UNION Families made Prison Reform Boil in 2007 - 54,000 Unconstitutionally
Dr. B. Cayenne Bird
For the past nine years, the UNION families have set aside the last two weeks of December to decide which two or three campaigns they will work on in the following year. It is usually the parents of the prisoners who do all the work and pay for all the campaigns behind prison reform. Often UNION folks are doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, college professors, attorneys and members of the clergy who are appalled at the inhumanity taking place in California's prisons. They may or may not have anyone in prison but they know that reform is only brought about my hard work and continuous speaking out about the problems.
Prison Reform boiled in 2007 as we called people to action every day, publishing 470 UNION Newsletters full of interactions between family members with the media and legislators, giving thousands of ways to fight back. We attended legislative hearings in Sacramento and hearings in San Francisco, coordinated large rallies, worked with television and radio producers and did a ton of public education. We gave speeches, wrote to editors and posted at the news sites daily, as well as publishing columns on every aspect of prison and criminal justice reform. Besides publishing 470 issues of the UNION newsletter, I also wrote 25 columns here at American Chronicle and answered 12,000 letters from prisoners. I estimate that I donated more than 2,000 donated hours which was enough writing energy for me to have finished three books and several screen plays. This does not include the thousands of hours of writing and speaking done by UNION members. The push was tremendous but worth it, as all this work it brought about the passage of new compassionate release laws which we worked around the clock for ten years to achieve.
We also filed lawsuits against more than 350 state employees for abuses and wrongful deaths which caused a tremendous domino effect.
There were thousands of hours of donated by lawyers and the UNION families in one campaign after another which I will be writing about in detail here in my column over the next couple of weeks. None of the prison reform just happened by itself and those who fought hard battles need to have their work recognized so that others can learn the formula.
You can see a list of UNION Newsletter headlines that went to subscribers only and the mention of a few of our victories at this link
The summary is not yet complete as there was so much that we did in 2007.
Several times in 2007 more than 200 UNION subscribers showed up to calls to rallies and important hearings but there was one where everybody in prison reform was missing except for Jeff Adachi, a few attorneys and I. I will be talking about our wins in subsequent columns, but in this one I want to address a huge loss. Not many people really understood what happened in March, 2007, when a bill of vital importance was passed supporting the unconstitutional sentencing of 54,000 California prisoners.
I am referring to the stealth passage of SB 40 which in essence, nullified the 6th Amendment right to a trial by jury in California. It was my pleasure to work with San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who courageously stood up against the passage of SB 40. His performance and dedication in a tense situation was so stunning that I can only say that he should be in a higher elected office, such as Governor, but will our side ever learn to support those who really represent us and our issues? No one can get into office unless WE put them there with our votes and our dollars. At this time he isn't running for anything, and has his hands full as the San Francisco Public Defender with scores of attorneys working under him, but that's our loss, believe me!
I cannot thank Jeff Adachi enough for pulling me into a short but hardhitting campaign about the unconstitutional sentencing that has been taking place in California's courts which continues today. I, too, saw the significance of this situation and responded immediately, dropping everything we had in progress to try and stop it.
A reminder to journalists, UNION members, and all concerned with sentencing laws: A report is due January 1, 2008 on SB 40 - a bill that was rushed through even after the US Supreme Court declared 54,000 California prisoners unconstitutionally sentenced.
The UNION members and the California journalists did flood the media with our arguments but it was too late. They were hell bent to pass this bill without any public input and our side of the argument was snoozing and couldn't be aroused rapidly enough to put up a good fight except for our UNION members, Jeff Adachi and a few journalists who tried in vain to alert the public before it could be passed. California Progress Report Publisher Frank Russo did a fantastic job with giving us voice, as well as Associated Press reporter Don Thompson who took it to the wires.
The Legislature approved and the Governor signed SB 40 in March, 2007, based on the faulty advice of the Attorney General Jerry Brown in spite of the testimony of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the Public Defenders Association and me on behalf of the UNION families.
The hearing should be viewed online by everyone concerned about prison reform and respect for the US Constitution in general.
For all the email groups that criticize our work, and family members who want to be rescued for no work and no money spent on campaigns, you'd think that at least one of them would have shown up to back us up during this critical hearing, but as has often been the case during my ten years as the prison reformer, nobody else was there!
Jeff Adachi became one of my heroes during this period for his courage and integrity, his willingness to stand up and do the right thing! Where were you on March 22, 2007 when you were needed at the Capitol to fight for sentencing reform? Timing is everything - or we lose due to not enough oppositional voices! This is only common sense that crowds are necessary at some of these hearings and the person to bring people is you, if you are truly interested in prison reform and sentencing issues.
I would never call people to attend unless it was vitally important to show a crowd. If I seem cantankerous, it is for good reason! Unconstitutional sentencing was upheld that day by our legislators and as it is, the situation still stands.
A video of the hearing is still online at
click on webcasts,
click on search archives,
select month of March
a list will come up
Look on March 22, 2007,
Assembly Appropriations Hearing
Drag the button in lower left corner over to 5:21 seconds once the screen comes up
The hearing is only 35 jam-packed minutes long but what it portrays is an attitude that the State lawmakers do not want to re-try the 54,000 people unconstitutionally sentenced to prison.
The Legislature and Governor sidestepped the Supreme Court ruling on Cunningham for a period and gave unprecedented power to judges. This violated the 6th Amendment.
In spite of an oath to uphold the US Constitution, the legislators passed this bill.
And so it is recorded that the people of the UNION tried to save the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial during this period in 2007 with as fierce a fight as they could muster on short notice and with little funds.
SB 40 Worsens the Prison Crisis because it empowers judges to sentence on facts not found by a jury in violation of the 6th Amendment.
Even if you don't understand all the words, try to listen to the hearing and read the articles on the pages at the above links.
This will help you understand the sentencing issues better. Most people in the UNION have a loved one in prison who is unconstitutionally sentenced, but very few people understand that this reform is blocked or what they can do to force the lawmakers to change the sentencing laws.
We are voting now on which, if any campaigns we will do in 2008, depending
on how many workers and how much money we have to do effective campaigns.
Sending email back and forth is not a campaign, and while these indepth
battles do take work and cost money, this is where the reform is coming
from, the families of the UNION and their lawsuits, which should be coming
to court in 2008 and deserve total support by everyone who will benefit.
We always take two or three campaigns that we know we have the funds and volunteers to win. The people who determine our direction are the families who are subscribed, who write, protest, bring in other workers and write to editors. When you see a post at a news site that makes sense, 99% of the time that is a UNION member doing their public education work.
We have lawsuits coming to court this year which are our highest priority since these are what is fueling the prison reform.
Besides the lawsuits, we are deciding whether we should continue our ten year battle for
1. medical neglect
2. compassionate release of terminally ill and permanently incapacitated prisoners
3. Reversal of Prop 83 Jessica's law
4. supporting the prison cap, which will need many people writing about this topic and showing up to hearings
5. taking the mentally ill out of the prisons and putting them into healing environments under a new agency
We have many nominations for campaigns but cannot do everything well. The reason we have won so many campaigns in the past is that we take a couple and hammer them to a done. The five listed above are the most frequently nominated, we may decide to do none of these and let those on the sidelines fight all those battles by themselves this year while we register voters and back up Drug Policy Alliance on their initiative campaign. This will kick off on Jan 3 and can win because they had the good sense to gather 25,000 people together and raise $8 million dollars.
The UNION is a newsletter which teaches people how to organize and alerts you where, when, why, how to fight back. We have always been an interactive newsletter where the journalists watch for disease outbreaks, riots and deaths since the media is banned. In 2008 we begin our 10th year but I suspect that now that we have won our compassionate release bill that things will be very different. UNION folks will decide by January 6 what if anything we will undertake.
Over the next couple of weeks, I will be writing here about what happened in 2007, how it happened and we will be honoring as always, our top ten UNION members of the year, as well as those journalists who who wrote the best news on prison issues in 2007.
Rev. B. Cayenne Bird