Prison Articles


Sex in the warden's office 

Reynolds Holding 
Sunday, February 16, 2003 
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle 


In 1995, prison counselor Edna Miller, a 16-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections, walked into a sexual nightmare. 

She had just started working at the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla when she learned that the warden was carrying on with at least four of his subordinates. 

The game, it seemed, was sex for rapid promotion. And though the paramours played expertly, Miller would have none of it. Eventually, the situation became so offensive that Miller felt compelled to sue for sexual harassment, confident that the courts would vindicate her civil rights. 

Ahh, civil rights. They've grown tenuous in recent months, victim of the war on terrorism and the fear for our very survival. No-fly lists, wiretap powers, immigrant round-ups: The security measures can only expand once the war with Iraq is upon us. 

Still, I had thought hard-won civil rights, the laws against racial discrimination and against police abuse and the subjugation of women, were safe. Then came the Trent Lott faux pas, the police pummeling on San Francisco's Union Street, the renomination of Bush's favorite right-wingers for judgeships - and, on Jan. 28, the California Court of Appeal's decision in Miller's sexual harassment case. 

Miller would never have survived almost two decades of prison work without developing a resilient hide. And yet nothing prepared her for Valley State. 

Soon after she arrived, it became clear that the warden was sexually involved with his secretary, with an associate warden, with a deputy warden and with a prison counselor one rank below Miller. And rather than hide their indiscretions, the women boldly parlayed them into better jobs. 

When Miller and the other prison counselor applied for a temporary captain's slot, for example, the counselor bragged that she would get the job or "take him (the warden) down" because she knew "every scar on his body," according to the court's opinion. 

She got the job. A year later, she made full captain. Two years later, she became associate warden. 

Miller, meanwhile, suffered the paramours' hubris. They countermanded her orders, bad-mouthed her to other employees and threatened her physically when she complained. She was, said the opinion, "reduced to tears on a regular basis" and sometimes feared for her life. 

Another prison employee, records manager Frances Mackey, also complained of the hostile environment created by the sexual favoritism. In 1999, the situation grew so intolerable that both women quit and filed a lawsuit for, among other things, sexual harassment. 

You would think that Miller, at least, had a pretty good case. In 1988, for example, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled in a similar case that voluntary office affairs traded for job benefits "create and contribute to a sexually hostile working environment." 

And what's more offensive than a prison office pervaded by sex-for-jobs? Maybe a courtroom run by judicial Neanderthals. 

According to the judge who first heard Miller's case, it was so weak that it -didn't deserve a trial. And the three justices who then heard Miller's appeal agreed. 

Their point: Sexual harassment is discrimination based on gender. And Miller lost out on promotions not because of her gender, but because she - wasn't the warden's lover. 

Baloney. Miller worked in a sexually charged - and therefore hostile - environment, classic grounds for a sexxual-harassment claim. So why did the courts refuse even to let the case proceed? 

Interpreting the law is a difficult business. Judges disagree. Sometimes they get it wrong. 

But getting it so wrong in this case unnerves Americans already jumpy about government power. As we battle terrorism, maybe the prison system, like the military and the Justice Department, needs freedom to act without constraint. 

Victims like Edna Miller are just collateral damage. 

E-mail Reynolds Holding at

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle


Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The prison crisis 
Feb. 11, 2003 Orange County Register Editorial 

As the Legislature and governor struggle with the budget crisis, an increasing number of voices have been questioning the rising costs of the state's prison system. State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and others have proposed releasing inmates serving time for nonviolent crimes or who pose little or no threat to the community, and reducing overtime for correctional officers. 

Gov. Davis' budget proposal increases spending for prisons - on top of a new contract boosting prison guard salaries - and many wonder whether hefty campaign contributions from the prison guards' union played a role in that proposal. 

On Sunday the San Francisco Chronicle ran an op-ed by Robert Presley, secretary of the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency and former state senator, explaining why he believes proposals to cut prison spending are shortsighted. We believe his defense suggests he is in denial of how much mismanagement has contributed to prison budget problems.

For example, inadequate health care in prisons ends up increasing costs rather than reducing them, as prisoners or their families file lawsuits that lead to mandates from judges that push up spending. There is a potential crisis just now at Mule Creek Prison, for example, arising from allegations of impurities in prison food - and punishment of prisoners who bring problems to official attention. Mr. Presley has been informed of problems but has done nothing, according to the prison-family organization UNION. 

Improving health and safety conditions in prison could actually save money, but it would require shaking up the bureaucracy and confronting the politically potent prison guards' union. Mr. Presley (and the Legislature) should develop the gumption. 

One possible step would be to release a number of older adult prisoners. The federal Bureau of Justice reports that recidivism is less than 2 percent for prisoners over 55. Older prisoners also often become more expensive to care for, as they develop illnesses and chronic conditions. California now holds more than 6,000 prisoners older than 55 and 503 older than 70. 

Some solutions could require changing laws, but some can be done right away. They should be.

Defense lawyer gives all he's got
His handbook about the criminal justice system draws anger -- and clients.
By Ramon Coronado -- Bee Staff Writer - (Published February 12, 2003)

As the shackled prisoner was escorted into the courtroom, Paul W. Comiskey was warned that his new court-appointed client was a violent man. Asked if he wanted the chains to remain on the inmate, the defense attorney ordered them off.

Prisoners, like anyone else, deserve respect, Comiskey said.

Then, the inmate head-butted his attorney. The blow left Comiskey bruised and dazed, but otherwise uninjured.

Two years after the incident in Sacramento Superior Court, the 63-year-old Comiskey still believes prisoners deserve respect. And he remains committed to representing prisoners and anyone else who might have a hard time finding a lawyer.

"Everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done, deserve their day in court," said Comiskey, who runs an unconventional criminal defense practice in Sacramento.

The former Jesuit priest, prison-rights lawyer and part-time chicken farmer is one of the more colorful, if not controversial, lawyers in town.

He has sued prisons and jails over inmate conditions, helped organize protests against capital punishment and for the homeless. But Comiskey is most known for a booklet he publishes and distributes.

Called the "Citizen's Guide, Protect Your Rights," the 52-page pamphlet is a layman's handbook to the criminal justice system.

"Police officers are dangerous to your constitutional rights," reads the title of one of the chapters that explain legal rights when a person is arrested or questioned by police.

"A lot of lawyers think their job is to help people after they have confessed to police. I tell them how not to give up their rights," Comiskey said.

Lt. Glen N. Powell of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department takes issue with portions of Comiskey's booklet.

"He unnecessarily demonizes officers and what we do, but he is free under our Constitution to do that," said Powell, a lawyer who has squared off with Comiskey in court.

While the thrust of Comiskey's booklet is to inform, it also attracts clients. On many days, a pile of the booklets can be found in a basket on his three-wheeled bicycle that he parks in front of the Ninth Street courthouse.

Years ago, Comiskey could have been disbarred for advertising the way he does, but a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision changed that.

Then four years ago, Comiskey filed suit alleging he had a right to solicit recently arrested inmates with leaflets. A Sacramento Superior Court judge agreed.

"I personally feel it demeans the profession," said Bob Peters, a criminal defense attorney in Sacramento for the past 30 years.

"Before you couldn't practice in the jail, and now you can," Peters said of the policy change at the county jail.

Sacramento County Assistant Public Defender Linda Parisi is convinced that Comiskey has more than his own self-interest at work in the booklet.

"He is committed to representing poor people. The pamphlet is a way to provide access to the system for people who otherwise might not be able to afford an attorney," Parisi said.

Respected and criticized outside of court, Comiskey is praised for his courtesy and demeanor in court.

"He is really a nice guy. He is not the kind of opponent who raises your blood pressure," said Deputy District Attorney Lori Greene who once prosecuted a murder case, with Comiskey as opposing counsel.

As an attorney for the past 30 years, Comiskey specializes in criminal defense work because he said that is where his heart is.

Though his practice has become a passion, the law wasn't his first calling.

In 1962, he joined a Jesuit order and studied theology in Berkeley and 10 years later, at age 32, was ordained as a priest.

He worked as a high school teacher in Los Angeles and tried to improve conditions at the L.A. County jail.

His desire to be an advocate for those behind bars led him to the University of California, Davis, School of Law. One of his first jobs as a lawyer was in 1976 outside the gates of San Quentin's death row, working for one of the state's first prison-rights advocacy groups.

Then in 1992, after 20 years as a prison lawyer and a priest, he had to choose between marriage and the church. It was a decision that caused him "great consternation," he said.

Today, he lives with his wife, Cynthia, and his daughter, Marilyn, on a 7-acre ranch in Newcastle. They have two sheep, three goats, some ducks, a dog and 75 or so chickens.

When others might contemplate retirement, Comiskey is forging ahead with another edition of his booklet.

Having already distributed 27,000 free booklets that cost him $1 apiece, he is having 33,000 more printed. The booklets will contain new material including advice on how to file lawsuits against the police.

"The criminal justice system depends upon defense attorneys giving 100 percent. Any less, then the system doesn't work," he said.

"I have never lost one moment of sleep in getting somebody off who is guilty," Comiskey said. "It is not my job to judge somebody. That is the prosecutor's job."

The Bee's Ramon Coronado can be reached at (916) 321-1191 or .,1,6931817.story

Inmates Get Second Chance at Education
College courses in prison can help prevent inmates from returning to jail, but they have become rare. San Quentin bucks trend. 
By Michelle Munn 
Special to The Times 

February 12, 2003 

SAN QUENTIN -- Sixteen men wait for Donna Woll's college-level psychology class to begin in classroom No. 7. Some glance at the walls, decorated with construction paper cutouts that proclaim: "No one is good at everything, but everyone is good at something," and "Cuando es mi fecha de salida?" (When is my release date?) 

The students wear slate blue uniforms. Teachers must pass two security checkpoints before entering, and guards occasionally look in. Students thumb their 2-pound textbooks delicately, because damage or loss of the $40 books means 80 hours of work to replace them. 

The students are inmates at San Quentin State Penitentiary, and they are lucky to be in the only prison in the state that offers college classes on its grounds -- though Ironwood State Prison in Blythe recently began satellite transmission of courses from a nearby community college. 

Two decades ago, when he was 17, Olish Tunstall began a life sentence for a murder in the San Bernardino suburb where he grew up. A succession of prison transfers brought him to the state's oldest lockup, and classroom No. 7. 

"When I was growing up, my parents looked to me to be the one to go to college. I really disappointed them by coming to prison. But it's a way for me to give something back," Tunstall said. Math is his favorite subject, and he hopes to become an X-ray technician, should he win parole. 

Studies show that prison education can be the deciding factor in improving an inmate's future after parole. 

San Quentin's warden, Jeanne Woodford, said inmates who get degrees are less likely to return to jail and more likely to be good parents. "We need to break the cycle," she said. "We need to stop this growing trend of needing more prisons." 

She has an unusual ally. 

In 1989, Patten College -- a nondenominational Christian college in west Oakland -- began a biblical studies-ministry certificate program, offering courses in the Old and New Testaments and "Evangelism and Outreach" at prisons throughout the state. More than 600 inmates at 13 prisons enrolled. And in 1993, after intense lobbying, Patten won state accreditation for an associate's degree program at San Quentin in liberal studies, which includes English, math, history, psychology and philosophy. Since 1998, Patten has conferred 37 associate's degrees at San Quentin. 

"Higher education prepares inmates to get out, so society can say, 'Come and be my neighbor,' " said Patten College President Gary Moncher, who has taught a dozen courses at San Quentin. "It's in society's interest." 

But as Patten's efforts got started, victims' rights groups and the government turned against such programs. In 1993, then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill revoking state funds for inmates' higher education. And in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed legislation by then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that eliminated the federal scholarship Pell Grants for inmates. With the main funding for such classes gone, the percentage of prisons nationwide offering associate's degree programs dropped from 71% in 1994 to 37% in 1998, and the percentage of prisons offering bachelor's degree programs dropped from 48% in 1994 to 20% in 1998, according to Richard Tewksbury, an expert who has studied higher education in the nation's prisons. More than 350 college programs at prisons nationwide were scrapped. 

For Patten College, this meant the loss of an annual $8,000 government grant to educate each inmate. Patten pushed ahead anyway, using an all-volunteer faculty. UC Berkeley PhD-holders and candidates in molecular and cellular biology, physics, comparative literature and sociology teach prisoners basic math, Spanish, physics, South African history, world religions and a host of other offerings. 

These volunteers regularly brave a final warning before passing the third set of iron gates into the prison's inner reaches. "If there is a hostage situation here at San Quentin, we will not negotiate your release." "I understand," they reply. 

Woll, who has volunteered to teach the psychology class five times, said such education is an opportunity for inmates "to test their own ideas, and a way to build self-esteem. School has often been a source of failure for inmates, but here they see they can do it." 

Class discussions about the theoretical material often trigger insights by the inmates into their own pasts and behavior patterns. 

"The therapist in me encourages that," Woll said. 

Teachers assign essays, papers, and written short responses to improve students' reading and writing skills -- common problem areas, teachers said. "I don't make it easier for them," Woll said. "I say: 'If you are going to get an education, you have to make a sacrifice.' I know they make lots of sacrifices, but I don't think that making it easier for them in the long run will help them." 

So Woll prepares her students for the rigors of a reading assignment on psychotropics and human conditioning. 

Nearby, English professor Judith Breen drills her students on clarifying mangled sentences. "Then the classroom couldn't be found," reads one inmate from a pile of green photocopies. He pauses a moment. "He couldn't find the classroom," he translates. 

For inmate Jesse Reed, 43, the associate's degree in liberal studies he earned while doing time will give him a start on the bachelor's in communications he plans to pursue if he wins parole in August. "I didn't feel like I could compete in society," said Reed, who is serving a life sentence for a murder he committed during a botched armed robbery. The victim's family has written two letters calling for his release, Reed said. "But this gives me hope. It's allowed me to be able to do things I didn't think I could."