Day 23 of the Hunger Strike: Light and Shadow in Press Coverage

Two interesting newspaper articles came out recently, bracketing the range of public opinion about the California inmate hunger strike.

The first piece, in the Los Angeles Times, is a profile of Todd Ashker, one of the leaders of the hunger strike, part of the Short Corridor collective, described by the article as the “legal mind” behind the strike. Ahsker’s long and violent criminal record and his membership in the infamous Aryan Brotherhood are examined at length, as is the stabbing of his defense attorney during his trial.

Armed with a prison law library and a paralegal degree earned behind bars, Ashker, 50, has filed or been party to 55 federal lawsuits against the California prison system since 1987, winning the right for inmates to order books and collect interest on prison savings accounts.

“There’s an element within [the Department of Corrections] who would celebrate some of our deaths with a party,” Ashker wrote to The Times in March after prison officials denied access to him.

But others say Ashker is a danger, accusing him of being an Aryan Brotherhood member bent on freeing gang leaders from solitary confinement so they can regain their grip on the prison system.

“We’re talking about somebody who is very, very dangerous … who has killed somebody in a pre-meditated way,” said Philip Cozens, Ashker’s court-appointed defense lawyer in a 1990 murder trial.

Terri McDonald, who ran California’s 33 prisons until a few months ago and now runs the Los Angeles County jail system, said Ashker and his compatriots in the Short Corridor Collective are not fighting for rights, but power.

“From my perspective, they are terrorists,” she said.

Ashker has spent nearly all his adult life in California’s prison system — and much of that time, he has been in solitary confinement. 

Ashker has an intimidating record, indeed, and an unappetizing gang affiliation. But that is how someone ends up in isolation in Pelican Bay or in Corcoran: By committing crime and by being classified as a gang member. The question readers might want to ask themselves is, are we prepared for the moral slippery slope that starts with treating folks like Ashker as not human, and not deserving of basic dignity?

I’ve posted before about why I consider myself a left realist, rather than a radical abolitionist. I don’t care for incessant recitations of the prison industrial complex mantra (frankly, I find this a useless argument with middle-class taxpayers), and I don’t think that all prisoners are political prisoners. And I do think that some folks need to be in prison, for long periods of time, and perhaps Todd Ashker is one of them. I do, however, think that far less people should be incarcerated, and that holding 80,000 people nationwide under conditions that do not befit living human beings, depriving them of all human contact and offering inappropriate ways out, is categorically outrageous, no matter what crimes they perpetuated.

I am, apparently, not alone: Today’s San Francisco Chronicle story lists many thinkers, actors, and political figures, including Jay Leno, Gloria Steinem, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Coyote, and Noam Chomsky, who oppose solitary confinement and support the hunger strikers.

This is the third hunger strike launched since 2011 to protest living conditions in the prison’s security housing units, where 4,500 gang members, gang associates and serious offenders are held in extreme isolation, many of them for indeterminate terms of more than 10 years.

The protesters are demanding an end to indeterminate sentences and for alternative ways to leave the units other than “debriefing,” which the prisoners say is an agreement to inform on gang members and a risk to their safety from reprisals for “snitching.”

The security housing units at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California are the subject of a lawsuit alleging that the living conditions — which include confinement to the cells for 23 hours a day and very little contact with other people — amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Maybe this support of the hunger strikers will convey the message that even inmates who commit truly heinous crimes are still human beings, and that cruelty and indignity cannot be justified as being begotten by cruelty and indignity.

Thanks to Tom Oster and to David Takacs for the links.

The Inmate as Customer: “Pay-To-Stay” and the Commodification of Punishment

This morning Huffington’s Post reports about the Fremont Jail:

The Fremont Police Department is now offering its inmates a “pay to stay” option. For a one-time fee of $45 plus $155 a night, prisoners serving short sentences on lesser charges can stay in a smaller facility while avoiding county jails.

“It’s still a jail; there’s no special treatment,” Lt. Mark Devine, a Fremont police official who oversees the program, told Chris De Benedetti of the Argus. “They get the same cot, blanket and food as anybody in the county jail, except that our jail is smaller, quieter and away from the county jail population.”

This arrangement differs somewhat from the previously covered arrangement at the Riverside Jail: payment is not for basic incarceration, but for upgraded, improved services. The concerns raised by the ACLU are that the prison experience is likely to be tiered across race and class lines. But I think this is part of a larger humonetarian trend: The commodification of the prison experience and seeing the inmate as customer. Not the customer’s-always-right from the early days of the service industry, but the customer-as-mass-consumer of the conglomerate era. It’s no wonder inmates review prisons on Yelp.

Hunger Strike Bears Fruit at Martinez Detention Facility

On July 19, 2013, all Martinez Detention Facility hunger strikers suspended their hunger strike. (Prisoners there had joined the statewide California hunger strike when it began on July 8, after submitting their own demands to the warden.) The SF Bay View reports about the demands that have been met, which were detailed explanations about reasons for administrative segregation, the ability to empty one’s trash once a day, more privacy scheduling medical appointments (rather than announcing them on the intercom), separating mentally ill inmates from the general population, and allowing ink pen fillers to be purchased from the canteen.

Congratulations to the strikers on the successful conclusion of their courageous struggle, and best wishes to those who are still on hunger strike.

Props to Caitlin Henry for the link. 

Crime, Incarceration, and the Human Spirit: On Billy Sell and the Escape from Alcatraz

Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin, courtesy
the BBC UK.

Billy Sell’s tragic death yesterday, ruled a suicide by CDCR, raises some disturbing and urgent questions. How many such casualties will it take for CDCR to take the inmates seriously? We are on Day 21 of the hunger strike and there is serious concern for inmates’ well being, especially those of them who are aging and infirm. Their physical condition is being monitored. Conditions in the SHU debilitate and harm not only people’s mental health, but their physical constitution. It is admirable that, under these circumstances, inmates are committed to deprive themselves of food and drink. And if being prepared for the ultimate sacrifice, because a life of torture and indignity is worse, is not a good reason for CDCR to reconsider its position on isolation, I really don’t know what is.

I wonder how much coverage Sell’s death will receive in the mainstream media. Any effort to honor and remember his honorable sacrifice in the struggle for better incarceration conditions is likely to be blighted by ignorant commentary negating its value because, after all, he was doing time in prison, and therefore he must have been a very bad person, or worse, not a person at all. This is the same pervasive thinking that leads people on the outside to think that inmates are somewhat coddled by what folks who are not in the know perceive as “free health care.” This dehumanizing attitude means not only that people can be disinclined to stand side by side with the hunger strikers and demand better conditions for them, but also that they could completely miss the heroic aspect of the struggle and not find anything admirable in it.

The tragic news of Sell’s passing were particularly poignant for me yesterday, as I received them after completing my sixth successful Alcatraz crossing, which made me think about sacrifice and heroism within walls. Every time I jump off the ferry near Alcatraz and start swimming toward San Francisco I take a few moments to look behind my shoulder. In the first ten minutes of the swim it seems as if The Rock is not getting any smaller. And then, I think about the many documented attempted escapes from Alcatraz, and particularly about Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who in 1961 plotted (with Allen West, who could not join them due to technical difficulties) the most daring, and likely successful, escape through the ventilation ducts, ingeniously using dummies and a raft.

More than fifty years after the escape, the file remains open, and among the thousands of athletes who attempt Alcatraz crossings there are many, like yours truly, who are convinced that Morris and the Anglin brothers made it safely to shore. I like to think of them, now very old men, sitting in a suit and a beret or a fedora at a cafe in North Beach, sipping a strong espresso, reading the Chronicle and chuckling quietly to themselves.

To them, the frustration of looking back and seeing The Rock looming dark and threatening must have been fraught with terrible fear and apprehension, compounded by the serious concerns about their welfare once they got to shore. Would they suffer hypothermia? Who would help and shelter them on the outside? Where would they get money, and how could they avoid being recaptured?

Time has been kind to Morris and the Anglin brothers. Millions around the world admire and respect their courage, ingenuity and bravery. But they were not saints. Morris’ record included daring robberies, and the Anglin brothers robbed a bank (with a toy gun.) They received lengthy sentences and perhaps, to the average citizen in the early 1960s, would appear unsympathetic, dangerous, and undeserving of respect. Just as some people may be thinking about today’s hunger strikers and their struggle.

But crime and criminality do not negate the value of the human spirit, or its ability to soar in courage and conviction. Last week many of us saw Fruitvale Station in the theaters and enjoyed Michael Jordan’s humanizing rendition of Oscar Grant, a man who did not live a grand life of achievement, but rather a life of fatherhood, flawed partnership, and teetering between drug dealing and an honest day’s work. And we cried for him, and we appreciated the ember of humanity within his soul, because it is also in ours, and we wept when that ember was extinguished by a gunshot. Billy Sell’s death teaches us a related, and perhaps more important, lesson. It’s not just that each and every life is precious and imbued with intrinsic value. It’s also that the human spirit does not die if someone has broken the law. Indomitable courage, initiative, creativity, commitment to one’s values, perseverance, and the yearning for personal freedom, are as admirable in prison as they are on a freedom ride or at a protest in the park, and perhaps more so because of the risk of retaliation and mistreatment, not to mention death. There are courage and bravery and principled positions behind walls. There is much there that we can find inspiring and respectable, even as there is plenty there (as on the outside) that we would find petty and deplorable.

May Billy “Guero” Sell’s memory not be in vain, and as generations of athletes are inspired by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, may generations of activists and advocates within walls and on the outside honor his sacrifice with an undying struggle for dignity.

Props to Jonathan Simon, whose conversations with me last year inspired this post, to Caitlin Henry, whose work on behalf of the strikers inspires me daily, and to Chad Goerzen and Rhett Aultman for talking to me yesterday about Alcatraz and the power of myth.

Tragic Breaking News: Billy Sell Succumbs to Hunger Strike

The first known casualty of the hunger strike is Corcoran inmate Billy Sell. The San Francisco Bay View reports:

Billy Michael “Guero” Sell, CDCr No. P-41250, age 32, was housed in 4B-3L of the Corcorcan SHU, had not been under mental health care and had been going without water as well as food.

The prisoners reportedly described him as “strong, a good person, a good soldier” and concluded that “Billy died because of the hunger strike.” He is said to be from Riverside, but supporters have not yet been able to locate and talk with his family. The Bay View sends condolences to everyone who was Billy’s friend, comrade, fellow prisoner or family member.

Our heartfelt condolences go to Billy’s family and friends, on the outside and behind bars, and our best wishes for physical and mental strength go to the strikers.

Emergency State Appeal of Plata Before Supreme Court

Justice Kennedy, the deciding voice in Brown v. Plata, is to tackle overcrowding once more, in responding to an emergency appeal from Gov. Brown to block the Plata panel to release more inmates and ease overcrowding. The L.A. Times reports:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is in a position to decide — again — whether California’s overcrowded prisons must release more than 9,000 inmates by the end of this year, but at the risk of sending some violent criminals back to the streets.

. . . 

Gov. Jerry Brown is now asking Kennedy and the high court to block a pending order from a special three-judge U.S. District Court panel that calls for releasing 9,600 more inmates by the end of the year.

In the emergency appeal, Brown’s lawyers say the state has spent $1 billion to upgrade its prisons and improve the medical care of its 119,000 inmates.

In a brief filed late Monday, the state’s lawyers said most of the prisoners who are nonviolent offenders are being kept in county facilities. Most of those who would be released now are classified as moderate- to high-risk inmates, the state said.

“Unless stayed, the three-judge court’s order will release offenders with a history of serious or violent offenses who are very likely to commit more serious crimes,” the lawyers said.

Because Kennedy oversees emergency appeals from the West Coast, Brown’s request went to him. The justice could act on his own or refer it to the full court. But either way, the decision is likely to rest with Kennedy, a California native. The four liberal justices joined his 2011 opinion in the case, and the four conservatives dissented.

TV Series Review: Orange is the New Black

The new Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black, is a dramatization of a book by the same name by Piper Kerman (referred to as Piper Chapman in the series), who a few years ago served fifteen months in a federal prison camp for her role in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Kerman’s story, while not imaginary, is fairly unique. In her early twenties, through her romantic involvement with a woman who worked for an international drug cartel, she helped deliver money internationally. When the relationship disintegrated, so did Kerman’s involvement in the cartel, and she moved on to live a normative, white, middle-class life and get engaged to a man who did not know of her past. Then, ten years after the commission of the offense, the FBI knocked on the door; Kerman’s involvement in the cartel was exposed, and she ended up pleading guilty and being sentenced to fifteen months in federal prison.

The first season of the show, which now streams on Netflix, walks us through the beginning of Chapman’s imprisonment, from her initial surrender at camp through her adjustment to prison life. We are introduced to the other inmates and guards, to prison dynamics, and to the mix of cruelty and compassion that is part and parcel of the incarceration experience.

A few notable examples of the show’s excellent storytelling include the racial divisions among the women and the way the prison system itself uses them to divide the inmates; the underground economy of prison; and the informal socialization mechanisms behind bars. Particularly notable is the show’s attention to sexual assault on the part of the guards, which is a very unfortunate and prevalent aspect of women’s incarceration. One episode draws an analogy between the birth experience of one of Piper’s friends on the “outside” and one of her fellow inmates, taken to the hospital in shackles and returning to prison without her baby. While the show portrays romance behind bars, it steers clear from the lesbian inmate sensationalism that usually characterizes women’s prison dramas and empathizes with the need for human connection. And, while not depicting the many complexities involved in incarcerating trans women (and the practices of administrative segregation involved), it is particularly sensitive to a trans woman’s plight at receiving decent health care in prison.

Because the timing of the show coincided with the California inmate hunger strike, Episode Nine, which depicts the show’s main protagonist spending a night at the SHU, was particularly poignant. Her stay there is portrayed as a frightening, dehumanizing experience. And while there, she speaks through the wall to another inmate–or is it a ghost?–who has lost count of how long she has been there. The terror, isolation and grief involved in the experience has moved many viewers to tears, and I have gotten many inquiries about whether the SHU “is really like this” (it’s much worse and for much longer periods of time.)

Some critique has been leveled at the show’s portrayal of race and class, arguing that black and brown nudity is treated more licentiously than white nudity. There has also been a concern that the show negatively portrays poor and working class women, in a way that is inattentive to the history of black activism. While the former point bothered me, too, when I watched the show, the latter point reminded me a little bit of the complaints leveled, a few years ago, at the American version of Queer as Folk: Not representative enough, not complimentary to Every Gay Person on the Planet, not educational in the manner of a Very Special Episode of a teenage drama or a carefully-racially-balanced Benetton commercial.

I didn’t find the show remiss in its portrayal of politics behind bars. Yes, there’s a history of racial and social activism in prison. But to argue that, in presenting a federal prison camp the series is remiss in not presenting inmates of color as activists is to ignore the realities of prison. Activism and uprising are the exception, not the norm (this is what is making the California hunger strike, now entering its 17th day, so notable). While many inmates develop consciousness regarding their experience and its broader meaning, incarceration is a difficult experience and for most people “doing time” does not involve political activism. This also goes to the portrayal of race in the show: uniting in the struggle front across barriers of race is also an exception. And, at least in the context of the hunger strike, it’s not the result of some form of racial enlightenment, but rather a response to abysmal, inconceivably degrading prison conditions that offend people’s dignity beyond their racial alliances.

As to the main critique against the show–its atypical narrator and removal from the class/race experience of prison–I think it is important to keep the potential audience in mind. Indeed, while Kerman/Chapman’s story is atypical in terms of her background, introducing the viewers to prison through her eyes is a masterful storytelling device. The passage, by referendum, of so much punitive legislation illustrates how few middle-class taxpayers humanize, and empathize with, the prison population. Even the powerful stories of exonerated inmates haven’t made nearly as much impact as they should, because the average citizen simply cannot imagine himself or herself suffering such indignity. This lack of imagination is startling, considering that 1 in 100 Americans is behind bars, but as we know, that share is not randomly distributed among the population. My experience in explicating the realities of incarceration is that spewing the overworked “prison industrial complex” cliche at white middle-class voters does nothing to deepen their understanding and empathy. On the other hand, giving them a character they can identify with–a woman who, to them, does not “naturally belong” behind bars–can do wonders for their ability to imagine themselves in such a setting. Moreover, while the story is told from a white, middle-class woman perspective, all of its characters come to life as complex, interesting women, aspects of their lives before incarceration shown in flashbacks, and their interactions with each other offered authentically and believably.

Does Orange is the New Black tell viewers everything they need to know about incarceration in America? Of course not. It portrays a federal prison camp of women and does not expose its viewers to overcrowding. Its exposure of SHU isolation practices is menacing, but minimal. And its engagement with the literature on prison politics and economics is superficial. But television cannot educate without entertaining, and judging from the immense interest this series has provoked, it is doing its job as well as can be expected. Many people who did not know about the hunger strike have now resolved to educate themselves and understand it better. Just seeing one night in the SHU on screen will help millions of viewers try to imagine what it could be like to spend five, ten, twenty, thirty years without seeing a living soul. If that raises consciousness and awareness to one of the biggest human rights struggles in America, I will be more than pleased.

Finally, those seeking a more realistic dimension to complement their perception of the prison experience for women should read Inside This Place, Not Of It, which drives home the frightening prevalence of sexual abuse by guards and of atrocious health care practices.
Props to RJ Johnson for providing fodder for this review through the lively discussion on his Facebook page.

Film Review: Fruitvale Station

What a tragic week in which to watch Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Eve of 2008. Still raw and thoughtful after the week of intense public commentary on George Zimmerman’s acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murder, a San Francisco audience wept tonight at the Metreon as they saw a familiar scene come to life: A brutal shooting of a handcuffed man, in grainy cellular phone footage first, and in dramatized high definition much later.

The film walks us through a day in the life of Grant, a 22-year-old man, teetering between two courses of life: Responsibility, a steady job, and a stable relationship with his young daughter’s mother, and a life of drugs in the street that led him to a stint in San Quentin the previous year. His family and friends, and especially his girlfriend, come to life, not in an idealized, canonized, haloed poster image for a demonstration, but like any of us: Living, loving, making mistakes, having fun, getting angry, trying, failing, succeeding.

We could talk about the comparison between the dramatized series of events and what actually happened. And we could remember the moving op-ed from the doctor who treated Grant, and the aftermath for BART Police, and the broader meaning of the taser defense, and about the difference between protest and riots, but we already talked about all that during the events and the trial. And now it’s time to look at the movie as what it is – a work of art that seeks to tell us something important.

Here is what I am glad the movie does not tell us: That we should canonize Oscar Grant as the saint of the struggle against police abuse of power and racialized violence. or that his life was exemplary and flawless.

The movie also does not tell us this: That Oscar Grant is nobody, his life not worth remembering except for the event of his death.

Instead, the movie tells us what we should all remember: That Oscar Grant should be canonized. As all of us should – every single one of us. Because every human life is valuable and precious and has intrinsic value. Grant’s, and Mehserle’s, and Martin’s, and Zimmerman’s. And because the measure of a life is not its death or its achievements, but the small magic it works in our loved ones and friends and family members. In the little deeds, like dropping off our kids at school, or going to the supermarket to buy ingredients for gumbo, or at the greeting cards aisle picking a silly card for a relative.

And yet–even though all lives are precious and valuable–some lives are worth less than others. David Baldus‘ study of the death penalty indicated the way prejudice operates through the race of the victim; black victims’ murderers, whether white or black, fared more leniently than their counterparts with white victims. If you will, this is where the prevalent “let them kill each other” approach comes from. And a grim reminder that underenforcement, like overenforcement, is not race blind.

Far from offering overt racial preachy monologues, the film exposes the experience of an African American working class life in a way that weaves the racial experience intrinsically into the minutiae of one’s day, in life and in death. One’s consciousness need not be raised for one to experience the subtle effects of race on one’s life. In a humorous scene, Grant’s sister asks him to buy a card on her behalf for her mother’s birthday. “Don’t buy a white card,” she asks, a reminder that even in the Hallmark aisle there are symbols and themes and that even cute pastel slogans speak to different life experiences.

And, through the fighting scene with a former fellow inmate on BART that led to Grant’s apprehension and shooting at the station,  the movie tells us one more thing: That the experience of imprisonment is toxic, poisonous, and that life on the outside is permeable to life on the inside. That animosities behind bars have a way of affecting interactions on the outside. That an imprisonment experience that offers no growth, no hope, no betterment, promises only pain and tragedy.

Many thanks to the many friends who came with me to see the film tonight for their wise words.

Day 11: California Bans Inmates’ Rights Lawyer from Prisons

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus, on Wednesday said she was sent a fax informing her that her access to inmates participating in a statewide hunger strike — as well as inmates anywhere else in the state — has been cut off. In addition to advocating on behalf of inmates, McMahon is a member of the mediation team assembled to work as a go-between state corrections officials and protest leaders.

The letter, bearing Tuesday’s date and the signature of corrections Undersecretary Martin Hoshino, cites a pending investigation into an unspecified “threat” created by a retired paralegal who worked as a volunteer for McMahon and had last visited Pelican Bay inmates in May.

In a copy of the letter provided to The Times, a check mark appears next to the words “The person’s presence in the institution/facility presents a serious threat to security.” No details are provided.

California corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said late Wednesday that she was unaware of the action against McMahon and had no comment. Thornton said 2,300 inmates in 15 prisons continued to refuse state meals Wednesday, the 10th day of the protest.