Liberate our elders! California Prison Focus demands Gov. Newsom protect peacemakers from COVID-19 by releasing them immediately

On Feb. 19, activists, organizers and supporters, many formerly incarcerated, gathered under the banner of Liberate the Caged Voices at the Freedom and Movement Center, 4400 Market St. in West Oakland, to kick off the campaign to free the elders. Then, only about two weeks later, news of the coronavirus pandemic hit, and immediate mass reduction of prison populations became not only the right thing but the only responsible life-saving measure the governor can take. – Photo: Min. King

Support demands by CPF and the Prisoner Human Rights Movement that Gov. Newsom release all state prisoners who are medically fragile or over 60, starting with the authors of the Agreement to End Hostilities and followed by the remaining members of the Ashker Class Action Settlement.    

California Prison Focus is calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom and Corrections Secretary Ralph Diaz to act immediately under the current humanitarian health crisis to release imprisoned human rights activists and members of the Prisoner Human Rights Movement (PHRM) and Principal Thinkers who authored and signed the historic 2012 Agreement to End Hostilities (AEH), including Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, Arturo Castellanos, Antonio Guillen and Todd Ashker. (See the full list of signers below.)

California Prison Focus stands by these human rights activists who were subjected for decades to the cruel and unusual punishment of long-term solitary confinement, who are not a threat to public safety and, to the contrary, are much needed in their communities.

These men are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, and thus immediate action under the Emergency Services California Act, Government Code section 8550, must be taken. In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used these powers to immediately reduce prison overcrowding in California (CCPOA v. Schwarzenegger (2008) 163 Cal. App. 4th 802).

We demand this same power be asserted today. These men have been historically stigmatized and devalued by CDCr; therefore, priority attention at the highest level of government is critical.

As we know, COVID-19 poses the greatest risk of death to people such as the elder peacemakers named above and others 60 and older and all people who are medically fragile.[i] Many of these men with and for whom we advocate, have compromised immune systems, chronic illnesses and complex medical needs.

Their serious medical conditions, including Post-SHU Syndrome,[ii] PTSD, asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, make them particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These conditions were caused or exacerbated by decades of deplorable conditions, abuse, and medical neglect while confined within CDCr solitary chambers, the Security Housing Units (SHUs).

Throughout 2016, CDCr was forced to release approximately 2,000 prisoners from indefinite solitary confinement in the SHUs. This victory came as a result of the heroic efforts of the organizers from the Pelican Bay SHU and the 30,000 participants of the 2011 and 2013 California Prisoner Hunger Strikes.

These strikes propelled the Ashker v. Brown litigation that eliminated indefinite solitary confinement. Ultimately CDCr, which for years had presented these men as “the worst of the worst,” was forced to admit that the strike organizers and over 2,000 others who had been held in solitary confinement for 11 years or more could be released from SHU without risk to public or institutional safety.

Ultimately CDCr, which for years had presented these men as “the worst of the worst,” was forced to admit that the strike organizers and over 2,000 others who had been held in solitary confinement for 11 years or more could be released from SHU without risk to public or institutional safety.

Because of the sacrifices those individuals made, countless others have been saved from going through decades-long solitary confinement torture as they did.

“Release the elders,” writes KAGE Universal Artivist Ragee from No Joke Theater at Lancaster State Prison. “We have to be mindful when talking about this coronavirus in prison and how it affects us that the prison population already has an issue with health and the lack of proper health care and treatment. The unsanitary living conditions in prison were already at an epic proportion and have been continuously deteriorating.

“With that being said,” Ragee adds, “now we have this coronavirus situation. And the elderly are at the highest risk.

“We need to look at the prisoners who they were supposed to start releasing in the first place after the Coleman lawsuit and release them right now so they can be home with their families in a safe, non-genocidal environment, and where they won’t be affected or put other people at risk when they come up in here.

Ragee concludes: “We demand and we should demand that the elders be released on these terms. The 60 and over bill should be passed.”

Among the elder peacemakers who deserve immediate release are James Baridi Williamson, Ruchelle Magee, Romaine Chip Fitzgerald and Louis Powell.

Since their release from SHU, these men have been promoting the Agreement to End Hostilities and alternatives to violence on the yards and throughout the prisons. They have been engaged in positive programming and mentoring the youth around them. Many are active in community-building and social justice work outside of the prison walls.

CDCr not only fails to recognize the huge contribution of these human rights activists, but has systematically retaliated against them and continues to undermine the Agreement to End Hostilities. CDCr’s use of confidential information that is often coerced and unreliable is one of several tactics being used to do so (see PF Issue 53, page 19 and PF Issue 56, page 9). Testimonies from incentivized informants result in manufactured rule violations used to impose loss of privileges and parole denials of one, three, seven or 15 years.

These are state-sanctioned policies being used to obstruct parole for those individuals that CDCr wishes to silence and/or retaliate against and to undermine the Agreement to End Hostilities under the color of law. This is also how CDCr undermines decisions made by California voters and legislators with Propositions 57, 47 and 64; Senate Bills 260, 261, 394 and 1437; and Assembly Bills 1308 and 1448; and other legislation passed to reduce California’s imprisoned population.

One of the Principal Thinkers who is 61 years old, survived 32 years in solitary confinement and has been incarcerated since 1981 – who is known as a peacemaker on the yard and often referred to as the Nelson Mandela of the Prisoner Human Rights Movement – recently suffered a stroke and still has not been released. Keeping him in prison is a flagrant violation of AB 1448, which was voted into law to provide an opportunity for release to those who are 60 or older and who have served a minimum of 25 years of continuous incarceration, such as this individual and six of the other elders who signed the Agreement to End Hostilities and are still in prison. Statistically the chance of these men reoffending is negligible. This is not an issue of public safety, but rather of power and politics.

Deliberate indifference by CDCr – another act of retaliation – including medical neglect, often has resulted in repeated misdiagnosis (such as asthma rather than a hole in the heart) causing significant injury to individuals, both physically and mentally, from which many continue to suffer. Today, those same lasting ailments are reportedly being untreated due to delays within the prison medical Duckett system, caused by the virus. In addition, many of those who participated in the 60-day hunger strikes of 2013 now have lasting medical conditions such as compromised kidney function. One organizer and signer of the AEH, Raymond ‘Chavo’ Perez, has already died – in prison – after surviving 18 years in solitary confinement, leaving behind his wife and family, who were never able to welcome him home.

Of the 15 surviving signers of the Agreement, the median age is 59, and the average time served is 33 years. Each one of these men spent no less than 11 years in solitary confinement. Not only has the torture not been acknowledged nor restitution made, not one of these men has been granted parole, despite the fact that their parole eligibility dates are as follows: 1982, 1984, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2016. These men have few if any valid behavioral violations against them.

The people who are at the greatest risk for death from COVID-19, who have contributed to a dramatic reduction of violence within California prisons, who pose the least public safety risk to our communities, and have the most to offer MUST BE RELEASED.

Thus, the people who are at the greatest risk for death from COVID-19, who have contributed to a dramatic reduction of violence within California prisons, who pose the least public safety risk to our communities, and have the most to offer MUST BE RELEASED. The California Hunger Strikers and members of the Ashker class settlement have suffered enough while in the custody of CDCr. These individuals had their constitutional rights violated for many years under the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Their illegally enhanced sentences must not be allowed to become death sentences.

To this end, we present the following demand for actions to be taken immediately:

Release all adults in CDCR custody who are medically fragile or over the age of 60, starting with the authors of the Agreement to End Hostilities and followed by the remaining members of the Ashker Class Action Settlement and participants of the 2011 and 2013 Hunger Strikes. Apply AB 1448, California’s Elderly Parole Program for release of prisoners aged 60 and older who have been in prison for at least 25 consecutive years, as intended.

Primary demands

Release all adults in CDCR custody who are medically fragile or over the age of 60, starting with the authors of the Agreement to End Hostilities and followed by the remaining members of the Ashker Class Action Settlement and participants in the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes. Apply AB 1448 as intended.

Protect the right for the signers of the Agreement to End Hostilities, the members of the Ashker Class Action and all 2011 and 2013 hunger strikers to be safe from retaliation as a result of these demands, including further torture, isolation or, as laid out in the Prisoner Human Rights Movement Blueprint, from being coerced, threatened and blackmailed to betray fellow prisoners with false accusations.

Supplemental demands

Release to the public updates on the existing plan and procedures in place to address COVID-19 and how adequate care will be provided for all who fall under the Coleman and Ashker Class Action Settlements.

Expedite parole hearings and release all people who have anticipated release dates in 2020 and 2021 to parole supervision.

Provide free tablets within all CDCR institutions and facilitate email communication through CorrLinks services to support prisoners establish and maintain family ties and bonds. This is needed to mitigate the closing of all visitation at CDCR institutions, which adversely impacts family communication and solidarity.

Support Nancy Skinner’s Senate Bill 1064, prohibiting an employee of, or private entity under contract with, the department from finding any state prisoner guilty of a rules violation if that finding or decision is based on, or relies on, in whole or in part, any uncorroborated information from an in-custody confidential informant.

Create transparency regarding the application of AB 1448, Prop 57 and other California resentencing laws so that they may be applied as intended.

Drop LWOP.

Reduce jail admissions by reclassifying misdemeanor offenses that do not threaten public safety into non-jailable offenses and diverting as many people as possible to community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Eliminate parole and probation revocations for technical violations for behaviors that would not warrant incarceration for people who are not on parole or probation.

Shut down immigration detention centers.

End police brutality, inside prisons and out.

Founding members of the Prisoner Human Rights Movement

These are the peacemakers, cherished leaders known as the “four main reps”: Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, George Franco

“We decided standing up together, asserting our humanity even at the cost of our own lives, was better than rotting and dying alone in our concrete tombs. Nonviolent united action was the only path that made sense … Our programs for the youth aim to break the cycle of violence. The programs we created show we are ‘the best of the best’ not ‘the worst of the worst.’” – Solidarity statement from the four prisoner representatives, aka Principal Thinkers[iii]

“It’s only because of the Agreement to End Hostilities that I am now home, after 18 years. It’s because the agreement created a positive self-help environment where each group can now safely engage in the cultural exchange of materials, tools and ideas, in unity. It is because of these Principal Thinkers that there are no more mass race wars within California prisons, despite the false propaganda orchestrated by CDC small r, that these men are violent, dangerous, ongoing threats to public safety. We must liberate the elderly.” – Min. King X of California Prison Focus and KAGE Universal, mentee of and outside delegate for the organizers of the 2011 and 2013 California Prisoner Hunger Strikes

It is because of these Principal Thinkers that there are no more mass race wars within California prisons, despite the false propaganda orchestrated by CDC small r, that these men are violent, dangerous, ongoing threats to public safety. We must liberate the elderly.

“The Prisoner Human Rights Movement and friends are demanding that prisoners who have been held over 25 years and beyond be released in the interest of justice, especially the elderly and all ill prisoners who are clearly vulnerable and at risk of not only dying from the coronavirus or suffering from a civil death – where men and women are left to suffer indefinitely – which falls under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.” – PHRM activist

Agreement to End Hostilities

Dated Aug. 12, 2012

To whom it may concern and all California Prisoners:

Greetings from the entire PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Hunger Strike Representatives. We are hereby presenting this mutual agreement on behalf of all racial groups here in the PBSP-SHU Corridor. Wherein, we have arrived at a mutual agreement concerning the following points:

1. If we really want to bring about substantive meaningful changes to the CDCR system in a manner beneficial to all solid individuals who have never been broken by CDCR’s torture tactics intended to coerce one to become a state informant via debriefing, that now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups.

2. Therefore, beginning on Oct. 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups in SHU, ad-seg, general population and county jails will officially cease. This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end. And if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues!

3. We also want to warn those in the general population that IGI [Institutional Gang Investigators] will continue to plant undercover Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) debriefer “inmates” amongst the solid GP prisoners with orders from IGI to be informers, snitches, rats and obstructionists, in order to attempt to disrupt and undermine our collective groups’ mutual understanding on issues intended for our mutual causes (i.e., forcing CDCR to open up all GP main lines and return to a rehabilitative-type system of meaningful programs and privileges, including lifer conjugal visits etc. via peaceful protest activity and noncooperation, e.g., hunger strike, no labor etc.). People need to be aware and vigilant to such tactics and refuse to allow such IGI inmate snitches to create chaos and reignite hostilities amongst our racial groups. We can no longer play into IGI, ISU (Investigative Service Unit), OCS (Office of Correctional Safety) and SSU’s (Service Security Unit’s) old manipulative divide and conquer tactics!

In conclusion, we must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us [i.e., prisoners] and our best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!

We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit! Because the reality is that, collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force that can positively change this entire corrupt system into a system that actually benefits prisoners and thereby the public as a whole.

Because the reality is that, collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force that can positively change this entire corrupt system into a system that actually benefits prisoners and thereby the public as a whole, and we simply cannot allow CDCR and CCPOA, the prison guards’ union, IGI, ISU, OCS and SSU to continue to get away with their constant form of progressive oppression and warehousing of tens of thousands of prisoners, including the 14,000-plus prisoners held in solitary confinement torture chambers – SHU and ad-seg units – for decades!

We send our love and respect to all those of like mind and heart. Onward in struggle and solidarity!

Presented by the PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective:

  • Todd Ashker, C-58191, D1-119
  • Arturo Castellanos, C-17275, D1-121
  • Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671, D1-117
  • Antonio Guillen, P-81948, D2-106

And the Representatives Body:

  • Danny Troxell, B-76578, D1-120
  • George Franco, D-46556, D4-217
  • Ronnie Yandell, V-27927, D4-215
  • Paul Redd, B-72683, D2-117
  • James Baridi Williamson, D-34288. D4-107
  • Alfred Sandoval, D-61000, D4-214
  • Louis Powell, B-59864, D1-104
  • Alex Yrigollen, H-32421, D2-204
  • Gabriel Huerta, C-80766, D3-222
  • Frank Clement, D-07919, D3-116
  • Raymond Chavo Perez, K-12922, D1-219
  • James Mario Perez, B-48186, D3-124

Note: All names and the foregoing statement must be shown verbatim when used and posted on any website or other publication.

The list of signatories to the Agreement to End Hostilities has been copied verbatim from the original list. The numbers beginning with the letter D were their cell numbers in the Pelican Bay SHU Short Corridor at the time.

California Prison Focus works to expose and end human rights abuses against incarcerated people in California by acting in solidarity with and elevating the voices of those most impacted.


[i] See The New Yorker article: A Rikers Island Doctor Speaks Out to Save Her Elderly Patients from the Coronavirus

[ii] Stanford HRTMH Lab Consultative Report on Mental Health Consequences Post-SHU. Mental Health Consequences Following Release from Long-Term Solitary Confinement in California

[iii] https://sfbayview.com/2020/02/the-four-california-prisoner-class-representatives-call-for-solidarity-and-change/