By Boston Woodard
Ten years ago, I was given the opportunity by Mike Rhodes, former editor of the Community Alliance, to correspond as a journalist from behind state prison walls. Because of Ernesto Saavedra, current editor of the Community Alliance, I am still able to speak about important prison issues with this forum. I write mostly what I observe and/or experience from behind prison walls. Including, but not limited to, the state’s prison system and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
I was introduced to Rhodes by a mutual friend, Maria Telesco. Telesco asked Rhodes if he would look at some of my essays about the prison experience. The first article I sent Rhodes appeared in the Community Alliance in 2005. My article talked about the death penalty and the insanity of it as a punishment. On the same page was an article by a fellow prisoner, Kalima Aswad, who wrote about Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee and author on San Quentin’s Death Row. Williams was put to death by lethal injection despite his many years of helping young people with his books. The following are some of the other articles I’ve written over the years.
In 2005, the Community Alliance published “Public/ Media Access to the Prison System.” I wrote about the CDCR placing a moratorium on prisoner interviews with the news media, pending a review of regulations. A ban was eventually put in place by Governor Pete Wilson. The CDCR officials acted in response to statements by then Governor Pete Wilson, who cited the growth of “tabloid journalism” and the ability of prisoners to use the media for personal gain. Since 1996, the public has been afforded only the watered-down version of prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners approved by the prison administrators for public use. Twenty years later, journalists have gained some of that access back into the prison system but not nearly as much as needed.
In 2006, my article “Votes from Within” about the disenfranchisement of American citizens explains that one in five African-American men cannot vote because of their criminal records. The practice of stripping criminals of their civil rights is rooted in ancient Greek and Roman traditions and has always been a part of U.S. law. Some scholars have pointed out that in several states those laws were honed with racist intent.
In January 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed a plan to send an estimated 5,000-plus prisoners to for-profit, private prisons in several states. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, saying the overcrowding crisis was getting worse with each passing day and that “immediate action is necessary to prevent harm.”
I wrote a series of articles regarding some of those transfers and the adverse effect they had on the prisoners’ family. One of those stories was “Hog Tied.” A young Cambodian prisoner, Sophanereth Sok from Sacramento, was removed from his family visit with his wife in Solano State Prison, handcuffed, shackled, hog tied, then carried onto a waiting transportation bus for out-of-state transfer. Sok was placed in a for-profit private prison in Mississippi. “The Parole Conundrum,” “Unacceptable Material,” “Horrified” and “Foreign National Prisoners” were also published during 2007.
Much was written about the CDCR being taken over by a federal three-judge panel in 2007. The senior judge on that panel, Thelton Henderson in the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco, said their job was to fix the deep wounds of the CDCR’s horrific medical care for prisoners and severe overcrowding. Henderson was thought to be the savior of a healthcare system responsible for the unnecessary deaths of as many as one prisoner per week for years. The medical situation in the prisons has improved considerably since many orders from the panel have been adhered to, albeit at a snail’s pace.
A 2008 article, “Medical Snafu: Ongoing Prison Problem,” highlighted medical problems. Since then, there have been some improvements. Prisoners are getting to triage quicker, nurses and doctors seem more attentive, and many medical staff have been retained. Most prisoners ascribe some changes for the better to the Federal Receiver who was hired and given control of the CDCR’s medical system. It is not completely fixed yet.
In 2008, my “Zip Gun” article described an incident where an administrative prison “lockdown order” stated that “on March 22, 2008, culinary staff discovered an anonymous note indicating that there is a possibility of a Zip Gun being within the Facility III area.” The note was found in a bathroom that was not accessible to prisoners. After a couple of months on lockdown without finding a Zip Gun, the institution was reopened. According to some, the Zip Gun story had been a ruse to lock down the prison so staff could collect countless hours of overtime.
“Shakedown” was an article about the aftermath of an institutional search for the mysterious Zip Gun. Building by building, hundreds of prisoners were ordered to strip naked, searched, then forced to dress only after they were herded to the prison yard. The sun was hot that day, and the prisoners were told they could not wear sunglasses or hats. Approximately 70 full-time guards and another 80 or so guard-cadets stormed into one prison housing unit at a time for approximately seven hours per building. Much of the prisoner’s personal property was destroyed or disrespected.
“Appealing the Impossible” was an article where I described the abuses (at Solano State Prison) of due process rights by some appeals coordinators. Some of them would interpret the federally mandated rules to ensure a favorable outcome for the staff, institution or policy the appeal was filed on.
Other 2008 articles I submitted to the Community Alliance were “Bottom Feeding Hypocrite,” about Henry T. Nicholas III, co-founder of Broadcom, a computer chip-making company, who was indicted for “prostitution, drug peddling, bribery and death threats.” He also financed Marcy’s Law, a constitutional amendment proposed to “protect and extend the legal rights of crime victims.” What it did was dramatically increase parole denials for all prisoners, regardless of their crime.
Another 2008 article, “It Ain’t So Funny When the Rabbit Has the Gun,” addressed the alleged smuggling of cell phones into the institution by prisoners. I explained how local television and print media had been reporting, for example, that thousands of cell phones had been found inside many of California’s 34 state prisons. Prisoners, and their visitors, were blamed for introducing the phones into the prisons, according to news reporters who get their information from prison administrators. I learned from the group Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety that “ranging from $500 to $700 per phone, prison staff were in some cases making as much as $100,000 smuggling devices.”
I also wrote “Rogue Prison Staff” documenting how some prison staff were breaking all the rules. Shortly after this article was published, I was put in Administrative Segregation (the hole), my property was confiscated and I was adversely transferred to a remote prison hundreds of miles from where I was serving my sentence.
The Community Alliance and I agreed that many of the good things prisoners are accomplishing, or are involved with, while behind the walls should be brought to light. As a result of writing all these articles, many of my observations and experiences have been compiled into a book, Inside the Broken California Prison System, which can be purchased online. You can also read some of my articles on the Community Alliance Web site at www.fresnoalliance.org.
Boston Woodard is a prisoner and author of Inside the Broken California Prison System (www. amazon.com). He is a freelance writer and has been a contributor to the Community Alliance since 2005. Boston has coauthored a new book PRISON: The Ins and Outs (to be published soon) with longtime prisoner advocate and journalist Maria Telesco.