Corona-virus (COVID-19) in prisons

Corona-virus (COVID-19) in prisons:

Words from prisoners and a call to take healthcare for all inside and out seriously

15th of March 2020

In the light of the question whether prisons are taking enough precautions to safeguard their prisoners against the spread of COVID-19, I spoke with several prisoners in different states. I also contacted Marina Drummer of the Angola 3 Newsm who had some very informative links to share.

During a phonecall with our Brother Kenny Zulu Whitmore, who is incarcerated since 1975 and who is in a dormitory in LA State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, we talked about the situation inside during this COVID-19-pandemic. Zulu is still waiting for his court date, which will hopefully be soon, this March or April.

Zulu said that the prisoners were ‘locked in’, which basically means no visitors could come inside to visit the prisoners. I asked him if they had been given soap, handsantizer, and instructions what to do and how to keep “social distancing” while inside. If they received more “yard-time” outside as it is probably healthier in the outside air than inside with hundreds if not thousands of fellow prisoners and guards in the same rooms, close to each other. He had not seen any of these things yet.

Our Brother Joseph in WA State added the following:

“Here in the Washington prison system we’re in the early stages of this crisis and a quarantined area has been designated for those who may test positive. So far, no additional soap or other products are being provided, but all pecautionary measures are being taken. A concentrated emphasis is being placed on cleaning and disinfecting frequently used surfaces. Since visits have been suspended were relying heavily on jpay services.
We salute our brothers, sisters, and loved ones across the nation to hold firm and trust in the power of due dilligence and faith.”
– Joseph “Broadway” Kennedy, Wash. State.

The prisoners and their loved ones have not been inactive in these times.

In California a letter, signed by many organizations (the ACLU and UCL among others), was sent to Governor Newsome on March 13th asking to protect the lives of the people impacted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), including people in custody, staff at CDCR, and the family members and communities of staff and those who are incarcerated.

The letter (see attached PDF) first of all asks to release all medically fragile adults and adults over the age of 60 to parole supervision. Secondly, to release all people who have an anticipated release date in 2020 and 2021 to parole supervision. Thirdly, to expedite all review processes for people already found suitable for release, lift holds, and expedite the commutation process. Also: to immediately suspend all unnecessary parole meetings. Finally, to eliminate parole revocations for technical violations.

We are here further adding a few links we gathered and received from Marina Drummer (Angola3News) to help and to demand to authorities:

The Justice Collaborative (TJC) anchored a powerful webinar about the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people in prisons, jails and detention centers around the U.S.

You can watch the full recording at: https://youtu.be/ZQ7CMKwB-Ng

Below are important resources for understanding the impact on people inside and demands to make on public officials:

TJC also has factsheets out based on the initial ideas offered by the Prison Policy Initiative (see below):

Here is a link to the PPI report upon which many of these ideas are drawn.

Emergency Response Demand Lists

The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) on March 6th wrote the initial article which was referred to above with 5 powerful and very useful suggestions for politicians in these times of the pandemic. The letter to the California governor was also based on the suggestions of the PPI. It would be good if all other states followed the example of the California groups writing to Governor Newsome.

The title of the article in PPI is: No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform, by Peter Wagner and Emily Widra.

The PPI offer “five examples of common sense policies that could slow the spread of the virus. This is not an exhaustive list, but a first step for governors and other state-level leaders to engage today, to be followed by further much-needed changes tomorrow”:

Here are five places to start:

1) Release medically fragile and older adults.
Jails and prisons house large numbers of people with chronic illnesses and complex medical needs, who are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill and requiring more medical care with COVID-19. And the growing number of older adults in prisons are at higher risk for serious complications from a viral infection like COVID-19.
Releasing these vulnerable groups from prison and jail will reduce the need to provide complex medical care or transfers to hospitals when staff will be stretched thin. (In Iran, where the virus has been spreading for several weeks longer than in the U.S., the government just gave temporary release to almost a quarter of their total prison population.)

2) Stop charging medical co-pays in prison.
Most prison systems have a short-sighted policy that discourages sick people from seeking care: charging the free-world equivalent of hundreds of dollars in copays to see a doctor. In the context of COVID-19, not receiving immediate, appropriate medical care means allowing the virus to spread across a large number of people in a very confined space. These policies should all be repealed, but at a minimum should be immediately suspended until the threat of pandemic is over. (This will also reduce the administrative burden of processing and collecting these fees.)

3) Lower jail admissions to reduce “jail churn.”
About one-third of the people behind bars are in local jails, but because of the shorter length of stay in jails, more people churn through jails in a day than are admitted or released from state and federal prisons in 2 weeks. In Florida alone, more than 2,000 people are admitted and nearly as many are released from county jails each day.

As we explained in a 2017 report, there are many ways for state leaders to reduce churn in local jails; for example, by: reclassifying misdemeanor offenses that do not threaten public safety into non-jailable offenses; using citations instead of arrests for all low-level crimes; and diverting as many people as possible people to community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment.

State leaders should never forget that local jails are even less equipped to handle pandemics than state prisons, so it is even more important reduce the burden of a potential pandemic on jails.

4) Reduce unnecessary parole and probation meetings.
People deemed “low risk” should not be required to spend hours traveling to, traveling from, and waiting in administrative buildings for brief meetings with their parole or probation officers. Consider discharging people who no longer need supervision from the supervision rolls and allow as many people as possible to check in by telephone.

5) Eliminate parole and probation revocations for technical violations.
In 2016, approximately 60,000 people were returned to state prison (and a larger number were arrested), not because they were convicted of a new criminal offense, but because of a technical violation of probation and parole rules, such as breaking curfew or failing a drug test. States should cease locking people up for behaviors that, for people not on parole or probation, would not warrant incarceration. Reducing these unnecessary incarcerations would reduce the risk of transmitting a virus between the facilities and the community, and vice versa.”

(https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/03/06/pandemic/ )

State investigators cite culture of abuse, racism by High Desert State Prison guards

This comes from the LA Times, Dec. 16, 2015, and is about a report on High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California.

Paige St John reports for the LA Times:

State investigators are calling for immediate action at a Northern California prison with an “entrenched culture” of racism and violence, where guards allegedly have set inmates up for attack.

In a special report released Wednesday, the independent Office of Inspector General said that abuse and cover-ups at the High Desert State Prison in Susanville were so severe — and have been for so long — that officials should consider requiring some of the guards to wear body cameras and GPS devices in order to “curtail misconduct.”

The six-month investigation at the facility was ordered after complaints of excessive force by guards and reports that sex offenders were being housed alongside those likely to assault them.

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), chairwoman of a state Senate subcommittee on public safety and corrections, said the findings were “deeply disturbing and reveal broken systems.”

Read the rest here.

Link to the Report:

http://www.oig.ca.gov/media/reports/Reports/Reviews/2015_Special_Review_-_High_Desert_State_Prison.pdf

 

 

From solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, Jesse Perez sues his guards for retaliation, wins $25,000

This is good news, published in the SF Bay View on Nov. 30th, 2015

Written by Claude Marks, Freedom Archives

On Friday, a federal jury in San Francisco awarded $25,000 in damages to Jesse Perez, who sued guards for trashing his cell in retaliation for his lawsuit against the prison and for his stand against solitary confinement.

Jesse Perez’s legal team – Randall Lee, lead attorney, Jesse Perez, Katie Moran and Matthew Benedetto – enjoys the victory in federal court in San Francisco Nov. 24, 2015. – Photo: Katie Moran

Jesse Perez, 35, is from Colton in San Bernardino County and has been imprisoned since age 15. He was sent to the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay in December 2003 and was held there for 10 years. He took part in all three hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, protesting prolonged isolation and demanding human rights for prisoners.

Perez’s lawyer, Randall Lee, said the verdict sends “a resounding message that the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment are sacrosanct for all of us – even a prisoner in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay.”

The case is based on Jesse Perez challenging the legitimacy of a CDCr gang validation pro se in 2005. He was assigned counsel after he defeated a state dismissal motion and won a settlement in 2012. Perez received a monetary award as well as the right to have his gang affiliation reevaluated.

Similarly, CDCr settled the Ashker case prior to trial, as the state of California wants to avoid having to be held publically accountable and to be subjected to scrutiny and interrogation in court.

In his current civil suit, Perez argued that guards retaliated against him for exercising his right to file a lawsuit and in response to his successful litigating for his human rights and to overturn his baseless gang validation.

Rather than re-reviewing Jesse’s gang validation as was mandated by his court settlement, and just days after the settlement, four officers forced him to strip, removed all of his legal paperwork and trashed his cell. In the process, one officer stated, “You might have been able to win some money from us, but we will make sure that you stay [in solitary] where you belong.”

Jesse did not get all of his property back – especially some of his legal work. He was later charged with a serious rules violation for “willfully obstructing the officers” during that search, for which he was ultimately found not guilty.

Jesse Perez states, “As prisoner activists seeking to make positive contributions to the interests and human dignity of prisoners, we understand that the trappings of power enjoyed by guards represent the biggest obstacle to significant and lasting progress.” By filing the lawsuit, Perez wrote that he sought the “opportunity to shine a public light at trial and rein in what prisoner activists often endure in exercising their constitutional rights: the retaliatory abuse of the department’s disciplinary process by prison guards.”

In his testimony, Jesse stated that he filed this case to defend what minimal human rights he retains as a prisoner. He also said that the officers he sued represent a backlash that prisoners commonly experience when they speak out to access their constitutional rights, since the CDCr will not investigate and reform itself.

Predictably, attorneys for the CDCr tried to discredit Perez’ testimony as well as that of other prisoners who testified in support of his argument. The jury found Jesse Perez and his witnesses credible.

In Jesse’s concluding testimony he made it clear: “Our system of law requires prisoners like me and many others to surrender our freedom, but our laws do not require us, and we refuse to, surrender our human dignity or the minimal constitutional rights that we retain even after crossing the prison gates.

“So for me, we’re here because prison officials decided to punish me for exercising my constitutional right to file a lawsuit against their colleagues. They threatened (my cellmate) Rudy and me. They unnecessarily confiscated important legal documents that I had. They trashed my cell. And then they wrote a false disciplinary report in order to keep me in solitary confinement.

“This is not just about a messy cell or some sort of inconvenience in having to defend against a trumped up RVR. This cell was my whole world for the multiple years that I was in there. It’s the only space where I was able to experience the little bit of life that exists in solitary.

“They didn’t just take my stuff. They took the only possessions that I had. It’s all I had. So to me it was a huge deal.

“I think the officers’ actions also represent the sort of backlash that prisoners often have to hazard when speaking out or exercising their constitutional rights. So to me, we’re also here so that we can both inform and empower the public to deal with this continued corrupt course of conduct. Because in our reality, the CDCR seems incapable or unwilling to do so. So that’s why we’re here.”

Perez’s case is not the only recent instance of guards’ retaliation against prisoners for their basic expression of civil rights and political activism. Since August, inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU say they have been awakened every half-hour by prison guards in a practice that amounts to sleep deprivation.

The policy is known as security and welfare checks, during which prison guards “check on inmates” in segregated housing, including solitary confinement cells, every 30 minutes – 48 times every day – to make sure they are “not injuring themselves or trying to kill themselves.”

Not coincidentally, these checks started just days after prisoners claimed victory in the landmark settlement of Ashker v. Brown, which significantly reduced California’s ability to keep people in solitary confinement – and overturned a system of gang validation used to justify decades of isolation for hundreds of prisoners, often because of their organizing resistance to conditions and their general political beliefs.

Claude Marks, director of Freedom Archives, 522 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94110


Jesse Perez prevails in his federal lawsuit claiming retaliation by Pelican Bay officers

by Kim Rohrbach

On Nov. 24, 2015, an eight-person jury unanimously found in favor of plaintiff Jesse Perez in his retaliation case brought against several officers at Pelican Bay State Prison under the Civil Rights Act, Title 42 USC Section 1983.

The jurors agreed that four officers, all of whom were employed as assistant internal gang investigators at the time of the incidents prompting Mr. Perez’s lawsuit, each unlawfully engaged in retaliatory conduct in response to an earlier and eventually successful lawsuit brought by Mr. Perez about a decade ago.

The latter lawsuit contested Mr. Perez’s unlawful confinement at Pelican Bay’s SHU (Security Housing Unit). Settlement negotiations were underway at the time that the retaliatory conduct raised in Perez’s second lawsuit occurred, but the case had not yet settled.

The officers found guilty on Nov. 24 in regard to Mr. Perez’s first cause of action for First Amendment retaliation are Anthony Gates, Daniel Gongora, Eric Healy and Guillermo Pimentel. A fifth officer, Sean Burris, was found not guilty. A sixth officer, J. Prelip, was dropped from the case prior to trial.

Mr. Perez’s summary of his retaliation lawsuit can be read in the Bay View. The docket number for this case is 3:13-cv-05359-VC (N.D. Cal.).

At trial, Perez likened his decade-plus-long efforts at negotiating his way through the legal system to putting together a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle in the dark. He testified that his education, prior to his incarceration as a teenager, ended with the seventh grade.

Yet, despite this handicap, he filed both his retaliation case as well as in his preceding case without the benefit of legal representation. Moreover, he was able to go a great distance in terms of prosecuting each case on his own before he did finally obtain pro bono representation.

After the state challenged Mr. Perez’s first lawsuit protesting his confinement in solitary, Mr. Perez brought an appeal and cross-appeal, and on his own motion was appointed counsel by the 9th Circuit. Katie Moran and Randall Lee from Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr, LLP, were assigned to the appellate case. Attorneys Moran, Lee and others from their firm later joined in as Perez’s counsel on his second lawsuit alleging retaliation, and filed a first amended complaint in July 2014.

Mr. Perez had filed his initial handwritten complaint in the retaliation case in November 2013, after exhausting his options for relief through the administrative grievance process available through the CDCR. The CDCR’s administrative grievance process involves no external review by any staff independent of the CDCR, or by any judge, as many readers of this publication may be aware.

The trial on Mr. Perez’s retaliation case, which began Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, wrapped up for the most part on Friday, Nov. 20, at which time jurors began their deliberations. The jurors delivered their verdict late in the day on Tuesday, Nov. 24, returning to court the following morning to hear testimony concerning damages and to decide upon the amount of damages. Mr. Perez was awarded $25,000, which significantly included punitive damages.

Mr. Perez donated the proceeds of his settlement from his earlier case to his mother to help her pay off the mortgage for her home and to an organization located in South Central Los Angeles that works to support youths seeking to attend college.

The jurors in Mr. Perez’s latest matter returned a hung verdict as to a second cause of action for conspiracy levied against defendants Burris, Gates, Gongora, Healy and Pimentel. The jurors, during deliberations, indicated in writing to Judge Vincent Chhabria that they were “hopelessly deadlocked” on this claim in regard to two of the five defendants.

Although the jurors found defendants Burris, Gongola and Pimentel not guilty of conspiracy, they could arrive at no decision as to defendants Gates and Healy. Judge Chhabria declared a mistrial as to the claim of conspiracy against Gates and Healy.

During defendants’ closing arguments on Nov. 20, Jennifer Nygaard, co-counsel for the state Attorney General’s Office, emphasized the fact that Eric Healy, Anthony Gates and Dan Gongola – who, again, were all found guilty with respect to Mr. Perez’s First Amendment retaliation claim – had each been promoted following the incidents leading up to Perez’s retaliation case. As was one of the state’s witnesses in the matter, David Barneburg, or so it had earlier come out during testimony.

Barneburg led Pelican Bay’s Internal Gang Investigation Unit as a lieutenant, starting in 2009. After the events precipitating Mr. Perez’s retaliation lawsuit, Barneburg was made an associate warden at Pelican Bay.

Critical for readers to understand, relative to Mr. Perez’s legal ordeals, is that the CDCR currently defines a “gang” or “security threat group,” in relevant part, as follows:

“[A]ny … organization, association or group of three or more persons which has a common name or identifying sign or symbol whose members and/or associates … engage or have engaged, on behalf of that organization, association or group, in two or more acts which include, planning, organizing, threatening, financing, soliciting or committing unlawful acts, or act of misconduct.” See California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3000 (2015), which contains no definition of the word “misconduct.”

One reason that this is critical is that, until quite recently, those incarcerated within the CDCR’s prisons could be lawfully held in indefinite solitary confinement for alleged “gang” and/or “security threat group” members or associates by CDCR officials, without having committed any violent or criminal act to warrant such designation. Mr. Perez, until his release into the general population at Pelican Bay in 2013, was one of innumerable people in California’s prisons who endured this torture, under regulations that have been successfully challenged under thefederal class-action Ashker v. Brown.

In addition, if Anthony Gates, Sean Healy, plus any third defendant-officer named in Mr. Perez’s most recent lawsuit had been found guilty of the second cause of action for conspiracy, then the question would beg to be asked: How would those defendant-officers not themselves qualify as “gang” members, if one were to apply the relevant language codified in the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, cited above?

The type of abuse raised by Mr. Perez in his retaliation case – e.g., the trashing of his cell and the confiscation of his legal and other papers and the meritless Rules Violation Report issued against him – is unfortunately, in this writer’s experience, by no means unusual. What is unusual is that Mr. Perez has brought the abuse that he suffered to the light of day in court, against formidable obstacles, and has prevailed on his main cause of action for First Amendment retaliation.

Kim Rohrbach volunteers with California Prison Focus (CPF) and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) and is an advocate for tenants and a paralegal. She and many allies from CPF and PHSS were present in the courtroom during Jesse Perez’s recent trial, taking shifts to maintain a nearly continuous presence there.

 

Imprisoned People Facing Medical Neglect and Violence, Family Members and Organizers Speak Out

Press release received per email:
For Immediate Release – Monday, November 23, 2015
 
Imprisoned People Facing Medical Neglect and Violence, Family Members and Organizers Speak Out
 
Press Contact: Dolores Canales, Family Unity Network, (714)290-9077 dol1canales@gmail.com  or Hannah McFaull, Justice Now, (415) 813.7715 hannah@justicenow.org
 
Sacramento – On November 11th, an imprisoned person at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), faced extreme violence at the hands of prison guards. Stacy Rojas and three others were detained, physically abused, sexually harassed, strip searched in the presence of male guards, and were kept without water, food or restrooms for eleven hours. The group was illegally kept in administrative segregation without a lock up order and have been denied health care support for the injuries caused by these officers. Requests to speak with members of the prison’s Investigative Services Unit have so far been ignored.
 
“I just want to let them know that we have been physically abused, sexually harassed,” said Stacy Rojas, “and that this was just wrong. They used excessive force, totally used excessive force against us and we need help.”
 
The public acknowledgment of excessive use of force and deadly use of force by police has increased throughout the nation. Video recordings of interactions between the police and the public have increased significantly in recent years as technology has improved and the number of distribution channels has expanded. This is not an option open to people experiencing violence from guards behind prison walls and any attempt to speak out is often met with retaliation and increased force.
 
“Our communities in and out of lock up have lived experiences with biased policing — ranging from racial profiling, to excessive, and sometimes lethal, use of force”, stated Patrisse Cullors co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter. “We hear about it more and more in the communities we live in, but rarely hear about the traumatic ways that it manifests in the California prison system. Stories like Stacy’s are happening everyday inside of California prisons and jails with little to no measures taken by authorities to keep people safe and hold law enforcement, such as prison guards accountable.”
 
Advocacy organizations working with people in women’s prisons are familiar with reports of abuse and violence, like that experienced at CCWF last week. The California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Justice Now, the Family Unity Network, the TGI Justice Project and others regularly provide legal and medical advocacy support following incidents of violence perpetrated by correctional officers at women’s prisons.
 
This group of organizations and Stacy’s family members are requesting an independent investigation of the violence and excessive use of force used. They are requesting medical care and safe housing for Stacy and all those involved. The group also demands an end to the violence imposed on women, transgender people, gender nonconforming people, and communities of color within the California prison system.
 
“My sister is at the end of a fourteen year sentence and it seems as though some would wish to take that away. This has never happened [to Stacy] before. We have never had fear for my sister’s life”, said Adriana Rojas. “My sister Stacy Rojas’ constitutional rights have been violated by being stripped searched by male guards, assaulted by means of kicking and stomping, taken outdoors in near 40 degree weather, threatened with rape, humiliated, placed in holding cages for nearly 12 hours, and deprived of food and water.” Albert Jacob Rojas added, “They were denied medical attention and denied the right to speak to internal affairs. We ask that anybody who cares about human rights and women’s rights please join us in demanding justice for all.”
 
Family members and advocates are calling for:
  • An immediate independent investigation into the violence and excessive force used by guards in this incident.
  • Suspension of guards involved pending investigation.
  • Comprehensive medical treatment for injuries sustained during the incident.
  • No retaliation for speaking out against this abuse.
 
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Solitary Confinement: A “Social Death” – NYT on “Shocking” Data from CCR Case

Prisoner Human Rights Movement

A video the New York Times published, accompanying the article Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life (August 3rd, 2015, by Erica Goode) shows Todd Ashker, George Franco, Gabriel Reyes and Paul Redd talking on camera about solitary confinement, being locked down without any hope, with no ending in sight:

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/bcvideo/1.0/iframe/embed.html?videoId=100000003831139&playerType=embed


This comes from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and it is about the Case Ashker v. Brown, in which the New York Times used research, including the 10 expert reports and a video with 4 of the class action representatives (Todd Ashker, George Franco, Gabriel Reyes and Paul Redd).

Today’s New York Times science section features a front-page piece about the research that CCR commissioned and compiled for our ground-breaking challenge to long-term solitary confinement. “Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life” introduces to the public the 10 expert reports we submitted to the court…

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Beginning March 23rd: Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity

STOP THE TORTURE!

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) has helped launch Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement (SCATESC) to start Monday, March 23, 2015.

Actions will happen on the 23rd of each month.

This date emphasizes the 23 or more hours every day that people are kept in solitary confinement.

PHSS Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Prisoner-Hunger-Strike-Solidarity/117053298383319

Statewide Coordinated Actions every month respond to the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers’ Proposals (November, 2013). They stated:

We want to consider the idea of designating a certain date each month as Prisoner Rights Day. On that date each month prisoners across the state would engage in peaceful activities to call attention to prison conditions. At the same time our supporters would gather in locations throughout California to expose CDCR’s [CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] actions and rally support efforts to secure our rights. We can see this action growing…

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