August 17, 2006

Parents of Prisoners ask: Why are we paying to punish sick people in prison?
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. 

 Dr. B. Cayenne Bird
August 17, 2006

It’s difficult to get excited about the legislative session to focus on prison reform taking place right now. With an election pending and the CCPOA dangling a multi-million dollar donation to the candidate who best serves their interests, I wonder just how much constructive prison reform can take place.

Within our ranks of the U.N.I.O.N. are mostly the parents of prisoners, the more mature professionals who are doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, a few journalists, and people from every walk of life who have a loved one currently caged in these dangerous blood houses. 

Many of our UNION people, 27 total, have actually lost a loved one to death due to the inhumanity and unbearable incompetence taking place on a daily basis. In fact I know of three deaths that have taken place in the past week or so which have never been reported by the mainstream newspapers even though they were notified. It seems that CDC(r?) is threatening the media with lawsuits to such an extent that they are not widely reporting the prisoner deaths, even with a full blown crisis in effect.

I have studied many of these cases over the past decade and know that most, if not all, the deaths were preventable, if only someone had responded to the prisoners’ or the families’ pleas for help at the beginning of the emergency. 

Even with all this political blustering there still is no one working to take care of emergency complaints. This should have been the first order of business if anyone really cared about the people dropping like polar bears in a heat wave. Since I’ve been working with and for these parents and family members of prisoners, I have reported on hundreds of deaths everyday since July 1, 1998 as they came to me for help, often holding their hands and trying to channel their extreme pain into activism to demand reforms.

No one else has done this except for Prison Law Office to such a degree that they would be able to see the wide and up-close perspective of the crisis. In fact most of the people making these reform decisions now, and certainly one young man sitting on a key reform panel who shouldn’t be, have gone out of their way NOT to actually listen to and work with the people whose lives have been whipsawed by the unnecessary loss of a loved one. Most of the people blustering over prison reform have actually aided in covering up the abuses and deaths. Most of the lawmakers are walking on eggshells so as not to offend the guards and other law enforcement unions that write them nice, fat checks. So you can see why I am pessimistic here that the Governor and the legislators are actually going to accomplish anything important.

One bit of good news this week was the passage of the media access bill by the Assembly. This is the most difficult body to get anything past because they are typically the legislators with less experience. The bill must now go through the rest of the process (Senate) before it is signed by the Governor. Had other journalists besides myself been able to see the core of the crisis personally, and not been kept away from trouble spots, perhaps some accountability for medical neglect would have taken place. I believe that I shouted in my daily newsletter and out in the public arena for media access on a daily basis since the day then Gov. Pete Wilson took it away in 1996. Total that up and over ten years, it’s 3,650 days of writing about a blatant violation of our First Amendment of outrageously denied media access. 

Both Gray Davis, who always voted with the Republicans on criminal justice matters and Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed bills for media access due to their almost unconditional support of the human bondage industry. But the California media is very justifiably angry that they have been cut out of taxpayer-financed institutions while thousands of people died over the past decade, many under suspicious circumstances. 

When you see a CDC report of “suicide” or “died of natural causes” the truth of the circumstances are almost always quite different. If a prisoner is pepper-sprayed to death under a spit mask by a guard who doesn’t honor the one or two short sprays recommended by the manufacturer, his heart stops beating. That is not “heart failure” That is murder. This happened twice that I know of, and one resulted in a lawsuit while the family of the other prisoner never could be located. When I see the death of a young man in a CDC report listed as “suicide” or “natural causes” I cringe because the cover up is so great that they have literally been allowed to get away with murder.

Thousands of prisoner families have been trained to report all deaths, riots and other abuses to their local media outlets in defiance of this decade-long media ban. Some outlets such as the Fresno Bee are not covering prisoner deaths, even those under suspicious circumstances, but most are at least announcing the passing of a prisoner. 

When one prison guard died at Chino, thousands of inches of ink was spilled over his death. But as Judge Thelton Henderson said in his court during the federal medical takeover hearings “The death of a prisoner is a non-event to CDC” The death of a prisoner is pretty much a non-event to everyone involved in this industry built off human suffering except for the families and the truly compassionate people in the helping professions.

The Chino guard’s death was preventable because the mentally ill should not be in prison at all, let alone mishandled to the point that they break and act out as Inmate Blaylock did. Why are we as taxpayer’s paying to torment and punish the sick? People who would participate in punishing and neglecting old and sick people as mentally ill are as sick as the most violent inmate on death row. It’s a form of slow murder and many of the people who died – and are dying now - did not have a serious offense.

The first order of business by all posturing concern should be to release the terminally ill and the frail elderly. The long term plan can come after the lives are saved. A separate agency should be set up to take the mentally ill completely out of the prisons that has nothing to do with CDC or DMH. Most of the mentally ill are also medically ill and many have died due to being ignored, carelessly double celled or acting out their illness in a small way which the guards responded to with punishment. 

The harsh conveyor-belt laws often the target the mentally ill and the “punisher crowd” loves sensationalizing and persecuting them, but this is not the humane thing to do. When was another mentally ill person ever deterred from committing a crime because another sick person was overly punished by ridiculously long prison sentences? So many people do not understand insanity and try to apply logic to brain-damaged people. We as a society fear those who are mentally ill and the media and politicians classify sick people as "evil" on a daily basis.

The legislators need to stop and think about what they’re doing and ask themselves if punishing the sick does anything to benefit public safety or if it is just a practice from the dark ages that is destroying people for life. So many folks go into prison because they are on the edge of a total breakdown. Prison life pushes them over the edge. Is this really what the taxpayers want to pay for, making people much sicker and then continuing to hold for life quadriplegics, people in wheelchairs, on walkers and those who are dying of cancer?

Take a look at who’s in prison at this link, a sensitively written feature by Scott Smith, and be sobered! How can any human being who calls themselves sane and humane feel that punishing these people is the right thing to do? 

 Stockton Record 

Has the holy grail of punishment for the Republican law enforcement labor union voting machines so infected our society due to their constant fear mongering that we no longer know the difference between good or evil, sick or well, and that in this day and age where so many people are living longer, that we participate in such cruel and unusual punishment in the presence of God and call ourselves spiritual people?

These photographs of human suffering are sickening! The public is led to justify this horrible and huge industry because of their fears of “gangs”. This propaganda is originated by organized labor unions who have overpaid jobs to keep the prisons stocked. Most citizens don’t know that the majority of people in prison are those who are non violent with solvable AND PREVENTABLE problems.

Taking the mentally ill out of the prison system completely – out from control by CDC AND the Department of Mental Health - would free up 27,000 beds and protect the public safety much better than building new prisons. We need hospitals for the mentally ill under the management of a new entity, a new agency or private concern that has nothing to do with the prisons-for-profit outfits. We need to stop punishing the sick and begin healing them so that they are returned to their neighborhoods in better shape than before incarceration. 

The ethical medical people are tired of being controlled by custody. Yes, we have many nurses and other medical workers in our U.N.I.O.N. so I know this to be a verifiable fact. Guards are documented in court records as yelling at doctors instead of vice versa. A regular standard of community care is not being met because the ethical healers are unable to do their work. It shouldn’t be that medical people taking a job should have to sell their soul in order to work in “corrections” , but such is the case. Yes, the medical people need guards at times but most do not agitate and intimidate the mentally ill to a point that they predictably become violent. Medical people know how to handle the mentally ill the majority of the time without constantly pepper spraying them because they can’t follow the rules. The courts are full of cases where mentally ill people are being prosecuted for minor rule violations and responding to constant provocation and torment that even a sane person couldn’t endure for very long. 

The guards are trained in academy to punish, not to heal people, if they are trained at all. In the 1980’s the legislature changed the penal code to read that “the purpose of prisons are punishment” so the guards think that is their job, to make the lives of the prisoners a living hell. When they deliberately cause stress this creates and advances both mental and physical diseases. Their families are also becoming very physically ill due to the stress of watching their sons, daughters, fathers, uncles and other family members be deliberately tormented and even killed. Medical people know that poor diet and stress are at the core of what ends up killing most Americans but prisoners die sooner because of this maltreatment.

Now CDC says it wants to move away from the “prisons are for punishment mindset” and focus on Rehabilitation but this is opposite of what the guards are trained to do. They don’t honor the Title 15 or the DOM most of the time anyway and there are no consequences when they break their own rules. The prisoners know these two documents much better than the guards and there is a constant battle for any modicum of accountability when the rules are disregarded. Of course the prisoners always lose. They don’t have a strong, funded voting block to help them win their battles other than the parents of the U.N.I.O.N. who have been fighting these life and death battles for their children on a daily basis for a decade. These parents have been blocked almost every step of the way from being heard, except by the finer media outlets who do not succumb to the guard’s threats.

We have had excellent attendance of the media at our press conferences when we are able to find lawyers who will represent the families’ wrongful death and abuse cases. We have a long list of people waiting for lawyers who will sue for damages on a contingency basis. Even though these families are victims of a broken system, they are often fierce in their efforts to stand up to expose the injustice and pain that has damaged them forever.


People who remember Popeye cartoons can understand that we have Brutus running the medical as well as the custody end of corrections. Brutus isn’t going to be able to heal anyone and make them better citizens. The persona of Brutus in charge can only be taken out of the prisons by creating a new agency. Then the ethical medical professionals will surface. Brutus should be at the beck and call of responsible medical professionals only. Guards will still be required but not be in charge of everyone. They aren’t qualified to do this work. And those medical people who can’t get a job anywhere else because of their own sordid past can be sorted out. 

The State has no right to lock up people they can't care for and we as citizens must get involved and tell our legislators that we do not want to pay for punishing the sick who are no longer a danger to society when prevention of mental illness and substance abuse education, rehabilitation, and support of our young people deserve the emphasis and budgets. Torturing people is wrong, it’s against the law and yet it is happening in the prisons every day. Three people died this week and I intend to write about these deaths as soon as the parents can get their medical records, which are currently being denied for no valid reason.

We don’t have anyone on the panel being set up by Assemblymember Mark Leno (aside from himself) who really represents the reforms we want to see take place, although I understand a plan was submitted to the Governor by someone who claims to represent the families of prisoners. Such is not the case, this person was one of the people who was callous to the desperate pleas for help when he worked in the legislature and we therefore view him as a part of the problem. Our desires for prison reform are now being communicated in letters to editors and through my column. Nothing that has been submitted that represents us, the people most affected by this routine inhumanity, thus far. So we shall keep writing in the public arena and hope that a compassionate public will realize this could be their loved ones or even themselves caught up in this nightmare. 

Senators Romero and Speier, Assemblymember Mark Leno have the best understanding of our challenges but we have people with maturity and direct experience who should be on any commission making recommendations. Greenhorns will muck it up for sure!

This entire prison mess is completely out of control due to overcrowding, lack of accountability, denial of media access, corruption in the courts and conveyor belt laws that must be stopped. It is a travesty that an emergency relief team is not already in place as the bodies continue to stack up at my feet. Will punishing or healing be the focal point to deal with people who are sick not evil? 

The voters must decide to stop electing punishers to office in the first place. The families must stop looking to legislators bought and paid for by law enforcement labor unions to “save” them, because that is never going to happen. Three million California voters are attached to a State Prisoner alone, not including those in Federal Prisons, jails, juvenile halls or the l.5 million in Ca. on parole. That voting block is waking up to the fact that they outnumber all the law enforcement voting machines and learning how to bring 20 people each to the polls that they registered in poor neighborhoods, where the greatest destruction of families is taking place. Voters alone can force the politicians to do the right thing and get smarter on crime through more education, rehabilitation, prevention of mental illness and substance abuse at the grammar school level, less poverty, more jobs for prisoners when they return to their community. Less of a shame and blame mentality which only destroys the body, mind and spirit of people, it does not deter crime, quite the opposite. 

We need writers, researchers, protesters, and recruiters to build our UNION voting group of compassionate people ever higher until we are a match for the law enforcement labor unions who are running amok. We are getting the government we deserve due to a lack of education about how the system works, apathy and callousness at every layer of the bureaucracy. There are no rescuers except through the power of our vote and whatever incredible noise we can make to alert the other voters that this could be their problem in the blink of an eye.

Rev. B. Cayenne Bird

United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect
P.O. Box 340371
Sacramento, Ca. 95834 

On August 20 a group of families will be protesting outside Solano prison over abuses taking place there in ad seg and SHU units. This is not an event coordinated by our U.N.I.O.N. but I would like to give it mention in my column here. Email Quetza  for details.

On Sunday, August 27 a protest that is sponsored by our UNION Coalition against visiting abuses toward families will take place outside Salinas Valley Prison and Ca. Treatment Facility (two prisons on the same property) at dawn. Here is the flyer website, go there and hit print and please distribute widely as we are standing up to the Green Wall bullies for destroying family ties. 

More reform ideas to come from the people in this hellpit. If I were Governor, I'd order a retrial for everyone convicted as well as better trials and some type of actual investigations for the poor. The judicial system also needs accountability as the system is corrupt arrest through parole and the prisons are full of people who shouldn't be there. Prosecutorial and judicial misconduct should have consequences and this is an important reform that the people must bring forward by initiative.

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