Women, Kids, Elderly Robbed and Abused by Prison System this Holiday
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.

December 7, 2007

 Most California prisons are in complete chaos as members of the state legislature focus instead on a bill to increase their terms in office and meet with one another and lobbyists, even at the height of the inmate "suicide season."

Packages sent by the family members to try and console their daily-abused incarcerated loved ones are being purposefully withheld for a month or more. Even legal mail is slowed to more than 30 days delivery. Mandated inmate access to the prison legal libraries are being denied causing delays in the court system and adding to the holiday stress of people on legal deadlines. Many female visitors are now being asked to squat and cough over a mirror, even elderly mothers and wives, with little or no reason or provocation given for this gross rights violation. People are driving from hundreds of miles away hoping for at least a six hour visit, but are being turned away over ridiculous rules restricting the type and color of garments they may wear. 

Visits are being "terminated" early regardless of how far the family member traveled because they may have spoken to another visitor in the canteen room. This retaliation enacted upon a family member for speaking to someone else is a violation of the US Constitution's First Amendment and yet it happened several times last week-end at Salinas Valley Prison. Someone needs to step in and make the prison guards follow the state's own rules, but the legislators can't be bothered to do their jobs with oversight committees. And we must always remember that the court and prison system finances the legislature and entire bureaucracy, something that most people forget when they expect elected officials to do the right thing by prisoners. I have called several times for 2750 participants to join the UNION families to help pay for and file a class action lawsuit against all who are participating in and allowing these intrusive and harsh visiting policies, but the millions of people who visit prisons are all thinking that this abuse will not happen to them personally until it does and so they don't come together with us to fight back. 

The UNION families have filed 28 lawsuits against state employees, mostly for wrongful deaths, but the visiting lawsuit which is desperately needed, is something that needs to be hired by those affected to get done as there is no payout at the end for any attorney. The family members are mostly women and children. It is doubtful whether most of them took civics in high school in order to understand that they could organize their way out of the oppression by being active in our UNION and learning to build a bigger and stronger voting machine. So not enough families will rescue themselves by joining in to pay a large firm who specializes in lawsuits against the government. This failure to organize and take the right actions at the right time are mostly due to the widespread illiteracy at this level of society. 

For example, there are two initiative campaigns circulating. One includes lifer visits and the other is to amend three strikes, but neither has a prayer of winning because the 6500 workers it takes to be able to gather 500,000 plus signatures in only 150 days weren't gathered and trained in advance nor was the minimum one million dollars raised that it takes to pay for public education to really prepare the voters to vote the right way.

This is not to say that people shouldn't be working on the initiatives because they are a valuable tool in voter registration of the poor, and could be used to educate our side that no one can win more reform without a massive mobilization of writers, protesters and people who are going to put up money to pay for this necessary organizing work and the campaigns. After all, if the poor voted, the world would be a different place. Had the poor been voting all along, none of the present problems would exist and very few of the present officials would be in office. Human rights leaders have said the same thing for generations but somehow complaining is preferable to actually voting and registering others to vote, or to put up people who are actually going to represent us in the first place. 

The stark reality of the situation is that there is no chance to win initiatives now because the 6500 workers and the first million dollars were not gathered together in advance of the filings. But if this ability to win initiative campaigns is ever going to be done successfully in the future, it is the organizing done now that will put an end to the power of the law enforcement and their elected puppets in the State Legislature. Nobody is going to do this work except the three million people related to a state prisoner and if they won't do it, apparently there will be no end in sight to the abuse and suffering taking place right now on many levels just so law enforcement members can have an over-paying job. No judge, no legislator, no attorney and no advocate can rescue the people until they take the right steps of reform, for there is almost zero justice in the court system and the brick walls cannot be overcome through conventional methods. Where it is right now is that too few advocates are worked to the bone while others sit and complain and don't do the organizing work required. It's a no-win situation as long as it continues in this manner. It's easy to complain and criticize but it doesn't help the campaigns win to take this approach to problems.

In the meantime, the state employees are breaking laws, violating rights of prisoners and people who visit the prisons are suffering an immeasurable human toll. To illustrate what millions of young women, children and elderly parents and grandparents who have a loved one in prison are experiencing, here is an detailed accounting of what I went through on a visit to California State Prison Los Angeles County (CSP-LAC). Imagine going through all this and being turned away over the color and style of a garment or made to squat and cough over a mirror which is happening widely to visitors at most prisons.

Alarming Visit of Rev. B. Cayenne Bird to CSP Lancaster

The California Department of Corrections really knows how to discourage those pesky visitors to inmates that keep trying to maintain family ties. My recent visit to California State Prison Los Angeles County Lancaster (CSP-LAC) was nothing less than a traumatic ordeal, even though I have been visiting many prisons for a decade. I cannot see how a first- time visitor, especially a family member, could even survive, let alone enjoy the experience. The goal of the prison administration is surely to make the visitor so miserable that they will never return, which is counter productive to rehabilitation, where close family ties should be encouraged.

After what I witnessed, I can say without reservation that what I always suspected about George and Sharon Runner, the two legislators who are failing to properly control CSP-LAC is shocking. Both were put into office with the dollars and organized votes of law enforcement labor unions. By allowing irresponsible mismanagement in this den of human suffering, the Runners have allowed Lancaster to be one of the filthiest, most poorly managed and dangerous prisons I have ever entered. 

We have a network of people with loved ones at Lancaster Prison who had notified me that in order to get processed and assured of a having a visit at all, it would be necessary to arrive at the prison by 5 a.m. Such is not the case when visiting many of the other prisons. Except for a few holidays, visitors may arrive at most of Californiaís 33 prisons at any time during visiting hours and be sitting across from their loved ones in about 40 minutes. This is not the case at CSP- LAC. The process of checking in takes more than three hours if one is to be assured of even getting a visit during the six hour time frame allotted. 

I departed at 11 pm Saturday night, grateful that my car could endure the 816 mile round trip marathon. Most of the families do not have the luxury of a reliable car. So the 408 mile distance in itself is crippling for thousands of family members who might otherwise be able to provide some emotional support for inmates who are heavily psychologically tormented 24 hours a day. Without this regular support from families, the inmates are destined to deteriorate further and further into depression and despair and to predictably lose their wills to live. 

As a native Californian, I have made that long trip down Hwy 5 many times in my life. In the wee hours of the morning, the drive is especially boring, but I tuned in to talk shows and music and thought about the nightmare letters still needing to be answered in my daily mail. I was a disabled mom, traveling across the state with only a few dollars in my pocket, going to an unknown place of terrible repute in the middle of the desert in total darkness. I was doing what I had to do to help to help people survive, but I did not want to be there. 

Could I have had made the trip a day ahead and stayed with some of the families in our network? Yes. But I had important business on Saturday and Monday to attend to, and so as with most of the single mothers and elderly parents making these trips, I, too, had limited time and limited money and only 24 hours to get there and back. 

During all these years living in my home state, I had never had reason to take the Hwy 138 Palmdale/Lancaster turn off just past the Grapevine heading up over the hill before you reach Los Angeles. 

It's a good thing I had enough fuel in the car because there wasn't a single gas station, restaurant or grocery store for the entire 60 mile stretch from the 5 freeway exit to the prison going up highway 138. It was totally desolate with tumble weeds, sand and a place that just looked worse, even in the middle of the night, than I could ever have imagined in my most chilling nightmares. 

There were two or three closed buildings that might have been restaurants during the day but I had been warned to avoid stopping anywhere along the road. About twenty miles away from the prison itself, I spotted CSP LAC. By this time, I had been on the road for more than six hours taking only two ten minute stops to gas up. I knew from stories told by the families at Lancaster that if I was not amongst the first 60 cars that I might not get a visit at all. I felt sorry for all those who would be coming to this blood house who did not have this advance information, especially those who traveled from out of state. The bureaucracy has no heart and no soul, and no conscience for committing this type of continual abuse to people who are not criminals. Those who suffer the most are the children.

There were several hundred huge floodlights illuminating this place so revolting that it defies description. I wondered what the electric bill must be each month as a I drove up to the gate where prison employees were already entering the facility without a single one of their cars being checked for contraband. 

"Mornin' Officer" I chirped. "This is my first visit to LAC, where is the visitor's entrance?" 

It was still pitch dark but he directed me to a side road and said that I would find cars lined up there. He told me that my trunk and glove box would be searched going in and coming out of the prison. This was a new procedure that I had ever experienced at the other prisons Iíve visited where men and women are caged. Level III prisons are supposed to be less restrictive but such is not the case at CSP-LAC. 

I asked the guard, who was pleasant enough, where the nearest public restroom was located since I had just driven across 60 miles of barren land with no facilities and processing wouldn't take place for another three hours yet. He told me that Friends Outside, Centerforce (a CDC funded group in a trailer) would be open by 9 am and that they would have a restroom but that I must wait in line in the dark until then. 

Luckily for me, I had been warned about there being no toilet and had stopped taking fluids about 3 am. If you lose your place in line to go to the nearest town to use the restroom, you may not be able to visit at all that day, and I felt that 408 miles was a long way to travel to risk being turned away. 

At most prisons, the guards wear puke green uniforms and the inmates wear blue denim and/or chambray. So I already knew not to wear blue or green clothes or I would be turned away from visiting no matter how far I'd traveled. The used clothes in the trailer furnished by Friends Outside has saved many visits when the guards decide the color or style of clothing of visitors doesn't suit them, but it is a humiliating and time-consuming experience (not to mention maddening) to be diverted.

But at Lancaster, the guards do not wear green. They wear feces brown, appropriate for them, but this creates a different restriction on the colors that visitors may wear. I was wearing a brown/rust shirt and had not thought about putting an extra change of clothes in the car. My heart sank. I needed to speak with a prisoner about legal matters and if I had to be sent to the trailer for some crappy clothes, that would delay my getting processed. Once so many visitors fill the visiting rooms, no more are admitted. 

I knew that the wires had to be out of my bra and all of the other hundreds of restrictions imposed on us as visitors but in no place in the recorded message or at the website does it state that the guards wear poop brown which means that we may not wear this color. 

There is no consistency between the prisons except for three facts. 

1. They are all places of chaos and oppression which are completely mismanaged.

2. Few, if any, of the guards follow the Title 15 or Department Operations Manual nor do

they feel they even need to know the rules, let alone respect and follow them. 

3. The guards are on power trips and treat the families as if they are also inmates. 

What was very comforting to me was to meet up with several people whom I know in the line-up of cars about 6:30 am once the sun came up. I noticed how many young mothers had babies or small children in the car seats of worn out cars and empathized with what they must have gone through to get there at that ungodly early hour. 

When I arrived at the gates of hell, it was beyond foreboding. It was good to see kindred spirits and friends in the line-up along the dark road. 

At 7:30 am the gates of the prison finally opened and my car, glove box and trunk were thoroughly searched by a guard. I was asked if I had a camera before I was asked about any possible weapons in my cars. The guard didn't know me from Eve. This query about the camera did not sit well with me but I remained silent, wanting the entire experience to be just as everyone else would experience it. Had I been on a vacation and had the camera in the car with me, I wondered if it would be seized or if I would just be denied a visit. Cameras are more feared than weapons because in purgatory, they are a most potent weapon. I was given a blue form to fill out with no instructions about where to turn it in or where to go once I arrived in the parking visitors parking lot. I was following the other families lead in what to say and do. 

Finally, I was allowed in and directed to a visitor's parking lot. By this time, so the wait was two and half hours just to get in the gate in addition to the 6.5 hr. drive. My bladder was bursting. The two port-a-potties sitting out near the parking lot didn't look appealing to me since both men and women were using them, so I decided to wait until I entered processing. The inmate letters always describe their misery in not being allowed to go to the bathroom when they need to in many situations and I thought of the ones with Hep C and other illnesses who must have constant diarrhea. I thought of the disabled and elderly people who come to prisons and felt empathy and distress for everyone. 

One of the women collected all the blue forms in the parking lot, not in the visitor processing room, and gave these to a guard. This was different and I wondered about families who would arrive and not have a pen on them, how would they have been able to fill out the form and have them collected before entering the building? Another glitch and discouragement to visiting that must happen regularly. 

It was 9 am by the time I saw what looked to be an oasis in a desert more desolate than Egypt, the door marked "Women." But everyone else had the same idea and had been suffering as I was and there was a line. My name was called while I was in the bathroom but I had to miss it as nature's call was just more pressing at that moment. We are human beings not machines. 

The guard commented on my brown shirt and I was able to put it up next to his and point out that my shirt was rust and his was brown, but it took some doing to get past this obstacle. 

Then a sequence of events happened that made me think I was at a tryout for Swan Lake except that the judges were armed. The guard told me to take my hand and pull out the waistband of my pants and run my hands all the way around. This just seemed to be a goofy, pointless exercise but I cooperated with my eyes crossed as friends watched me experience this degradation that they must endure every single time they visit. 

But this search wasn't enough to satisfy the guards. I was asked to grab the rail (think forced ballet folks) and turn backward. Then I was asked to show the guard the bottom of my feet. I was wearing stockings and might have been embarrassed about the hole if I wasn't so angry at all my bend and stretch exercises. Remember that I was present when CCPOA advocates admitted during the Senate Public Safety hearing that less than 3% of drugs are brought in by family members. That same week guards at Lancaster were caught trafficking huge bricks of drugs but none of them were being searched and degraded in this manner. 

My right ankle was swollen from the 6.5 hr drive and it was painful and difficult to shift all my weight to one foot. We do what we must do in order to be able to get inside and with our visits, give people hope and a reason to carry on. I did the dance and my reward was a stamp on the inside of my right wrist that was viewable under a black light. I would show this stamp several more times that day in order to gain access to each building and to leave the grounds. 

I did not mention this check in ordeal to the prisoner I was visiting as he would have been both angry and devastated to know what I went through just to see him. I was on a mission to lift his very low spirits and nothing was going to stop me. I cooperated without a word of protest and fought hard for mental clarity and the positive attitude I would need to have when talking with my prisoner.

Then we were herded onto a bus with three steps so steep I could hardly board. I noticed carts for those who could only be just a little more disabled than I in order to board that antique bus but this would be another delay. One at a time, I climbed them slowly and painfully and said a prayer of thanks that I could reach the top. I wonder how many more years I will be able to make it through this rigorous visiting process. 

I had noticed people with canes in the visiting room and my heart went out to them, as I wondered how many parents had endured the pain of those three steep steps of the bus just to reach the other side where their loved ones waited in cages. My building came up and a guard took my driver's license and kept it. I was not happy when it went into a pile with hundreds of other licenses. The families have told me that they are often given the wrong licenses when they depart. No telling how many get all the way home and find that they were given the wrong driver's license. I was told that if I refused to surrender my license, I couldn't enter, so into the pile it went. 

No one told me to take the form up to the front desk to get a seat assignment but I figured it out on my own. 

"We must tell you that when the vendors are refilling the machines, you must clear out of that area and return to your seat" the guard told me. At that moment, I didn't really understand the significance of this message delivered more as a command. "Your seat is A-7 by the window" the guard told me in a gruff voice as if he were my jailer instead of my public servant.

The next sequence of events was a little startling. I had not been clued in to the fact that the number of vending machines in this visiting room are inadequate to service the number of visitors on B yard. I saw a feeding frenzy that could only be compared to the jungle's survival of the fittest. At CSP-LAC they do not allow the inmates to pick out their own food. The inmates may not come near the vending machines so that they may make a choice which is the case at the other prisons and something the prisoners really enjoy doing. 

So the women were piling dozens of food items out of these machines for their loved ones into the middle of each table as rapidly as they could. They were paying huge prices for junk food with very little fresh food available at all, in a buying frenzy which must net millions of dollars for those profiting from all this human misery. Nobody really knows at most prisons where all the canteen money goes.

Suddenly it dawned on me that if there was going to be a sacred can of pineapple juice for the prisoner who had asked me for it in advance that I'd better get in there and starting getting his food. By this time it is 9:30 am and visiting lasts until 2 or 3 pm so if there is no food on the table, the prisoner is going to get mighty hungry watching everyone else eat. I have a long standing policy that I never feed myself in a prison visiting room. I refuse to participate in the overpriced money-gouge perpetuated on these mostly desperately poor families by CDC and their vendors. 

I have noticed some women arriving with zero money in their clear purses and plastic bags in order to be able to even buy their inmates a soda. Entrees are $7.00 and up. There are only two microwaves for more than a hundred people. Everything must be heated and I saw no fresh fruit, salads or anything healthy at this prison. I have witnessed a few fresh items at other prisons, but not here. Junk food was all that was served and not even enough of that to go around easily. 

No one else was holding back their money it seemed and the vending machines ran completely out of everything several times as the families fed them hard earned dollars. I was not hungry. I would have choked knowing that I was participating in a money grab by eating one bite. I fed the prisoner well, however, and wondered about late arrivals. I wanted to gather the families together and recommend that at least one person per visit didn't eat in order to cut back on the profits of this slimy operation but I was too busy in observation mode to be do any activism.

I was next to be able to go to the vending machine, and kept waving at the prisoner I was visiting across the room as the minutes of our visit ticked away due to this unbearable incompetence and stupid rule that he couldn't stand next to the vending machine with me. My dollar was ready, he hadn't had a soda in six weeks and he likes them, so I was running the gauntlet for the tenth time that day. 

Just as I was ready to step up for my turn in line, in comes an insolent punk and orders me to "SIT DOWN." I was about to ask him just why he had the idea that he could tell me what to do, when I saw everyone else sit down. The sacred re-filling of the vending machines that the guard had warned me about was about to take place. I lost my 15 min wait in line. And the machines were overwhelmed again with families chunking in change for another 40 minutes before I had another chance to get my inmate something to drink. 

By this time, it is getting very stuffy in the room. The CO2 levels are most likely off the chart by this time with no air circulation. I notice that the tables outside on a beautiful spring day have only one family sitting at them and that no doors or windows are open. With so many bodies in the room, any breeze would have been a welcome relief. This is a level III yard yet we were all treated with restrictions far worse than any other Level IV yard I have ever visited. This is nothing compared to what visitors at San Quentin are put through, of course, but all of it is unnecessary and oppressive procedures and conditions blessed and allowed by the legislators named Runner. 

I remembered that earlier that month a woman died in one of these visiting rooms because she became overheated and there was no medical care for her. It was nearly an hour before an ambulance ever arrived and the oxygen bottle was empty, so she didn't have a chance to survive. 

I noticed that some parents are holding the cool bottles and cans on the necks of their overheated little ones. The ice cream and coffee machines are broken. 

I could see no reason whatsoever why the doors and windows shouldn't be open on a beautiful spring day or why the inmates shouldn't be allowed to go outside on the patio designed just for their visits. The windows remained shut, the room filled up, the vending machines emptied out and all I could get for my inmate was a can of tea. Not much of a reward for 25 minutes of visiting time lost. 

The cash take from the families must have been considerable the way they were all being taken advantage of with their frenzied purchases. So many of them have their entire lives consumed by the visits, and this is the extent of their prison involvement. It is no wonder to me that family ties are so difficult to maintain and why less than 5% of the inmates get visits. I will never forget my first visit to CSP-LAC. In my opinion, something needs to be done to force the Runners and CDC to correct the callousness shown toward the families during visiting, which, to me, is a basic and vital part of rehabilitation that should be encouraged.


If you would like to help put an end to the routine abuse of families who visit prisons, please sign up to participate in and support the class action lawsuit we'd like to file when we can pull together 2750 supporters. It takes thousands of people pulling on the same rope to be able to win but we in the UNION have been victorious many times in taking on the system.

No group in California can actually win the deeper reforms we all need due to the lack of enough funds and volunteers. It's time to get active because the problem is so great that those who are oppressed and suffering outnumber all the punishers who put this massive, heartless machine into place. We can build a bigger machine which should be evident by the major reforms the UNION families have already achieved. Everybody thinks someone else is doing their organizing work and then no group ends up with enough of the tools they need to actually win. So we will all sit and suffer until enough people get this or until someone in the legislature decides to get outraged and do the right thing by the uneducated masses who can't and won't fight for themselves. It's a terrible thing to watch all this and to personally be exposed to it.

The bible says that we are to visit those in prisons, but the State has made this impossible. If you would like to provide direct help to one of our UNION family members who need to bring cheer to their loved one who is depressed and rotting away in a tormented environment, I can hook you up with someone who is deserving of your charity at this time of the year. It is for these reasons and others that I will be voting "NO" on Prop 93 to extend the terms of the present legislators who are doing nothing, and have done nothing to alleviate these terrible problems.

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


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