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Be Their Megaphone

At 5 o’clock on Friday evening, advocates for juvenile justice system reform are marching on the General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. You can join them.

The Justice Parade for Incarcerated Youth will present, to the powers that be, the work produced by incarcerated youth this summer, as part of the Performing Statistics project. In the parade, a broad coalition of artists, legal and policy experts, community activists, faith leaders and returning citizens will champion the work. It’ll bring art onto the streets and ask the public to imagine a society without prisons for children.

Take drums, banners, trumpets, instruments, foghorns and your loudest songs and chants.

Carry art and banners made by incarcerated youth. Be their presence on the streets.

Take your own signs that answer the question, “How can we create a world where no youth are locked up?”




Friday, October 2 at 5 p.m. Speakers at 5:30 p.m. Walking begins at 5:45 p.m.


General Assembly Building 915 E. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219.

Parade goes from the General Assembly Building to the ATLAS gallery at the ART 180 art center for teens and youth. ATLAS is currently showing the Performing Statistics exhibition featuring creative work by incarcerated youth that talks about their experiences being incarcerated and alternatives to the system.

Be Their Megaphone





Mark Strandquist
 — 703-798-6379

Trey Hartt — 

Performing Statistics is a Richmond-based art and advocacy project that connects incarcerated teens, artists, and Virginia’s top legal experts. The project is part of Legal Aid Justice Center’s RISE For Youth campaign.

Be Their Megaphone


Vikki Law
Clockwise from top L: Sierra Watts in her only visit with her son, Oak Lee, before he was adopted; Minna Long’s son Noah; Michelle Barton with her daughter, Semaj, in February 2014, hours after birth; the mattress in the Wichita County Jail cell where Nicole Guerrero gave birth, June 12, 2012; Noah’s twin brother, Joseph. Excerpts from a 2015 letter from a pregnant prisoner in Oklahoma.

Yesterday, I flagged a couple of photo projects about women in prison and women visiting prison. Women bear the brunt of the brutal punitive prison system. While the nation prison population has increased almost five fold over the past 40 years, the number of women locked up has increased nearly eightfold. 800%

Particularly vulnerable in prisons are the same groups in free society — the elderly, those in need of mental health care, those with medical conditions that need constant monitoring, juveniles, those living under the poverty line and, of course, pregnant women.

That prisons could routinely damage the prospects and endanger the lives of pregnant women and babies is beyond belief. But that is what Vikki Law, who spent six-months reporting on incarcerated pregnant women, found.

For U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies, Law interviewed a dozen women who had been imprisoned while pregnant. She also drew on prison and jail records obtained via public information requests.

In These Times, which published the piece, calculates that approximately 9,430 pregnant women enter prisons and jails in the U.S. every year. They are still shackled  during labor, delivery and recovery. Pregnant women are withheld adequate food, they are denied medical care and, as we know in most states, their infants are taken away within 48-hours.

In one reported case, a prisoner was allegedly left to give birth in a holding cell without medical help. The baby was stillborn.

Law found that:

· many pregnant women received no medical care or experienced long waits
· most were constantly hungry
· others were restrained during labor, delivery or postpartum recovery, even in states that ban the practice
· the majority of those who gave birth in custody had their infants taken away within 48 hours

All of these shocking details indicate that the United States is in violation of the United Nation’s Bangkok Rules, which require the humane treatment of women prisoners.

Read U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies



On the 13th October, the Supreme Court of the United States will convene to rule on Montgomery v Louisiana. Essentially, the decision will be made as to whether the ban on Juvenile Life Without the Possibility of Parole (handed down by Miller v Alabama in 2012) should apply retroactively. That is, should men who were tried as adults and convicted to LWOP before 2012 have their cases and sentences re-adjudicated?

Of course, I hope that we’ll see some return to common sense and see the United Sates turn toward the practices of the rest of the industrialised world by not putting kids in boxes for the rest of their natural lives.

At this crucial political moment, a new, interactive  archive has launched online that brings the stories, images, characters and history of JLWOP to you.

The Natural Life Archive is a collection of extended interviews and portraits from the film Natural Life. Filmmaker Tirtza Even is harnessing the internet to bring us dozens of hours of testimony that she just wasn’t able to fit into her film. The archive is the third and final component of Natural Life — 1. the feature length single-channel video; 2. a gallery installation; and 3. this interactive online archive.



The project, produced and directed by Tirtza Even alongside the legal efforts of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle, challenges inequities in the U.S. juvenile justice system by depicting, through documentation and reenactment, the stories of five individuals who were sentenced to Life Without Parole (Natural Life) for crimes they committed as youth. The five will never be evaluated for change, difference or growth. They will remain in prison till they die.


There are over 2500 inmates in the U.S. who are serving a Life Without Parole sentence for a crime they committed as juveniles. The U.S. is the only country in the world that allows Life Without Parole sentencing for youth. The project’s goal is to portray the ripple-effect that the sentence has had not only on the incarcerated youth and their victims, but also on the community at large.

The video data accessible through the online archive is interfaced through a two-tiered navigable Quicktime movie. On the lower tier are phone interviews with the featured characters, coupled with staged scenes of life in prison reenacted by a group of high-school actors, and shot at an abandoned prison in Michigan. On the tier above is material drawn from over 50 hours of interviews with individuals who were involved with the crime, the arrest and the sentencing of the featured inmates. Among them judges, lawyers, police officers, reporters, wardens, teachers, child psychiatrists, legal experts and victims’ family members. The interviews are grouped in association with each of the featured inmates’ stories and are selected by moving the cursor to the right or left side of the image.



Tirtza Even is a practicing video artist and documentary maker, producing both linear and interactive documentary video work that represents the less overt manifestations of complex and sometimes extreme social/political dynamics in specific locations (e.g. Palestine, Turkey, Spain, the U.S. and Germany, among others). Even’s work has appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, at the Whitney Biennial, the Johannesburg Biennial, as well as in many other festivals, galleries and museums in the United States, Israel and Europe, and has been purchased for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Jewish Museum (NY), the Israel Museum (Jerusalem), among others.

Deborah LaBelle is an attorney, professor, writer and advocate who focuses on the application of human rights for marginalized communities. She has been lead counsel in over a dozen class actions that have successfully challenged policies affecting the treatment of incarcerated men, women and juveniles and their families. Ms. LaBelle is a Senior Soros Justice Fellow and, the first American recognized by Human Rights Watch as a Human Rights Monitor. In addition to her private practice, she is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. Ms. LaBelle is a recipient of Michigan’s State Bar Champion of Justice Award, recognized as one of Michigan’s top lawyers and received the National Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from the Public Interest Foundation (2008) and National Lawyer Guild’s Law for the People Award (2008). She received the Wade Hampton McCree Jr. Award for the advancement of social justice presented by the Federal Bar (2009) and the Susan B. Anthony Award from the University of Michigan (2010).



Pope Francis kisses a prisoner’s foot during the traditional washing of the feet at the Rebibbia’s jail in Rome, Italy in April 2015.

It’d be easier for politicians if the Pope’s scheduled visit to a Philadelphia jail was more of a general questioning of U.S. prison practices, but thanks to keen campaigners and journalists, it’s a moment to focus on the particulars of that jail, Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. For it, like thousands of other facilities, does a raring trade with private companies and makes bank off of the prisoners and families of the incarcerated.

Think Progress and The Guardian are on the case. And below is a Press Release by In The Public Interest with all the shameful details.

Pope’s Visit to Jail Spotlights Problems with For-Profit Prison Industry

When Pope Francis speaks to prisoners this Sunday at a Philadelphia jail, he’ll be speaking at the intersection of two of his papacy’s most prominent themes, criminal justice and inequality. At Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, five companies with track records of either harming or overcharging prisoners have contracts to provide services.

Corizon, a prison health care company owned by a Chicago-based private equity firm, has attracted scrutiny in a number of states for habitual inadequate care, prisoner deaths, and understaffing. In 2013, Philadelphia renewed its contract with Corizon to provide health care to prisoners at city facilities, despite this past performance. Also at Curran-Fromhold is foodservice company Aramark, a public corporation that recently had its contract with the state of Michigan canceled after employees engaged in sexual acts with prisoners and maggots were found in food.

These examples underscore that when prisoners experience harm and neglect in our criminal justice system-described by the Pope as “illicit and concealed punishment”-it is often by the hands of private companies.

Joining Corizon and Aramark at Curran-Fromhold are three contractors with histories of overcharging prisoners. The Pope has been a loud voice for the poor, those most affected by these companies across a number of states:

  1. Financial services and technology company, JPay, often charges excessive fees on prisoner money transfers. The company also supplies cards to released prisoners in at least 11 states and adds fees that far exceed normal prepaid card fees.
  2. GTL, a corrections telecommunications company, is one of a number of companies that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has found charge ‘exorbitant’ rates for interstate long-distance calls.
  3. Keefe Group has charged high prices for canteen supplies, putting essential goods outside the budgets of many prisoners. For example, when the Florida Department of Corrections renewed its contract with Keefe Group in 2009, the company’s price increases provoked outcries from prisoners and their families.

These contractors, along with Corizon and Aramark, impact much of our criminal justice system. JPay provides money transfer services to 1.7 million incarcerated people in 32 states, nearly 70% of all U.S. prisoners. GTL controls 50% of the call service market for correctional facilities, with contracts that cover 1.1 million inmates in 2,100 local, state, and federal facilities.

Lawmakers often contract with the private sector believing that outsourcing will ease budget pressure. But private prison companies have an imperative to make profit, which often comes in conflict with providing quality services. This conflict not only hurts prisoners and prison staff, but communities and taxpayers as well. Research and the recent experiences of states show that the promised cost savings often fail to materialize for government agencies that contract with prison companies.

“To win government contracts, private corporations say they run prisons and provide services cheaper and more efficiently, but the evidence says otherwise,” said Donald Cohen, Executive Director of In the Public Interest. “Curbing privatization is one way to act on the Pope’s messages by reinvesting the money now going to private profit into programs for rehabilitation, education, and job training.”

The burden of prison companies to profit off of justice is not lost on the Pope, who has said that capitalism “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.”

After the Philadelphia visit, faith groups and advocates will launch a nationwide effort to act on the Pope’s messages, including asking their county officials and state legislators to end for-profit contracting in their local jails and prisons.

For more info, contact Jeremy Mohler at In The Public Interest / 202-429-5091

In the Public Interest is a comprehensive resource center on outsourcing, responsible contracting, and best practices for good government.

PICO is a national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities. Since 1972 PICO has successfully worked to increase access to health care, improve public schools, make neighborhoods safer, build affordable housing, redevelop communities and revitalize democracy.

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Set photo, from the filming of Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility. © ERNEST

In the northern reaches of Portland Oregon, in the quieter quarters of the St. John’s neighbourhood, sleeps a beast. Wapato Jail was built for $58 million but never opened. It has sat vacant since 2004. It has been used as a film set. They tried to sell it. At one point, the City of Portland put out an open call for alternative uses proposals. Some suggested it could be used as a garden and rehabilitation center. Others suggested it could be used to house Bush, Cheney and other war criminals.

Wapato has costs the tax payer $300,000 per year (a conservative estimate) to just keep the thing offline. One long expensive joke. Systems normal but never operational.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Screengrab of a Google Maps angled, aerial view of Wapato Jail, looking northwest.


When the arts organisation c3:initiative moved into St. John’s in 2014 it didn’t take them long to turn its focus to the empty jail. c3:initiative sponsored artist collective ERNEST as artists-in-residence. ERNEST have produced a multi-medium art installation, film, a book and public programs.

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility probes the many concerns that the vacant jail suggests: breakdowns in democracy, prevailing power structures,” reads the exhibition statement.

During ERNEST’s early research they discovered that coyotes had dug under many fences. Video footage shows that they will scale fences too to cross and inhabit the lush ground within the jail perimeter. These wily mammals, that have roamed the area far longer than the jail has stood, have found a way to ignore the unwelcome interruption of a hard and fast boondoggle. Coyotes continue their evolved routine and instead of fighting the jail just orient themselves around it. Ultimately, they operate to ignore the jail’s presence and minimise it’s impact on their rhythms.

Is the coyote a good metaphor? Might we find new solutions to old problems if we approach prisons, jails and social ills with a similar low-key pragmatism. Prisons might be the problem but so to might our strategies of opposition?

“Acting as a conjuror of sorts, the character of Coyote leads the video component of Demos, transforming the specific architecture, history and politics of Wapato Jail into a platform for conversation and collaboration,” says the press release.

While ERNEST are allied to prison reform and abolition arguments, their work doesn’t necessary look like the typically political and didactic protest-imagery. Bringing the subtlety of fine art to a brutish topic such as the abusive prison industrial complex is intriguing. I don’t know what to expect truthfully, which is why I am in Portland right now for tomorrow’s opening.


Friday, September 18, 6:30-9:30pm
At c3:initiative, 7326 N. Chicago Avenue, Portland 97203.

Visitors are invited to join c3:initiative and the artists from ERNEST in marking the opening of Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility. Complimentary drinks and light refreshments will be served.

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A graphic by ERNEST from an early conceptualisation stages of the project Demos.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST


The project’s title takes its meaning from various interpretations of the word “demos”. The Greek word “demos” (pronounced “day-moss”), refers to the “village” or “people.” In English, “demo”, is used as a shorthand for “demonstration”, as reference to the “demo mix-tape”, or as the vernacular for “demolition”. ERNEST thus uses “demos” to refer to its interest in keeping their methods experimental and provisional, while creating opportunities for local participatory engagement.


The book, published by Container Corps, includes a collection of essays, artworks, research and primary documents. I have an essay in there about sketches made in solitary by a man named Ernest Jerome DeFrance.

The book’s contents are both specific to Wapato Correctional Facility, and related to general issues of incarceration, participatory citizenship, and the role of art in social justice and storytelling.


I’ll also be in the room for an open roundtable conversation — a broadened investigation of themes relating to the empty jail facility, both locally and nationally.

Saturday, September 19, 2015, 11am-1pm. Followed by a 12-1pm community meal and conversation.

I look forward to hearing from panelists:

Emanuel Price is the Founder and current Executive Director of Second Chances Are For Everyone in Portland, OR. S.C.A.F.E. works to reduce the rate of recidivism by providing support services to promote employment, empowerment, and community engagement for men in transition because Second Chances are for Everyone. Price is currently leading the organization in developing key programs and resources that will help reduce criminals going back into destructive lifestyles after being released from jail or prison. More information about Price is available here.

Melissa Salazar is a May 2015 graduate of Pacific Northwest College of Art, where she studied Communication Design. Melissa has recently become involved in activist work focusing primarily on incarceration of black and brown individuals. She has been influenced by events in her own life and seeks to bring awareness to an invisible society behind bars.

Yaelle Amir is a curator, writer and researcher who currently holds the position of Curator at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, OR. Her writing and curatorial projects focus primarily on artists whose practices supplement the initiatives of existing social movements, rendering themes within those struggles in ways that both interrogate and promote these issues to a wider audience. She has curated exhibitions at Artists Space, CUE Art Foundation, Center for Book Arts, ISE Cultural Foundation, The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Marginal Utility, and the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, among others. Her writing has appeared in numerous art publications includingArt in America, ArtLies, ArtSlant, ArtUS, Beautiful/Decay, and Sculpture Magazine. She has also worked at major art institutions, such as the International Center of Photography, the Museum of Modern Art, and NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.

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Members of ERNEST tour the gymnasium in the empty Wapato Jail, Portland, OR.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Photo taken in Wapato Jail, Portland, OR as part of ERNEST’s early research.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST


Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility
A project by ERNEST
September 18–November 22, 2015
Gallery Hours: Fri–Sun, noon–5pm at c3:initiative, 7326 N. Chicago Avenue, Portland 97203.


Reading Group: The New Jim Crow – Wednesdays, October 7, 14, 21, 7:00-8:30pm
Stories in Movement – Saturday, November 7, 5:00pm
No Thank You Democracy, The politics of non-participation, by Ariana Jacob – Sunday, November 22, 4:30pm.


Shadae Schmidt died in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) of California Institute for Women (CIW) on 13th March, 2014.

“I went to borrow scissors from the cops last week, and I was told that they don’t lend out scissors anymore because they have special industrial scissors now for cutting down bodies. He showed them to me. That’s how normal this is. […] We have women dropping like flies and not one person has been questioned as to why we believe they are killing themselves. I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.”

– Letter from prisoner at California Institute for Women (CIW) 3/21/15

In April of this year, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) provided California Senator Mark Leno with a memo RE: “Female offenders” and medical and mental health care neglect. It opened with quotes that female prisoners had provided CCWP in hundreds of in-person interviews and letters.

“Medical care here is very poor. Inmates are treated like animal. Period. We’re looked at as if we’re not human beings.” and “I’ve gone back to medical for the same issue over a 100 times. So that they can get the $5 co-pay that I don’t have to give.” and “I feel they do not care…it’s my fault or I’m lying about being paralyzed…I had to ‘prove’ I was incontinent. They made me urinate in bed. They would not give me enough catheters.”

Medical care is dire. Mental-healthcare is desperate. Four women have killed themselves at CIW in San Bernardino County in the last 18 months. The suicide rate at the facility is more than eight times the national rate for female prisoners and more than five times the rate for the California prison system as a whole.

Before the recent surge, there were three suicides at CIW in 14 years.

Leno, a Democrat, has been one of the most progressive voices in the Golden State when it comes to prison reforms. It was hoped that he’d be able to open rigorous inquiries as why women are “dropping like flies”, as to why they were hanging themselves and cutting themselves in record numbers.

CCWP got a read on the mental healthcare provision inside CA prisons through interviews and a survey (conducted in summer 2014) from prisoners in California Correction Women’s Facility (CCWF) and CIW, and others recently released. CCWP found that medical and mental health care access and treatment in Californian women prisons fell well below constitutional standards. Suicide prevention is scarce if not lacking entirely.

The AP reported last month how this is “a shocking turnaround” CIW was cited last year as a rare example of good care of California prisoners.

“The prison’s psychiatric program was promoted as a positive example in May 2014 by Matthew Lopes, a federal court-appointed overseer who monitors mental health treatment for inmates. Of six inpatient programs for mentally ill inmates statewide, he found that only the one at the women’s institution was providing proper care.”

All four women who died at CIW were receiving mental health treatment in the days before their deaths.


COMPSTAT data gathered by the California Department of  CDCR backed up concerns of increased suicides and suicide attempts.

Figures from women’s prisons, over the 13 months 2/14-2/15.

CIW 16 attempted suicides 3
CCWF 7 attempted suicides 0
CMF 20 attempted suicides 1 suicide
FSP 2 attempted suicides 0 suicides

Figures from all men’s prisons not designated “high security” over the 13 months 2/14-2/15.

ASP 5 attempted suicides 0 suicides
CAL 5 attempted suicides 0 suicides
CEN 3 attempted suicides 0 suicides
CTF 6 attempted suicides 0 suicides
CVSP 1 attempted suicide 0 suicides
ISP 5 attempted suicides 0 suicides
MCSP 17 attempted suicides 2 suicides
PVSP 5 attempted suicides 0 suicides
SOL 8 attempted suicides 1 suicide
VSPW 7 attempted suicides 0 suicides

Source: CDCR COMPSTAT DAI Statistical Report.

CIW had more suicides reported by CDCR than any other CA prison in 2014; CIW also had an alarming number of attempted suicides in the same period. CIW had the third highest number of attempted suicides, but the highest rate of suicide attempts when adjusted for population.


Behind these tragic findings are even more tragic deaths. The deaths of Stephanie Felix, Gui Fei Zhang and Shadae Schmidt were reported by some local and solidarity press, but mostly went by unnoticed and, worse, unquestioned. For

Stephanie Felix committed suicide at CIW on 3/9/15, after previous suicide attempts and after asking for emergency mental health care several times, including that very same day. Ms. Felix had been housed in the SCU, but she was placed back in general population where her mental health declined. During a previous suicide attempt, two prisoners performed CPR on her to save her life, despite being told to stop and facing disciplinary consequences for their actions. (Reported to CCWP by letters 3/15)

Gui Fei Zhang, a 73-year-old Chinese woman, committed suicide on 2/17/15 at CIW. She was released from suicide watch back to general population the day before she killed herself. (Reported to CCWP in interviews 4/10/15)

Shadae Schmidt was a 32-year-old African-American woman who died in the CIW SHU on 3/13/14. Shadae had a stroke in February 2014 and was prematurely returned to the SHU. She was given medication that made her sick but her requests for a change in prescription were ignored. CCWP is still waiting to hear any reports of investigations into Shadae’s death. We have noticed that there is one preventable death listed in the CDCR data for the month she died. (Reported to CCWP by family and friends in 2014)

Uncovering the common causation factors between these deaths has been an ongoing concern for CCWP.


CCWP concluded generally that:

• Prisoners in the SHU at CIW report heightened medical and mental health care neglect

• CCWF and CIW have poor records of seeing patients in the period mandated once requests for mental health help are submitted.

• Processing time with mental health clinicians is too short – 15 minutes does not allow for adequate diagnosis, treatment, etc..

• Chronic care patients are required to be seen every 90 days, even though many patients require more medical attention; many chronic care patients are not seen every 90 days.

• Overcrowding at CCWF and CIW is still impacting mental health care access; the SCU at CIW is often overcrowded because of the increasing need for acute mental health care.

• The threat of being moved to the PIP prevents many SCU patients from seeking help.

• Patients in the SCU are increasingly cutting themselves to deal with emotional trauma and/or to get the mental health or medical attention they need.

• If people report suicidality after 2pm, mental health departments are closed and mental health workers retrieve patients from the cages (where suicidal patients are caged and cuffed) to treat patients in the emergency rooms of the medical departments — loud, chaotic environments with no chairs, and little privacy.

Specific to neglectful mental healthcare, CCWP noted that:

• Patients, including those who are very sick and/or disabled, routinely wait outside for scheduled doctor’s appointments for 2 to 5 hours in all weather (including rain and heat alerts). “Too many prisoners, too few doctors,” is the common experience.

• Patients do not feel respected, believed or listened to by their primary doctor. People are often told that they are “lying” when they report on health history, symptoms, or past treatments that have been helpful for them.

• Misdiagnoses are still too common.

• Serious lack of follow-up care after surgeries continues to be a significant problem.

• There are often significant delays in refilling prescribed medications. People are going without life-saving and chronic care medications while they wait.

• Treatment recommendations from specialists are rarely ordered and/or followed by doctors at the prisons.

• Gender non-conforming and transgender prisoners face increased medical and mental health neglect because of discrimination based on their gender non-conforming or transgender status.

• When prisoners file grievances (602s) for medical and mental health neglect, they often experience direct retaliation from healthcare providers and/or further denial of access to care.


Despite decades of lawsuits to remedy prison health care and court orders to reduce prison overcrowding, the inhumane conditions inside CA women’s prisons continue. The CCWP has called for an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding all deaths at CIW in 2014 and 2015. The CDCR says it is monitoring CIW more closely than any other prison in the system.

CCWP calls, sensibly, for a reduction of overcrowding through the implementation of existing release programs. It also calls for immediate transfer of all prisoners with mental health issues from the SHU.

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.

Solidarity with CA prisoners poster 2

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.

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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.”

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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

The settlement can be read on CCR’s website, along with a summary. CCR has also put up downloadable clips of the plaintiffs’ depositions here.


By Chris Garcia, drawn while in Pelican Bay SHU.


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