Prison Reform Movement Grows
Jesse Boyar, whose son Patrick has been in the Corcoran SHU for 12 years, has protested the prison alone for years. Patrick has been stabbed and falsely identified with gang affiliations. Caroline Silver Fawn Kitt's husband was beaten nearly to death at Folsom prison last week. She suffers from severe arthritis but piped up "no one is going to stop me from protesting for my husband." Both represented the Disabled American Vets at the Oct 17 Caravan and are team leaders of the new UNION
By B. Cayenne Bird
Eight years ago Dan Lungren and Pete Wilson were elected by a voting block which chose them because of their rhetoric promising a "tough on crime" policy. Understandably, the voters were beyond their limits and tired of crime running amok. So, that small percentage of the population who actually votes elected Wilson, a right-winger with no conscience and an aspiration to the presidency. He was out to prove himself as a crime-fighter and use such a reputation to catapult himself to Washington.
Dan Lungren assisted him as Attorney General in this campaign which literally declared war on the citizens of California. While the voters ran as hamsters on their yuppie treadmills in attempts to earn a living, Wilson and Lungren hired in their cronies to run the state agencies. They created a Government Gang so powerful it criminalized and prospered off the freedom of the poor.
Lacking in compassion, and being void of creativity to find a way to inspire healthy industries for the State, the two of them chose to build an empire by snatching up our young people as fodder for an insatiable prison industry. The taxpayers stood by and were suckered with soundbites and statistics into believing this $10 billion dollar industry would reduce crime and provide jobs in an ailing state.
Slave labor industries such as grinding eyeglasses, making clothes, shoes and other products blossomed inside the prisons. The federal government also allocated funds to the State. Telephone companies doubled the charges for prisoner families, food vendors prospered, everything which would fund a small city now feeds off our mostly young people locked in cages.
The voting block thought they were doing the right thing for all mankind. In order to appease that voting base which was beguiled by fear tactics, a mindset was adopted in the State Courts to convict arrestees regardless of guilt or innocence. The judicial bench became politicized. Public defenders and attorneys who fought too hard on behalf of the poor were chastised and fired. Those who gained convictions scored career promotions even for unscrupulous behavior. Fairness fell to being considered a sign of weakness, and people who couldn't spell the word "CAT" were hired for $60,000 a year as guards and other law enforcement personnel.
Finally, after this political goal devastated at least one million people (160,000 prisoners x ten friends/family members), Mark Arax, an LA Times journalist began to cover atrocities at Pelican Bay. A man who had defecated upon himself had been boiled by the guards until his skin rolled off him and the prisoner won a $1,000,000 lawsuit. The United Nations stepped in and declared Pelican Bay "inhuman". The State was forced to spend $4 million (minimum and still mounting) to make correct problems which still exist.
This exposure was really the first inkling of the prison reform movement, but those who spoke against Wilson and Lungren risked becoming a political prisoner. Indeed California's prisons are full of those who dared question their tactics. So those few people who could face up to these realities as they were happening would meet secretly, talk quietly, and operate as small groups of "rogues" which people in the mainstream would view as wild-eyed radicals. Denial it seemed, was easier than facing up to the truth that Wilson, Lungren's reign of terror upon hundreds of thousands of people was their method of bringing profit to the state.
With few exceptions, the media lacked courage, and continued blasting out the government press releases given to them by Lungren which claimed crime was falling. Media silence reinforced and justified all the inhumanity and $10 billion in costs. Even after the crime statistics were shown to be basically worthless, Lungren's "big lie" continued to be espoused by the majority of outlets.
Years of brutal murders, beatings, rapes, denial of medical treatment even in emergencies, a 40% hepatitis rate, HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and every strain of disease at all state prisons have been concealed from the public. The mainstream media knew, they just chose to be in denial and continue the tradition of being a courtier press except for the Times and the Orange County Register.
In most cities, injustice in the courts, denial of many constitutional rights, selective enforcement and cronyism became accepted practices. The press stood by quietly until 1996 when the Pelican Bay information was exploded by Arax. Finally, a few other journalists jumped in and after courageous reporting on Pelican Bay, the State banned the journalists from the prisons. After all, the "truth" was ruining Wilson and Lungren's political chances for higher offices.
Lungren claims the journalists aren't banned, but they can no longer interview the inmate of their choice in response to a plea for help. Only those journalists who don't speak out too loudly are allowed to attend executions and other events Lungren stages thinking he is impressing the public. Real investigative reporters rarely get a press pass from the State. The State-issued press pass is required to attend even public meetings at the Capital. The news in Sacramento has been blocked for years. Still today citizens do not make the connection between Lungren and the prison dysfunction that is directly his fault. Lungren, a man who should be arrested for crimes against the Constitution is running for Governor of California.
People watched all this transpire, ignoring the history books where despots such as Hitler disengaged the journalists as the first step in his takeover. Even the journalists themselves accepted their censure rather meekly. Prison atrocities raged on and few cared what happened behind the walls.
This year a group of brave senators finally decided to take a stand against the corrupt California Department of Corrections and brutality at Corcoran Prison. Senator John Vasconcellos (D) Santa Clara has spent a lifetime battling for methods to fight crime which focused more on an ounce of prevention rather than one hundred pounds of cure which doesn't cure. He was a lone voice for many years.
Vasconcellos planned to make a bid for the governorship but his constituents are mostly poor, and the least likely to fight back for all the oppression they suffer. After all, things could not have degenerated to this state if the poor had been voting and demonstrating. There wasn't enough money, involvement or support from the very people hurt, so he did not run for office.
Astute reformers were anguished at the news, knowing Vasconcellos was the only light of hope in the legislature. Then, Senators Barbara Lee and John Vasconcellos ignited the fires which spread to Senators Ayala, Polanco, Hayden and others to expose the monstrous mismanagement of the criminal justice system. They sponsored a bill, SB2048 which was passed by the Assembly and the Senate. A study could be commissioned of the impact of the Three Strikes Law. The public would be able to see the cost of nearly one million per inmate sentenced for life for non-violent crimes. Wilson vetoed the bill fearing what the public would learn with such a study. Besides lying about crime statistics, they also greatly understated true costs per prisoner. Billions of dollars in costs are purposefully left out.
Hundreds of prisoner families wrote letters to Amnesty International who then launched a major Human Rights campaign against the entire US. Violent conditions never ceased even during the hearings and have increased tenfold after eight of the guards indicted around Corcoran were returned to their jobs with back pay.
Judge Cecily Bond found a "technicality" in the Corcoran trials which has outraged the world. That decision validated the known condition of two sets of laws enforced selectively by those "cronies" who feed off the system, protected by "the code of silence". To protest Bond's decision and all prisoner abuse statewide, a rally was held Oct 17 in Corcoran and at many other prisons primarily hosted by California Prison Focus.
There are really two Coalitions. One is made up of activists who have been fighting for prison reform for years but don't make much progress because they are not united as a voting block. There are many parties represented in that group of about 3,000 activists - Green, Socialist, Libertarian, Communist, Peace and Freedom, etc. They have great unity of thought, but almost no unity of action with their voting habits. They did unite for the Critical Resistance Conference at Berkeley in September (3,000 in attendance) and the Corcoran protest which drew 400 demonstrators, an accomplishment for such a diverse group.
The second Coalition consists of only mainstream groups, united in the Democratic Party for now, hoping to form a large voting block of average citizens and prisoners' families much like a Union. It was spawned during the Corcoran demonstration in Sacramento where only 30 families showed up to protest.
Those 30 vowed to recruit other inactive prisoner families whose inactions were sabotaging any opportunity for prison reform. The group grew from 30 to 3000 in two months and focused on supporting Gray Davis, knowing that a Third Party would only split the vote and cause Lungren to be elected.
Today, prisoner families can be found everywhere getting out the vote, knowing that even if Davis is elected, they will still have a fight on their hands, but chosing him as the lesser of two evils. The newer coalition has excellent media, legislative (Democrats) and community relationships. They are after the mainstream voters who ultimately have the only power to effect prison reform at the polls. The Disabled American Veteran Auxiliary Commander from Bakersfield, Gladys Monji, declared Lungren a domestic enemy and called up the Vets to fight by voting. There is unity in their voting plans, a critical element for reform.
There is a team leader at almost every prison in the state, recruiting others to demonstrate, write letters, and form a chain of communication. Prisoner families teach there will be no reform until they unite to outnumber the guard's union. Those hurt by prison injustice are now in the majority but are crippled by being disorganized and inactive. Their inaction retards the movement for everyone, but lessons of self-responsibility seem to eventually work.
Hundreds more letters of abuse have been collected and are being forwarded to Amnesty London by the Coalition. They are linked up by computers online and the team leaders pass messages on to the families without computers. A phone tree exists.
Solutions to crime abound as these families take their messages into the community. A focus on prevention through education, rehabilitation, ending the use of prisons as hospitals, restoration of free after school activities, adult supervision, a strong economy for all, support of teen-age parents, classes on parenting and relationship skills, taking the black market and thrill out of drugs and guns, and following restorative justice program models already in effect in Vermont and Minnesota are but a few ideas.
The coalition would like to see consequences for torture and DA's who lie, distort or withhold evidence, ending the use of jailhouse informants, the list of needed reform is long. They feel crime reduction could be achieved in far better ways than the "non-system" now producing no lowered crime results and needlessly destroying lives.
But prisoner families are mostly single mothers and grandmothers, often working two jobs to make ends meet. This group prides itself on its intelligence and ability to act with solutions rather than just whine. Very few of its members are physically well after the painful experience of losing their loved ones to the hellpits of our prisons. Still, the movement grows because it is now clear that the only way to save their families is to organize and outnumber the oppressive voting block. They are out to reclaim their lives, but through the Democratic process of becoming the majority voting block. It is hard work.
Volunteers, computers, postage, use of busses, donated cars (many are afoot), money for telephone and other office expenses are desperately needed. Everyone is a volunteer. The prisoner families know that freedom is not a spectator sport. Each new active person brings justice one step nearer for all Californians, even those who aren't in prison...yet.
UNION, P.O. Box 22765, Sacramento, Ca.
Current 2006 Address:
B. Bird, Journalist,
P.O. Box 340371
Sacramento, Ca. 95834