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I was pretty skeptical about President Obama’s photo-op last month at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.
It wasn’t a prison visit per se as Obama didn’t stroll a functioning cellblock, but instead bizarrely peered into an empty cell before his 5-minute address to the press. Obama and his handlers secured the requisite visuals to help hammer home their commitment to national debate, and to leading that debate. Well-orchestrated business as usual for the White House, then.
The most interesting thing that happened that day was the forum Obama held with some hand-picked prisoners about their lot, our lot and (I presume) the need to fix so, so many things in our prisons.
The meet was filmed by HBO and VICE. The trailer is out.
There’s been a ban on film crews in federal facilities since 1995. I know of only one exception to the ban when a production company was granted access to a federal facility in Florida earlier this year. If anyone was going to buck the trend, the President of the United States was a likely candidate. I look forward to seeing the final product.
Prisoners in California will no longer be kept in windowless boxes indefinitely. That improves the lives of 3,000 people. It also brings California into line with the practices of virtually all other states. This is landmark.
Many groups were involved in the support of the plaintiffs in the class action suit. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children put out a press release. Below I copy the press release of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group.
OAKLAND — Today, California prisoners locked in isolation achieved a groundbreaking legal victory in their ongoing struggle against the use of solitary confinement. A settlement was reached in the federal class action suit Ashker v. Brown, originally filed in 2012, effectively ending indefinite long-term solitary confinement, and greatly limiting the prison administration’s ability to use the practice, widely seen as a form of torture. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in Pelican Bay State Prison’s infamous Security Housing Units (SHU) for more than 10 years, where they spend 23 hours a day or more in their cells with little to no access to family visits, outdoor time, or any kind of programming.
“From the historic prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advocate, this settlement is a direct result of our grassroots organizing, both inside and outside prison walls,” said Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), and mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay. “This legal victory is huge, but is not the end of our fight – it will only make the struggle against solitary and imprisonment everywhere stronger.” The 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes gained widespread international attention that for the first time in recent years put solitary confinement under mainstream scrutiny.
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition members commemorating the first anniversary of the 2013 hunger strike suspension.
Currently, many prisoners are in solitary because of their “status” – having been associated with political ideologies or gang affiliation. However, this settlement does away with the status-based system, leaving solitary as an option only in cases of serious behavioral rule violations. Furthermore, the settlement limits the amount of time a prisoner may be held in solitary, and sets a two year Step-Down Program for the release of current solitary prisoners into the prison general population.
It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners will be released from SHU within one year of this settlement. A higher security general population unit will be created for a small number of cases where people have been in SHU for more than 10 years and have a recent serious rule violation.
“Despite the repeated attempts by the prison regime to break the prisoners’ strength, they have remained unified in this fight,” said Marie Levin of CFASC and sister of a prisoner representative named in the lawsuit. “The Agreement to End Hostilities and the unity of the prisoners are crucial to this victory, and will continue to play a significant role in their ongoing struggle.” The Agreement to End Hostilities is an historic document put out by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay in 2012 calling on all prisoners to build unity and cease hostilities between racial groups.
Drawn by Michael D. Russell, Pelican Bay SHU
Prisoner representatives and their legal counsel will regularly meet with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials as well as with Federal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, who is tasked with overseeing the reforms, to insure that the settlement terms are being implemented.
“Without the hunger strikes and without the Agreement to End Hostilities to bring California’s prisoners together and commit to risking their lives— by being willing to die for their cause by starving for 60 days, we would not have this settlement today,” said Anne Weills of Siegel and Yee, co-counsel in the case. “It will improve the living conditions for thousands of men and women and no longer have them languishing for decades in the hole at Pelican Bay.”
“This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters,” said the prisoners represented in the settlement in a joint statement. “We celebrate this victory while at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle.”
Drawn by Carlos Ramirez while in Pelican Bay SHU
Legal co-counsel in the case includes California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Chistensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone. The lead counsel is the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge in the case is Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
A rally and press conference are set for 12pm in front of the Elihu M Harris State Building in Oakland, which will be livestreamed at http://livestre.am/5bsWO.
By Chris Garcia, drawn while in Pelican Bay SHU.
The American Psychological Association (APA) Council of Representatives, on Friday, voted today in Toronto to adopt a new policy barring psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. That means psychologists won’t be approving torture techniques or overseeing “enhanced interrogations.” That means psychologists can, and must, refuse to work in such capacities for the U.S. military and they will have full backing of their professional body in so doing.
My favourite comment came not from any of the APA members but from Peter Kinderman, the president-elect of the British Psychological Society who was representing the BPS at the APA meeting.
“I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s great. I think it’s well overdue. I was joking earlier that this represents American psychologists rejoining the 17th century and repudiating torture as a means of state power. […] The agreement is that American psychologists would respect agreed international definitions of the abuse of detainees and agreed international standards for judicial process. We shouldn’t be involved in abusing detainees, and we should remain within domestic and international law. That strikes me as commonsense, obvious. It’s what the public would expect. And about bloody time, too.”
Toe Tag Parole premiers Monday, August 3rd at 9pm on HBO.
A: When it is a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence.
While criminal justice reformers, D.C. politicos, President Obama and the like are pressing for change they all too often focus on arguments for the release of non-violent (usually drug) offenders. Releasing that “category” of prisoner though doesn’t deal adequately with mass incarceration or prison overcrowding. We need, as a society, to look at how we treat those who are imprisoned for the longest sentences, how they got their and what we can do as a community to scale back on the vengeance and violence inherent to the prison system.
A literal life sentence is commonly referred to as Life Without Parole or LWOP. Activists tend to use the term Death By Incarceration.
In all other circumstances, parole is a complex and varied thing, but when the possibility of parole is removed it’s far simpler … and more brutal.
To tell the story of LWOP, the Raymonds found an unusual facility in Los Angeles County, a maximum-security facility in the Mojave Desert. Yard A at California State Prison is the The Progressive Programming Facility — a space that committed LWOP prisoners and the California Department of Corrections forged together. With laws and sentences unlikely to change for those who are deemed the most dangerous, the “most dangerous” went about finding their own solutions.
Yard A — which inmates call The Honor Yard — is a prison yard is free of violence, racial tensions, gang activity and illegal drug and alcohol use. It’s the only type of its kind in the nation. 600 men living in The Progressive Programming Facility and seek self-improvement and spiritual growth through education, art and music therapy, religious services and participation in peer-group sessions.
The press release reads:
Ken Hartman, who beat a man to death at age 19 while drunk, and has been in prison for 36 years, says, “There’s a progression that these things go through. People used to be stoned to death and then they were shot and then they were hung, they were electrocuted. Each step along the way always the argument is made that this is a better kind of death penalty. I’m sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. It’s not better than the death sentence, because it is the death sentence.”
It promises to be a wonderful film. In an ideal world though, extraordinary efforts by men inside wouldn’t be needed because many of them would be offered the opportunity for improvement and release by the structures of the state.
Statewide Coordinated Action to End Solitary Confinement, Oakland
Two years ago today, the largest prisoner hunger strike in California’s history was started by prisoners in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. Within the first month of the strike, over 30,000 in California’s prisons had joined, raising the call for the five core demands in unified struggle. The strikers received overwhelming support, with prisoners from across the U.S., in Guantanamo Bay, and as far as Palestine sending statements of solidarity. Outside prison walls, families, loved ones, and organizers elevated the imprisoned voices to an international scale, sparking solidarity actions all over the world, and even prompting the U.N. to call on California to end the use of solitary.
However, the struggle continues. The prison regime has refused to meet the strikers’ demands in any meaningful way, opting to demonize and repress prisoners.
A class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Pelican Bay solitary prisoners in 2012 is ongoing despite numerous attempts by the state to weaken and halt it. Importantly, grassroots organizing has been reinvigorated, with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition organizing statewide coordinated actions on the 23rd of each month since March of this year to continue raising awareness and building the movement to end solitary, with the actions growing larger across the state.
In the words of Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strike leaders, “I personally believe the prisoncrats’ efforts to turn the global support we have gained for our cause against us will fail […] CDCr rhetoric indicates desperation – a very concerning desperation in the sense that it is demonstrative of CDCr’s top administrators’ intent to continue their culture of dehumanization, torture and other types of abusive policies and practices […] Our key demands remain unresolved. The primary goal is abolishing indefinite SHU and Ad Seg confinement and related torturous conditions.”
Especially in the wake of Riker’s Island scandal and Kalief Browder’s death, the nation is aware of widespread torture — by means of solitary confinement — in U.S. prisons. But, a few years ago the issue was only just beginning to register on the national conscience. It cannot be overstated how vital California prisoners’ efforts (with support from families and allies outside) led the march against this abusive and invisible practice.
Two long and short years … depending on which side of the box you are.
Also, not to be missed is this extended, #longread analysis of the situation two years on by the indubitable Vikki Law at Truthout, Two Years After Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, What’s Changed for People Inside the Prison?
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to claim that “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California’s prisons and the SHU is not ‘solitary confinement,'” but people inside the Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit say they remain locked in for at least 23 hours per day. Meanwhile, in June 2015, the CDCR released proposed new regulations around its use of the security housing unit and administrative segregation – regulations that may, in part, curb participation in future strikes and other prison protests. […] The regulations are currently going through the required public comment period in which any member of the public, incarcerated or otherwise, can submit written comments. A public hearing is scheduled for August 7, 2015.
Author Todd Ashker, who was locked in the security housing unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison, disagrees with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s assertion that its prisons do not have solitary confinement.
In a 13-page typed statement, Ashker describes how, along with over 1,000 other people, he is locked for 25 years of his life into 11-by-seven-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day. The security housing unit cells have no windows and their doors face a wall so that those inside cannot see each other through the door slot. Any time they are taken out of their cells – for a shower, a visit or an hour of recreation in an exercise cage – they are handcuffed and ankle chained.
“What would it be like to have one’s bodily contact with others reduced to the fastening and unfastening of restraints, punctuated with the most intimate probing of the surface and depths of one’s body?” Ashker writes in his statement.
Solitary still exists and for long as it does, and for as many years tick by, it must be opposed. By us. We.
In the conventional definition of the word, there are not many funny things about prison. In spite of that, those oppressed by the system are still leveraging humour in order to process and overcome America’s dehumanising and oppressive prison industrial complex.
The Poetic Justice Project (PJP) is a case in point.
“Poetic Justice Project is California’s only theatre company comprised of formerly incarcerated actors appearing in plays that examine crime, punishment and redemption,” explains PJP whose latest production is INSIDE/OUT: A Comedic Look At Prison and Re-Entry
Bay Area audiences will witness a unique marriage in June: the happy union of a 500-year-old art form with cutting edge social justice theatre. Poetic Justice Project will present its Commedia Dell’Arte play, INSIDE/OUT, at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland and on Alcatraz Island.
Commedia Dell’Arte is a style of masked, improvisational slapstick comedy that dates back to 16th Century Italy. INSIDE/OUT follows character Damian from prosecution to prison to parole as he wears whatever mask he needs to survive. Damian is saved by the love of a good woman, and by his determination to never return to prison.
The play is directed by Gale McNeeley, a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and Scuola Internazionale Dell’Attore Comico in Italy. INSIDE/OUT was co-created by McNeeley and actors Leonard Flippen, Jorge Manly Gil, Janet Guess, Nick Homick and Caroline Taylor-Hitch. The actors have all been incarcerated—in prison, jail or juvenile facilities. Most have no previous theatre experience when they come to Poetic Justice Project.
INSIDE/OUT shows Friday, June 19 at 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s Center, 925 Brockhurst St., Oakland. Tickets are $15 and available from Brown Paper Tickets, 800-838-3006, and at the door. On Saturday, June 20 at 2 p.m., there is a free performance on Alcatraz Island.
Based in Santa Maria, the project was founded by Artistic Director Deborah Tobola in 2009. Tobola and Poetic Justice Project recently received the the Santa Barbara County Action Network’s “Looking Forward” Award for Leadership and Vision.
Poetic Justice Project It is a program of the award-winning William James Association, which provides arts instruction to prisoners, people on parole and probation, and youth at risk of incarceration.
QUESTIONS? MEDIA CONTACT
Deborah Tobola, Artistic Director
tel: (805) 264-5463
P.O. Box 7196
Solutions. Prison reform debate rages around solutions. Even when everyone at a given table agrees on the problem, the propose solutions can differ widely. There are many, they overlap and they are often interdependent.
(For the record, here’s a sampler of my long list of forward steps we could take: Release old and infirm prisoners; sentence children as children, do away with the death penalty, scale back on LWOP (life Without Parole), implement radical and retroactive sentencing reductions for all drugs offenses and non-violent offenses, eradicate solitary confinement, treat addiction with hospitals not prisons, fund services for youth and families to avoid the use of custody later in life, drawdown the bail system, issue an amnesty for outstanding warrants for non-violent misdemeanors, ban the box, make criminal record expungement available as a right, scale back sentencing guidelines to that of the European average, make prisons smaller, provide prisoners nutritious food, subject all staff to yearly self-care and mental health checks, reinstitute Pell Grants for access to college for prisoners, continue all voluntary work programs but provide more than cents on the dollar wages, increase the number of family days and trailer visits, and PROVIDE EDUCATION)
What last solution, what education looks like differs hugely. Some prisoners need parenting classes, some only want practical training (welding, HVAC, electrical, plumbing etc). Other prisoners want business training. Then there are some that want liberal arts college classes.
A staggering number of prisoners need a GED.
In the film, we’ll meet students, teachers and staff. Referred to as the “crown jewel” of the SF Sheriff Department, enrollment in Five Keys Charter School is all but mandatory for incarcerated people who never received a high school diploma.
The problems for mandated GED programs are well known among prison and jail educators — it can be very difficult to engage a class of students with a high school curriculum when they did not respond to high school on the first round. This in-built tension makes any GED project in a prison or jail that more difficult as compared to other programs (with voluntary sign-up). Therefore, Five Keys represents a genuine innovation approaches to criminal justice.
Custodial staff maintain safety in a jail that houses members from a reported 22 active gangs. Meanwhile teachers follow a strict policy of not knowing their students’ criminal charges (in my experience, both common sense and common policy).
The Corridor follows lessons, learning, challenges and graduation in a school that won the 2014 award for best charter school in Northern California.
Filmmakers Annelise Wunderlich and Richard O’Connell began shooting in May 2013 and made over 100 hours of material. It took them over two years to negotiate access. Former Sheriff Michael Hennessey was the man who gave the green-light.
“Hennessey built his reputation on creating programs that go beyond what is mandated by law,” says Wunderlich and O’Connell. “He has said that what he enjoyed most about being the sheriff was to make and experiment with policy. His legacy lives on with the current staff.”
Wunderlich and O’Connell want to create “an immersive portrait that focuses on the inner workings of the school and the programs, capturing along the way conflicts, dilemmas and breakthroughs that arise in the course of carrying out its mission.”
They aren’t trying to make an argument for one type of custodial approach or another. They are interested in observing how education (in this particular case) is shoehorned into a criminal justice system to satisfy some of the system’s objectives — lowered recidivism, empowerment, self-realisation, reductions in violence.
I wish them luck.
Unbelievably, Five Keys has barely been replicated elsewhere. This is despite its measured achievements and despite growing research that education-based jail programs are the most effective way to reduce recidivism.
If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, Annelise Wunderlich will be speaking next Tuesday, 16th June at Bay Area Video Arts Coalition (BVAC).
“This edition of Storytelling Across Media,” reads the BVAC blurb, “brings together three innovative Bay Area media makers who will speak to the power storytelling holds for those “behind bars”. Although each panelist comes from a different artistic background (performance, documentary film, and fine art photography) they all share a commitment to helping incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals tell their stories and put their voices out in the world, whether through dance, film, or radio.”
Tuesday, June 16
2727 Mariposa Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets are $10 for BAVC Members, $15 general. Seating is limited. Buy tickets here.
My pal Nigel Poor will also be speaking.