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Open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown: Stop the torture now

October 17, 2012

Dear Gov. Brown:

Former prisoners, prisoners’ loved ones, religious leaders, legal and medical professionals and prisoner advocates turned out for a historic hearing into solitary confinement in California called by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco on Aug. 23, 2011, and preceded by this rally at the state capitol in Sacramento.
We oppose the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR’s) policies and practices relating to our subjection to decades of “status”-based indefinite isolation (SHU confinement); this includes our opposition to CDCR’s proposed policy changes, entitled “Security Threat Group Prevention, Identification, and Management Strategy.” We would appreciate your supportive intervention on this issue.

We are the four principal prisoner representatives confined in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor, and we present you with this request on behalf of ourselves and all similarly situated prisoners who are subject to torturous, indefinite SHU [Security Housing Unit] and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] confinement. Our commonality as a collective group – able to effectively represent our own interests, as well as those of the thousands of prisoners similarly situated – lies in our continued indefinite SHU confinement for more than 25 years, which is based on “status,” rather than illegal behavior. Notably, our decades of SHU isolation are based on CDCR gang classification, i.e. status, without ever being found guilty of committing a gang-related criminal act!

Our decades of SHU isolation are based on CDCR gang classification, i.e. status, without ever being found guilty of committing a gang-related criminal act!

Our gang validations and related decades of SHU isolation are based on what CDCR claims to be “intelligence-based evidence of criminal gang activity,” consisting of: (a) innocent associational or political type activity; and/or (b) confidential prisoner informants’ unsubstantiated allegations of involvement in criminal activity.

The “censored pelican,” drawn by Pete Collins, at Bath Prison in Ontario, Canada, became an icon of the 2011 hunger strikes led by the same “main reps” in the Pelican Bay SHU who wrote this letter to Gov. Brown.
Beginning in February 2010, we became united in our efforts to collectively expose and peacefully bring an end to the CDCR policies and practices referenced above, based on our position that they constitute a form of torture and a violation of basic human rights principles. This is when we created our “Formal Complaint” document, copies of which were sent to numerous lawmakers, organizations, groups and individuals, including former Gov. Schwarzenegger and CDCR Secretary Cate. (To review our Formal Complaint, go to prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity. wordpress.com/formal-complaint.)

As of early 2011, the Formal Complaint had resulted in no relief, and our conditions in SHU had become more oppressive; therefore, we decided our sole avenue for gaining mainstream exposure and outside support for our cause to end our torture was for us to put our lives on the line via a peaceful protest hunger strike action. In May/June 2011, we served your office and Secretary Cate with another copy of our Formal Complaint and our Final Notice of the July 1 hunger strike with the Five Core Demands. (Available at http://www.prisons.org/documents/FinalNoticewith5CoreDemands.doc.)

True to our word, we began our hunger strike July 1, 2011, which lasted until July 20, 2011, and included supportive participation by more than 6,600 prisoners across the state. Our hunger strike action was temporarily suspended on July 20 in response to our face-to-face meetings with top CDCR officials, who admitted early on in the negotiation process that our five core demands “were all reasonable,” and CDCR “should have made changes 20 years ago,” and who promised to make timely, substantively meaningful changes, responsive to all five demands.

In our face-to-face meetings with top CDCR officials, they admitted early on in the negotiation process that our five core demands “were all reasonable” and CDCR “should have made changes 20 years ago,” and they promised to make timely, substantively meaningful changes, responsive to all five demands.

All parties understood that CDCR needed to change policies so that SHU confinement would be reserved for prisoners who are charged with and found guilty of committing a serious rule violation, meriting a determinate SHU term, i.e. a system based on individual behavior.

As of early September 2011, we believed CDCR was not acting in good faith … resulting in our return to hunger strike on Sept. 26, 2011. The response was to subject 15 of us to additional torture: Todd Ashker, C-58191; Arturo Castellanos, C-17275; Charles Coleman, C-60680; Mutope Duguma (James Crawford), D-05996; Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671; J. Brian Elrod, H-25268; George Franco, D-46556; Antonio Guillen, P-81948; Paul Jones, B-26077; Louis Powell, B-59864; Paul Redd, B-72683; Alfred Sandoval, D-61000; Danny Troxell, B-76578; James Baridi Williamson, D-34288; and Ronnie Yandell, V-27927. We were placed in more isolative Ad-Seg strip cells, without adequate clothing or bedding, and with ice-cold air blasting out of the air vents; then Warden Lewis informed us, “As soon as you eat, you can go back home to your SHU cells.”

The response (to our second hunger strike) was to subject 15 of us to additional torture. We were placed in more isolative Ad-Seg strip cells, without adequate clothing or bedding, and with ice-cold air blasting out of the air vents; then Warden Lewis informed us, “As soon as you eat, you can go back home to your SHU cells.”

This second hunger strike action was joined by more than 12,000 prisoners at its peak. It was again temporarily suspended on Oct. 13, 2011, after CDCR made a presentation of their good faith efforts toward the policy changes agreed to in July which was satisfactory to our outside Mediation Team.

Legendary artist and revolutionary Emory Douglas, whose art enlivened the Black Panther newspaper and is now exhibited around the world, lent his powerful voice to a rally in front of CDCR headquarters in Sacramento during last year’s first hunger strike, on July 18, 2011.
In the year since Oct. 13, 2011, the CDCR has failed to honor their end of our prior agreements to change SHU policies and practices including but not limited to those listed below:

1) We remain in SHU, subject to the torturous conditions therein, including but not limited to all of the conditions described in our Formal Complaint and other written statements. (See prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.)

2) The CDCR’s March 2012 proposed policy changes actually do not change anything for those prisoners whom CDCR has classified as validated gang members, who will continue to be subject to indefinite SHU isolation based on “intelligence information” alleged to indicate the prisoner’s participation in “criminal gang activity” – but in fact often innocent associational/political type activity). The “intelligence” includes confidential informants’ unsubstantiated allegations of involvement in criminal activity – notably, carrying zero formal charges! This is the same policy and practice used and abused by CDCR to keep us in SHU for more than 25 years. (See, e.g., “intelligence” references in March 1, 2012, proposal at pp. 7-8, 25; “intelligence” categories references at pp. 19-24. Compare to CCR, Title 15, sec. 3378(c)(6), 3378(c)(8) and 3378(e).)

3) The CDCR’s March 2012 proposed policy changes include a four-year minimum step-down program, which prisoners may participate in to earn their way out of SHU. This is also unacceptable! Four years is too long, and the incentives for each step are not adequate. Any step-down program should have a maximum limit of 18 months and require meaningful incentives from the start, such as increased opportunity for out-of-cell contact with other prisoners, additional programs and privileges, including regular phone calls and contact visits.

Notable are the following additional facts supporting our position that CDCR has violated our July/October 2011 agreement and acted in bad faith, thereby requiring us to request your supportive intervention.

A. In March 2012, we presented CDCR with our written rejection of their proposed policy changes, and we included our counterproposal. (Available at prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/pelican-bay-human-rights-movement-short-corridor-collecitves-counter-proposal-to-cdcr/. )

B. Our outside Mediation Team and the Prison Law Office also presented CDCR with related written oppositions to the proposal. (The Mediation Team’s critique is available at http://www.prisons.org/documents/MTreviewofSTGplan5.5.pdf.) The CDCR failed to respond to these opposition points.

This rare photo – rare because reporters are almost always barred from all California prisons, especially the SHUs – shows the cell that was home to Todd Ashker, a signatory to this letter, for over 20 years. Recently he was abruptly moved to a distant part of the SHU. The reported reason is nonsensical for a move that is no doubt intended to stop the movement for peaceful change by separating the leaders.
C. This past June 19, 2012, U.S. Sen. Durbin held a congressional hearing about the overuse of isolation cells in the nation’s penal system. The next day, Illinois Gov. Quinn announced that he would close down Tamms Correctional Facility, the notorious SuperMax that opened in 1995 and held prisoners in long-term isolation – some of them since the prison’s inception. His decision was based on the enormous operational costs and evidence suggesting such isolative confinement profoundly and irreparably damages the prisoners exposed to such harsh treatment. Other states have also made significant reductions in their use of SHU-type units, reserving such cells for prisoners found guilty of serious rule violations, where they serve minimal time periods; these states include Mississippi, Maine and Colorado. (See http://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/closing-tamms-supermax-chance-reevaluate-solitary-confinement.) Reducing their use of isolation is saving these states millions of dollars.

Yet California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation remains committed to keeping thousands of prisoners in costly SHU and Ad-Seg isolation cells for decades, solely based on status rather than a chargeable, charged offense and a finding of guilt for serious misconduct. And we believe that the March 2012 “Security Threat Group …” proposal will ultimately result in many more prisoners being subject to years of torture in isolation cells.

Reducing their use of isolation is saving the states of Mississippi, Maine and Colorado millions of dollars. Yet California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation remains committed to keeping thousands of prisoners in costly SHU and Ad-Seg isolation cells for decades, solely based on status rather than a chargeable, charged offense and a finding of guilt for serious misconduct.

Gov. Brown, back in May/June of 2011 we respectfully made you personally aware of the serious problems. Your failure to take appropriate corrective action has enabled our decades of torturous pain and suffering to continue. Remember, we are talking about the illegal torture of thousands of male and female prisoners – and their family members. The perception is that you are condoning this mass prisoner torture program going on in CDCR’s system and the related ongoing million-dollar fraud being carried out by your appointees, Secretary Cate et al. – by your failure to stop it.

The policies and practices at issue violate basic human rights principles and are clear violations of the Constitution and international law, which bans torture for any reason.

All this comes, as you know, at an enormous cost to all California taxpayers: At least $73,000 per year for each SHU and Ad-Seg prisoner, compared to approximately $52,000 for a general population prisoner – while every other citizen in the state has had social services slashed!

The perception is that you are condoning this mass prisoner torture program going on in CDCR’s system and the related ongoing million-dollar fraud being carried out by your appointees, Secretary Cate et al. – by your failure to stop it.

Meanwhile, we continue to work for constructive change. Since the PBSP SHU became operational in December 1989, the entire state prison system has had an explosion of riots, to the point where level fours are locked down most of the time, without meaningful rehabilitation programs, opportunities etc. To change this, we have just launched an initiative to reduce the violence in the CDCR system by calling on all prisoners to end hostilities between various groups. (See http://www.prisons.org/documents/agreement-to-end-hostilities.pdf.) We hope for your cooperation in this effort; we will communicate with you further about it soon.

This banner provided the theme for a hunger strike solidarity vigil at the Alameda County Courthouse on Aug. 11. 2011. – Photo: United for Drug Policy Reform
Gov. Brown, the barbaric, inhumane treatment of prisoners in this state has gone on for far too long now. We are asking you to take corrective action today by ordering Secretary Cate to immediately halt such practices consistent with our points presented above, and thereby end the unnecessary pain and suffering such practices cause to prisoners, their loved ones outside, and the rest of the majority of the 40 million Californians who have a conscience.

Sincerely,

Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), Antonio Guillen

Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor Prisoner Representatives

P.S. We (prisoners) reject version 7.0 (June 29, 2012) of the “Security Threat Group Prevention, Identification, and Management Strategy,” as prisoners rejected version 5.5 (March 1, 2012).

Send our brothers some love and light: Todd Ashker, C-58191, PBSP SHU D4-121, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532, and Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671, PBSP SHU D1-117, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532. Mail to Arturo Castellanos and Antonio Guillen is severely restricted.

 

3 thoughts on “Open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown: Stop the torture now

  1. Jram

    Inmates need to stop coming back to prison if they don't like the accommodations. Anyways their cells look at lot better than the coffins of their VICTIMS. MAN UP and do your time.

    Reply
  2. Rosemarie

    Crimes that were committed because of finances to survive,would be far less to just help those with $ and programs instead of jailing them excessively.One could easily live on $24,00 or less on the outside instead of housing them for more.Then they would not need to commit a crime for $ because they have enough to survive on.

    Reply

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