Frontline Reflections of a Drug War Journalist
My mouth is dry. I’ve been breathing open-mouthed, out of control. Once the rush of adrenaline subsides, my pulse will return to normal and my mouth will moisten again.
A few feet away, an inmate is pressing a shirt against his throat. It’s been cut open. He staunches the wound while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
After he’s whisked away, inmates begin to complain.
“My hands are turning blue!”
Their complaints are tinged with outrage of those who’ve been mistreated.
To take my mind off the pain in my hands—the tingle rapidly turns to a sting, then to pinpricks of fire—I listen to the officers’ talk. Some snap photos and write notes. I wonder who will be voted off Rock Star Supernova tonight.
Inmates secured in their cells come to their windows and stare. They seem unimpressed by the chaos. Running out of distractions, my gaze is transfixed by the solid steel door: I imagine the lid to my casket will look much like it.
Lockdown has become the norm in the prisons of my native Golden State. When a racial incident occurs, inmates are “slammed”—sorted based on gang, race and geographic considerations. While prison managers determine what tactics to employ in controlling inmates, all prison activities come to an abrupt halt.
Since California’s prisons are racially segregated systems prone to chronic violence, there are no simple solutions to the conflict.
After a series of ethnic disturbances at the California Correctional Center in Susanville in the spring of 2006, there was a huge riot on July 31. Just a few days later, a number of white inmates had their throats cut—allegedly by members of their own race. In the vernacular of the nefarious, “Susanville is Rocking and Rolling.”
For correctional settings that emphasize rehabilitation, drug treatment, and “marketable” job training, placing the institution on lockdown is counterproductive. Since over two-thirds of the inmates in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) have substance abuse issues, treatment and training seem like a more logical approach. But due to decades of draconian sentencing mandates and diminished civil liberties, lockdown has become the main staple on penology’s pungent diet. It’s the California model: If treated badly enough for long enough, inmates will correct their behavior.
What a monumentally misguided prescription.
In addition to the violence—315 riots in 2005, plus scores of inmates assaulted on a daily basis—institutions like Susanville are being placed on “rolling lockdowns.” Whenever staff shortages stretch correctional officers’ ranks too thin—or sometimes for dubious, less legitimate reasons—the administration will simply lock the place down.
This approach results in mind-bending isolation that exacerbates mental disorders, reinforces deviant behavior, and pressures the inmates into a perpetual state of desperation.
Sequestered 24 hours a day, inmates are allowed to live, if not much else. While those “involved in” or “‘suspected of” institutional transgressions are carted off to administrative segregation (commonly known as “the hole”), the rest are left to fester in total seclusion. Cut off from outdoor exercise, educational programs, and the ability to obtain basic amenities—like envelopes to mail letters to loved ones—the thin grasp even the strongest have on sanity is challenged by the conditions of untreated addiction, many of whom with cc- occurring mental ailments. California’s prison suicide rate is the highest in the nation: 37 dead in 2005, and 43 in 2006. The human mind can only take so much, and the lockdowns create new problems even as they exacerbate old ones.
The loss of most civil liberties is part of the punishment, but separation from loved ones is heart wrenching. While some institutions allow visiting during lockdowns, Susanville takes a harder line. Family photos become the only solace. My cellmate, a young man from L.A., stares at pictures of his wife for hours to counteract the pressure of being locked up with me 24 hours a day.
Or maybe he’s just lonely as hell. I’m not qualified to make a diagnosis, but I don’t need a doctorate in psychology to recognize the damage he’s enduring because of severed family ties.
Education, like visitation, is known to lower rates of recidivism, but it’s also low on the hierarchy of correctional priority, and suffers even more during lockdowns. As a clerk in the education department, and a participant in a pilot college program, I have firsthand knowledge about the power of post-secondary correctional education. However, the program that offers an associates degree has fallen prey to the lockdown. Roughly 25 inmates in the facility who passed the entrance exam for the program have been excluded from the fall semester. They’re not culpable for any of the misdeeds that led to the lockdown; they’re just white.
Institutions generally return to a normal program at some point—but not always. Even when the lockdown is lifted and we temporarily escape the confines of our two-man asylums, we know that peace is always temporary. Once incidents begin to compound, the response by staff is predictable. But it’s even worse when the lockdown is the result of staff shortages—inmates are being additionally punished for sins we haven’t committed, crimes with which we were never charged.
In addition to placing “white” inmates on lockdown until next year, the administration decided to punish the entire inmate population. With absolutely no visitation, education, or institutional liberties, everyone in the Lassen Facility at Susanville is receiving some old-fashioned correctional “justice.”
After spending three hours as “physical evidence” at a crime scene, my tired mind and body have slipped into a cauldron of solitude. I fight off my coven of personal demons with litigious, literary, and physical exercise—all I can do to expand the claustrophobic parameters of the cell.
A few weeks later, I’m finally given the privilege of a breath of not-so-fresh air—but once again end up cuffed up in the dayroom.
Though no longer in the middle of an emergency, “search teams” of correctional officers are ripping through our belongings. They confiscate a multitude of books, clothes and small appliances. There’s a policy about excess property—but it seems more about the constant pressure of correctional managers, who use policy to draw the walls of an already-restricted environment even closer.
As I wait the completion of this stripping—materially, physically, and emotionally—I see again the solid steel door, so like the lid of a coffin in shape and form.
A Chilling Effect
In order to catch their prey off guard, raids are generally executed early. Dulled senses diminish the likelihood of resistance.
For me, they came right after breakfast, on the morning of Friday the 13th, October 2006.
“Dey. Get dressed,” an officer ordered. An early riser, I put down a book I was reading. Staring at two officers who suddenly filled the narrow doorway—they tried to look mean. Seeing this movie a million times, it’s never a happy ending.
Already knowing the cause, I inquired about my destination.
“Where am I going?” I asked, as if unconcerned.
“R&R,” replied a third.
Three against one hardly seemed fair. Having worn many hats throughout my crazy life, a hustler being one of them, I recognize a dirty game of pool a mile away.
Picking up packages at receiving and release was a privilege long ago taken away. I found the insult of dangling a coveted box of morsels in front of the stupid inmate added to the injury of being the recipient of retaliation.
Learning a myriad of tough lessons over the years, resistance being futile in almost every situation, I silently dressed while the guards watched my every move.
Despite membership in the law enforcement community, the CDCR rarely conduct themselves within the parameters of their covenant. The lack of professional competence, compounded by institutionalized corruption, caused the federal judiciary to take control of various functions of the mammoth agency. Ranging from unconstitutional delivery of mental and health care services, to officer malfeasance and contempt of court in numerous civil rights class actions, the CDCR had become an unmanageable quagmire.
A powerless and self-destructive demographic of 173,000 had been packed into a system designed for 100,000. With few incentives to generate restorative growth, we are forced to compete like savages for scarce resources. Negative images like riots, stabbings, and fights, not to mention prisoners carted off to the hole, if not the infirmary, are tattooed to our minds.
Though most taken to the hole are basically guilty of something, too many have done nothing wrong. The low standard of “some evidence” supporting a “preponderance of guilt” masquerades as due process in prison disciplinary hearings. An inmate’s right to seek redress through judicial review is an impossible struggle. Courts give wide deference to the actions and decisions of correctional officials, despite the fact they are chronic in their chicanery.
Precipitating events hastening my departure didn’t involve personal acts of deviance, but the fact Susanville had been “rocking and rolling” all year long. Lunatics in this particular asylum rioting and stabbing each other throughout the year, prison administrators can always be counted on to viciously reciprocate.
It is the nature of the game.
After confiscating mass quantities of personal property from the entire population, the whites would bear the brunt of the administration’s nefarious quid pro quo. This time us, next time inmates of color, it’s always the same—waves of punitive pseudo-science unleashed just to let us know who’s in charge.
Instead of multi-systemic treatment models carving crevices into the psyche, battle manuals like The Art of War become the applicable doctrine of the disenfranchised. Displays of force and power are an investment in the lowest common denominator—rather than public servants doing the right thing.
My transgressions myriad, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what I did wrong. For the Metroactive Newslink and other publications, I covered numerous facets of prisondom. Though perfectly legal First Amendment activity, these actions don’t coalesce with the malicious goals of prison officials who long ago abandoned their social contract.
A complete ban on the press implemented in the tough-on-crime ‘90s gave corrections a much-desired cloak of secrecy. Penitentiaries being closed societies by their very definition, keeping out investigative journalists provided agents of government an exorbitant amount of power. Without this invaluable check in place, the guards could do their worst without having to answer to anyone except each other.
Incarcerated journalists like myself are an anomaly, so it doesn’t take long for above the law prison officials to take notice. Retaliation is assured. Corrupt government officials have little respect for free speech. Someone like myself—a model inmate—is more dangerous than the most determined prison assassin in the eyes of the deviant bureaucrat.
My activism took shape. An administrative appeal filed on behalf of my cohort would likely be an aggravating factor when my oppressors imposed judgment and sentence. Severed family ties due to total denial of all visitors for months based on race, not individual culpability, motivated me to file the administrative class action. In addition to covering the story for the North Bay Bohemian (Civil Death, November 30, 2006), the grievance likely sealed my fate as I exercised my rights on multiple levels.
In the era of correctional crisis, one must take chances. Medical already in total federal receivership, the entire agency facing a similar fate, and overcrowding bringing the agency to the precipice of overcapacity, the time to act was now. Despite few constitutional protections for those who lawfully express themselves in a literary or litigious manner, those able must be willing to make a stand. Generally motivated by a sense of social responsibility, not gang-or race-based intolerance, I placed cause over self.
Despite being a convicted felon many times over, I find the importance of law and order paramount. Paying a debt to society for committing a crime against person, property or humanity is imperative, especially once an honest assessment of the evidence leads to a proportionate punishment. Justice is the cornerstone, especially in a penalogical sub-society.
But the scales of justice are skewed. Correctional officers and their superiors set the worst examples imaginable when they openly, defiantly, and belligerently place their deviant self-interests over the laws they have taken an oath to uphold.
Any competent investigator would have readily discovered that I regularly assisted all races with school and legal matters. Moreover, with free speech on total lock down, I covered the plight of the prisoner while entombed in a virtual war zone. This is what they would have found, if I were truly a suspect.
Paying the penultimate price of 26 years to life for a nonviolent drug offense, my metamorphosis into an activist came into being as a direct result of the three strikes—the nation’s toughest sentencing mandate. I challenged every aspect of the unbalanced manner in which justice is administered. With few tangible alternatives, advancing unpopular causes in the courts of appeal and public opinion became my purpose in a life lost.
Ample evidence supported my insurrection.
Unmatched social irresponsibility and bureaucratic ineptitude created the illogical dynamic of CDCR employees being the best paid in their profession. Generously rewarding aberrant behavior with money and power over feckless management created a destructive culture of bureaucratic arrogance. Unmatched influence gave government employees the mandate to cherry pick the government’s codes to suit the unwritten rules by which they operate.
Such were the factual circumstances under which “the guards” took me to the hole. A supermax designed for the worst of the worst is hardly a place for a model inmate going to college full-time. Afforded the constitutional bare minimum of an hour of daily exercise at best—and very little else—we are confined like animals in stripped-down ad-seg cells. Taking into account the expressed emotional suffering of being on indefinite lockdown for the actions of others, my captors then took me to an even worse place for nothing.
Synonymous are inmate activists and institutional transgressors in the underworld. Seated and handcuffed in front of R&R, the abundance of racial tattoos and lengthy institutional rap sheets amongst my cohort—and my lack thereof—had me horribly miscast for this production of The Usual Suspects.
As if being treated like a recently captured enemy combatant wasn’t bad enough, each of us had been served identical documents alleging our instrumental roles “in promoting racial unrest” as members or affiliates of the “Skin Heads. “
Instinctive reflexes on how to fight false charges were pushed to the back of my mind. Memories resurfaced from a 2000 stint in Corcoran’s notorious SHU.
An explosion of barbed wire, chain-linked fences, and oneman holding cages overwhelmed the senses as I entered the abyss. Dramatically my heart rate elevated. The dreadful reality a torture chamber that once resembled a housing unit would be my new home slapped me hard in the face.
Ritualistic greetings and salutations peppered the airwaves. Those who went MIA days, weeks, and months ago welcomed us into the vortex.
“Eugene!” I hear someone scream over all the noise. “That’s fucked up!”
Everyone knew the administration arbitrarily deemed us insurgents. Still, my inclusion seemed a capricious stretch of the evidence that didn’t exist.
“I never expected to see you in here, Dey,” said the guard performing my inaugural strip search. Such disingenuous small talk did little to take away the indignation of unjustified subjugation.
Shrugging off his comment with a grin, I smile. My demeanor is calm, just another day at the office.
“Neither did I,” I lie.