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Occupy the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

with 3 comments

I spend Sunday afternoon at my old stomping grounds, San Quentin Prison, or to be more precise, on the main street of San Quentin Village. This residential street, with its beautiful views of the San Francisco bay, is unusual because it ends at the east gate of San Quentin Prison, and that’s where Occupy Oakland chose to hold to its first rally in support of prisoners. This was part of a nationwide action protesting against the US prison system.


Occupy San Quentin at East Gate

Occupy San Quentin at East Gate. Death Row inmates are housed in the cell blocks above the grassy knoll on the top left.


Since Occupy Oakland has gained a reputation for spawning violent demonstrations, with 400 members arrested recently, armed law enforcement officers were everywhere, some fulling visible, others in the wings.


Officers with weapons ready at East Gate of San Quentin

Officers with weapons ready at East Gate of San Quentin.


The speakers started off by asking the crowd of about 700 to remain peaceful, and they did for the three hour event. I heard someone say there would be no violence because they were sure guards would later take out their anger on prisoners. There may have been some anarchists in the crowd, but they made their presence known mostly by appearance and signs displayed.


Free all prisoners

Anarchist's vision of a better America.


A disproportionate percentage of blacks get the death sentence.

A disproportionate percentage of blacks get the death sentence.


Man in mask

Groups with varying agendas attended the rally.



For some, the event was a stage to show their colors and have fun.


The speaker I was most interested in was Barbara Becness, one of the event organizers. She was a close friend and advocate for Crips co-founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who was denied a pardon by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and put to death in 2005. At the time, Becness acccused the governor of being “a cold blooded murderer.”  She continues her involvement in a number of social issues and heads the nonprofit North Richmond Neighborhood House in Oakland.

Barbara Becness addresses the protesters at Occupy San Quentin Prison


Death Row at San Quentin

I worked on death row before Tookie’s death, but never met him. In his own way he was a celebrity, and I made it a point not to be searching out famous inhabitants of San Quentin. I did read his book, respected his attempts at rehabilitation, and considered him a role model — even though most prison officials and correctional officers I spoke to insisted he was a fake.

My wife and I were part of a vigil that night in 2005, standing near the gate you see in these current photos, when the state of California killed Williams.

On the makeshift stage, Becness said that Occupy is calling for a number of prison reforms, including the abolition of the death penalty, solitary confinement, and California’s “three strikes” law.”

These three issues have been festering for years, and should be an embarrassment to every fair-minded Californian.


Death Penalty

The arguments against the death penalty are well known. For me it’s a simple moral issue. I don’t think the state should be in the business of killing people.

Three Strikes (passed in 1993 after Richard Allen Davis was convicted of the brutal murder of Polly Klass)

The three strikes law was sold to the public as a way of keeping vicious criminals permanently off the streets, but that’s not exactly how things have worked out.
It’s net is far too wide, and the prison system is overcrowded with inmates serving 25-to-life sentences after being convicted of relatively minor crimes. According to John Diaz in the San Francisco Chronicle, “More than half of the third ‘strikes’ that have triggered a 25-to-life sentence involve neither serious nor violent felonies. Even shoplifting can be escalated to a third-strike felony – bringing life imprisonment – for those with prior convictions of petty theft.”

Prison officials know this, but justify current three-strike policies by invoking the “broken window” argument. “It’s better to lock them up any way we can because we know otherwise they’ll be out there doing more serious crimes. We just haven’t caught them yet. Put them away while we have a chance and save the taxpayers a whole lot grief.”

I’ve worked with a number of three-strikers in the prison mental health system. Almost universally, they struck out while serving their drug addictions, self-medicating, trying to gain some relieve from their serious mental disorders.


Abolish Solitary Confinement

Abolish the SHU (Solitary Confinement)

There is no SHU at San Quentin, but it’s Adjustment Center comes close. It’s where the most dangerous or troublesome prisoners are housed in single cells behind steel doors. All new death sentence arrivals are housed here for a period of evaluation before being sent to the permanent housing on death row.


Solitary Confinement

The prison system argues that prisoners are seldom held in solitary confinement, and then only in extreme cases for the inmate’s own safety or the safety of others. One can argue whether Administrative Segregation units amount to solitary confinement, but it is clear to me that some inmates, especially those with severe mental illnesses, get worse in the the near total isolation of these lockdown cell blocks. The courts have mandated that all inmates be offered several hours on exercise yards every week, but this is not enough, and the sickest, most paranoid, often refuse.

Some of the worst injustices I’ve seen involve inmates who were placed in Administration Segregation for no fault of their own. For example, a gang dropout who might be killed if he were placed in the general population. Because of prison overcrowding, sometimes these inmates wait for many months before space is found on special protective yards. If they have a mental illness, this waiting in Ad Seg is a cruel price to pay for saying they no longer want to be part of a violent prison gang. They suffer as their mental condition deteriorates with each passing month.

Occupy supporters will have to see if joining forces with the prison reform movement turns out to be a good idea. Some might argue that it dilutes an already confusing message. If it reduces the suffering of the thousands of severely ill patients now warehoused in the California prison system, it will be worth the time spent sorting out the issues.


3 Responses

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  1. Nice article, thx


    February 28, 2012 at 12:46 pm

  2. This design is incredible! You definitely know how to keep a reader amused.
    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost.

    ..HaHa!) Excellent job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that,
    how you presented it. Too cool!

    JJ Usher

    June 15, 2013 at 12:13 pm

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