CA Switching to Single-Drug Executions

California will no longer pursue three-drug methods of lethal injection, proposing from now on single-drug executions. The Los Angeles Times reports:

At the direction of Gov. Jerry Brown, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decided against challenging a unanimous California appeals court ruling that blocked the three-drug method on the grounds it had not been properly vetted, said Jeffrey Callison, a corrections department spokesman.

He said he did not know when a new, single-drug method would be unveiled or which drugs the state was considering.

Law enforcement groups had wanted the state to appeal the May ruling by a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 1st District Court of Appeal, and during the appeal, to push forward with a new single-drug method.

Is this more debate of the “tinkering with the machinery of death” variety? After all, in response to similar challenges, Missouri is considering bringing back the gas chamber. 

Hunger Strike, Day 8: CDCR Defines Strike “a Disturbance”

The hunger strike in Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and other facilities continues. This series from TruthOut provides some insight into the strike and their links are fascinating reads.

Meanwhile, CDCR has released information on the strike, referred to as a “disturbance”:

As of [July 12 – H.A.], 12,421 inmates in 24 state prisons and four out-of-state contract facilities have missed nine consecutive meals since Monday, July 8, 2013. An inmate is considered to be on a hunger strike after he has missed nine consecutive meals.

CDCR is not identifying how many inmates are or are not participating in specific prisons. The mass hunger strike is organized by prison gangs and publicizing participation levels at specific prisons could put inmates who are not participating in extreme danger.

In addition, 1,336 inmates have refused to participate in their work assignments or attend educational classes.

Participation in a mass disturbance and refusing to participate in a work assignment are violations of state law, and any participating inmates will receive disciplinary action in accordance with the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3323(h)(A) and Section 3323(f)(7).

While, as Caitlin Henry pointed out yesterday, CDCR is wrongly citing their own code, they seem to be threatening these consequences:

3323. Disciplinary Credit Forfeiture Schedule.
(a) Upon a finding of guilt of a serious rule violation, a credit forfeiture against any determinate term of imprisonment or any minimum eligible parole date for an inmate sentenced to an indeterminate sentence, as defined in section 3000 Indeterminate Sentence Law (ISL), shall be assessed within the ranges specified in (b) through (h) below:
(h) Division “F” offenses; credit forfeiture of 0-30 days.
(9) Work related offenses:
(A) Refusal to work or perform assigned duties;
(B) Continued failure to perform assigned work or participate in a work/training program.
(f) Division “D” offenses; credit forfeiture of 61-90 days.
(7) Willfully resisting, delaying, or obstructing any peace officer in the performance of duty.
3315. Serious Rule Violations.
(a) Inmate misconduct reported on a CDC Form 115 shall be classified serious if:
(2) It involves any one or more of the following circumstances:
(3) Serious rule violations include but are not limited to:
(L) Participation in a strike or work stoppage.

In addition, a serious 115 rules violation report may have impact on an inmate’s parole, clemency, medical parole, or resentencing under Prop 36, as well as any other process that takes into account an inmate’s disciplinary history.

Props to Caitlin Henry for the CDCR links and explanations.

After Trayvon: Why a Guilty Verdict Is Not The Answer

Like many people of good conscience, I was angry and upset to hear the news last night. The acquittal of George Zimmerman, while not wholly unexpected given the trial coverage, has been a punch in the stomach for those of us who saw race relations in America dramatized yet again in this incident. It is also hard to see this as an isolated incident, and those of us who experienced frustration and rage at the verdict of Johannes Mehserle, who shot Oscar Grant in front of dozens of onlookers are even more enraged and hopeless today.

Which is why this post is a hard one for me to write. Because I have hard things to say, and they will not heal our broken hearts or silence our voices from crying out in indignation today. But maybe they are still worth saying.

Legal Truth and Factual Truth

We all know this, but it bears repeating: Criminal law doctrine–stripped of all realities and considerations and constraints and group effects–allows convicting people only if the evidence supports their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. What that means, exactly; whether it allows for majority decisions; whether jurors understand how to quantify it; and how it relates to actual innocence is a different question. But finding someone not-guilty at trial is not a factual statement that the person did not commit the crime. Also, which is less obvious, finding someone guilty at trial is not a factual statement that the person committed the crime. The legal system would have us believe that it takes legal guilt seriously. That is, that it hopes that legal guilt will approximate, as much as possible, factual guilt. And much of the premise behind the post-Warren court’s chipping away at the Bill of Rights was exactly that: No one wanted factually innocent people to go to prison, but we weren’t all that excited about the factually guilty going free. The legal system and the rule of law rely on legitimacy from the public, and to garner that legitimacy the façade of truth in convictions has to be maintained.

But deep down, the system knows it makes mistakes. Dan Simon’s In Doubt, which analyzes the causes of wrongful convictions, cites the astonishing statistic that we may be wrongfully convicting up to 5% of all people found guilty at trial. We acknowledge this to the point that habeas proceedings have an “actual innocence” exception to the cause and prejudice rule. Part of the reason for this may be that Doreen McBarnet is right, and that the system is inherently biased toward conviction. Throw in one more important factor: Six jurors is a lot less than twelve, which makes not only for cheaper trials but also for an increased tendency to come to a guilty verdict in weak cases. So, six people came to an unpopular decision, and we may disagree with them. But I certainly do not envy them. I have, perhaps, an inkling about the political culture these folks will be going back to this morning, but I still think it’s going to take a lot of guts to explain this legal decision to people who don’t believe the factual assertions behind it.

Facts and Symbolism

Do you know what happened in that Florida gated community the morning that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin? And by “know”, I mean, are you absolutely certain of what happened? And can we be certain at all? I wasn’t there, and neither were you. And even if we were there, or saw a video, we could not be sure.

But you and I have a fairly good idea in our heads, and that idea differs from what six Florida residents decided yesterday. We listened to the tape, and we know that Martin was not armed, and we think that Zimmerman, who was motivated by hypervigilance and racial animosity, shot a defenseless man. And my fear this morning has been that we are allowing the symbolic value of this incident, as we did when Oscar Grant was shot, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of what happened.

The much-awaited movie Fruitvale Station (trailer above) opened yesterday in Oakland theaters. I didn’t see it, but am planning to do so soon; yesterday I had a chance to talk to some people who saw it, and one of them told me that a relative who came with him wanted to know, at the end of the film, whether it was “romanticized.” Films are never an accurate description of the truth, because the truth is messy and does not make for a neat and coherent story. But the story in the film resonates very strongly with those of us who were in Oakland the night of the protests, because it epitomizes what we know and believe is true, namely, that racism is alive and well in America. This feeling would be valid whether or not Mehserle reached to the taser or Zimmerman was attacked by Martin. Because it goes to the heart of a problem, and not to the details.

I read some reviews of Fruitvale Station, which were for the most part laudatory. One of the few exceptions was this piece of drivel by the NY Post’s Kyle Smith. You don’t really need to see the movie to learn something from this review–namely, that Smith doesn’t see Oscar Grant as a human being worthy of life and dignity. To him, Grant is merely a “criminal” and a “recent San Quentin resident,” the “only remarkable aspect” of whose life “was its end.” I suppose that for Smith, as for many people (and, judging from his words to the 911 operator, for George Zimmerman), human life doesn’t have intrinsic value when the person living it has darker skin and a criminal record. I don’t think any of us needs to canonize Grant or even Martin to understand this terrible truth (even though an unarmed honor student is, perhaps, easier to canonize.) That their lives and deaths are a morality tale about the fragile concept of sanctity of life in America for black and brown men is important enough. They don’t have to be all good and flawless. No one is. Even the people we have canonized, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., were real human beings with flaws and weaknesses. And when we wear the hoodie, we are not, perhaps, making a factual statement about an interaction we didn’t witness, but about its symbolic meaning.

A Racialized Criminal Justice System

Perhaps the resentment about Zimmerman’s verdict comes not from this place of truth and symbolism, then, but from a bitter acknowledgment that a black defendant would not have received this careful consideration, determined defense work and benefit of the doubt. It is one more data point on our chart of racial inequities in the system. When we decry the correctional binge that has bloated America’s prisons for the last four decades, we highlight the obvious racial aspect of it. Some of us go to the extent of referring to the incarceration system as the new Jim Crow.

As James Forman reminds us, however, the picture is more nuanced. A growing number of white people are criminalized, incarcerated, and their lives savaged by the meth plague, much as the not-imaginary crack epidemic savaged African American communities in the 1990s. Black and brown young men are incarcerated at much higher rates, but the white population is rising steadily as well and possibly faster. Contrary to what we believe, the prison inflation is not solely or even predominantly due to nonviolent drug crimes; violent crimes play a big role, and African Americans perpetrate more of those crimes, which are less open to interpretation. All of this does not mean that the criminal justice system is not racialized or that racism does not exist. Of course it does. But the roots of racialization may be much deeper than merely incarceration rates or stop-and-frisk practices, and go back in history to a place of coercion, slavery, torture, and the resulting deep-reaching inequities. Convicting a white man who killed a black man, no matter how enraged his particular story makes us feel, would not do anything to fix this. It would merely add one more inmate to the population.

The Empty Promise of Punitivism

Why would convicting Zimmerman not make us feel better this morning? Some of us, especially Trayvon Martin’s family, would perhaps find some comfort in a conviction. Even this is not a certainty. Tragically, a conviction will not bring Trayvon back to them, or to any of us, and the anguish and despair experienced at the loss of a loved one is a personal experience that takes its own course toward healing.

And what about the rest of us? Would a conviction make for a better tomorrow? Let’s, indeed, imagine an alternative universe, in which a guilty verdict sends Zimmerman to prison. The racialized lines formed around the trial will accompany him to prison and intensify there. There is no truce or hunger strike in Florida, and Zimmerman is embraced by the Aryan Brotherhood, fueling whatever racial ideas he has about the world and crystalizing them forever. Vilified by some and canonized by those who believe in maintaining the racial caste system in America, Zimmerman would become one more pawn in the battles fought across racial lines in the criminal justice system.

Many of the good, angry, upset, frustrated people who will be in the streets this afternoon protesting spend much of their time protesting the excesses of our prison system. If we believe, generally, that the hyperpunitive character of America’s incarceration project is destructive, dehumanizing, and ultimately counterproductive, then sending one more person, deserving as he may be, to this system is no cause for rejoice.

So, a guilty verdict would not send me frolicking in the streets. It would push me into solemn contemplation of the futility of remedying years of slavery, lynching, discrimination, with one “right” act. And mostly, into contemplation of the immense well of suffering that is to become Trayvon Martin’s family’s life for many, many days to come. Healing doesn’t come from a guilty verdict.

Where Healing Comes From

Nothing good comes from punitiveness, and it will not change what we know or think about the world. Healing comes from taking the rage and hot, burning energy we all feel this morning, and channeling it toward sentiments that produce effective change. It comes from taking a hard look at the immense resources we spend in maintaining a carceral colossus and investing them in educating a new generation of people who do not hate, suspect and judge others based on the color of their skin. That is the commitment I’d like to see renewed today, after our anger subsides and we start asking ourselves where to go from here.

Healing comes from a deeper understanding of the role of implicit biases in our own lives. From asking ourselves why one of Victor Rios’ young interviewees did not get a fast food joint job at an interview in which he refrained from shaking his prospective boss’ hand, not wanting to alarm a white woman with physical closeness. From asking why reaching out to others across skin color lines is such a frightening concept. From taking a cue from California inmates, who have realized that the unfair, torturous, abysmal incarceration conditions they face is a common enemy that transcends race and needs to be fought together.

“Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.”

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

Hunger Strike, Day Six: 7,667 Inmates on Strike, CDCR Threatens Repercussions

Reuters Los Angeles reports:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that 7,667 inmates in 24 prisons and one out-of-state unit had missed nine consecutive meals, the benchmark used by the state’s prison system for recognizing a hunger strike. 

That is well below the 12,421 inmates out of a total prison population of more than 130,000 that officials had confirmed were striking on Thursday in an what the Los Angeles Times said marked the largest prison hunger strike in California history. 

California prison officials have threatened to impose disciplinary measures on inmates who take part in what the prison system has termed as illegal “mass disruptions.” 

Officials have not specified what privileges could be taken away from inmates, but on Friday they said visitors would be allowed into state prisons as usual this weekend. They said the prison system was not negotiating with the strikers.

While 7,667 is a lot less than the original 12,421, it is important to keep in mind that it is also more than the number of strikers in any of the previous strikes. Obviously, the folks who continue the strike are the folks that are most committed to achieving its goals; we have no breakdown by institution, but it is probably reasonable to assume that SHU inmates have the least to lose.

What can you do?

1. Many people still don’t know about the hunger strike. Make it a topic of conversation this weekend.
2. Join the human rights pen pal program and cheer up a hunger strikers with letters from the outside.
3. Donate to support the folks helping and visiting inmates at Corcoran.

The Biggest Human Rights Struggle You’ve Never Heard Of: Hunger Strike, Day Five

Twelve thousand California inmates are entering Day Five of a massive hunger strike in protest of their conditions. CNN reports:

Inmate demands include an end to long-term solitary confinement and halting what’s known as the “debriefing” policy, in which inmates are required to provide information on prison gangs to get out of solitary.

Other demands include warmer clothing, better mattresses and better food. In a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, protest leaders say the quality of prison food “dramatically decreased” since the California Prison Industry Authority began supplying the cafeterias.

The strike’s leaders are in the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay, near the Oregon state line, Walton said, but inmates in other participating lockups are encouraged to add their own demands. The Corrections Department said the strike is organized by prison gangs and that inmates will face disciplinary action for taking part.

The strike has received some mainstream press coverage and on the hunger strike coalition website and SolitaryWatch, and I still run into usually-well-informed people who are unaware of it. The L.A. Times ran a survey, asking its readers whether they thought conditions in California prisons were inhumane; 60% of respondents said no. Here are some reasons why you should inform yourself and care. 

1. Because solitary confinement conditions in California are more horrible than you can imagine.

Have you ever been alone? Really, truly, not I’ve-gone-camping alone? For twenty-two and a half hours a day in a tiny room, without interacting with a living soul? With a brief time for exercise in a windowless corridor by yourself? What would it feel like to live like this for years? For decades? Doctors, psychiatrists and other experts that have had a chance to examine inmates in the SHU report that the conditions amount to torture and the toll on the human physiology and psyche is unbearable.

2. Because getting into solitary is so easy.

There are two ways to get into solitary confinement: One is segregation as punishment for breaking prison rules, and the other is being suspected of gang membership. The process to validate gang membership is obscure and problematic, and membership in any one of some 1,500 groups can land you in solitary. Sometimes, this typification is related to tattoos that were not removed, and sometimes to rumors and insinuations.

3. Because getting out of solitary is based on a highly problematic step-down process.

There are three ways to get out of solitary confinement: Parole, snitch, or die. To snitch is to admit to membership in a gang and provide more information about the gang. Not only does this require people to distance themselves from the only support system they’ve ever known, but the resulting information, provided in the hope to leave a hellish existence behind, may or may not be true, and may land other inmates wrongly in the SHU.

4. Because most SHU inmates will eventually be released, scarred from the experience.

There are some people who will die in prison, but most will eventually be released. And those people will need homes and jobs and ways to reconnect with family and friends. After a psychologically and physically destructive experience like long-term segregation, that ability would be seriously hampered, and recovering from the trauma of solitary conditions can take many, many years.

5. Because of the million small indignities.

It’s not just the big picture. What about the quality of the food? The fact that inmates could not have caps, to protect them from the cold, or calendars, or having their photos taken before the 2011 strike? There are a million small indignities that accompany a sentence in prison; more so in segregation. Life in prison is affected by considerations that you can’t even think of, such as access to reading material, technology, education, objects, and company of your choice (or company at all).

6. Because of how hard this strike is.

Food is one of the only comforts in prison. Refusing food and drink is a very difficult thing to do. Many of the inmates who are striking are elderly and seriously ill. Most of them came to prison from an impoverished background, and the years in solitary, complete with bad nutrition and confinement conditions, have made them very ill. And nonetheless they are willing to risk their health, perhaps to the death, because they are determined that nothing can be worse than living in the SHU.

7. Because we’ve been here before.

Inmates have engaged in prior hunger strikes in 2011 in an effort to improve conditions. Some minor improvements resulted, and the inmates agreed to end the strike with CDCR’s promise to revise its gang validation process and its evaluation of exiting inmates. The resulting policies were not better than the previous ones, and in some aspects, such as the number of possible gang affiliations, they were worse.

8. Because this struggle has galvanized and united prison population across racial and institutional lines.

Did you know that prisons engage in the unconstitutional practice of punishing inmates collectively according to their race? It’s true – lockdowns of all inmates of a given race are common practice and have recently been forbidden by a federal court. Racial divides are part and parcel of the prison experience, and there is a chicken-and-egg relationship between the inmates’ tendency to band in racial groups and the administration’s usage of such groups to divide and conquer. But last year, an agreement to end race-based hostilities in prison was reached among the inmates, and they are striking united against conditions, leaving behind decades of racial animosity. Moreover, inmates who are not in solitary confinement have joined the strike and are protesting against conditions in their own institutions.

9. Because crime shouldn’t be addressed with cruelty.

If I had a nickel for every internet comment I’ve seen to the effect of “these people should have thought of this when they committed these crimes.” Do you even know what crimes we’re talking about? Yes, some of them are heinous crimes. But some of them are nonviolent drug offenses, and some of these folks, based on what we know now about wrongful convictions, may well be innocent. But even for the folks who have committed violent crimes, incarceration for many long years is severe punishment. These conditions are way beyond punishment for one’s wrongdoing. They amount to torture.

10. Because of the families and children and loved ones and friends.

Even if you think that criminal culpability could somehow justify state atrocities of this scale, what about the inmates’ families, who have not seen their loved ones for decades? They have to travel eight hours or more to the distant locations of these facilities, pay for overpriced accommodations exploiting their plight, and hope to see their loved ones. People in solitary don’t get seen at all. And many children who grow up without parents deserve some care and attention.

11. Because these are your fellow Californians and you should have some goddamn empathy. 

It’s easy to pretend that all this is happening in a parallel universe we don’t have to worry about. But this is happening right here in California. If you don’t have a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker who is or has been behind bars, it’s because the experience of incarceration is not randomly distributed across the state’s population, which in some ways should bother you more, because it means incarceration is widely increasing the gaps between Californians. But even if these folks are not of your color or income level, they are your fellow human beings who share this Earth, and this state, with you, and they deserve, if not your love and adulation, at least your empathy, and your appreciation for their struggle.

12. Because of the kind of society we want to be.

Many people said a couple of weeks ago, in the same-sex marriage context, that they wanted to be “on the right side of history.” One day, and I hope that day will come in my lifetime, we will look upon the practice of holding people in tiny cells, without human company, with the shame and horror we reserve for corporal punishment and torture, because that is what this is–torture. And on that day, you will want to look back on your former self and know that you saw torture for what it was and stood up for treating your fellow human beings with dignity.

Hunger Strike, Day Three: 29,000 Inmates Refusing Meals; 2,000 Enagage in Work Stoppage

The L.A. Times reports this morning:

The inmates issued a hand-written letter spelling out their demands for improved prison conditions, including cleaner facilities, better food and more access to the prison library. It is one of at least eight demand letters California prison officials had in hand as some 29,000 inmates — a slight decline from 30,000 Monday — refused meals Tuesday.

Corrections officials said the wide protests — mostly focused on solitary confinement conditions — were causing no disruptions, although 2,000 inmates refused to show up for their prison jobs or attend classes. The state does not acknowledge a hunger strike officially until inmates have missed nine consecutive meals, which would occur late Wednesday.

The protest comes at a time of turmoil in the California prison system, criticized by the federal courts for unconstitutionally poor care of inmates and an unchecked outbreak of potentially deadly valley fever. State officials recently agreed to comply with a federal judge’s order to move 2,600 inmates at risk of contracting the disease from Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons.

Interesting tidbit:

Corrections officials said Ramadan complicates their count of those who refuse meals in protest rather than as religious observance.

Hunger Strike, Day Three: Demands Across the System

Some of you may have wondered whether all 30,000 inmates who refused meals are housed in solitary confinement in the SHU. The strikers are from many correctional institutions, not only Pelican Bay and Corcoran. And the strike is not merely a move of solidarity on their part: Inmates have made demands of prison authorities in their respective institutions. Some of these demands address particular prison conditions, and some are more generally aimed at sentencing and the like. But one recurring theme is the classification system, and in particular the ways of establishing gang affiliation.