidden fruit. The difference is whenever a person lives a life that is comparable to crime it comes with certain downfalls and expected consequences if caught.

At the other end of the same fruit, if a person who isn’t engaged in any form with crime life and observes wrongdoing or is thrust in a position in which revealing is seen as mandatory, then it’s an unintended consequence of a circumstance, not the reflection of someone trying to escape fault or defer guilt, as most have done who opt to become scurrilous agents of cowardice and disgrace.

I don’t want you to misinterpret my disparaging tone toward those who have scrambled toward a perceived sanctuary for CDCR scraps awarded as a prize for selling their hearts and souls. Nonetheless when you take the initiative to submit all that you have as a man, then you lose the right to be respected in any form whatsoever. No one in their right mind campaigns intentionally to come to prison, but if your actions result in you being sent to prison, then it’s your responsibility to handle and deal with whatever your actions caused, as unpleasing as it may be. The message being you don’t owe it only to yourself to always err on the side of right but to never fold under the battering of the brash tactics employed by prison staff in order to steal your mind.

You don’t owe it only to yourself to always err on the side of right but to never fold under the battering of the brash tactics employed by prison staff in order to steal your mind.

Naturally anyone would prefer to be housed in a more conducive and appealing environment other than SHU, despite that a man is endowed with the responsibility to uphold his manhood and fend off every challenge to it, without capitulation. Prison officials realize that when they’re able to divide and weaken the fraternity of the prison body by hammering at the less strong-minded, forcing them into indefensible positions, it degrades the unity of the prisoner bond, while empowering the staff’s dogged pursuit of utmost domination and command over them spiritually, mentally and physically. Iron-handed dogmatism hasn’t worked. History is soundly replete with such powerful and inspirational instances of unified resistance: Attica, Soledad, San Quentin for example.

In all practical sense, prison should never be used as a playground for authoritative deviates to exert their demonic and hateful schemes in order to prevail over straightforward men of consciousness. There’s only two ways to do things: a right way and a wrong way. Here at Pelican Bay State Prison the officials have repeatedly elected to use the wrong way in order to win in their pursuit of steel-fisted oppression over prisoners, exhausting every measure of physical and clinical abuse.

Simply declaring us the worst of the worst doesn’t make it true, nor does it justify their practices of exploitation and evil maltreatment over men under their supervision. Just as we’re labeled the worst of the worst, those in charge of running Pelican Bay can equally be labeled as such in accordance with CDCR chain of command. If we’re deemed the worst of the worst without any justification, when you juxtapose that with CDCR, which has an undisputed history of wrongdoing, then the question is warranted: Who is by far the worst of the worst?

Simply declaring us the worst of the worst doesn’t make it true, nor does it justify their practices of exploitation and evil maltreatment over men under their supervision. Just as we’re labeled the worst of the worst, those in charge of running Pelican Bay can equally be labeled as such.

One man’s weakness can serve as another man’s strength. We can never yield to injustice. There can be no victory without protracted struggle!

Living in a toilet for decades

Without fail there are certain repercussions from the effects of existing in the inhumane space of a toilet, especially in prison. Absolutely there exist no pros and cons from such a situation. Only cons. Can one really envision what toll that eating, sleeping, breathing and plain persevering under such harsh conditions would have both physically and emotionally?

The perforated steel and 24-hour lighting in the Pelican Bay SHU cells means no privacy whatsoever for prisoners, who must strip naked to be visually “searched” by the guards.
When you see dramatic images on television and in movies of individuals in prison or jail, it’s easy to dismiss the cramped and inhumane cells as being what they were designed to be: a lockup. Yet has anyone ever taken the time to consider what impact it has on the person as well as what statement does it make about those of us who turn an uncaring eye to the implications of torture toward another human being?

Quite understandably, the purpose of confinement is to confine; this isn’t in question. What conditions are used is the real issue of contention. Some may argue you do the crime, you do the time – this being the system in which law and order supposedly is enacted for everyone.

However, we all can rest assured that the system isn’t perfect and guilt or innocence often becomes tangled. Crossing paths in search of truth and justice, wrongful convictions are inevitable, just as those who have in fact committed crimes are found not guilty.

How you respect your prisoners is directly emblematic of the general public. Abuse of those confined seldom if ever receives any attention. Only when prisoners take matters in hand either peacefully or violently does the general population give a second thought to their plight at the hands of administrators determined to break them down. No one can deny that for anyone to be seen as lenient on crime or too sensitive to the implementation of prison rules and regulations that administrators enact that directly affect how prisons are run can be a political coup de grace.

Speaking strictly from personal experience and observation, to say that I was astounded by what I saw when I first arrived here at Pelican Bay is an understatement for a number of reasons. It was something that I had to adjust to or it would cause great mental conflict.

Being routinely paraded around in underwear in my view is very closely akin to and reminiscent of slavery, even down to the chains of chattel slavery that to this day are a reminder of struggles endured in the history that is symbolic to the African Diaspora. Now just a century and a half removed, the practice of having chained and shackled individuals moving about half naked reflects past episodes in some of history’s darkest hours and failures. Your spirit connects and identifies with the horrors that were a constant under servitude and bondage.

The practice of having chained and shackled individuals moving about half naked reflects past episodes in some of history’s darkest hours and failures. Your spirit connects and identifies with the horrors that were a constant under servitude and bondage.

Grown men strutting around scantily clothed under the watchful eyes of all manner of people, be it male or female, shows complete lack of civility or respect for these men resigned to such belittling treatment. There can be no rationale that justifies these demeaning acts utilized in order to exhibit ultimate control over prisoners.

There’s no privacy to speak of, even in the minutest undertaking, such as toilet use. Even some caged animals are afforded more decency in most instances. What is respectful about having to undress nakedly in front of strange women at the behest of their command, while having to spread your butt cheeks and lift your testicles for inspection, at the same time some of the male guards unquestionably aren’t who they pretend to be in terms of sexual orientation?

Thus again you’re an object of protracted examination. When anyone is put through the rigors of such revolting treatment, to expect a man not to be unaffected is certainly expecting too much.

I am personally not so naïve to not comprehend the purpose of being locked up, but does being locked up mean that you surrender and forfeit all claims to being treated humanely, regardless of being imprisoned? The impact of living in a toilet is a spectacle that anyone who hasn’t endured it would definitely find somewhat hard to fully fathom.

The fact that all prisoners are indeed individuals, their reactions will be in accordance to their distinct thought patterns, reflective of separate basic interpretation, uniquely singular. Not to sound vain or conceited, but indulge me for a minute. Can you imagine only vaguely seeing your image in a mirror a couple times a week for years on end in order to take care of personal hygiene as a man and part of the human race? Yes, harsh consequences are to be expected while doing time, not abusive treatment that crosses the line with regards to conditions.

The lines are crystal clear. It’s only when people charged with enforcing the rules become criminally corrupt and negligent that enforcement is vilified with hatred and mistreatment. The overall impact of residing under circumstances of toilet living, figuratively and actually, all result in the same outrage and humiliations caused by aspersions imposed by people determined to exact complete submission from prisoners.

Treat anyone like an animal, and animalistic characteristics may become the undeniable response, tantamount to retributive justice, at least for those put in a precarious state of mind from the outset. Cause and effect represents truth that comes with this type of wrongdoing against people doing time under hideous and outrageous conditions.

Valuing the principles and morality of treating people humanely regardless of their circumstance doesn’t make you soft on crime nor irresponsible. What it does make you is understanding of mankind.

Valuing the principles and morality of treating people humanely regardless of their circumstance doesn’t make you soft on crime nor irresponsible.

So often politics disallows us to look introspectively. Instead, we get caught up in impractical reasoning laced with indefensible bias and discrimination.

According to the laws that govern our communities, I am a criminal. With that said, under the very same guidelines, either by criminal intent or actual stupidity, there exist many who aren’t in prison even though their actions are unlawful, just as mine are said to have been.

Because someone is charged to oversee, uphold and administer the law, that doesn’t define them as being faultless and incapable of criminal acts themselves. It is no great wonder why so many people who have been subjected to cruel toilet living often find themselves incapable of having social etiquette upon release and for many while still in prison.

It’s undeniable that SHU aka security housing unit is a grotesque experiment in human mistreatment and failure that culminates in discriminatory treatment. There are no words that could portend any justification whatsoever for years of toilet living. At some point the impact could very well result in toilet thinking by those subdued by the tyranny of it – and by the tyrants.

Send our brother some love and light: Richard Wembe Johnson, K-53293, SHU D2-218, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532. This letter was typed by Adrian McKinney.

 

4 thoughts on “Being labeled the worst of the worst

  1. Lynda

    What about the ones who were sent out to court and brought back only to find all their belongings gone and no cell or bed to come back to so are deemed a threat to all inmates and prison staff and therefore thrown in the cold hole wearing only underwear. All they did was to respond to a court order. That doesn't justify that kind of treatment. They did nothing wrong to be treated that way. What kind of threat can they oppose on anyone? Everything they had in their world was taken from them and not by their actions but by the ones in charge. And then "they" wonder why they become bitter.

    Reply
  2. Lynda

    Why can't a prisoner get his proper med's? A prisoner whom has be an epileptic for 40 years and knows what med's he takes and what works to control his seizures tells prison staff and doctors what he needs, it's on all medical files and they wonder why he has multiple seizures. Instead of filling out a prescription they send him out to get a $6,000 brain MRI and still deprive him of his med's.

    Reply
  3. G.N.

    I have absolutely no concern or regard for those criminals serving time in prison be it Pelican Bay or the county jail. If they don't like prison then they should not have committed the crimes. Fuck em. Let them rot.

    Reply
  4. S.D.

    I have experienced CDC, through my husband (now ex), as well as myself. In the case of Mr. Johnson, was this his first conviction? Is this his first time in prison? If so, I don't understand him being assigned to the SHU Unit. If this is not his first conviction, or first time in prison, what prior incidents could warrant him being housed in the SHU unit? His sentence seems quite drastic for a first offender. Therefore, I am inclined to believe there may be more to this story than we are hearing. In order to obtain the reaction one wants from the public, it is important to know the facts and the truth.

    Reply

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