I am writing on behalf of Steve Champion, who I’ve spoken to this morning (April 15, 2007). He is in Orange, California for a court date, which is why he has been able to call me. As you may know, he has been held at San Quentin in administrative segregation for 16 months, since several days prior to his friend Tookie Williams’ execution in December of 2005! He continues to appeal what he tells me are manufactured charges used to justify this interminable administrative punishment.

But I am writing about an even more urgent matter, one which Steve would like people to be informed about.  In his own words, from a letter I received from him this last week, here’s what has happened:

“On March 21, 2007, an incident occurred inside the Adjustment Center. A prison guard was allegedly assaulted by an inmate. Never ones to miss an opportunity for for retributive punishment, San Quentin prison officials exaggerated the nature of, and threat posed to others by, this assault and declared a State of Emergency. A memorandum was swiftly issued to every prisoner stating that an inmate attempted to murder a guard.

After a series of invasive cell-searches and mandatory interviews (some inmates, already cuffed and shackled, were physically forced to the interview room), prison officials were still not satisfied. Consequently, they meted out collective punishment to everyone in the Adjustment Center, as follows. Every prisoner was now forced (and continues as of this writing to be forced) to wear leg shackles and shower shoes without socks, or go barefoot wherever he goes, whether to the shower, the visiting room, the legal law library, or the exercise yard. We are allowed to carry our shoes and put them on once we arrive at our destination.

The yard policy has changed sharply, as well. In the past, when the yard was recalled, inmates were escorted inside AC, strip-searched, and then escorted to their assigned cells. Now, each inmate is strip-searched on the yard, in plain view of everyone, before being returned to his cell. According to California Code, Title 15-3287(4)(B), “Whenever possible, unclothed body inspections of inmates shall be conducted outside the view of others.” This regulation recognizes the fact that prisoners are entitled to be treated with some level of dignity, respect, and privacy.

On April 4, 2007, when yard was recalled at 11:30 a.m., I and two other inmates (Ward and Flores) refused to be strip-searched on the yard. We were immediately confronted by a bevy of guards demanding to know why we refused. One at a time, each of us (caged in walk-alone cages on the yard) explained that we were not refusing to come off the yard or to cuff up; we were only refusing to be strip-searched on the yard.

A sergeant, obviously unfamiliar with AC protocol and/or badly misinformed, tried to convince us that strip-searching in open view had always been the policy. A little later, Lieutenant Schlosser, flanked by a small army of guards, asked us what the problem was. Again, each of us explained our position, just as we had before. But as if he had not heard us, Schlosser retorted, “You refusing to come off the yard?”

I shook my head in utter disbelief. The Lieutenant didn’t want to understand. Were we refusing to come off the yard, he would be justified in using force of some kind. He could use pepper spray, blast us with the water cannon or stun gun, taser us, order a platoon of guards to suit up and forcibly remove us, or command the guard on the gun rail to shoot us. But we were not refusing to come off the yard. At this impasse, the Lieutenant told us he would give us “a cooling off period,” and went to
consult with his superiors.

Two and half hours later, around 2:00 p.m., we could hear guards inside AC yelling to the guard operating the bar box, which opens and closes cell doors, to open cell 61, 63, and 66. This meant that they were entering our cells and punishing us by removing our personal property.

We continued to stand our ground and pass the time discussing current events, bracing ourselves for the worst. Eventually, a squadron of guards headed by Associate Warden Dacany and Captain Fox arrived. Dacany asked Ward, “What’s the problem?” Ward once again explained that he refused to strip out on the yard, quoting verbatim the relevant portion of the California Code Regulations, Title 15 (3287, 4, B). Dacany replied, “The warden is our Title 15.” The Captain then asked Flores what the problem was, and Flores repeated what Ward had just said. It was clear to us at this point that these San Quentin officials were not interested in our reasons or prison policy. We had explained ourselves to guards, the sergeant, the Lieutenant, the Captain, and the Associate Warden.

Finally, Captain Fox barked that we were coming off the yard, as if we had refused to do that (we hadn’t). At this point, I turned to the guard holding the video camera and said, bluntly, “I’m not refusing to cuff up but I’m not stripping out on the yard.” The Captain then ordered me to “Cuff up,” and a guard slid a flattened cardboard box between  a slit-opening in the fence of my cage. I placed the cardboard on the pavement next to the sink and toilet combo. Then I walked over to the small port to get cuffed, before returning, cuffed, to kneel on the cardboard (to cushion my knees against the concrete). Several guards entered the walk alone cage to shackle my ankles. Shackled, I stood up and guards escorted me toward the fence.

At this point, the scene switched to something right out of Abu Ghraib. The Captain ordered a guard holding a large pair of scissors to cut off my underwear. The guard obeyed and shred my underwear until they were hanging around my ankles. Another guard scanned my entire body with a metal detector. I was then marched nude and shackled inside the Adjustment
Center and placed in middle sally port on the first floor. Shortly thereafter, inmates Flores and Ward were brought in shackled and nude and held in separate holding ports on the first floor. All the while, prison personnel entered and exited the building, peering at us as if we were a small group of just-captured baboons.

Twenty-five minutes or so passed in this way, before each of us was escorted to the 3rd floor and paraded down the tier naked, like slaves on display, into our now empty cells. We were officially placed on ‘property control,’ which means no personal property, no purchased food items and no toiletries from the canteen . . . ’till further notice.

On April 13, I left San Quentin for a court date in Southern California, and so am momentarily free of the arbitrary, arguably illegal exercise of power and supremely degrading treatment I and other inmates routinely experience at San Quentin State Prison.”

Steve has asked me to make his friends and supporters aware of this degrading, inhumane treatment and of his principled response to it. He hopes people will be moved to contact officials at San Quentin, letting them know that WE know about this particular incident, and that we will stay informed, as he and others demand to be treated with the minimal dignity and respect accorded them by California Code.

Steve is sending me a more detailed account of this incident, which I will be publishing, as well as using as the basis of an article of my own.

We cannot condone harshly punishing all for the actions of one, humiliating prison inmates by strip-searching them needlessly in public view, or needlessly marching inmates naked through through cell blocks.

I will keep you informed. Meanwhile, please consider shining some light into the darkness by inquiring about this incident. You can write SQ’s Warden or CA’s prison Ombudsman (contact info. below).

Thanks,

Tom Kerr
Ithaca College

San Quentin Contact Information:

Mr. Steven Ornoski, Warden
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94964
Phone: (415) 454-1460.

Ombudsman’s Email: Ralyn.Conner@cdcr.ca.gov