Prisoner Release Will Save Billions of Wasted Dollars and help to end the humanitarian crisis taking place in California prisons
The stress from watching all the preventable deaths that took place in California's prisons, combined with personal knowledge of deliberate indifference by "public servants" toward those whom we've locked in cages, nearly destroyed my health, left me impoverished in my senior years, deeply shook my faith in our system, and made me keenly aware of what happens when uneducated people cave in to apathy and fear.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of my columns were published by California newspapers and Internet magazines on the humanitarian crisis in our state beginning in 1998. That's when I first discovered the medical neglect death toll and rampant abuse of the mentally ill taking place in California's prisons. I took this shocking news to my colleagues in the news media and found that only a handful knew about it. Since then, I probably attended more of the Plata hearings, as well as other trials around abuses in California prisons, than any other living person except for the capable attorneys who fought these cases and of course, the heroic Judge Thelton Henderson, later joined by Judges Lawrence Karlton and Stephen Reinhardt.
This article is my first person historical account of only a tiny bit of what took place during a campaign of life and death importance which has gripped me for more than a decade. Why did it take ten years for this dramatic step to finally be taken when all the journalists were screaming bloody murder about it in the news media?
The stress from watching all the deaths, combined with personal knowledge of deliberate indifference by "public servants" toward those whom we've locked in cages, nearly destroyed my health, left me impoverished in my senior years, deeply shook my faith in our system, and made me keenly aware of what happens when uneducated people cave in to apathy and fear.
I was more than a passive messenger because my own life was devastated by this course of events, and that oppression continues today. I see a ray of hope, but it is not yet within reach for me or for most of the three million Californians related to a state prisoner. The ruling of the three-judge panel is encouraging, but we who fought this battle 24/7 for a decade are afraid to expect too much. All these long years of sick worry and witnessing one death after another, one torment after another in a system that is cruel and corrupt arrest through parole.
These are the moms, wives, and a few dads of the UNION, who rallied in San Francisco on Nov 21, 2008 outside the Federal Courthouse where the historic Plata trial took place which went on since the year 2000. Many of them have loved ones who are suffering now and can't get any relief from any source. Without their public outcry, no one would even know about the high death toll because the media is banned from interviewing specific inmates.
This is really happening, right here in America under everyone's noses. Collectively, we've sued more than 1,000 guards, wardens and administrators for abuses and wrongful deaths. Though many lawsuits are still in progress, Plata is where we've seen the greatest result in a system totally biased toward the punishers who control it.
It was the moms, wives, and a few dads of the UNION, who rallied in San Francisco three times between Nov 21, 2008 and Feb 4, 2009, outside the Federal Courthouse where the historic Plata trial took place which went on since the year 2000. We must have found lawyers for more than 100 families whose loved one died since 1998 and the death toll is still rising.
Many of the UNION parents have loved ones who are suffering now and can't get any relief from any source. Without their public outcry, no one would even know about the high death toll because the media is banned from interviewing specific inmates. This is really happening, right here in America under everyone's noses. Collectively we've sued more than 1,000 guards, wardens and administrators for abuses and wrongful deaths. Though many lawsuits are still in progress, the Plata case is where we've seen the greatest result in a system totally biased toward the punishers who control it.
Mark Arax and Mark Gladstone were investigative reporters for the Los Angeles Times who exposed the atrocities at Pelican Bay where a prisoner was boiled until his skin fell off in 1996. The United Nations came in and condemned Pelican Bay at that time, but abuses in other prisons were slow to reach the eyes and ears of the public. When the families of prisoners first started coming to me for help in 1998, about $400 million had been spent to make Pelican Bay more humane.
An op-ed that I penned for the Los Angeles Times in the year 2000 is still online. The three million readers of the Times were informed many times of the preventable deaths and abuses over the past decade which were taking place in their names, paid for with their tax dollars
The reason that the killings have continued unabated for so many years is that two of the primary politicians responsible for this crisis, then Governor Pete Wilson and his cohort Dan Lungren, banned the media in 1996. I was there that day when a clerk with a tape recorder held a hearing in Sacramento and addressed a room full of journalists to tell them that many restrictions were now imposed and that they could not bring in cameras or interview specific inmates without tons of red tape at the very least.
As an old-school journalist who cut her teeth on news and published thousands of articles since the late 60's, I was outraged over this ban. I knew that the reason for it was to cover up abuses and wrongful deaths. These are taxpayer-financed institutions and the media shouldn't be restricted, especially during a humanitarian crisis where there is a death toll.
After four decades as a media professional, I also owned Bird Publishing Company for many years in Fullerton, California, which can be verified in the Dunn and Bradstreet records from the 1980's. I sold it in good order and thought that I was retired until my only son was swept up into a great travesty of injustice. Two years ago a key witness recanted her testimony, but he's still in prison today, although the matter is in court right now. We can only pray for justice, as the facts in his and other legal cases really don't seem to matter. There are people in prison for life for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, even though no one had a scratch upon them, sentenced more severely than if they committed murder.
I wrote a daily online newsletter which went to my media colleagues long before I knew that 450 to 600 people were dying in the prisons every year.
I can't be precise with the number of deaths because the state goes to great lengths to cover up death reports, another outrage that flies in the face of the First Amendment. I first learned the actual death statistics for recent years in court during the Plata hearings before the Receiver Sillen was appointed. It was mentioned in the testimony of the state's doctors. My guess is that it was probably higher in those early years when I first started recording my interactions with the families who sought me out to help them by writing about their nightmare experiences. Some of my first editorials in 1998 which were published in The Reporter newspaper in Vacaville, CA where there are two prisons can be viewed here where I maintained this record for eleven years in full public view as trained journalists are so inclined to do:
I was present in court when the Plata investigation revealed "one preventable death per week" and "many records were destroyed or incomplete." Only God knows how many total deaths took place and only God knows how many were "suicides", "natural deaths" or "preventable. " I remember when a mentally ill inmate named Anthony Brown was pepper-sprayed to death at California Men's Colony under a spit mask, suffocated to death, and it was ruled a "natural death." The same thing happened to another inmate at CSP-Lancaster around the same time, pepper-sprayed to death by guards under a spit mask and ruled a "natural death.
When we tried to get a lawsuit to go forward about the many abuses at CSP-LAC, Lancaster, Los Angeles Judge Rosalyn Chapman not only wouldn't serve subpoenas on all those who were sued, but she also managed to get the case thrown out. It is now on appeal and her unethical behavior at least documented. The judiciary aided the killers in many cases and still do, but not Judges Thelton Henderson, Stephen Reinhardt and Lawrence Karlton, three wise men who know the truth and who still face tremendous opposition for doing the right thing.
Everyone who reported the truth was attacked by members of the ugly voting machine that put the punishers into power over us. Every one of us who called the State on failing to follow its own laws were called liars, and yet the bodies continue to stack up at our feet, even today.
The suicides are not included in the death toll, even though they are one of the worst forms of medical neglect. Nobody knows how many people die within a year or two after release from chronic neglect after catching life-threatening diseases in prisons. I have heard that deaths which occur at the hospitals instead of at the prisons are also often not reported in an effort to cover up the death toll. Nothing can be trusted coming out of the State right now.
Even after some of the principled prison guards confessed that they had witnessed ongoing criminal behavior toward the inmates, there are still rogues in uniform who care more about their gravy train than about taking proper care of the tens of thousands of prisoners who shouldn't be in prisons in the first place.
Our forefathers would spin in their graves if they could see this ruthlessness. Crimes worse than most of the inmates are incarcerated over are being committed by our public servants for the sake of a dollar.
There is so much that I could write after nearly a decade of attending Plata hearings, and helping to find lawyers for so many families whose loved ones died preventable deaths. I will just say that the reason this ruling took so long was due to the lack of a public outcry that was loud enough to matter.
What is the public outcry you may ask?
It's what sets all public policy.
It's the citizens themselves marching in the streets, showing up in mass to important hearings, protesting at the prisons and posting 1000 or more comments at the news sites under the articles. It's noise made by those affected or at risk of being affected.
Those people who care about prisoners mostly do not have the education to organize their own voting block large enough and funded enough which is why all reform moves in slow motion, when it moves at all. Advocates have been urging the families to make the public outcry so critical to changing laws and bettering conditions for 30 years, but too many don't vote, won't generate crowds, and often can't even read and write. Imagine, Americans who won't organize to stand up for themselves, even when their loved ones are dying each and every day.
The State refused to obey 77 judicial orders with little resistance, which makes them all criminals, yet Attorney General Jerry Brown refuses to prosecute the rogues for these crimes against humanity. He and his 50 lawyers, all their trappings, buildings, secretaries, paralegals, phone costs, filing fees, lawsuits, travel, meals and more are costing us a fortune. AG Jerry Brown needs to be audited for the cost of the lack of accountability that gives people no choice but to sue the state.
AG Jerry Brown is in large part responsible for the current overcrowding crisis since he passed ridiculously harsh sentencing laws when he was governor before, which means that he should not be elected. That will take some voter registration work and public education on the part of the three million people related to a state prisoner to prevent, so it's good to get started right now or suffer the consequences of inaction.
The disease epidemics and deaths continue today and while the UNION moms and dads and grandparents certainly have made a public outcry, it is not nearly loud enough since it takes thousands of voices and 500 or more people showing up to important hearings to prove the extent of the problem. Otherwise the media and lawmakers think that no problem exists or that not enough voters care about what's taking place to actually warrant corrective action. It's like kicking our own fannies not to show up in mass at certain critical points when things are on the table for a decision.
Ignorance of how the system works and apathy continues to block reform as the people most hurt are too often the least educated and are easily intimidated and controlled by the prison guards who have seized control of our state. The families could outnumber all the other voting groups, but they just don't get it that they could organize and put an end to most of the prisons, or at the very least change the harsh laws and force better conditions via the initiative process. At the very least, 6500 dedicated writers, protesters, voter registrars and workers are required in order to be able to meet the 150 day deadlines.
This victim mentality is why Jesse Jackson left California and was able to organize successfully in Washington D.C.; it's why the best lawmaker we ever had, Senator Tom Hayden went into education after we failed to get out the vote to elect him to another office when he termed out. The victim mentality is why no other professional-level organizer has stayed longer than four years, except for me, and of course those who are paid to be involved such as the lawyers and some people who have no one in prison.
There are some good-hearted, non-professional level advocates who have been involved for a number of years, but none who understand and teach the necessity to organize a voting lobby and register the poor to vote, which of course, is the only way to be able to win initiative campaigns required to change laws. They do not teach the families how to get together and hire real attorneys to file and be able to win lawsuits.
It might take 5,000 people putting up a few dollars each to do this right, but recently a citizen's group of only 400 people in Ventura County raised $160,000 and blocked one of the much-needed mental hospitals in less than one month's time. Lawsuits are probably the only form of accountability as well as a public record of abuses, and even when they lose, the record stays in that public servant's file for at least five years. But there is no group "think", the families do what the prison guards tell them to do, even though they outnumber those who hold the jailer's keys.
The guards are master organizers and can bring the necessary crowds to create a public outcry or stand up for or against their interests within a few hours to any place in California. Their dollars and votes have put most of the lawmakers into office.
The guards and their CCPOA Union cause division and riots in the prisons and on the 500 or more inmate family lists that waste a lot of time out there passing email back and forth, which is not really an organizing action. In order to thwart real organizing efforts, the punishers give certain lifers special favors if their family members will bash those who file lawsuits, organize rallies and post at the news sites. Of course 500 small groups do not constitute a real movement, so this is how the guards have remained in power despite the murders and abuses of too many prisoners. There is one Farm Worker's Union, one union for each of 134 voting groups that have a voice in California. There are not 500 fractured email groups who rarely show up to where and when they need to be showing a crowd of outraged family members. None of this is an accident.
I had no choice but to stick it out until meaningful reform took place due to my college training and life-long commitment to the public's right to know, not to mention having a loved one inside the blood houses who is a paralegal. It was more than a little difficult to hang with it. I must have attended 30 different Plata hearings alone over the course of the last decade, often bringing as many people as I could find with me, always challenged to be able to get there myself.
Yet I read some lie about my leaving early during the closing arguments on Feb 3, when all I did was move into the main courtroom. These criticisms appear in a forum of thousands which is controlled by the guards where less than a handful of people bothered to show up after "someone" told them that one or two people in attendance could represent them all.
This non-attendance resulted in no national media coverage for the mothers of dying inmates that day, which makes the punishers overjoyed that people die in silence when so many are apathetic. Such lies are common in order to silence everyone, which empowers the abuses and deaths to continue. Other causes outside of prison reform do not have such frequent attacks on the main people doing all the work and paying for everything out of empty pockets, but it's all contrived to keep people from joining the effort.
Riots, deaths, and abuses by the guards are considered by the lawmakers to be business as usual. These events are also tolerated by the family members who are mostly in denial over what lies in store for them in their future. They somehow believe that sending an email or a letter will bring them relief, which is ridiculous logic since a campaign is much, much more than sending email and talking to friends on the internet.
There is more to say about how ignorance and apathy of the people hurt assists in the cover up taking place in the prisons, but for now I just want to focus upon an important point that wasn't discussed during the closing arguments of the Plata trial last week concerning parole. The young county attorneys, most of whom have never even been in a prison and seem to have little life experience, did their best to discourage release of inmates on the basis that they could not handle "predictable re-arrests due to overcrowding at the jail level."
With more than half the prisoners in for silly technical violations, a higher rate than that of any other state, it is clear that parole needs dramatic reform. Much of it could be eliminated as I believe these "technical violations" are a scam to keep the prisons stocked with fresh humans.
One of the most asinine laws in existence is that prisoners must parole back to the area where they were arrested, regardless of whether or not they have a job or support of family/friends there. Many prisoners want to leave the state or the country when they are paroled but this is prohibited. Why?
They are thrown back to the same influences, the same vindictive people who originally prosecuted them in many cases, with only $200 and in worse physical and mental shape than before incarceration. Allow the prisoners to be paroled out of state, or at the very least to an area where they have some support. Let them leave the country if they want, why not if that is their choice?
My impression is that a system that no reputable criminologist or sociologist thinks works to prevent crime is being perpetuated for the sole purpose of providing jobs for adults who believe punishing the sick works. It does not, and there are no statistics anywhere to support that wrong paradigm which has been a lie told since everyone thought that the world is flat.
The sentencing and parole laws must be changed, and only we, the people, can get together and do this via the initiative process or the prisons will fill right back up again. Such hoopla over these releases, while the hypocrites who profit off this misery are releasing 10,000 a month anyway of mostly people who shouldn't be in prison in the first place.
The poverty and lack of education of those most hurt makes these changes in the laws very difficult even though at least three million people are related to a state prisoner. About l.5 million more Californians have been on parole, or probation in recent years. Millions know the shambles that our system is in due to overzealous prosecutors and powerful law enforcement labor unions. We are all touched by this overcrowding crisis as disease epidemics have leaked out to schools and nursing homes, spreading throughout the world.
A profit cannot be made if the prisoners are given medical and mental health care, rehab, education or a decent diet, which is why the lawmakers don't want to do it. What a shameful business our state lawmakers created, one that prospers off the suffering of mostly medically and mentally ill citizens.
The State tapped the Crime Victim's Restitution Fund for $50 million last year, so we can see that a legislature mostly put into office with the votes and dollars of law enforcement labor unions is using the human bondage industry to help finance the bureaucracy. That's one reason why there is no place to go for help, even in a life and death emergency. Those who oppose the releases and a more healing approach are directly profiting off this slave-labor industry. Instead of prosecuting those breaking the state's own laws, people like AG Jerry Brown, Senator George Runner and CDCR Secretary Matt Cate are defending their criminal activity.
There are people dying right now who have families who want to take care of them and AB1539 was signed into law in 2007 to make compassionate release possible. Yet the prisons are still full of frail elderly, quadriplegics, people with Alzheimer's, cancer, AIDS and folks who cannot even do their own personal care. Why pay expensive guards to stand over people who can't even move?
Those who have families will take them right now and save this suffering and expense, not to mention tapping into some federal dollars for their medical care if they are released. Not everyone has a family of course, but even they could be placed into skilled nursing facilities instead of under ridiculous and expensive heavy guard.
Thank God for the UNION moms who reported the truth all these years and are standing up against a system that has broken our hearts and broken our budget with lawsuits.
Even when the lawyers lose, it still provides accountability that the rogues never get from the state, and it goes into their records for at least five years.
Thank God for the many jailhouse lawyers who are being tortured and invalidated right now to prevent their cases from winning in a court system that is as corrupt as the prisons and parole. One jailhouse lawyer is cut off from the courts through retaliation, which I will focus upon in a separate column.
How can we ever thank Attorneys Donald Specter, Michael Bien and their legal teams. How can we express the degree of gratitude that the wisdom of Judges Thelton Henderson, Lawrence Karlton and Stephen Reinhardt deserves for this historic ruling that should result in the release of tens of thousands of prisoners? Re-directing precious education and human services dollars to actual crime prevention programs makes far more sense.
What a gauntlet it was, what a gauntlet it still is, thank God that truth had a way of surfacing and that all the journalists who covered this decade-long, shocking case were able to survive it, although none of us will probably ever be the same. What the future holds depends on strictly on the willingness of the people hurt to organize the way that those who cared about chickens did while amending 3 strikes couldn't qualify for the ballot due to apathy.
What jolt will it take for the oppressed to recognize and realize their own power to change laws? As the three wise men ride off into the sunset, I can only say that their retirement is well-deserved. I shall never forget the courage and respect for constitutional law in their meaningful reform of a prison cap and release of people who are being tormented in unspeakable ways. No matter how hard anyone tries, it is impossible to punish medically and mentally ill people into being well. They can be healed, which uplifts us all. We'll need to elect different leaders that are smart-on-crime and organize to change the sentencing laws if anything will be possible in the future.
B. Cayenne Bird is a 45-year veteran op-ed journalist and publisher. A descendant of Mary Todd Lincoln, and General Andrew Porter, she is passionate about human rights and criminal justice issues. A mother and grandmother with advanced degrees in Journalism, Liberal Studies, and Humanities (Cultural Anthropology) she has focused on prison reform making great strides in Calif. supporting the landmark Plata-Coleman case for a decade which resulted in major prison reform. She writes scholarly articles too but prefers op-eds.