Prison Cap Hearing Was Like Being in the America I Thought Was Gone

Wednesday, June 27. 2007 was the unforgettable day that two senior judges who are legends in their own time made a decision that will likely change the course of California’s history. Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton made it very clear that they are leaning toward creating a judicial panel charged with setting a population cap for California’s prison system.

I was there and was very much a part of the decade-long battle leading up to this banner day. Because of voter apathy and lack of education about how the system works by those devasted by it, law enforcement labor unions were able to put their own politicians into office so their members could get away with murdering and maiming prisoners through medical neglect, careless double celling of mentally ill inmates and suicides. Hundreds of lives have been lost in the prisons that could have been saved due to overcrowding, cruelty and unbearable incompetence which is why the federal judges have had to intervene.

I know because I watched scores of people perish simply because there was no place to go for help which is still happening today as San Quentin is being cleaned up as a prototype for the rest of the prisons where health care is sliding downhill rapidly.


As Judge Karlton put it simply during the hearing, “People are dying” and “I’ve written more than 70 orders.” Imagine that, a federal judge writing 70 orders to bring a failed agency into compliance with the Coleman lawsuit and the California Department of Corrections (CDCr) standing there before them with nothing but more blue sky promises that reform has been happening for the past six months.

Sitting in the largest courtroom in the Sacramento Federal Courthouse with our UNION families overflowing and at one point filling the large foyer outside as well, I actually felt as if I was back in America. The one I remembered from the 50’s and 60’s when people were involved in the process and old-fashioned judges such as Henderson and Karlton could be relied upon to uphold the Constitution and do the right thing by people.

I was pinning pink carnations on devastated moms, dads, brothers and sisters of prisoners of every shape, size, age, race, and religion imaginable. Pink is the color that symbolizes hope and trust which we have given to these two judges after all those before them have destroyed our hope and right to the pursuit of happiness. I appreciated what these families had to go through to get to the courthouse where it is difficult to find parking in the middle of the week, to stand for all those who weren’t organized to send someone to represent them. I brought about 100 small flowers even realizing that we never saw that many people turn out to an important hearing in Sacramento.

If I lose hope along the way, and stop the organizing necessary to keep our issues in the news and on the front burner with the politicians, this day and hopefully others to come like it will not be possible. So I bought 100 pink carnations, fully expecting to go home with half of them and saved several rows of seats for people who had emailed me that they were coming. In the last five minutes before the hearing got underway, droves of UNION members filed in.

There were our core members who have worked so hard for more than a decade and paid for everything it takes to do events and campaigns out of their own pockets but then I started to see new faces of people who had been sitting on the lists not showing up or writing to editors.

Everyone was dressed in their respectful hearing attire and were very excited at the prospect at relief for their loved ones in prison. I didn’t start getting excited about the record turn out until we ran out of carnations, the onslaught happened so fast. It was if everyone showed up at the same time during the last few minutes before the trial began.

The UNION members spilled over into the foyer nearly filling that up as well. We did twice as good at turning out than anyone expected which delivered a clear message to everyone in power that no longer will we quietly watch our fathers, sons, daughters, mothers in prison be tortured and murdered without filing lawsuits and reporting inhumane actions to the media; no longer will we sit by and not elect our own people into office instead of waiting for compassion and mercy from law enforcement’s politicians; no longer will we allow bills to be passed and decisions to be made that impact our lives without our voices being heard.

At one point when Paul Mello, a brash young CDC Attorney was stringing together long, meaningless words to try and convince Judges Karlton and Henderson to give AB 900, a ridiculous $8 billion prison expansion bill a chance, the families laughed when Judge Karlton told him “I just can’t understand what you’re saying.”

There were so many UNION families in the courtroom that the laugh sounded more like a roar and Judge Karlton quickly but gently told us “no laughing from the gallery.”

But AB 900 is a laughable bill. CDCr’s own attorneys called out the sheer stupidity of a prison expansion when there isn’t enough staff and doctors to take care of the existing population. I was told last week that the state prison at Blythe has only one doctor on staff for 5,000 men which isn’t nearly enough. It is unconstitutional to lock people in cages and deny them a regular community standard of health care but this has been going on for the entire decade that we’ve been organizing the UNION.

What is bringing about the reform is lawsuits. Prison Law Office’ Donald Specter and Steve Fama successfully fought and won Plata. Two other landmark lawsuits Coleman and Madrid found CDCr and all its agencies in violation of the law. Yet the practices of murder and mayhem by medical neglect and abuses of the mentally ill continue today. Our UNION families have filed 28 mostly wrongful death lawsuits which is costing the state money to litigate because the State refuses to take action against those state workers who are responsible for killing people through deliberate indifference and incompetence.

The judges are our heroes and we hate to be so selfish as to ask them not to retire until this three judge panel is set up and a prison cap is put into place. We are organizing as best we can given the education level of those who have a loved one in prison and given their financial and emotional devastation over watching their loved one suffer. It is necessary for everyone to fight their own court battles and then go to a higher level of thinking in the UNION in order to force reform of the system. Only the most intelligent will do it realizing there can be no justice in their individual cases until they set up an entity at least as fierce as the animal rights groups.

The courageous actions of Judges Henderson and Karlton will all go to appeal most likely. There can be no fast, easy, remedy because the mostly Republican punishers who benefit from the human bondage industry will do everything in their power to preserve the status quo. The prisons are what runs the bureaucracy. It’s an uncreative idea which hearkens back to the dark ages, but prisons are California’s largest industry and there will be those who will fight this action hand, tooth and nail.

Everyone in power knows that there is only one entity that can take down the prison industry and that is an informed, organized and mobilized citizen’s group that will prevent people who work for it from getting elected in the first place.

When the UNION families actually turned out for something important by the hundreds it made news wire headlines because people in power who understand how the system works know that just 6500 people willing to work and fund ONE large group can change any law through the initiative process. 6500 x 200 signatures each on a ballot registered with the secretary of state can put anything on the ballot. The families were remarkable and besides one laugh, which no one could have resisted, they were very well behaved. There was no protest outside, although those who support the current bullies in power tried to claim that there was, everyone was in the courtroom or the foyer with all the California print media present who can vouch for their good manners.

With three million lives now devastated by the human bondage industry, not including those related to someone in jail, juvenile hall or federal prisons, that is a huge voting block. The politicians and law enforcement labor unions that they represent have counted on fear mongering, ignorance and apathy to keep the down-trodden people from organizing and putting an end to prisons.

This entity, a citizen’s group, will be what ultimately puts an end to the suffering and dying if it can grow by leaps and bounds and fund itself. Campaigns done right cost millions of dollars but when millions of people get together and put in a few dollars and some labor they can be done quite simply. So far that has happened for every citizen’s group in California except the families of prisoners who tend to fracture up instead of having ONE large group that hammers on two or three campaigns at a time. There are never enough funds and volunteers in the UNION, yet some people go off and start another group. How silly when the existing campaigns are working too few people to death while others sit and criticize instead of pitching in to help.

The judges gave us all some hope but equally as important as the prison cap is the hope that the UNION families delivered to all those in power. The clear message that a citizen’s group does exist that cares about the welfare of prisoners, has the intelligence and capability of filing lawsuits for abuses and is learning now how to get out the vote was delivered that day and the judges saw it.

There is still a question about whether or not enough of them will become enlightened and active and stay on the campaigns one at a time until enough get done. There must be 500 small groups out there and new ones being started daily which detract from doing two or three major campaigns at a time. CDCr laughs at all the tiny groups, realizing that not one of them can call 1000 or more people to the Capitol or elect anyone to office.

The last thing we need is new groups when there isn’t one in California that is really teaching people to register the poor to vote except the UNION. If the 3 million people attached to a state prisoner were all registering just 20 people each to vote and bringing them in their cars to the polls on election day, we would have no one in office to vote against our bills.

Judges Henderson and Karlton expressed sympathy for the Governor stating that he would like to make changes but the “senators” won’t go along with him. The fact of the matter is that the Governor has vetoed legislation that passed both houses all on his own. One key bill that comes to mind was last year’s effort to re-sentence terminally ill and incapacitated prisoners. That passed both houses of the California legislature and was vetoed by the Governor.

This year the Governor has another chance with a similar bill AB 1539 which is now on its way to Senate Appropriations Committee which it must pass before going to a floor vote. The scuttlebutt is that Schwarzenegger has no intention of signing this bill because his tough-on-crime image is more important than the human suffering needlessly taking place in the bloodhouse prisons. Watch this bill and write about it in your letters to editors because an image should not be more important than real people.

Other vetoes that passed both houses which would have helped to remedy the situation were a number of media access bills, so vital to the proper operation of tax-payer financed institutions. The Governor vetoed many bills that he should have signed which the “senators” saw fit to pass. So I’m not buying into his placing all the blame for thwarting reform on the legislatures. He did more than his share of holding it all back.

A prison cap is possible but it will be a long battle which a few of us fighting cannot win by ourselves. People need to focus and stop looking for a free rescue for no work and no money spent, stop going on off on tangents and build the force it will take to see this put in place.

The June 27 hearing delivered hope that a three judge panel will be set up who will have the power to impose a limit on the number of people who can be put in prison. The decision will most likely be posted on the Judges’ websites within the next couple of weeks.

What will bring a prison cap to reality however is the size of a well-oiled, noisy, citizen’s group that will be writing to editors, getting out the vote and showing up several times a year to important hearings. The people at the top know this and the good ones are in favor of this organizing, the evil ones will do everything in their power to stop it and bust it up into tiny factions.

If you want to see changes in the laws, and this Prison Cap become reality, you must not allow this fracturing of 500 little groups to continue but get active and committed in the UNION right away to prepare for the battles ahead. Silence and apathy allowed it all to get this bad, you can do something about changing it with noise and action.

Dr. B. Cayenne Bird

Dr. B. Cayenne Bird is a journalist and activist, trying to bring awareness to the brutal, unfair corrections system and politicians who don’t care.