Transcript: Sen. Loni Hancock’s Q&A with Dorsey Nunn, Dolores Canales & Steven Czifra at the joint legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California – Oct. 9, 2013

Partial transcript of Sen. Loni Hancock’s (D-Oakland) Q&A with Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Dolores Canales, family member of current Pelican Bay SHU inmate, and Steven Czifra, former SHU inmate and student at UC Berkeley, at the joint legislative hearing on “Segregation Policies in California Prisons: Current Conditions and Implications on Prison Management and Human Rights” on Oct. 9, 2013:

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland):
…Ms. Canales, I would be very interested in your research. You said that you’ve looked at some things and had some incidents and case histories? I learned a lot through talking to people and getting case histories.

Dolores Canales, family member of current Pelican Bay SHU inmate:
Yes. I have actual chronos and documentations showing that these individuals were going to their committee reviews and it was being said, you know, inactive gang status but yet they continue to be detained because their only way out was if they chose to make statements against another prisoner.

A lot of these prisoners, if they’ve been in there over a decade and if they don’t have phone calls – a lot of them don’t even get visits and their mail is scrutinized, a lot of their argument is “What information could I possibly have to tell you? That, you know, there’s nothing to provide. I’ve been isolated.”

So we have built up quite a collection of these type of documents…

And even the documentation most recent, they’re still getting the 115 for the drawings. You know, the Aztec art or the books – political expression and things like that. But these are allowable items into the prison, probably because if they tried to stop it and these prisoners put forth litigation, they would be defeated. So they allow it into the prison, then once it’s in the prison, they do write them up – serious documentation.

Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children:
…I don’t think that – there are some of us that meet success. Nobody ever asked us upon the completion of all the torture what made us successful. It was like nobody cared that we somehow endured the gauntlet and came out the other end.

They report every piece of failure that they can find to talk about us but nobody pointed to – nobody ever interviewed me at the end of parole and asked for an exit strategy. They didn’t even think about that I was going anywhere. I guess they didn’t have any faith.

The other thing that I would suggest is that in all of these institutions that they introduce ethnic studies, because these people are going to return back to their communities and need to actually live with other folks. And I think that right there could be helpful if they would just introduce something simple like that to make them appreciate other human beings and appreciate their culture and their history.

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland):
…I asked many of the people that are formerly incarcerated that I talk with is: What made you decide you were going to survive in another way? Was it a person, a book, an experience, whatever? What was it?

And what program supported and mattered to you when you got out? Because those are the things that we need to replicate and we need to understand better.

You’re exactly right. How do you build on the resilience that some of you had in spite of everything that you had to deal with? So that we can find another path…

…I believe I’m stating it accurately but I may not be but I believe I am. That CDCR would say that there are violent prison gangs and that a number of people in the SHU – possibly 10%, which would be about 250 individuals – are in fact smuggling drugs, hit lists and other things in and out of prison in their body cavities, in code that they may talk with on the phone or whatever. I’m interested in what your experience of that is because if there – because that is some subset of people that do have to be dealt with seriously if they’re going to hurt other people on the outside.

Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children:
For me, I would care to venture probably a cell phone call is about $500 in prison right now. That’s something that you can’t stick up your rectum.

So maybe when you get to the point of really having oversight of the monster, maybe we can actually look at how much contraband is being introduced by staff. Because at a certain point – [applause] – it comes across as insulting that a lot of stuff that happen in prison, they immediately look to our family members as if they actually dictate that, and they very seldom look among their own ranks.

And I think that the cell phone situation in prison is the clearest example where it’s almost impossible to get it through a metal detector, it’s impossible to shove it up your geester [anal cavity] to get it introduced into a prison setting.

So I would suggest that you look among the staff in terms of contraband and them controlling markets inside the institutions, for one, and their involvement in that stuff.

Two, when they say that there are violent prison gangs, make them prove it. Because like the statistics that you just heard tonight, a lot of people are in the hole for simply being labeled as a member of the gang. Most people in the hole, they probably haven’t had a behavior infractions in years, but yet they label you in such a way – the first time I ever heard them use the term “the worst of the worst” was associated with the Madrid case…the center of that case…was a person who had been driven insane and began to smear feces on himself, and they scalded him damn near to death…and he was a car thief.

So when you all sling the term around or when they sling the term around – the worst of the worst – somehow you all got to debunk that we’re not human, and they’re not saying that stuff to generate profit and a whole bunch of other stuff. Because the worst of the worst possibly could be people who are profiting on a daily basis off of my misery.

[Audience applause]

Steven Czifra, former SHU inmate and student at UC Berkeley:
I wanted to talk about what worked. Well, first of all, I had a date. So I had hope. I knew I was getting out. I knew I was going to get out so I had something to work towards.

I was – I have done things in my life that are worse than the things people who are doing life today. A friend of mine…is serving 20 years on a life sentence for stealing a car and so I was getting out and I knew I was working towards something. But many of these people aren’t getting out – most or many.

So, you know, the absence of hope is despair. So what does a person in despair do for themselves, to care for themselves, you know? And how long can you keep that up?

So I think we need to give these people hope. Give them light at the end of the tunnel. Put an absolute cap – 5 years. Fine. Let’s say 5 years.

Okay, devil’s advocate that these people are gang members and they’re doing everything we’re saying they’re doing, right? Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, right wing, nut case rhetoric. Let’s say that’s true. [Audience laughter] We know that it’s not working. It’s still not working. So I mean, what’s happening is indefensible…

And even if everything they’re saying is not true, the CDC admitted recently that they believe that the hunger strike was orchestrated by the people in Pelican Bay as a gang action. How does that support the presence of Pelican Bay? That means we’re spinning our wheels and we’re hurting people in the process. It’s not working and we’re harming people and this program is unfolding many thousands and thousands and thousands of people.

Every single one of California’s 30 plus prisons has over 200 people in solitary confinement plus the 4,000 plus. They’re in the tens of thousands. Every single one of California’s 30 – every one of these facilities has a long-term solitary confinement and it doesn’t work.

Dolores Canales, family member of current Pelican Bay SHU inmate:
Another thing I’d like to address – if these prisoners before entering the prison, they had a drug problem, maybe they go in for a carjacking or burglary or whatever theft charges, and they enter our prison system. And then the prison system says these are gang affiliates, gang members involved in gang activity and this is all going within the prison. Isn’t it time to start asking ourselves – are so many jails and prisons the solution if this all seems to be taking place within the prison system? I know it’s such a bigger picture, and I know it’s way past the solitary confinement issue, but there’s a lot that goes on inside just with the automatic labeling of what city they go into the prison from. If they get off of a bus from the Orange County jail, they will immediately be labeled a Southern Hispanic. The same thing if they get off the bus from Visalia, they will immediately be labeled a northern. You know, that’s the whole system and the way it goes.

I did a presentation with one guy and he said he kept telling them, “I’m just a white guy from the beach with a drug problem.” [Audience laughter] So they intentionally said, “Go in that cell” and it was full of blacks. This was before the end all hostilities…But a lot of it has to go – it starts from the minute you enter the prison system.

Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children:
I got to tell you one other thing. My daughter – I made a couple of promises when I was in prison. One day I would walk my daughter down the aisle when she got ready to get married. So I guess the thing that is the most under-utilized resource that you have is probably all those people out there. My family pulled me through. When I didn’t have any hope, my family pulled me through. [Audience applause]

So I need to say if there’s anything that I can actually have to offer – it was like, I used to tell my daughter when I was in San Quentin that I was in Disneyland because y’all painted it all those weird colors. [Laughter] And one day she told me after she learned how to read that I was in prison. Then I started promising her and that promise right there took me through from being an illiterate through college and it took my out the gates until I was able to walk my daughter down the aisle.

So I guess the strongest remedy to a lot of stuff they did to me was love because that got me through. The hatred, the tear gas, the beatings, getting shot, and being poisoned didn’t do anything but piss me off.

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland):
…I would like from CDCR some more information about having disciplinary actions for the hunger strikers. That appears – it’s something, I think, legislators are going to want to know more about because it’s an odd thing. And it usually – in other instances where I’ve seen things like that, it has led to increased hostilities, not better understanding.

And also the business of debriefing. It seems to me that’s a strange concept. We need to really – if it becomes a condition for getting out of the SHU, there’s so many opportunities for corruption in that kind of testimony – that we need to look at it…

I think we need to look at the authority and training of our correctional staff because one of the things that’s most – we didn’t ever talk about the impact on the guards – the absolute power they may have over incarcerated people. Unfortunate – when the lack of an outside advisor when you’re going through these hearings that put you in SHU. And I think our experience throughout history with many, many populations in many, many places is that absolute power over other people tends to corrupt. And it corrupts some legislators – they get arrogant. It corrupts people in bureaucracies sometimes that don’t give people a fair hearing. It corrupts people in many, many ways. And how do we train and work with the correctional staff and how we make sure there are many checks and balances that are constitutional – gives people other ways.

It seems to me that we could work together to do this, and that all of this, I want to assure you is going to be on the agenda for the coming months. We have just begun to do our work. And we want to end up, as many people have said, with a prison system that is the best and most rehabilitative in the nation. And we’re going to have quite a way to go to get there and we’re going to need all of us working together to get there.


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  1. Pingback: Analysis: California taxpayers foot high costs of long-term solitary confinement | What The Folly?!

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