May 1, 2014 Letter from Pelican Bay Prisoner Reps To Legislators

LETTER FROM PELICAN BAY PRISONER REPRESENTATIVES TO MEMBERS OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE ASSEMBLY & SENATE

 

Todd Ashker – CDCR # C58191

Arturo Castellano – CDCR # C17275

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa R.N. Dewberry – CDCR # C35671

Antonio Guillen – CDCR # P81948

 

May 1, 2014

 

Dear Members of the California State Assembly and Senate:

 

              We are writing to offer our position on the two bills pending before the Assembly and the Senate (SB 892 and AB 1652) dealing with the solitary confinement and gang validation policies of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

 

              We are California inmates who have been in solitary confinement for long periods of time, based on validation as alleged associates and members of prison gangs, rather than based on violent behavior. We undertook hunger strikes in 2011 and in 2013 in opposition of the CDCR’s solitary confinement and gang validation practices as well as the inhumane conditions of CDCR’s Security Housing Units (SHUs). Together with thousands of inmates, we expressed the following five core demands:

 

1) Individual accountability, rather than group punishment, indefinite SHU status, and restricted privileges;

2) Abolish debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;

3) Comply with U.S. Commission 2006 Recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;

4) Provide adequate food; and,

5) Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.

 

             Having carefully reviewed and considered Assembly Bill 1652, introduced by Assembly member Tom Ammiano on February 11, 2014 as amended on April 3, 2014, and Senate Bill 892, introduced by Senate member Loni Hancock on January 13, 2014, as amended on March 18 and April 2, we wish to offer the following comments:

 

I. Discussion of Ammiano AB 1652:

 

          AB 1652 addresses the very narrow but critical issue of eliminating CDCR’s policy of placing prisoners in solitary confinement for gang validation, rather than for commission of a serious offense. We support AB 1652. At the same time, we recommend that the bill be amended to include the following three additional provisions:

 

a. During assessment for SHU placement, the use of testimony (whether or not confidential) of an in-custody informant should be corroborated by an independent source before being relied upon to place someone in a SHU. Corroboration cannot be based upon the testimony of another in-custody informant unless such in-custody informant obtained the information independently from the first in-custody informant and the information is not based on hearsay. This is essentially the same principle now applied in criminal court cases since 2011 (see Cal. Penal Code §1111.5).

 

b. An attorney-advocate should be made available (at no cost to the State) to inmates facing a sentence of more than 30 days in a SHU.

 

c. AB 1652 should implement provisions for increased oversight, studies, data collection, and reporting back to the Legislature on the SHU classification process, the mental and physical wellbeing of inmates in SHUs, and the reasons why SHU inmates are denied reentry into the general population. Senate member Hancock’s SB 892 contains these provisions, which we recommend be included in AB 1652. Collecting and considering this data can lay the foundation for a future more comprehensive legislative evaluation of solitary confinement practices in California.

 

II. Discussion of Hancock SB 892:

 

             Although SB 892 appears to seek to achieve comprehensive CDCR reform on the issue of solitary confinement, there are several provisions of the bill that will adopt inhumane and widely condemned practices into state law. We will only support SB 892 if it is amended to include three critically important items:

 

a. The bill should incorporate the language of AB 1652 (or similar language) which eliminates the use of gang validation and minor rule violations as a justification for placing inmates in SHUs. As it stands currently, SB 892 does not eliminate SHU assignment for mere gang association and it does not eliminate indeterminate SHU terms. This is a critical issue and one of our core demands. The nationwide trend is clearly not to place prisoners in segregated housing units for alleged gang association without accompanying serious rule violations. Numerous states have moved in this direction for public safety reasons, for humane reasons, and to cut costs. California should not move in the opposite direction.

 

b. As mentioned above, we recommend that language be added so that during assessment for SHU placement, the use of testimony (whether or not confidential) of an in-custody informant should be corroborated by an independent source before being relied upon to place someone in a SHU. Corroboration cannot be based upon the testimony of another in-custody informant unless such in-custody informant obtained the information independently from the first in-custody informant and the information is not based on hearsay. This is essentially the same principle now applied in criminal court cases since 2011 (see Cal. Penal Code §1111.5).

 

c. As mentioned above, we recommend that language be added so that an attorney-advocate should be made available (at no cost too the State) to inmates facing a sentence of more than 30 days in a SHU.

 

               We do not believe that the range of provisions in SB 892 related to review by the Office of the Inspector General of cases in which SHU placement is based on the testimony of a confidential informant, the appointment of ombudsmen, the requirement for a daily face-to-face encounter with CDCR employees, the appointment of an “advocate” for an inmate being processed for SHU placement, or the Step Down Program in the bill will make any measurable difference in CDCR solitary confinement practices. The Inspector General is unlikely based upon review of a file to reverse decisions based on confidential informants. Ombudsmen will be of little value as long as inmates can be placed in SHUs for alleged gang association when they have engaged in no wrong-doing. “Face-to-face” encounters already happen almost every day when our food is served or a psych tech walks past our cells. Allowing an “advocate” to assist in the SHU assignment process will mean assignment of a guard who could care less about the result. And the proposed step-down program focuses on forcing prisoners to disavow alleged gang association or activities rather than on a behavior-based model considering whether the prisoner has violated rules while in the SHU. Despite these misguided and costly provisions in SB 892, we would support the bill if it is amended to include the provisions identified above.

 

               However, the narrower and more focused (and less costly) AB 1652, particularly if amended as suggested above, would far better serve the public safety, prison security, and the humane treatment of prisoners. It’s a first but critically important step in the direction of a rational and humane policy. Further legislation could be considered in the next legislative session after CDCR data is collected by the legislature. Thank you for considering our comments and suggestions.

 

Sincerely,

Todd Ashker

Arturo Castellano

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa R.N. Dewberry

Antonio Guillen

Sign PETITION in Support of CA AB 1652

Let your legislator know you support AB 1652.

SIGN HERE! 

AB 1652 takes a significant step forward in reforming solitary confinement by specifying that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) may only place prisoners into SHUs for serious rule violations. As a result, CDCR could no longer place people into SHUs indefinitely for allegedly having a connection to a gang.

Solitary Confinement Bill Passes Public Safety Committee, Could Mark End of Torturous Practice

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE    April 9, 2014

Press Contact:     Isaac Ontiveros—510.517.6612
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition

Oakland—A bill designed to bring about reforms to the California’s internationally condemned use of indefinite solitary confinement, passed its first hurdle yesterday by a 4 to 2 vote (with one abstention) in the State Assembly’s Public Safety Committee. Assembly Member Tom Ammiano authored AB 1652 in response to the historic hunger strike last summer that included the participation of 30,000 prisoners in the majority of the California’s sprawling prison system.   Some of the strikers refused food for 60 days. The prisoners agreed to suspend their hunger strike on September 5, 2013, with the promise of legislative hearings on the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons.

The bill could bring very significant changes to California’s use of solitary confinement.  AB1652 would prohibit the use of solitary except for 14 very serious offenses, and would set a cap on the solitary term to 5 years.   AB 1652 would effectively end the bitterly contested practice of “gang validation” that has led to thousands of prisoners serving indefinite sentences in solitary based merely on association with other prisoners.

According to the bill’s author, “The United States is an outlier in the world on the use of incarceration and solitary confinement, and California is an outlier in the United States and is the only state to use solitary confinement for indefinite terms where SHU [Security Housing Unit] terms are assigned for administrative reasons such as being in possession of artwork or books…

California’s SHUs do not meet international human rights standards regarding the treatment of incarcerated people. The conditions amounted to torture, and groups are challenging the constitutionality of the SHU. This bill is intended to limit the use of solitary confinement to people who have committed serious rule violations, and restore time credits for inmates currently serving time in the SHU on a non-rule violation assignment.”

“This bill responds to some of the core demands of the hunger strikers, namely that indefinite SHU status should be abolished,” said Donna Willmott, who worked on behalf of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition’s legislative working group to help California decision-makers take action on  solitary confinement.  “It is really important to recognize that the human rights struggle being waged by prisoners and their supporters are having an impact.  Given the horrendous violence of solitary confinement, we are eager to work with decision-makers to use this bill to get as many people out of solitary as we can, including making good-time credits retroactive for those who have suffered solitary based solely on accusation of gang membership and association.”

“Some of our loved ones have suffered in these inhumane conditions for 20 or 30 years or more,”  said Marie Levin, an activists with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition whose brother Sitawa Jamaa was one of the lead representatives of the prisoner hunger strikers. “We will continue our fight to make sure AB 1652 can provide some relief to our families, and we will continue to fight until the torture of solitary confinement is a thing of the past.”
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CA Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills last minute; opposes media access to prisoners

California Governor Jerry Brown waited until the last minute to get to a pile of dozens of legislative bills on Sunday that he had been avoiding. Among them were the prison media access bill, AB1270, which was proposed by State Assemblyperson Tom Ammiano. The bill, if passed, would have given reporters access to prisoners unless granting the interview would pose “an immediate and direct threat”, as decided by the prison warden. Brown shut the bill down on Sunday, saying that it went “too far” and that “this standard is too high”. He went on:

“Furthermore, giving criminals celebrity status through repeated appearances on television will glorify their crimes and hurt victims and their families… I agree that too little media access may be harmful, but too much can be as well. This bill gives too much.” Continue reading