Transcript: Testimony of civl rights attorney Anne Weills on CDCR’s proposed new policies on solitary confinement – Feb. 11, 2014

Partial transcript of the testimony of Anne Weills, civil rights attorney, on CDCR’s proposed new policies on solitary confinement and prison gang or “security threat group” management. The joint informational hearing was held on Feb. 11, 2014:

My name is Anne Weills. I’m a civil rights lawyer. Prior to working on our – with my co-counsel – the Ashker v. Brown – the litigation where we’re trying to basically stop solitary confinement in the SHU, I litigated for over 20 years against the University of California, Stanford and other academic institutions in terms of discrimination in tenure and other matters.

But before we start, I would like to read a statement from the prisoners at Pelican Bay who are not allowed to be here, either audio or via video. And along with myself, they want to send their high regards to both of you – both Assemblyman Ammiano and Sen. Hancock – for your role – your very committed and very honorable role – in terms of ending the hunger strike in September this year. [sic] We were promised these hearings and obviously this ongoing process is extraordinary.

And I think we are in 2014 in an amazing kind of synergy between the litigation we’re involved in, your work trying to change the conditions of the SHU and solitary in California as well as all the ideas and the movement we have in California – family members, activists, and the prisoners themselves. So, we are very much appreciative and we really want to be part of that process and appreciate you involving us in that.

So these words were sent to me by Sitawa Jamaa, Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, and Antonio Guillen…the four main prisoner hunger strike representatives at Pelican Bay who with others called for the last peaceful protest and starved until the end. That was almost 60 days.

“We are prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have all lived for over 15 years locked 23 hours a day in small windowless cells without ever being able to hug or touch our families, without ever seeing birds, trees or the outside world, with no programs or chance for parole.

“California keeps us in these torturous conditions not because of any violence we have committed but because it believes we are affiliated with a gang often based on art work or photos we possessed, tattoos we have, literature we read, who we talk to, or anonymous informants and their statements we have no way of challenging.

“We are put in Pelican Bay not for any specific terms of months or years for misconduct we have committed but indefinitely, which in practice means forever, unless we become informants.

“Last summer, we went on hunger strike. As you know, over 30,000 people went out. We were willing to starve ourselves to death rather than continue to endure these de-humanizing conditions forever.

“We ended this strike because several compassionate legislators promised to call the hearings that are taking place today.

“Yet, today the legislators will hear from psychologists, lawyers, other experts, corrections officials, but not from us, who have the most experience with the conditions we face because California CDCR prison officials refused to let us testify even remotely via video or audio, which they could easily do.

“So this is our banned testimony. CDCR claims to have now instituted a reform program. It is a sham, just like the so-called reform they instituted a decade ago after a court settlement which resulted in no real change.

“This new reform effort still maintains the basic conditions at Pelican Bay and will continue to keep prisoners in isolation for vague gang affiliation based on art work, literature, communications, or informants’ testimony that doe not meet California’s judicial standards for reliability in criminal trials.

“California’s still unwilling to move to a real behavior-based system where prisoners are given determinate terms in solitary after due process hearings at which they are found guilty of some serious misconduct, such as an assault, murder, rape, or drug dealing.

“Instead, these new policies widen the net of prisoners who can be labeled as gang affiliates and isolated based on that label. These unjust and ineffective policies are very expensive and have already cost our state millions of tax dollars which could be put to better use.

“Moreover, even those prisoners who need to be isolated from the general population because of the violence they have committed in prison ought to be treated humanely.

“There is no reason California can’t run very high-security prisons that allow prisoners held in segregation to have contact visits with family, phone calls to family and friends, educational rehabilitation programs, more out of cell times, cells with windows, recreational yards that allow for small groups to recreate together and see the outside world. In short, segregation from the general population but not torture or de-humanization.

“We have written letters and petitions to the governor, filed a class action federal lawsuit, and gone on hunger strikes seeking real reform, not the bogus reform California officials now propose. It’s time for California to do the right thing. It’s time for the legislature to enact meaningful reforms.”

And because of the time limits and given – I don’t want to be redundant given what Charles and some of the speakers have said, so I do want to talk though about rehabilitation…because I think that is where we are in terms of how to make any kind of transitional program from people being isolated in the SHU for decades into civil society.

And in the step-down program, there’s no consistent rehabilitation or education integrated into this program despite CDCR’s statement of commitment.

Recently, two older men at Pelican Bay were transferred directly to the main line after decades in the SHU with no orientation or transitional programming. They did not fare well.

One block at Pelican Bay reported their GED had been on hold for six months. Most prisoners cannot afford college courses even if there is a proctor to monitor.

We do know of other states that have best practices, for example. The model Connecticut’s step-down program offers anger management, life skills, and ethics education plus an interactive approach over a year through service providers who are dedicated – and this is really critical – to bringing a prisoner back from long-term solitary to where human is.

I mean, you’ve heard already today Professor Haney and others talk about how people are fundamentally changed both psychologically and physically as a result of being in the SHU. And at least Connecticut recognizes that and their attempts to begin that process of bringing them back to being in civil society.

Yet in CDCR’s pilot program…there’s nothing intended for the first two steps and this idle warehousing is a numbing violence against the human spirit. This is Cruel and Unusual book by Colin Dayan.

We know that many prisoners are refusing to do the self-directed journals because they consider them a self-incriminating shame and blame curriculum. The information they provide will go into their central files and can be used against them.

In fact, CDCR has offered contradictory positions as to whether participating in this self-directed journals portion of the step-down program is mandatory. Well, actually, Ms. Hubbard said it was mandatory this morning.

The themes in this program deal with thinking errors, social values, and peer relationships but they begin with an assumption of guilt, self-loathing, and character invalidation. Prisoners are labeled failures if they do not program the way staff wants them to. This is not rehabilitation, which requires bringing in social workers, psychologists, teachers, and vocational counselors to help transition these men.

As one prisoner says, “In order to successfully complete this aspect of their step-down program, you must be willing to accept and believe all of the absolute worst things the state has said about us all and continues to say and invalidate yourself completely. There is no set of circumstances in which any principled person would agree to aide the state in carrying out such an insidious, vile, and patently evil process.”

The culture of those who control SHU placement and living conditions has not changed in the new regulations. CDCR has not revealed the training that officers are receiving for the new step-down program so it is feared they will continue to see inmates as animals and unworthy of dignity or rehabilitation. Then why should inmates trust this new program?

Again, using Connecticut as a best practices example, the culture was changed before the new step-down program was initiated – a program that has seen the end of their super max, a substantive and substantial drop in violence, and great cost savings to the state. And employees who were asked if they wanted to participate in this new culture and basically sensitizing them, educating them as to how to inspire these prisoners into the step-down program, the officers who were not amenable to being part of that step-down program were transferred to other jobs but no jobs were lost to personnel in Connecticut.

Now, Norway – and I have in my notes a longer discussion of Norway. Norway is a state, albeit not a state of the United States. But they wrestled with this issue many, many decades ago, and Norway, you know, in a very conscious, organized way moved from a vengeance model to a philosophy where they had a stake in advancing the development of the human beings that they had in their custody, even their so-called worst of the worst. They have a whole long developed program where they basically put them in a natural human setting – anyway I don’t have time to go into it. But Norway is an extraordinary example where – and the philosophy is not just being nice guys; it’s they think that if they improve the opportunities for the prisoners to them personally, then that would help them contribute to the society because once they come out, they’re fuller human beings and able to cope and respond, you know, in civilized society, become good parents, fathers, et cetera.

We destroy people in this system right now, and they don’t come out whole.

And so I would look to Norway – although that’s probably too far advanced for the United States but it’s something to look at for California. [Laughter]

…The Virginia Department of Corrections has developed a specific model for prison culture change, applying the principles of evidence-based practices, and you heard about that with a former speaker. One of the most compelling aspects about this program and that of Connecticut is that they see their success as tied to a real internal culture change in raising staff consciousness towards a more positive and nurturing attitude, gaining trust – and that’s an essential aspect, of course – and inspiring inmates to succeed.

Without humane re-framing, California’s SHU prisoners will continue to suffer the constitutional tortures endemic to a corrections culture that violates human dignity and self-worth because there is no outside oversight, little accountability or transparency.

And although I had it in my formal remarks, I absolutely think there has to be an independent neutral person outside CDCR – and you know, an administrative law judge – somebody where there’s evidence produced, where people have a right to defend themselves against the charges – the secrets they have held against them all these years – so that it is a fair hearing process. So I highly recommend that.

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