“If you don’t stop telling lies about me, I’ll start telling the truth about you!”—Abraham Lincoln
That quote from our 16th president pretty much describes why I write about prison life. Many times I have read in mainstream media or viewed on news broadcasts stories of prison incidents, episodes, actions or conditions that were factually wrong and/or misleading. The public at large is quick to believe everything proffered to it by a corrupt, broken prison system—the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Prison public information officers (PIOs) are masterful at concocting spurious press releases prepared and tailored by prison administrators for public consumption. The falsely crafted information offered to the public (usually via media) has a one-sided take on any given issue behind prison walls. Because media access into California’s prison system has been severely restricted, to the point that prison officials have control of directing the coverage, the prisoner’s side of a story is almost always never heard. Media delimitation deprives the public of a full account of how their prison system is being managed. This also serves the CDCR well in concealing a corrupt and dysfunctional prison system.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the prison guards’ union, is masterful at perpetuating many of the lies and misinformation with the goal of ingratiating themselves with the public and a rapacious desire to fatten their coffer. Those of us on the inside who observe the daily deportment of these self-proclaimed “peace officers” see the impudence in their pronouncement that they “walk the toughest beat in the state.” Many prison staff negotiate their workday under calm and untroubled circumstances. This is not to say trouble does not arise at times, just not incessantly as claimed. In fact, some prison staff are so bored that they make a game of targeting, then harassing, prisoners with impunity.
Although some prison staff are feted by CDCR officials as symbols of the “safety and security” of the public, there are others who are arrogant, pernicious and dangerous to themselves and those around them. These rogue prison staff continue to violate the rights of prisoners under the color of law exempt from punishment. Often, a snarky dig is the preferred language of prison officials when confronted by legitimate media seeking information.
When top prison officials condone, then cover up, bad behavior by its lower staff, it becomes commonplace for rogue guards and their supervising brass to employ miscreant conduct.
D.J. Vodicka, an ex-CDCR prison guard and author of The Green Wall, exposes rogue prison guards at their worst. The Green Wall was a gang of rogue guards within the CDCR. According to Vodicka, “Members of The Green Wall placed contraband in prisoner’s cells, used unnecessary force at will, and became middlemen for drug and weapons transfers within the prison. Some guards planted prisoner manufactured weapons in prisoner’s cells, falsified reports, and stole or destroyed personal property belonging to prisoners.”
A code of silence was used by members of The Green Wall to cover up its activities and used by some officials to protect its staff. The actions of rogue prison staff, who use a code of silence as an unlawful tool to conspire among fellow staff, do so to cover up a multitude of violations. They use the code of silence to hide violations of policy, retaliate against staff and prisoners who don’t agree with them. “Fostering the Code of Silence includes the failure to act when there is an ethical and professional obligation to do so” according to a memorandum issued by the CDCR on February 17, 2004, to all California Department of Corrections employees proclaiming a “zero tolerance regarding the Code of Silence.”
The code of silence, still used by dirty prison staff, can and does evoke a desired reaction from some prisoners, which is then often used to concoct false disciplinary action against the prisoner-target.
Approximately seven years ago, I was given an opportunity by Mike Rhodes, editor of the Community Alliance newspaper in Fresno, to correspond as a journalist from behind state prison walls. Unlike “mainstream” news publications, the Community Alliance publishes uncensored, unfettered information about all matters of importance to the community, including the prison system.
When the CDCR fast-tracked the transferring of foreign national prisoners out of state to for-profit private prisons, the Community Alliance ran a series of articles on this bogus attempt by the CDCR to lower its population after being ordered to do so by the federal courts. The CDCR began by bullying the most vulnerable of its charges (foreign nationals) by targeting them to be forcefully moved up to a thousand miles or more from their friends and families in California. My article, “Hog Tied,” told the story of Sopanareth Sok, a young Cambodian prisoner (in Solano State Prison) who did not want to be forcefully transferred far from his family. He was literally handcuffed, shackled and then hogtied and whisked off to an undisclosed airport en route to a private prison in Mississippi.
I wrote several articles about California’s corrupt parole system, which has historically broken every rule in the book in an effort to keep thousands of life term prisoners (who have earned the right to return to society) from being paroled. Two articles, “The Parole Conundrum: Vindictive Application of the Law” and “Parole Board Pillory: Courts Expose Corruption,” give a detailed history of why these life prisoners were not allowed to parole, even after decades of honest effort to rehabilitate themselves back into society where they would be, no doubt, assets to many communities. Both articles are backed by numerous court actions and damaging assertions by state and federal court rulings throughout California.
On several occasions, I was escorted by prison guards to Solano State Prison’s custody office, where I was encircled by prison officials and interrogated about my articles: two articles about the “possible” existence of two zip guns on prison grounds and a subsequent article on the bogus, totally destructive shakedown (searches) that followed. Notes found in a prison staff restroom (not accessible to prisoners) prompted two lengthy lockdowns and institutional searches with negative results for zip guns. Many believe the lockdowns were nothing but concocted overtime plays by the prison guards and their union.
During an interrogation at CSP-Solano, a “correctional sergeant” informed me that “we just came from the warden’s office. Sacramento (CDCR headquarters) is investigating several allegations you made in these articles.” My response was that my articles are records of facts as I witnessed or experienced everything I write about. I was escorted back to my housing unit and informed I would be “called back for more questioning.” Prison officials interviewed several prisoners who were physically harmed and/or injured because of a bogus shakedown after being forced to stand in the hot sun for 8‒10 hours. One elderly prisoner suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for weeks. Another 67-year-old partially paralyzed stroke survivor suffered severely sunburned skin and was given two Tylenol for his extremely painful injuries. He has since passed away.
These men verified (during questioning) that my articles of the events and “allegations” depicting what happened to them were “true and accurate” as written. I was never “called back for questioning.”
My article, “It Ain’t So Funny When the Rabbit’s Tot the Gun” (2008), describes an unprecedented event that was secretly employed catching all CSP-Solano guards, and other prison staff, completely by surprise. As employees arrived for the morning shift change, they were thoroughly searched for the contraband that some of them smuggled into the prison.
Colloquial mumblings among the employees were that illegal “cell phones, tobacco, cigarette lighters, various unauthorized weapons (knives, etc.) and other contraband” were found secreted in various locations. The search was initiated after months of local news media reports that it was prisoners who were “smuggling” contraband into Solano State Prison. Prison officials had been covering up the illegal doings of prison staff for years. Prisoners have never been busted for smuggling cell phones into the prison. Only staff has the opportunity to bring cell phones in and sell them for astronomical prices.
In 1996, I was targeted by prison officials for speaking out and writing about California’s Three Strikes law and the rule changes regarding media access into the prison system. I filed a federal complaint against prison officials and the Department of Corrections for violating my First Amendment right(s) to freedom of speech. Shortly after I won a summary judgment in that case, Woodard v. Duncan, the case was settled out of court in 1999.
A second intimidation and retaliation campaign against me, this time at CSP-Solano, began in 2006 in an attempt to stop me from writing about my prison surroundings. It began with verbal threats. With every attempt I made to file a Citizen’s Complaint against rogue guards and administrative staff, harassment and retaliation followed. The prison’s Appeals Coordinators also threatened me with “appeals sanctions” and verbal threats and filed false documentation in an attempt to sully my prison record. I wrote “Appealing the Impossible,” which prompted more threats.
In retaliation for filing a complaint on two rogue guards, a third, their cohort, using the prison guard’s code of silence tactics, concocted and filed a false disciplinary report against me for “threatening staff.” An extremely serious charge. A fourth, honest guard stepped up and told the disciplinary hearing officer (lieutenant) that I never made a threat to the guard who filed the false report or any staff member. I was found “not guilty” of the charge, and the bogus report was expunged from my prison file. Ex‒prison guard and author D.J. Vodicka and the guard who stepped up (at my disciplinary hearing) are examples of honest officers doing their jobs and holding true to their oath to do so.
I wrote “Rogue Prison Staff: Breaking all the Rules” depicting the threatening and dangerous behavior of several of CSP-Solano’s rank-and-file and administrative staff. Shortly after my article appeared in the Community Alliance and on www.indybay.org, I was (again) shackled and escorted to an isolation cell in administrative segregation (The Hole). According to the lockup order, I was placed in isolation because I was a “security risk” to prison staff in consequence of my journalistic activities. In “Rogue Prison Staff,” I put the names of those violators who participated in the retaliation against me.
Again, all my personal property was stolen or destroyed by prison staff and I was forced to “donate or mail out” my typewriter and what was left of my belongings. To further punish me for exercising my First Amendment right to define my surroundings, I was subsequently transferred hundreds of miles away to a remote prison on the northeastern slopes of California’s Sierra Mountain range in Susanville. My transfer was adverse and illegal.
I filed a second civil rights lawsuit this time against CSP-Solano warden John Haviland, who retired shortly after he was ordered to testify at a hearing in the Federal Eastern District Court in Sacramento.
Since my arrival at the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville, the Community Alliance and Indybay.org have published several of my articles regarding abuses and violations by (some) prison staff. Muslim and Native American prisoners being targeted and their religious rights violated. Prisoners punished by being forced outside in freezing weather half naked for hours (see “Punishment by Cold”). Mobility impaired and elderly men forced to stand in long lines for long periods of time with canes and crutches, in pain while in the rain, snow or hot sun for pain and other medications. Abuse of authority by “Appeal” and “Mailroom” officials and the list goes on.
I’ve filed three Citizen’s Complaints on three staff members at CCC Susanville for violation of my civil rights, including trashing and stealing my personal property. I’ve only written complaints on rogue prison staff and the administrative official who condone their dangerous behavior. Most of my encounters with prison staff (on a daily basis) occur without incident because they do their jobs. Period! The abuse of authority and retaliation I write about befalls prisoners throughout California’s prison system from the high-powered “Level Four” prisons such as the High Desert, Pelican Bay, Salinas Valley, New Folsom and Corcoran state prisons to the Soledad, Solano, Tracy, Tehachapi and Calipatria state prisons. I would venture to guess women’s prisons such as the California Institution for Women (CIW) and Chowchilla have their rogue prison staff problems as well.
My reporting is small, but it is honest and unfettered. As a good friend of mine calls it, I’m “keeping it real.” My articles barely scratch the surface of the multitude of violations rogue prison staff escape punishment from with impunity.