Real Hope for Prison Reform
Dr. B. Cayenne Bird

Dr. B. Cayenne Bird is an ordained minister and a 37-year veteran op-ed journalist and publisher. She volunteers her time as founder and director of United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect UNION. The UNION is active in prison reform and criminal justice issues. She is a mother and grandmother and focuses on human rights and restorative justice. She is also the host of television series "Cayenne Common Sense" and publishes a daily online newsletter to subscribers.

July 11, 2005

 It isn't the usual thing that happens in California courtrooms, where a judge is actually informed about what is terribly wrong within the system and takes corrective action. 

After all, if most judges ever faced the reality that every sentence to prison is a potential death sentence, they wouldn't be able to justify putting people away for decades for minor or major crimes. 

But death sentences have routinely been given to hundreds of men and women through methods of slow and painful torture in the form of medical neglect in California's prisons. And the man who is doing something about it is Federal Senior Judge Thelton Henderson. 

In his San Francisco courtroom Thursday, he ruled that the medical neglect and its death toll is so rampant that he must put the entire California Department of Corrections under the control of an emergency federal receiver. 

This happened after shocking testimonies given by two investigative physicians, each with 20-years-plus experience, who compared California's medical crisis to that of Angola, one of the worst federal prisons in the country. Both physicians stated that in all their decades in practice in correctional settings, they had "never seen such callousness and gross incompetence so widespread." 

They reported scores of preventable deaths verified from the medical records. At least 64 more per year are predicted to happen until the bureaucratic mess is cleaned up. 

Physicians predicted an immeasurable toll of serious injuries that fall just short of death. 

I sat through their testimonies in San Francisco, heard their stories told with tones of grief and moral outrage, and I cried silently as they described what is nothing less than torture. 

Records were "missing" or never filed on 60 or more additional deaths. Is this a coverup or just unbearable incompetence? 

The crisis isn't happening because there is a shortage of money. Everyone agrees on that point. The medical care budget for inmates is $1.1 billion per year. 

Undersecretary Kevin Carruth, one of the men hired to remedy the problems in corrections quit his job during the course of the hearings. He admitted that medical care isn't exactly CDC's forte. 

The governor and legislators implemented a grandiose reform plan that puts far too many responsibilities on a few men and women, but already it has crumbled by the resignation of one of the key men hired just 18 months ago to bring about the reform. 

The plan was impractical to begin with, but the attempt at least caused some recognition to the problem. In itself, that was a bit of progress. The key element of the all-new, improved prison plan was civilian oversight, which struck out of it before the ink was dry. 

After that, I couldn't take it seriously while others were anxious to pass anything just to get a start on the behemoth problems which have claimed numerous lives per year. 

It's a simple equation. If prisoners doubled who are locked in cages and basic needs aren't met, such as decent food, water, proper housing and sanitary conditions, then the result is predictably chaos and crisis. 

The core of the problem is severe overcrowding. We simply have too many people in prison. But nobody in the Legislature or those on boards and commissions will admit it. 

Even though state murder by medical neglect is common, it is still an unthinkable remedy to grant compassionate release for terminal illness way past the time that anyone is a danger to society. 

Releasing nonviolent inmates or changing the sentencing laws to include alternative sentencing is a common-sense approach that few want to consider. 

That's because most of the callous people who block this reform were put into office by law enforcement labor unions so they could serve their interests, not the interests of the people. 

And certainly not the interests of the 3 million people who are connected to the state's inmates. This number doesn't include the family members of those in jails, federal prisoners or juvenile halls. These people are mostly the poor and uneducated who have not organized a funded, voting lobby to the size and power that it would take to outnumber the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The booming prison industry probably would be much smaller, around 30,000 inmates instead of 165,000 if former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson hadn't wanted to run for the presidency on a "tough on crime" platform. 

As founder and director of UNION - United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect - I believe the lawsuits my group has helped families file in several wrongful death cases have made a serious impact. Now people are going to get fired for killing prisoners and demonstrating deliberate indifference. In the past there was no accountability. Three of those lawsuits were filed against Vacaville prisons for deliberate indifference. 

In June, the Inspector General reached a surprisingly sensible conclusion that the death of a mentally ill prisoner who was carelessly doubled-celled was the prison's fault. Will there be murder charges filed against the prison administration or any consequences at all? 

It remains to be seen. 

But after the millions we taxpayers have spent for this impotent "independent agency," it's good to see one sensible finding. 

How did all these people die without the media and the citizenry catching on? It's a valid question and one I am frustrated over every day. 

The families alerted legislators and the media about what was happening by calling, faxing, writing thousands of letters, showing up to important hearings and picketing the Capitol and prisons. 

Lawsuits were filed, press conferences were held, I published a daily newsletter, did a television series and recorded literally hundreds of radio and TV programs to get out the alert. Still, the curmudgeons in elected office buried this dirty little secret of prisoner deaths deep into state politics. 

A few of these relics always voted the right way on the bills, don't get me wrong. But were their egos too big to admit to this full-blown crisis so dire that an emergency federal takeover became the only llth-hour option? 

The short answer is yes! 

While most legislators, the Inspector General and the Office of Internal Affairs have all failed to be responsive to appeals from inmates and their families - even in life and death emergencies - at least Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, had the common decency to admit that intervention by a higher power was needed. That much we should recognize. 

Because grumpy old men in power were hiding the enormity of this emergency, it could not surface. Sen. Romero conducted a number of hearings demanding CDC to clean up the problems but they did not. Nor could any prison in California comply with court-ordered reform. 

The dead bodies of men and women imprisoned in these blood houses are stacking up right under the noses of the taxpayers, the media and the legislators. 

Judge Henderson considers those deaths reason enough to call an emergency. I agree. But why did no one listen to thousands of screams before now? The graphic courtroom descriptions equal abuses in Abu Ghraib, but we all faced and reported many of these deaths as they happened, working with devastated families. 

Shame on all connected, whose callousness covered this up. 

The author is founder and director of UNION - United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect - a Sacramento-based statewide group of advocates for prisoners and their families since 1998. and email:

This article is re-printed with permission of The Reporter, Vacaville, California where this article was first published on 7/03/2005 

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