Sunday October 22, 2000 

Building better prisons
State institutions could use some major fixing up 
By B. Cayenne Bird

The Department of Corrections sees it as its duty to accept as many prisoners as the courts send to be warehoused. Never mind that there isn't enough staff or funding to provide proper custodial treatment - especially medical and dental care. 

What is being dealt out in the name of justice is a disgrace, yet few state officials want to get out in front of the train and blow the whistle to stop a runaway crisis. 

Sen. John Vasconcellos, as chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, has stated time and again during these hearings that people are returning to society sicker than they were before they entered prison. Hello? What more of a wake-up call do we need than this from the person getting all the complaints? Have we become so callous and blood thirsty that we do not realize the danger in abusing and then releasing our mostly young people back into the neighborhoods? 

We're all responsible for ignoring conditions that amount to nothing less than torture by sitting silently on the sidelines and allowing inhumane treatment to be considered business as usual in California's prisons. Media access is denied to cover up a medical crisis so widespread that the state can't fix it. 

Somebody should have alerted the public long ago, but in the "pass the buck, transfer the call" bureaucracy, few have been courageous enough to say it. Whatever the reason, it is inexcusable and brings certain danger back to our neighborhoods. 

United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect - our mainstream group of 4,600 doctors, nurses, teachers, college professors, social workers and people in the helping professions - receives hundreds of pleas weekly from families of inmates asking for help. 

Here are a few of those complaints briefly summarized: 

James Diesso, a mentally ill inmate in the psychiatric administrative segregation unit in California Medical Facility in Vacaville was double-celled with another mentally ill person. 

Both inmates had violent histories of acting out their mental illness. Now, Jeffrey Ford, the other inmate, is dead. Who takes the responsibility for careless double-celling practices when there are 18,500 mentally ill people housed with others throughout the system? This mentally ill inmate is now on trial for murder. No one wants to be held accountable for what is a common, even though deadly, administrative mistake. 

Charles Wesley, an inmate in Chino Prison, now has permanent nerve damage because of medical neglect. He asked officials and staff of the prison's medical clinic for help 61 times and was denied until it was too late. He was made to work for less than 20 cents an hour while suffering excruciating pain. His begging was ignored, and now the taxpayers are going to be saddled with a million-dollar-plus lawsuit for medical neglect that could have been avoided. 

With the way state agencies stick together, Charles Wesley may lose, even though his case is very well documented. He will be released from prison soon, permanently disabled. His crime was auto theft. Did the punishment fit the crime? Hardly. 

Reports of rape, murder, psychological torture and intimidation tactics by the guards, and medical neglect comparable to any Third World country, are well-documented in our files on the prison system's own forms. If the inmates speak to the press, there is retribution in the form of lost visits or worse. 

The medical people in the Department of Health Services have asked for money to be able to handle the constant conveyor belt of thousands of inmates being sent to prison by the courts. Gov. Gray Davis has rebuffed them with no political consequences. The state cannot continue to take loved ones from families for mostly nonviolent crimes and then not provide proper medical and dental care, or an atmosphere of rehabilitation. 

The state's medical people have tried, but the governor sees no organized, well-funded voting lobby so he turns his back on this needless suffering. 

Instead, millions of dollars are paid out in lawsuits and to cover a 51-attorney staff and all their expenses, yet the totals are hidden from the public. Wouldn't it have made more sense to do things right in the first place, rather than to waste all this money from mismanagement? 

What kind of visionary leader would not want to invest in prevention of the inevitable? Gov. Davis blue-lined practically every request for prisoners. 

This was not being "smart on crime." Eventually the taxpayers will pay dearly. 

Where's the "correction" part of the Department of Corrections? 

The cells were built for one person, yet the inmates are jammed together to create a larger profit to support the bureaucracy. To get a taste of living in a cell, go into your 8-foot by 10-foot bathroom for a month. Take a mentally ill person to live in your bathroom with you who is never more than three feet away. 

See if you feel healthier after this experience. Some prisons have been on lockdown for a year or more. Can you imagine the psychological torment we are putting these people through? 

It puts great stress on an inmate when his "cellie" is mentally ill, so great that they must sleep with one eye open and be afraid for their lives at all times. 

There is little if any education, rehabilitation, or counseling. Mule Creek, the model prison at Ione, doesn't even have an arts and crafts program. Prisoners in the dormitory there live under a heavy cloud of second-hand smoke 24 hours a day. Too bad, because treatment for cancer is virtually nonexistent for prisoners. There's a brand new "oncology" arrangement just beginning at CMF in Vacaville, but only after incredible pressure, and the quality has yet to be determined. 

If inmates are allowed to see the dentist, there is an eight-month wait, and having their teeth pulled is their only option. Ask the legislators why there is no dental care in prison (floss is a rarity) and they will tell you that with the available funding "something has to go." 

We wouldn't bring a giraffe from the great Serengeti Plains to America without the intention of providing him with a good diet, medical and dental care. Why on earth are we allowing humans to be treated worse than animals? 

Is this inhumane treatment of prisoners really lowering crime? There are no statistics anywhere to prove that prisons and the harsh laws that keep them stocked with people have done anything to lower crime. If statistics were to be believed, there's more evidence to support alternative sentencing methods such as those used in Minnesota and other states that are far ahead of California in crime solutions. 

Former governor Pete Wilson's own committees reported that rehabilitation works when he first began this accelerated retribution-style justice from the dark ages. 

Yet, Gov. Davis has callously turned his back on the public safety at risk here. He has played down the incredible waste of taxpayer money which has drained billions of dollars from the public coffers due to mismanagement. Police brutality lawsuits alone totalled $16 million in just two recent awards; imagine the total of thousands of lawsuit payouts statewide. 

Somebody needs to sit down and think this crime thing through, because the current nonsystem is causing more crime than it is preventing. The right thing to do is release nonviolent prisoners, institute alternative sentencing for the mentally ill and the drug addicts that is more akin to medicine than punishment, and send dying prisoners home on compassionate release. 

Are we looking for revenge against errants that results in them becoming sicker? Psychological and physical abuse of prisoners cannot be "correcting" them, quite the opposite. 

The taxpayers should step in here and demand value for their dollar. 

The author is a Sacramento journalist and the volunteer director of United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect.

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