Absurd Salinas Valley Prison & CTF Visiting Policies Routinely Turns Inmate Families Away
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. 

Photo Caption: This black 3-piece suit was deemed "inappropriate attire" by the visiting Sgt. K. Knuckles at Salinas Valley Prison. Only the fingers and a small portion of the neck show. I have worn this same suit to at least 50 other prison visits. Photo was taken in Friendship Trailer where I interviewed scores of other families after having my visits suspended for six months. Six guards were called when I questioned the policy.

I have written about the abuses of visitors to Salinas Valley Prison several times in my published columns at American Chronicle and in my daily newsletter. A movie is in the works about my experiences in the California prison system which just seems to write itself. For example, today I had an eye-to-eye direct confrontation with the underhanded methods of the Green Wall.

After a 3-l/2 hour trip from Sacramento and three hour wait in the parking lot, we finally went up the cattle walk into the prison waiting room to be “processed.”

I was wearing the same 3-piece pant suit that I have worn numerous times to visit at other prisons including Salinas Valley. Black loose-fitting pants, jacket, and a shell with high neck and high underarms, nothing that could be construed as being improper by any stretch of the imagination.

Considering my age (my grandchildren attend college), it was a most degrading experience to be told that I couldn't visit due to the shell under my jacket being sleeveless even though I never take off the jacket. How ridiculous! Are the arms of a senior citizen who is older than the earth’s crust, such as myself, going to cause the prisoners to have a riot even if I were to take off my jacket?

We are talking arms here, not breasts or other parts of the body.

I explained that the jacket never comes off and that I had worn this same attire to visit at this prison several times before in a very civil tone – the first five times I had to say it. 

The answer from the guard was still “No, you can’t come in wearing that” – an emphatic flat “no” that never once suggested that the prison has a Friendship House trailer that might have something in my size.

I asked politely to see the supervisor. By this time a burn in my gut began to gnaw at me as I recalled the hundreds of people, mostly Hispanics, whom I have witnessed degraded in this same manner. I have watched the guards turn people away from visiting their loved ones after they spent thousands of dollars and traveled hundreds of miles because they were wearing blue, green gray, brown or even white!

That pretty much covers the majority of the colors so I opted for my black suit several years ago so that this treatment could never happen to me. After all, by the time I am admitted I have six and a half hours and about $100 invested in the process and the prisoners waiting for me have pressing business.

It’s reasonable that if a young woman arrives with a black bra under a spaghetti strap t-shirt that they should be asked to cover up for their own safety. That is a situation that definitely might cause prisoner attention in the visiting room. But this is NOT the case with the majority of families who are denied access.

As I was waiting for “the supervisor” a large, brutish looking female guard with a crowd-sized pepper spray canister strapped at her waist, along with several other weapons interrupted. 

“I am the supervisor and you're not coming in with that outfit.” She said in that tone so common in the prisons. You know the one I'm talking about if you are one of the 3 million citizens who visit California prisons. In fact, B yard was shut down last week because of alleged threats to attack “staff.” And it is my opinion that this tone of degradation and intimidation is at the root of most riots and acts of violence.

“What is your name?” I asked her.

She refused to answer me, more of that “I am God and you will not ask me anything" attitude so commonly used with the families.

I asked her again “What is your name?” and I tried to get a look at her badge or to see the name tag that most of them wear.

Then she drew her sword in the fashion that the Green Wall members at Salinas Valley are noted for against the prisoners. 

“You aren’t going to see your anyone today. In fact. I am going to have you removed from the prison grounds.” She spewed with a voice through clenched teeth.

“I really need to visit him ” I told her. “I just came from Sacramento and have been waiting for six and half hours to see him. He has important legal deadlines, on one of the cases he is pro bono and I am a witness.”

“You should have thought about that before you wore that outfit to visit today.” She spewed. “Plus you tried to grab me and you are lucky I don’t have you arrested.”

“There are going to be consequences to you for this young lady. That is a complete lie, I never touched you” I told her, standing up for myself.

Then she calls SIX guards and tells me to lower my voice that I am inciting the visiting room. I told her “I have a constitutional right to use any octave of voice I want. I am not one of the prisoners that you can lie on, violate my rights and then have no consequences for doing so whatsoever.”

By this time all the other guards are present. My voice is that of a professional broadcaster and it does carry, but there is so much noise during processing that it would be impossible for any one person to “incite the visiting room.”

When she put her name on the report, I thought I was going to laugh. She is K. Knuckles. Honest, from the person who coined the term “Knuckldraggers” for the California Prison Guards, I was violated by Sgt. K. Knuckles.

Well, in true Knuckledragger style, Sgt. Knuckles lied and the others will likely swear to it so they took me outside without touching me, all six of them.

I am a senior who is officially disabled and the young lady who drove me, who is standing there mortified by now, was told that she could visit but that I would have to be taken off the grounds. Then they decided to escort me by guard to the Friendship House near the perimeter of the property, where a non-profit group has used clothing in some sizes for the multitude of instances where the visitors are denied entrance

I was told that even though they had clothing for me, I would not be allowed to change and go to my visit because one of “my nails grazed Sgt. Knuckles” which was a complete fabrication. I never touched this massive woman with so many weapons on her belt she could hardly do her job.

Putting a journalist into a situation where denied visitors from two prisons are coming in for five hours is something akin to throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch.

I was able to interview the staff of the Friendship house and dozens of families about why they had been denied access to their loved ones. 

The abuse to visitors by Sgt. Knuckles and her staff is so routine, so arbitrary and so unquestioned that the guards really are of the opinion that they will never be reported or challenged for it.

The denial/termination/suspension form has the following reasons for turning people away listed on it.

1. incomplete or falsified visiting questionnaire, 

2. security risk

3. ex-felon without approval of warden and case supervisor

4. ID not acceptable

5. Underage and not accompanied by an approved adult visitor

6. Bringing contraband on grounds

7. Refused to submit for request for search of persons or possessions

So what am I denied visiting for? Inappropriate clothing, inciting the visiting area because of my natural broadcaster’s voice and “trying to grab Sgt. K. Knuckes”

As an ordained minister with a doctorate in religious sciences, a lifetime of humanitarian advocacy who has dedicated 37 years of my life for non-violent advocacy of civil rights, it is ridiculous for such an accusation to be lodged against me just so that Sgt. Knuckles could gain the cooperation of the guards. I know by hundreds of complaints against this prison since 1998, this bearing of false witness is what they do the prisoners on a routine basis. 

One guard lies and all the rest of them swear to it even though there was only one of them who witnessed it our interchange. The others were all summoned later.

The volunteers in the Friends Outside trailer emphasized that most of the families who had the rudest encounters were sent by - guess who – Sgt. K. Knuckles. Most women’s suits on the market are 3 pc. with a sleeveless under blouse and are ensembles worn by more mature women. 

The Friends Outside volunteers told me that the guards in visiting were very arbitrary and there was no consistency to ridiculous policies. They said that the guards are even abusive to them as volunteers and that they are grateful that someone is going to tell this story in the media.

They made a place on their bulletin board where it will be posted for all the sobbing women and children who enter there after being turned away for “inappropriate” clothing.

These are ridiculous policies that the 3 million taxpaying voters who are desperate to maintain family ties to a prisoner must tolerate subject to change without notice. 

One woman had an infant six months old in a carrier and because the baby was wearing blue jeans, she was denied visiting. Can you imagine? What’s the baby going to do? Get up and walk.

Both adults and children were turned away for wearing any shade of green even though that color is not listed as one not allowed on the visiting information sheet. Another color not listed on the sheet which caused people to be turned away is brown. This applies to children and even babies and there were many tears shed as the guards were much more interested in their power trips than the problems of the families. They took no responsibility for their incomplete instructions.

As the recent report by the National Prison Commission states the visiting policies are in fact most unfriendly at all twelve California prisons where I have personally visited. But I will go farther than this mild statement to say that they are downright callous, outrageous and probably unconstitutional

Did you know that when a prisoner becomes too ill to walk to the visiting room or to a window that his family is cut off from him forever, even on his deathbed? This is beyond cruel and unusual punishment for the prisoner and everyone attached to them. If an inmate is sent to the hospital, the guards again play God and often do not notify the families at all. No information is available!

My eye-to-eye direct confrontation with the famed Green Wall was quite by chance. I feel certain that they had no idea with whom they were dealing. This abuse is just business as usual in this visiting room.

Salinas Valley Prison is one of those who might get some of the $600 million about to be appropriated for bogus mental hospitals through an important court order. Their visiting policies are even more important than prisons where these “hospitals” will be located. Based on SVSP’s track record and attitude, I know that any money will be used to build more ad seg and Security Housing Units, a form of psychological torture that creates more mental illness than it cures.

With the Green Wall obviously still operating there telling lies and acting in a very inhumane manner even in the visiting room, I believe that the families of prisoners need to take a strong stand against them receiving any money whatsoever for prison expansion.

Information is locked down tightly about prisoners who are well. Can you imagine the code of silence that will be worsened especially with the punishments and extended sentences dealt out to mentally ill prisoners?

I would like to protest this prison, in order to bring media attention to the many abuses taking place there under brutish guards such as Sgt. K. Knuckles.

We have a number of complaints including meals denied to certain prisoners, another female guard who is treating the men abusively on B yard, a new form of torture housing called the BMU (Behavior Modification Unit). A contract is being forced on everyone on C yard or their personal property will all be sent home. I have no idea what the contract says, although one of the “officials” told me it is an agreement to program safely, as if there is a safe place in any inch of that bloodhouse. This contract sounds unconstitutional and a civil rights lawyer needs to examine this process.

The BMU is an experiment which is always a frightening word to a knowledgeable prisoner advocate. It’s time to stop accepting abuse as business as usual, conduct a big noisy protest, file complaints on brutish male and female guards who are on power trips.

There was nothing healing about my experience. It caused great anxiety to the person I came to visit who already has a stress disorder. The last time we held a protest at Lancaster prison due to abuses, the warden was demoted and the abusive guard was terminated so these are always worthwhile to do. 

There are rumors that Friday visits will be returned to most prisons on July 1, 2006. They should never have been taken away in the first place. At this time, this is just a rumor.

There are 30,000 children who may not ever visit their own parents for certain crimes, a number of which do not include crimes against children. This is not a law, in fact the legislature turned down a bill which had this proposal in mind. Then it suddenly surfaced a few months after failing the Assembly Public safety committee as a new “CDC rule”

The window visits promised are a cruel joke as most prisons only have three or four windows for these one hour “scheduled” visits behind glass. It is almost impossible to ever get an appointment and the prisoners who need the most support, those who act out their mental illness are lucky to ever get visits.

We not only need to protest at Salinas Valley to attend the special emergency hearing on July 12 at 9 am in Judge Henderson’s courtroom 12 on the 19th floor, 450 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco. Letters to the editors objecting toa a $600 million dollar expansion of a failed agency who can’t do one thing right should be written by everyone.

Doing nothing about this type of oppression gives consent to it. Standing up against the Green Wall is a frightening thing, to be certain but the visiting policies need to be challenged. And people such as Sgt. K. Knuckles and those staff members who participate in turning away families who are the poorest of the poor and under great stress need to be taken off the public payroll.

I will be filing complaints at the prison level and with the Office of Internal Affairs and report back to you to see if there will be any resolution. With the current administration in office, I am not optimistic but for me to say nothing feeds the power trip, feeds the oppression and I bow to no man or woman(?). Will you help me communicate the problems with visiting? This bad treatment is, I believe, a major contributing factor which is causing riots and fights in all prisons

Please keep in mind that a 3 piece black suit is the standard for many members of the clergy and any policy that forbids them needs to be revised.

Rev. B. Cayenne Bird


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