Transcript: Testimony of Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, at the joint legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California – Oct. 9, 2013

Partial transcript of Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, 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:

…The first thing I think I need to do is to thank you, because this hearing is important, but what’s more important to me was it that gave people an opportunity to do something different other than starve themselves to death. So you’ve already accomplished one task. I don’t know if this is a temporary delay but I think it was up to day number 60. Bobby Sands only lived 66 days on his hunger strike. So your intervention and your deciding to hold this hearing is probably more important than you can ever imagine.

I generally speak without notes but I think that this matter requires that I have – that I wrote it down.

So, my name is Dorsey Nunn, and I’m the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children – a proud member of All of Us or None.

I could also be the first of my kind – a formerly incarcerated person who heads a public interest law office.

I paroled on Oct. 22, 1981, and I walked out the gates of San Quentin committed to the struggle to secure the full restoration of civil and human rights of people like me.

I have been engaged in this struggle approximately 34 years. It was something in that incarceration experience that has not allowed me to forget.

Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Calipatria, Tehachapi and other institution placing long-term – practicing long-term solitary confinement or mentally torturing people a little everyday for months, years, and sometimes decades. It is a place where people are consigned to have their spirits broken and sometimes driven to suicide.

We have too many prisons and institutions where human rights are being violated and then excused by claims that this severe treatment is reserved for the worst of the worst as if these people are not human beings.

However, the terror is just not for the people experiencing directly, but it has wider implications on prisoners, families, and the communities in general.

Just imagine if they lined a few dozen people up against the wall for being black, women, gay or membership in a club in San Francisco, and law enforcement shot or, even worse, disappeared them, this would be of great concern. And this act would be emotionally and mentally torturous if you were a member of that group being needlessly shot or disappeared. It would be hard to imagine the Bay Area and possibly the country not being outraged.

The injustice of long-term solitary confinement has had this impact on people incarcerated throughout the state of California.

In July 2011, the first day of the hunger strike, there were approximately 6,700 people involved. The next time – in September 2011 – there were approximately 12,000 people involved the first day. The first day of the last hunger strike in July of 2013, there were 30,000 people who [chose] to refuse [crying]…to take food.

CDCR attribute this to people being pressured by gangs as opposed to this being a matter of choice, conscience, or justice. CDCR can frame this any way they want since the media is not being granted open access. However, what CDCR can’t state is this matter has been resolved satisfactorily.

Subjecting people to disciplinary write-ups for peaceful dissent will not stop them from trying to end the torture or from attempting to secure justice.

The bottom line is that this generation of prisoners have elected to pursue social change through peaceful means, and as a society, we should not punish them into choosing other methods to address their grievances.

It is difficult to accept the notion for anyone raised in this country that you could be subjected to solitary confinement for decades for mere association or membership in anything, particularly if you have not been able to determine the people you’re forced to live with and determine who makes up your community. It is almost impossible to accept the practice of punishment or having a sentence negatively impacted for no overt act of misbehavior or a crime.

The notion of earning a sentence reduction is usually considered by anyone except in a plea bargain. To have the contract sanctioned in the state court and later violated by the state prison system is problematic at the least.

Visiting prisoners in Pelican Bay made me realize what it meant to be deprived of natural sunlight. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched people’s skin change color over the course of the winter months. Now imagine the change in skin tone after decades of being denied sunlight. I do not believe that you can tell that people lose their skin color gradually.

However, I must state it was shocking to visit an old friend at Pelican Bay and he appeared many shades lighter, and I immediately started to wonder about the health and the food implications.

What seems like such a frivolous demand for food became much more after the visit. It was in that moment of consciousness that what appeared to be such a trivial pursuit on the part of prisoners became much more.

I had forgotten what it meant to endure the cold or the heat without appropriate clothing or of earlier demands for a beanie cap was not a matter of fashion statement but a matter of survival.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and I was reluctant to involve myself and my organization in this struggle. I was afraid as a person, and I was afraid that my organization would be collapsed.

As a formerly incarcerated person, I couldn’t pretend that CDCR was anything less than bullies and monsters. I knew based on the books that I had read and having a backbone in my writings that if I were under the control of CDCR, I would be in long-term solitary confinement, enslaved to have my spirits broken.

Damn, someone gave me an actual program for George Jackson’s funeral as a wedding present. Such a gift could have resulted in decades of torture if I was still being held as a captive.

I’m not a gang member but I feel like I need to say this because I do not want to be put on the secret black list like the witch hunts they conducted looking for commoners in earlier periods of time.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of hunger strike representatives and other prisoners in Pelican Bay. I was trying to assess, in spite of my fears, why I should allow my agency to explore the possibility of litigation.

There was one question that I asked that the answer resonated more than any other answer. I asked a number of them: What would they tell young people on the streets of Los Angeles and other places? They tell me they would tell young people not to follow them there…They told me they were engaged in this undertaking because they didn’t want the other people – the other younger people – who have the misfortune of being in prison not to be forced to undergo what they are going through. Some of them didn’t expect to see – to ever see the streets again or to the main line but they wanted to do something better for other people.

It was with great joy that I lived long enough to see the agreement to end hostilities. This document drafted by prisoners in Pelican Bay spoke to the larger goals of ending hostilities between prisoners of different races.

Since that time, I have spoken to many older formerly incarcerated people and it is in this document we see something different. We see them recognizing each other’s humanity. We see them playing a different role in encouraging their families to organize across all kind of different lines.

I was present in the park in Oakland and saw family members from Southern California speaking to the need to end long-term solitary confinement. I saw people from Northern California at a rally in Southern California. I saw brown family members speaking to black family members, and black family members speaking to white family members.

I noticed the political landscape changing. I stood with family members and others in Corcoran prison earlier this year. We stood in over 100 degree weather to demand an end to long-term solitary confinement, and I witnessed some of the family members [crying] fall out in the heat.

I can see the potential that the document like the end of hostilities…such document like this should be nurtured, but if we can’t get past the rhetoric that the people in solitary confinement are the worst of the worst, we may not be able to see any of the positive policies that agreements like this can have for marginalized communities outside of the prison. Another bottom line.

After living in the worst conditions and circumstances, I was incarcerated throughout the 70s. I know at the core that man is good and everybody is worthy of redemption. I was a life prisoner. I am now the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. And I have experienced solitary confinement, and I know what it means to be touched in any other way but violently or suspiciously for years at a time.

At a certain point, we need to do something.

So, some of the things that the guys have demanded. They demanded an end to long-term solitary confinement. They demanded programs. They demanded access to their families. They demanded some things that’s just humanly should be available to them.

And when I call it torture and a violation of human rights, under international law, you’re not allowed to extract information like that. So debriefing is part of a torturous process recognized in international law.

So if there’s anything I want to leave this committee with is I think the guys in Pelican Bay have showed us the example that we should follow in terms of recognizing each other’s humanity.

I’m hoping and I’m praying that somebody will recognize their humanity before they make different choices, because the 1970s – during the 70s – we were making different choices about this stuff.


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One Comment on “Transcript: Testimony of Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, at the joint legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California – Oct. 9, 2013

  1. Pingback: Alternatives to long-term solitary confinement in California | What The Folly?!

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