To Prisoner Class Supporters from Todd Ashker (w/proposed Open Letter to Gov. Brown)

To Whom It May Concern,
To Prisoner Class Supporters
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition
California Families Against Solitary Confinement
and Public, etc.

From Todd Ashker
C58191 KVSP – ASU- 2/194
Box 5106
Delano, CA 93216

December 5, 2017

This is a follow-up to our October 2017, Prisoner Class Human Rights Movement, “Statement of Prisoner Representatives on Second Anniversary of Ashker v. Brown Settlement.”

In our collective October 2017 “Statement,” we stressed the importance that “…prisoners and our families will have to re-energize the human rights movement, to fight against the continuing violations of our rights.” … reminding all involved, “We must stand together, not only for ourselves, but for future generations of prisoners, so that they don’t have to go through the years of torture that we had to.”

With this in mind, I am sharing a copy of my proposed “Open Letter to Governor Brown, Legislators, and CDCR Secretary Kernan, RE: Attention to Ongoing Human Rights Violations and Related Lack of Reparative Action Necessary To Begin Making Amends for 3+ Decades of Systematically Intentional, State-Sanctioned Torture” …with the hope of helping to re-energize our movement, by gaining wide-spread support for the position/s presented in the “Open Letter.”

As many are aware, our current collective movement began in the bowels of Pelican Bay State Prison – SHU – Short Corridor, wherein prisoners of all races and various geographical areas, became openly conscious of what we had in common- rather than what was different (divisive); we recognized we’d all been subjected to the same adversary’s boots on our necks, all members of a prisoner class subjected to decades of solitary confinement torture.

We became aware of the fact that those of us serving “term-to-life” sentences, were all akin to the living dead, our existence being that of a mind numbing, spirit destroying, endless nightmare. I believe coming together in the “short corridor” wherein we witnessed the toll of our slow decay- together with the prisoncrats progressively punitive, oppressive provocations- was one cause of our awakening, leading to us coming together as the “PBSP – SHU, Short Corridor Collective.”

Our struggle was focused on ending long-term solitary confinement [and improvements to conditions therein]. We stood up together and collectively.  We educated our loved ones and general public about what had been in society’s shadow for far too long. We publicly “drew the line” and said, “No More!”

As a committed collective of fellow human beings (a large majority hailing from working class, poor communities) we lead our struggle — from behind the walls – putting our lives in the balance… at that point, our lives being all we had… We demanded an end to our torture, based on our inherent right – as human beings – to humane treatment, inclusive of dignity and respect for ourselves, our loved ones, and the unfortunate generations to follow.

Notably, our collective membership had been the subject of the states’ decades-long ‘war against the working-class poor, tough-on-crime’ (focused and applied mainly upon the poor), politicized, vilified, and branded as “The Worst of The Worst” in order to justify our subjection to endless torture (lasting more than 30 years)!

In this climate, we came together and utilized non-violent, peaceful protest action, mass hunger strikes and work stoppages, which, together with the support of our awakened loved ones, and countless other people of conscience outside the walls (while all along, suffering with us), exposed our plight to the world community.

In 2012, we introduced our collective “Agreement to End Race-Based Hostilities,” making clear our united intent to no longer be the source of our mutual adversary’s manipulation tactics – centered on keeping us divided and violent towards one another, (thereby used to justify our adversaries agenda – supermax, indefinite warehousing); and thereby demonstrating our humanity in the face of the provocations of our oppressive torturers. We pointed out the fact that, in the absence of race-based violence, our mutual adversary/s would be forced to end their policy of warehousing us in the small cells indefinitely, and open the prisons up for meaningful programming and privileges- beneficial to the prisoner class.

I mention the above points as important reminders of the fact that the main basis for the success we’ve achieved to date has been Our Collective Unity Inside and Outside the prison walls, making strategic use of combined litigation, and peaceful activism- action tools, which, together with our related collective belief in and commitment to Our Cause, is a great example of “The Power Of The People.”

It’s also true that with the progress comes responsibility; we must be vigilant with respect to maintaining, and crucially building on our achievements. The responsibility is ours for doing so. “The novelist Aldous Huxley once said: ‘Liberties are not given; they are taken.’ We are not given our liberties by the Bill of Rights, certainly not by the government which either violates or ignores those rights.  We take our rights, as thinking, acting citizens.” [quoting from Howard Zinn’s The Zinn Reader – Writings On Disobedience & Democracy (1997) at p. 418]

Our adversaries are constantly resisting any change beneficial to the prisoner class! History demonstrates the importance of our need to stand together collectively, and refuse to allow those in power (at the will of the People) to halt our progressive movements’ demands for human rights and real justice, because, historically, every class action, civil-suit ‘victory’ for the prisoner class in California has been manipulated by prisoncrats to the ultimate detriment of those that such ‘victory’ was intended to benefit. It’s a non-stop battle!

What I greatly appreciate, and respect, about our Prisoner Class Human Rights Movement, is what I hope is our part in society’s evolutionary leap in collective human consciousness. Standout examples of this for me, go back to the Arab Spring (2010, I believe), followed by the August 2010 massive Georgia Prison, system-wide work strike, and the January 2011 Hunger Strike at Ohio State Prison.

Reflecting on the above, as well as our historic, collective group mass hunger strike protests across the California system, of 2011-2013, brings to mind an often quoted phrase (as a sort of benchmark of what’s wrong with society) that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, reflecting on his own incarceration, famously said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Our collective coming together in the context of having been demonized – tortured over 3 decades – composed of working class poor, facing extreme adversity for a powerful, well-funded adversary… toppled (to an extent- losing their supermax jewel, PBSP SHU) by our peaceful protests, and related Global Condemnation (and litigation), epitomizes a great side of our society! I hope it’s an example of a growing social revolutionary process.

Related to the above, and to our common struggle in general, I want to share a few excerpts from The Zinn Reader, a bit of food-for-thought.

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REPORTBACK from Feb 8th Rally, Press Conference, and Court Solidarity To End Sleep Deprivation (w/ Photos & Video)

Court Update: Judge Challenges CDCR’s Use of Solitary Confinement and Sleep Deprivation
Two lawsuits against CDCR for depriving prisoners of sleep are transferred to Coleman v Brown judge

On Feb 8, 2018, Northern District Judge Vince Chhabria held a hearing on a motion by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to dismiss civil rights lawsuits brought by two prisoners, Christopher Lipsey and Maher Suarez, who are suing CDCR for violation of their 8th amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, they have brought their lawsuits to put an end to the sleep deprivation of prisoners caused by “security/welfare checks.” Prison guards conduct these checks in solitary confinement units throughout the state every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day. Prisoners report that the checks are loud, disruptive, and abusive.

Judge Chhabria was critical of CDCR and began Thursday’s hearing by saying he thought California was getting rid of solitary confinement. He then questioned why the plaintiffs are being held in isolation. Judge Chhabria showed no indication that he would dismiss the cases or that he thought dismissal was appropriate. He also asked CDCR attorneys if it seems to them to be a “very serious problem” for people in solitary, already under extreme psychological stress and some with mental illness, to be woken up every half hour at night.

Because the “security/welfare checks” result from a stipulated order in Coleman v Governor of CA- a case in the Eastern District Courts- on Friday, February 9, Judge Chhabria, as he indicated he would do at Thursday’s hearing, transferred the cases to be heard by Judge Mueller.  Judge Mueller oversees the Coleman consent decree, which mandates adequate mental healthcare for prisoners.

This makes three civil rights cases brought by prisoners regarding harm from the “security/welfare checks” that have been transferred to the Eastern District. On Thursday, Judge Chhabria questioned the state’s contradictory positions in those cases; in some motions, the state claims the “checks” cannot be challenged by prisoners because they were decided on in Coleman, and other times the state argues that the cases should not be decided by the Coleman Judge. Attorneys from McKool Smith Hennigan, representing Lipsey and Suarez, wrote “Inmate Plaintiffs are harmed by Defendants’ inconsistency, because it allows Defendants to claim that no judge is ever the right judge to hear these cases.”

Around 40 community members and advocates with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition held a press conference and rally on Thursday, February 8 in front of the Federal Building in support of the prisoners’ cases. One person suffering from the checks said in a letter to a Coleman official: “I ask you to listen to the voices of us prisoners and call for the immediate cessation of these “welfare/security” checks that don’t check on anything, but which make our lives a living hell.”

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition asks you to help end the sleep deprivation by joining the prisoners’ call to end the checks.

If you know someone in solitary in a CA prison (Ad-Seg/ASU, SHU, PSU, or Condemned Units/death row), please print and send this survey to them.  They can write the PHSS Committee to End Sleep Deprivation and send their survey responses to us, also.

Here is an 8 ½ minute VIDEO of highlights from the Rally: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GeAV8MzHlM&feature=youtu.be. Please see the FLIER and PHOTOS below from the February 8, 2018 Rally, Press Conference, and Court Solidarity for prisoners challenging the sleep deprivation.

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Policy of the Cruel and Absurd: Sleep Deprivation in California’s Prisons

By Charlie Hinton, Verbena Lea, and Willow Katz

In prison isolation units throughout California, guards wake prisoners up every 30 minutes under the guise of suicide prevention. These “security/welfare checks” cause ongoing sleep deprivation. The United Nations and many sleep and mental health experts have long defined sleep deprivation as a form of torture, and sleep deprivation often is used as a torture technique for prisoners of war. So California tortures its prisoners to prevent them from killing themselves.

Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, Ph.D., an expert in sleep and circadian rhythms, concluded in a 2015 report:

“The current practice of 30 minute … checks of inmates housed in the [Security Housing Units] is likely a cause of severe sleep disruption … The mandated purpose of these … checks (i.e. suicide prevention) is, in fact, likely to have the opposite effect and inadvertently increase suicidality in these individuals … There have been no direct studies of intentionally waking an individual every thirty minutes every night for days, weeks, or months, as doing so would be considered highly unethical in a research environment.”

Yet this is the reality for people housed in California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs), Administrative Segregation Units (Ad-Segs/ASUs), Condemned Units (death row) and Psychiatric Services Units (PSUs). In these solitary confinement cells, prisoners are kept alone 24 hours a day with no direct contact with other people — except guards. Known effects of such isolation include suicidal thoughts and behavior, yet the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) fails to provide adequate, if any, mental or physical health services. Instead, it keeps people locked up in brutally oppressive conditions, and jars them awake every 30 minutes, purportedly to see if they’ve committed suicide.

artwork by R.T. 2016

CDCR does not even acknowledge that prolonged isolation is torture and psychologically harmful. They use the “checks” as a blanket practice, whether or not prisoners are suicidal and despite the fact that sleep deprivation increases the risk of suicide. In CCWF death row, where the checks began in May 2014, there has not been a suicide since 1991 [pg 6 in link]; in Pelican Bay SHU where the checks began in August 2015, there has been one suicide in 13 years. Prisoners point out these histories as they question the purpose of the “checks.” These “checks” only exacerbate CDCR’s abuse of prisoners and historic refusal to compassionately treat prisoners dealing with serious mental health issues, including suicide.

“CO’s can save lives by talking to potentially suicidal inmates…”1 Good interpersonal communication skills by guards are consistently recommended to prevent suicides in prison, but such skills are rare in CA prisons. Admitting suicidal feelings to prison staff will, ironically, subject prisoners to the brutality of “suicide watch.” Prisoners report that guards use the “security/welfare checks” to be as loud and disturbing as possible.

Paradoxically, these so-called “security/welfare checks” come as the result of a settlement, theoretically a victory to improve the conditions of prisoners, in a federal class-action lawsuit, Coleman v. Governor of CA. The Coleman court determined that California prison officials did not provide adequate mental health care, thus violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

The judge appointed Matthew Lopes as Special Master to oversee CDCR’s implementation of Coleman reforms for 35,000 prisoners with serious mental illness, and Lopes brought in “suicide expert” Lindsay Hayes as a consultant. Just prior to becoming the “suicide expert” under the Coleman Special Master, Hayes worked as a consultant for the defendant — the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation itself. Hayes endorses the 30-minute checks.

Even as he receives letters from prisoners suffering from the checks and those who support the prisoners from the outside, he has not responded, or, to our knowledge, recommended a change.
The California State Auditor recently released a report on suicides in CA prisons commissioned by the Joint Audit Committee of the CA legislature (http://tinyurl.com/yca9tvf5.) While the report concludes that “It [CDCR] Must Increase Its Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Inmate Suicides,” it does not address prison conditions – like brutal and racist guards and administration, solitary confinement, and the horrific “suicide watch,” when prisoners considered suicidal are “allowed only a no-tear smock or gown, a safety mattress, and a no-tear blanket. All furniture is removed, [and] staff must provide continuous, direct visual observation as well as nursing checks every 15 minutes,” instead of any kind of humane and compassionate care.

A representative from the Auditor’s office had contacted our committee for input. We provided written descriptions of the “security/welfare checks”, documentation from prisoners in 13 prisons describing the checks as torture and explaining the harm to their mental and physical health, and material opposing the checks from 3 sleep experts and the American Public Health Association. Nevertheless, the audit completely ignored the input of our committee and all “advocacy groups,” and apparently the auditor did not seek any input at all from prisoners. The report has little mention of the “security/welfare checks,” except to say 2 of the 4 prisons the Auditor examined “did not conduct these checks as required.” The report refers frequently, however, to the “suicide expert,” and calls for his recommendations to be implemented, clearly indicating support for the “security/welfare checks”.

Other experts, however, have recommended the checks be halted:

“Repeated intrusions, especially to nightly sleep, lead to a variety of negative physical, cognitive and emotional consequences, adding to the already well-documented harms of solitary confinement.… There are other strategies for suicide prevention that can be pursued in prison contexts that do not result in the suffering caused by th[is] approach …” — Jail and Prison Health Committee, American Public Health Association

“This level of [interrupted] sleep has been shown to have profound effects on cognitive performance, memory, mood, immune function, pain sensitivity, metabolism, and other parameters.… Importantly these effects accumulate across time. Thus as these checks are done nightly their negative effects will become greater across time … There is much research on disturbed sleep in Intensive Care Units in hospitals. Checking on patients for their safety has resulted in many ill effects. Today there are many initiatives to overcome the negative effects of this safety monitoring.”Dr. Thomas Roth, PhD Chief, Sleep Disorders and Research Center, Henry Ford Hospital

“A recent series of studies in Veterans has further pointed to the strong connection between suicidality and sleep, so much so that treatment of sleep problems in Veterans is considered part of the first line of treatment in reducing the risk of suicides.” — Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, PhD. Stanford University and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System

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Serious Sleep Deprivation of CA prisoners in solitary continues- Please speak out!

Published in Prison Focus Issue 51

Sleep Deprivation Update
By The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) Committee to End Sleep Deprivation

Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, recognized worldwide as an expert in sleep and circadian rhythms, concluded in his 10/25/2015 report: “The current practice of 30 minute wellness [sic] checks of inmates housed in the SHU is likely a cause of severe sleep disruption. This type of sleep disruption is likely worse than anything that has been provocatively studied in a laboratory. The known consequences of chronic sleep loss, including disruptions to metabolism, memory, mood, and health, are likely even more severe in these individuals.

“The mandated purpose of these wellness checks (i.e., suicide prevention) is, in fact, likely to have the opposite effect and inadvertently increase suicidality in these individuals. …There have been no direct studies of intentionally waking an individual every thirty minutes every night for days, weeks, or months, as doing so would be considered highly unethical in a research environment.”

‘Security/welfare checks’ persist in SHU’s, Ad-seg’s, Psychiatric, and Condemned Units throughout CA prisons, waking people locked in solitary confinement every 30 minutes, night and day. The PHSS Committee To End Sleep Deprivation works to end these checks.

In May 2016, we published a survey to elicit information from prisoners about the checks. Soon we’ll have a more detailed survey for you to answer about the harmful effects. We want to document the effects in detail to get the checks stopped. [HERE’s the new survey]

Systematic abuse and neglect caused and/or contributed to six recent deaths at California Institution for Women (CIW). A campaign by surviving family members and CA Coalition for Women Prisoners demanding investigation into those deaths has led to the current Joint Legislative Audit of CIW and all CDCr suicide prevention policies & practices. We have sent materials and communicated with both the Audit Committee and the CA State Auditor, the body conducting the audit for the legislature, urging they recommend a STOP to the “security/welfare checks.”

Suicide expert and Special Master in Coleman v. Brown, Lindsay Hayes and Matthew Lopes, still claim the “security/welfare checks” are suicide prevention despite the sleep deprivation and excruciating mental and physical health problems they cause. Write to Hayes and Lopes (and send us a copy) about how the checks affect(ed) you and what you think true mental health and suicide prevention require, or send one letter to the PHSS Committee, and we will forward it to Hayes and Lopes.

We also ask people not in prison to write Hayes and Lopes and urge them to stop this harmful practice. Share any personal or professional understandings of the need for sleep and the effects of sleep disruption/deprivation.

Mr. Lindsay M. Hayes,
40 Lantern Lane, Mansfield, MA 02048

Matthew A. Lopes Jr., Pannone Lopes Devereaux & West LLC,
317 Iron Horse Way, Suite 301
Providence, RI 02908

PHSS Committee to End Sleep Deprivation, P.O. Box 5692, Eureka, CA 95502

Thank You.

Additional Notes on 4-12-17: There are at least 2 current federal lawsuits against the “security/welfare checks” due to the sleep deprivation and other harms they cause.  Also, we have been in contact with legislators about this torture and plan to revive a campaign to get the legislators to help stop the so-called “checks.” 

If you are in contact with your legislators and want to address the sleep deprivation, we invite you to contact our Committee so we can provide you with materials and accurate information. PHSS Committee to End Sleep Deprivation, P.O. Box 5692, Eureka, CA 95502; phssreachingout@gmail.com 510.426.5322