Punishment by Cold

Punishment by Cold
Boston Woodard

Just because someone has been in the prison system for an exorbitant amount of time does not mean he or she has “seen it all.” The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) superintends (albeit neglectfully) 33 state prisons from northern California’s Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City to Centinela State Prison in El Centro on the southeast California/Mexico border.

California’s weather patterns range from soaring southern temperatures in the 120-degree range to subzero climates in the northern part of the state. San Quentin has damp/foggy winters and balmy summers. Ironwood State Prison (bordering Arizona) can reach temperatures into the mid-120s at times. These are a few examples of how antithetical weather patterns can be in California.

On August 9, 2009, I was transferred out of Solano State Prison (actually kicked out due to my journalistic activities) and whisked hundreds of miles away to a remote prison in Susanville. It was hot when I arrived–in the 90s. Less than two months later, on October 4, it snowed for the first time that year. It was just a few flurries, but it snowed.

Within a couple of weeks after that first snow, it snowed off and on regularly. Susanville is located in extreme northern California on the northeast slopes of the Sierra mountain range, about 4,400 feet above sea level. By the first week of December 2009, temperatures had plummeted to subzero, bottoming at one point to 15 degrees below zero. That was the first time since I lived in New England (30-plus years ago) that I had to wear thermals and sweats to bed. It was freaking cold!

There are countless methods employed to punish or retaliate against prisoners, and every prison has its own way to handle its charges. Some prison administrators allow prisoner rival factions to be housed together knowing this promotes and incites tension or worse. Other prisons desecrate prisoners’ personal property under the guise of “security searches.” Some prisons, such as Solano State Prison in Vacaville, lock prisoners out of their housing units during retaliatory (and bogus) searches for up to 10 hours in the blazing sun where there is no shade or sun protection. See “Shake-Down Hate-Filled Retaliation” in the June 2008 Community Alliance (www.fresnoalliance.com/home/magazine/2008/2008_CA_June_2.pdf).

Other institutions such as High Desert, New Folsom and Salinas Valley state prisons use hands-on physical methods to inflict
torturous pain and suffering on (usually) defenseless, shackled prisoners. In High Desert State Prison (also in Susanville), some prisoners were beaten and tortured. One prisoner (confined to a wheelchair) was pummeled by guards on High Desert’s “B” yard, which is designated for medical dependent prisoners.

Being beaten and illegally manhandled no doubt tops the list of abuses. But the most bizarre, humiliating and torturous method of punishment and retaliation I’ve seen was at the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville. It is punishment by cold.

My first experience with punishment by cold was in December 2009 just after two days of freezing snowfall. The dormitory I lived in with 29 other prisoners was descended upon by 15 or so guards wearing rubber gloves and carrying large, plastic trash bags (to remove usurped prisoners’ property).

Everyone was ordered to “freeze; don’t move until you’re ordered to do so!” We were not allowed to touch or move anything. Some men were laying on their bunks in boxer shorts, others were in a small day room drawing or studying on a recreation table. No one was completely dressed, and almost everyone had on slippers or shower shoes (thong type) inside the dormitory.

After being strip searched (of what little clothes they had on), everyone was ordered to put on their boxer shorts and their unsubstantial (considering the snow and cold) footwear and was escorted to a small basketball court outside the dormitory. We were made to stand in the freezing cold for more than an hour and a half while the guard searched the dormitory for unknown reasons. One guard stated that someone in the dorm “mouthed off” to another guard earlier in the day so “everyone pays.”

Some of the prisoners forced to stand in the cold and snow were elderly who had been officially deemed medically handicapped under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) law. Many had numerous medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C, mobility and hearing impairments; some prisoners were on psychiatric medications and experienced a variety of other debilitating problems. Many of these prisoners wear brightly colored (mesh) vests with large/bold lettering on the back displaying their impairments, for example, “Mobility Impaired,” “Visually Impaired.” Most of these prisoners amble with a cane or special orthopedic shoes. These men also were subjected to punishment by cold.

In February 2010, prisoners in another dormitory on Susanville’s Sierra yard were constrained to a small area near an exercise subdivision on the main prison yard. The temperature was in the mid-20-degree range. It was 7:10 p.m. when the 30 prisoners were paraded in boxer shorts and T-shirts (some with no shirts) out into the cold. After a few minutes, some of them began to run in place or do some types of exercises in an attempt to warm themselves.

About an hour after these men were forced into the freezing weather, they were all shaking, some quite violently. At 8:30 p.m. (an hour and 20 minutes into the torture), dozens of other prisoners arriving back on the yard from various religious services at the chapel saw the freezing prisoners. In an attempt to help the cold prisoners, some of the church returnees walked as close as they could to the center of the yard (an absolute no-no when searches are in progress) and began throwing jackets, shirts and other clothes (off their own backs) at the freezing men.

After being alerted by one of the guard towers, several guards hurried to the yard and strip searched those prisoners attempting to help the nearly frozen prisoners. Their prisoner identification cards were taken, a prerequisite to receiving serious disciplinary rules violations. I don’t know if disciplinary reports were issued. At 8:55 p.m., the horribly frozen prisoners were allowed to return to their dormitory because of a mandatory institutional count at
9 p.m.

Another use of punishment by cold in Susanville is called “Mandatory Yard.” Mandatory Yard is more of a convenience tactic used by some guards who admit that it allows them to page prisoners over the institution’s PA system rather than do scheduled
“unlocks.” Scheduled unlocks entail going out into the cold and snow for 10-15 minutes every hour to do their job; unlock doors. When everyone is forced onto the yard during the winter, it is usually from after breakfast (8 a.m.) until noon time. During the four hours or so outside, prisoners have access to one urinal and a small stainless steel toilet (sometimes frozen solid). There is a drinking fountain on the yard turned off during the winter months so “the pipe won’t freeze,” according to a maintenance worker.

Every week, transportation buses arrive at CCC Susanville bringing prisoners from various fire camps throughout northern California. These prisoners are heroes who fight fires, maintain forests by cutting fire lines, clear brush and perform a litany of other public service assignments that assist and protect the public. They return to Susanville for medical purposes periodically. Some are injured on the job, some need dental or eye attention.

When a bus arrives during the winter and the ground is covered with snow, these firefighters are forced to walk a hundred yards or more in thong-type shower shoes with their feet exposed to the elements. They are made to wait outside for extended amounts of time until they are given identification cards. After walking to their assigned dorms, they wait sometimes up to an hour in the cold until a guard decides to “key” them in. Punishment by cold. Other new arrivals off buses from prisons around the state also wait long periods of time wearing only a cheese-cloth thin paper jumpsuit until housed. Punishment by cold.

Even if some of the so-called security searches and shakedowns are for legitimate purposes, prisoners (after the obligatory strip search) could be placed in one of the empty chow halls or the gymnasium just a few yards from where they stand for hours in the freezing cold, some half naked. There is no legitimate purpose for this torturous, vindictive, retaliatory punishment that only those of a sadistic bent could employ and enjoy.

The California Correctional Center practice of using cold weather to torture prisoners is nothing short of draconian and can be compared to methods used by dictators in third world countries. If CCC’s Warden R.E. Barnes still heads CCC at the end of 2010, he needs to step up to the plate and cease this tortuous practice of inflicting agony and pain on his prisoners unless, of course, he himself takes pleasure over seeing punishment by cold.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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