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PELICAN BAY

Prison policies lead to explosion of inmate anger

By Saul Kanowitz

San Francisco

On Feb. 23 guards at Pelican Bay State Prison used deadly force against prisoners who were fighting in the B yard facility of the prison. According to the prison administration, one prisoner was killed, 15 were injured by gunshots and 32 injured in the fighting.

Community groups have called for an independent investigation into the use of deadly force. At a news conference held on the steps of the new State Office Building in San Francisco, Richard Becker of the National Peoples Campaign charged that the community cannot trust the prison system to investigate itself.

Becker recalled the 1971 Attica Rebellion when inmates in that New York State prison took it over. During the takeover a number of guards were held by prisoners to insure their safety and to force the prison administration to listen to their demands.

When State Troopers, on the orders of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, stormed Attica and took back control of the prison, they killed 43 inmates and guards. To justify the violence used to retake the prison, phony stories of guards being castrated and killed by prisoners were released to the media. After an independent investigation led by prisoner advocates and other community organizations, it was revealed that all the guards who had died during the takeover had been killed by the state.

At the press conference here, former Pelican Bay prisoner Dorsey Nunn of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children said it was not a coincidence that the day the riot took place, two guards from Pelican Bay were being indicted for arranging assaults on prisoners by other prisoners. Nunn suggested the fights were facilitated by the prison system as an effort to deflect attention from these indictments.

Nunn reminded the media of the well-documented gladiator fights between prisoners set up by guards at Corcoran state prison.

Luis Talamantez, a former political prisoner and member of the San Quentin Six, spoke of the need to end the cycle of violence and reiterated the call to shut down Pelican Bay State Prison altogether.

Leslie DiBenidetto-Skopek of the California Prison Focus spoke of a recent investigative trip made by CPF on Feb. 11 and 12 to Pelican Bay to document the conditions under which prisoners live.

This Workers World reporter also spoke as a member of a 10-person delegation of lawyers and activists who had interviewed over 60 prisoners in a two-day visit to PBSP.

Investigation at Pelican Bay indicates human rights violations

As part of this investigative visit to PBSP, interviews had been conducted under the protection of attorney-client privilege. For the prisoners, however, the very act of meeting with interviewers was an act of defiance against the prison administration.

They told stories of delays in medication refills, arbitrary reward and punishment, mentally ill patients kept in the harsh Security Housing Unit, and revocation of Law Library privileges at times coinciding with court appearances. The picture painted was that of a prison administration that carries out random reward and punishment and divide-and-conquer polices by pitting prisoners against each other based on ethnicity, geography and other differences.

The prisoners interviewed explained that the lack of programs and the isolation create an environment where violence is not an unexpected outcome of prisoner exchange.

Prisoners in the Security Housing Unit and the general population were interviewed. Prisoners in the SHU are kept in cells 23.5 hours a day. In the remaining 30-minute period they are released alone into the "yard," a sunless space twice the size of a cell, for exercise.

Prisoners are placed in the SHU either for violent acts while in prison or for being labeled gang members. The label of gang member is often made by the prison administration on the basis of information from unidentified "confidential informers."

Prison policy allows only three ways to leave the SHU: "snitch, parole or die." This means a prisoner either tells information, real or fabricated, about other prisoners, officially called debriefing, is paroled, or dies. Any prisoner who returns to the general population is therefore labeled a snitch by the other prisoners and is targeted for violence.

These underground regulations were successfully challenged by jailhouse lawyer Steve Castillo. The resulting change in policy requires all prisoners who have been "gang free" for six years while in the SHU to be considered for release into the general population without the need to debrief.

Over the course of the two days' investigation, the team learned there are prisoners with over six years of gang-free activity who have not been before the review board. As the investigative team left the prison, we all felt the sense of tension behind the walls. The only way to stop the violence is to shut down Pelican Bay State Prison altogether.

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