Parents of Prisoners Pray for this Urgent Reform First
August 8, 2006
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.
If my life had revolved around a quest to be popular with the legislative crowd, these preventable prisoner deaths might never have made it into public view.
If I had not chosen to live in the wilderness and eat berries in order to be able to expose this monstrous prison machine, if I had sold out or deferred to those who participate in locking people in cages, we probably would not be standing here on the brink of actual prison reform.
When I first started pleading with the legislators to save lives of people in crisis and to hold guards and wardens accountable in 1996, I had a gentile manner. In my mind, this abhorrent inhumanity was taking place because they didn’t know about it. I reasoned that all I needed to do was communicate in a very civil tone about what I was witnessing and that action would be taken to right the wrongs and lives would be saved and the suffering would end.
How wrong I was to assume that elected officials were in office to do the right thing for everyone! It took me several years to realize that words of advocates that are not backed up by lawsuits, and large voting blocks who could do initiative campaigns, to elect or recall politicians, were falling on the deaf ears of people who had sold their souls to the law enforcement labor unions who put them into office. Except for a small handful of legislators, these elected officials are not there to do the right thing for all mankind.
Oh no, they are there to do the bidding of the people with whom they are “popular” and especially those organized groups that would write big checks or call out many of their members to vote them into power.
Speaking to bought-and-paid for legislators and asking them to reign in the monstrous actions of the prison guards and wardens was akin to yelling into a 180,000 mph wind. Nice people who tried to do that were steam-rollered, ignored, treated as a nuisance and sent away. For many years, I was the ONLY person to testify against wardens at their job review hearings except on one occasion. That was when a number of health care workers testified against Warden Tom Carey when he was moved from Tehachapi to Solano State Prison.
He went on to cause a number of deaths in his new job but he appears to be gone as warden there now. No matter how horrible the mismanagement, the wardens were always confirmed. I still have a hard time understanding this level of depravity amongst the lawmakers who accept it as business as usual. I went there alone, the hearings were televised. Nobody else showed up to make a plea for the prisoners.
The death toll rose then due to silence of all concerned and it continues to mount today. The callousness at every level of the bureaucracy, the unlawful deliberate indifference toward inmates and their families has not waned.
The current state of affairs is shocking even for a seasoned old salt such as myself.
It took a monumental effort for an entire decade for the parents of the prisoners to get reform efforts to this point. Many of those who did everything humanly possible to get emergency help for their loved one were never heard or were completely ignored by officials, legislators and their aides who were more concerned about popularity than with taking any actions whatsoever to save lives.
Many of these parents had loved ones who died preventable deaths. We all watched it happen in spite of our calling, faxing, writing to editors, protesting at the
Capitol and at the prisons, and filing 25 lawsuits, most of them for wrongful death or permanent disability. The prisoners who are currently in distress are still voiceless..
They are still suffering and dying as those who strive to be “ popular” with the moneyed political players are party to endorsing a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions happening right now.
Naturally, as those who have paid dearly in every way imaginable for speaking out about these abuses for the past decade are worried about how this is going to go because talk of reform has been in the air since 1998 (and before) and very little has actually taken place.
Senator Tom Hayden and his aide Rocky Rushing were the two best ones who would actually crawl the backsides of those who were ruthlessly mistreating the prisoners. Romero has put her ego aside and helped to make this savagery a priority but she has not yet been able to bring relief to individual cases. Hayden has been gone a long time and we are very much still in the throes of what is nothing less than torture as the politicos play their games instead of helping these desperate people.
I was heartened at the news story today by Associated Press that quoted CDC Director James Tilton as favoring moving the mentally ill out from under his CDC umbrella. This would immediately free up 27,000 beds at least and we could focus on healing, instead of foolishly punishing those who cannot follow the rules due to their illness.
Such a move would put California in an advanced mode of rehabilitation, something of which we could all be proud, instead of this blackness of abuse for which we have become internationally infamous. This smart-on-crime approach of taking mentally ill out of the prisons, jails, juvenile halls would be more likely to protect the neighborhoods by sending prisoners home who are better people instead of abused and angry people.
It's common sense that if you put any dog into a cage and torment him, that when he gets out, he will bite you, providing all his teeth didn’t rot out. People are no different. Tormenting people, especially sick people, does not deter crime. It does not benefit anyone for us to continue this horrible practice.
This might be the first time in decades that the line prison guards, the CDC Director and the long time prison reformers, which include a number of groups and the PARENTS of prisoner have come together on anything.
The mental health nurses in our UNION, the social workers, members of the clergy from almost every religion, the family members whose loved ones died preventable deaths, a broad range of people also support the immediate release of terminally ill, frail elderly and moving the mentally ill completely out of the juvenile halls, prisons and jails into healing places. A new agency will have a better chance of attracting medical professionals than the two failed agencies of the Department of Mental Health and CDC.
We have other reforms in mind which I will include in my next few columns. Senator Romero has a decent bill SB1547 which calls for some of the reforms we favor which needs to pass and be put into effect immediately.
What follows is a letter from one our UNION subscribers who is a mental health nurses written to Judge Karlton, pleading with him to order this move. Please write to editors to support this prayer by the families who have been and are being chewed up by this prison machine in your name and with your tax dollars.
You as a voter can do something about putting some meaning into the words “public safety.” Nothing could be smarter than the prevention of substance abuse and mental illness and yet this is not being done.
The mismanaged criminal justice system pushes people on the brink of breakdown over the edge which endangers us all. Recidivism rates are highest amongst the mentally ill because they deteriorate in the cruel ad seg and isolation housing after being on lockdown for years.
It’s morally wrong and it violates the lawsuit settlements yet there is little or no accountability. Yes, Judge Karlton has ordered the hiring of 550 mental health care workers but the ethical professionals want nothing to do with the abuses they are witnessing in prison.
A new agency managed by doctors, nurses, social workers and people with healing backgrounds outside of the control of CDC or DMH would have more hope that trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
It could be private as long as it is well managed and has nothing to do with notorious Geo group or “prisons for profit” outfits. These simply need to be facilities for all levels of mental illness with a focus on healing instead of punishing, where guards are used in minor roles.
If a person is so sick that they are dying, we as taxpayers should send those who have families that will take them home as this is the humane thing to do. I have witnessed quadriplegics in prison, people who are brain dead, guarded around the clock, it makes me sick to my stomach that the quest for profit and jobs by law enforcement labor unions could stoop so low as to engage in these practices.
Everyone can write short 150 word letters to editors and to Judge Lawrence Karlton to support this reform. The politicians never read their mail but they do read what appears in the media and they need to stop selling their souls simply to be “popular” with the law enforcement labor unions.
I hope everyone is voting Yes on Prop 89 to stop the pandering and big money influence in Sacramento. Register 20 people to vote. Ignorance and apathy of the voters have allowed this military war on the people to reign over us. One size fits all harsh laws designed to keep the prisons stocked are not working out for us. Let’s stop this oppression right now and empower the healers for a change. The Punishers have blown it.
Rev. B. Cayenne Bird
Begin letter from CDC Mental Health Nurse
Hon. Lawrence K. Karlton
Phone: (916) 930-4130
August 2, 2006
Honorable Judge Lawrence Karlton,
In regards to moving the mental healthcare system out of the prisons: I am a Registered Nurse at XXXX Prison in California. Prior to my employment here, I worked 9 years as a psychiatric RN for a well respected institution in the State of XXXXXX. The unit I covered was a population of men who had a legal status from minor offenses to felonies; but were found incompetent at the time of trial or crime. Mental health care is my profession and area of expertise.
June of 2006 I was assigned to the mental health crisis bed unit (MHCB) located in the CTC area. If I wasn’t told CTC stood for “correctional treatment center” I would have sworn it stood for correctional torture center. I don’t even know where to begin or end in convincing you that the CDC and mental health care have nothing in common. I am completely convinced the inmates that I have seen who truly suffer with mental illness should never have been incarcerated in the first place.
Why do the courts do this over and over and over? Why are the courts so ignorant to take a mentally insane person, fix them up with psychotropic meds and then punish them by throwing them in prison for basically being mentally ill in the first place? Ha! Call any mental health crisis line and see what questions they ask and you will see for yourself how illegal behaviors associate with mentally ill behaviors. If you don’t have the time I will tell you the most common questions asked during an intake or assessment for someone suffering with a psychosis.
“Do you have any thoughts of harming yourself or others?”,
“Do you have homicidal or suicidal thoughts?”, and “Do you hear voices telling you to harm yourself or harm others?” “Have you ever hurt anyone in the past?”
“Do you see things that may not be real?” All mentally ill behaviors can become “big time” legal issues. I always reinforce to my patients that there illness does not define who they are, but to keep in mind there illness wants to control them. It is a battle for them! Their self-worth is so damaged by this illness.
When people think of prison these are some thoughts that may come to mind….prison stands for someone who is no good, not fit for society…bad people go there. It should not be a place to punish someone because they have a mental illness.
They are more than that. Some of the finest people I have ever met suffer with mental illness.
As far as I am concerned prison is the biggest crack in the mental health system and more people will be placed in prison, directly related to their mental illness, than any other institution available! This is a crime! I will tell you what have I seen and because of my outcry at work, I will tell you what I have been told by the other nurses that have worked there much longer than I have. I have no need to exaggerate, or to sensationalize this so try and trust me on this if it is possible for you to do so.
First let me start by saying most of the nurses working in corrections have no prior experience in the psychiatric field. “The system” is their training. As I give an account for what I have witnessed or heard let me also say for the record that not all the nurses fit this image. But, although they are not all like this; what are they doing about it? If they are doing “nothing” than what good are they? To me they are just as guilty. Do you ever let anyone off for ignorance? And as the saying goes at work, “you sell your soul to work here.”
The image I perceive from staff in relation to the inmates/patients is as if the inmates/patients were no longer a human being. Most appear completely detached from the patient with no empathy or compassion. The lack of nurse/patient contact also is a large contributing factor for lack of any form of relationship or true understanding of who this person is. Some patient/inmates do fake a mental illness and this fact is the biggest excuse the staff holds onto in their defense for inflicting (borderline) torture on the patients/inmates. A typical inmate brought back to CTC is locked in complete isolation except for treatment team meetings, they may receive yard time after so many days admitted but for a very little time.
They are usually given a doctor’s order for a safety smock and blanket. However, a lot of times staff “conveniently” forgets to give them the safety blanket. There is a temperature control gauge and some staff will also “conveniently” set the temperature extremely low. I seen a patient place their mattress right by the door in their effort to receive the warm air coming in under the door, while only having a smock on. Many, times I have answered the call light from patients wanting to know if they got an order for a blanket yet, and when I go to see if there was a doctor’s order, ironically the order had been written for days.
Staff have withheld meals from patients “because” (as if there could be a reason!) the patient was acting out. The biggest problem I have is when the staff taunt and tease a patient who is having a behavior problem or maybe he is just getting on their nerves, this tactic is used to push a patient to the point that they would threaten staff thus staff achieving their goal “5 point restraints!”
Now the restraints issue is a whole new show and I will try and keep this short. Please understand that I do believe restraints have their purpose and serve a need but once the safety of the patient and staff are ensured they are to be released. But, that is not the case here, look at the documentation it will prove my truth. It is easy to get placed in 5 point restraints but it is not easy to come out. In addition to 5 point restraints as if that is not enough, the lovely staff feel it is safer for them and the patient that he be stripped naked while he is strapped down for one, two, or three days at a time. (Who knows maybe, just maybe your C/O buddy needs some easy overtime money?)
The 5 points are when each ankle and each hand is tied down, the 5th restraint is the chest and they have this so tight you can barely place your hand underneath. They could stay in for days, even though no behavior problems existed after the first couple hours. They are also consistently shot up with what is referred to in the mental health field as “chemical restraints”, (ativan, haldol, cogentin).
Imagine being completely exposed for 24 hours because nurses and/or guards provoked you enough in the first place to go in 5 points and then you are at their beckon call for all your needs. Sounds like a Hollywood thriller doesn’t it? Oh they may give you a blanket to cover you with but if you move and knock it off good luck putting it back on. Oh, and of course policy states to toilet, feed, ambulate and blah, blah, blah, but of course it is documented as if it is done even if it isn't. I witnessed a man urinate all over himself in his total dependence upon staff. How would you feel? I have seen all professions walk through the doors of the mental health department. What if you, your son or loved one, unfortunately ended up in the biggest crack of the mental health field? God help us.
Your Honor, I know this is long and has taken up your very valuable time. But, I had to tell you this. I only started working in the CDC a few months ago and only with a short amount of time on the unit. If you call and ask about me don’t worry they all know me as I have pissed off more people there than I have all my life. But how they feel about me means nothing to me. I have reported most of what I have told you, some of it I haven’t just because of the burden of proof and that some of it was 2nd hand. Currently, I am under a physicians care as I am not able to return to work due to my environment becoming such a living hell for me as staff and management have attempted to harass me out the door. My union is also taking my case. With this information at hand I ask you “What will you do?”
We can not ignore them anymore and we must not allow them to be punished either. Please do the right thing not what is popular or cheaper. The narrow road is harder but it always brings us to where we need to be.
“Not so long ago the Reagan administration ordered a commission to address mental health issues. In 1981 the Commission on Mental Health issues its final report, albeit without fanfare and so begins the federal government’s massive reforms to deinstitutionalize people with mental illness. Under the guise of providing greater access to mental healthcare and integrating people with mental illnesses back into the community the federal government closed the doors to mental institutions. Most mental healthcare advocates supported this measure. However, the de-institutionalization under the Reagan administration became the criminalization of mental illness, largely due to tax-cuts and as much as 25% cuts in funding. “ Reaganomics…..reaping the benefits?
It makes sense to me that CDC should not be given the responsibility of sick people. This is not what they think they're supposed to do. The Department of Mental Health has been allowing the guards and MTA's to get away with this abuse too long. What would be more attractive to me and perhaps to other nurses is an a new agency that would be set up outside of the Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health. A fresh start managed by people whose profession is mental health care. I hope that you will consider this as an option as I do not see how any ethical health care worker with a conscience could survive the present system.
CDC Mental Health Nurse
End letter from Nurse
Of course, I have protected her identity here to save her life but the Judge knows who she is and the problem of what the medical staffs in prison are enduring right now is well recognized. The prisoners cannot fight for themselves, often their families are illiterate and uneducated and don’t understand how the system works They need your help as 3 million Californians are connected to a state prisoner and almost all of them are also crime victims due to the dysfunction of our system.
The parents of prisoners are often doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, there are members of the clergy, journalists and a wide variety of intelligent, mature people in our UNION coalition who are living the nightmare. No one can speak us, no one helped us as we fought these battles and we hope and pray that our preferences for reform will be considered expert recommendations.
The 25 lawsuits which our families have pending are the tip of the iceberg of what's coming as people know about this crisis and do nothing to give us relief. We're not here to be popular, we're here to save lives, whatever that takes. The National Association of the Mentally Ill has ll40 chapters nationwide, several officers of this group are also UNION subscribers and they have joined in our plea.
Hell hath no fury like that of mothers trying to save the lives of their children. There are so many prisoners that the voting block of angry parents is now huge. Politicians should realize they have a vote and they know how to use it and stop pandering to the CCPOA
Rev. B. Cayenne Bird