Rural Prison as Colonial Master
By Christian Parenti
In 1964 a tsunami swept over Crescent City, California completely destroying the downtown. Only nine people died, but the townnestled just below the Oregon bordernever recovered. It was rebuilt as a shabby imitation of Southern Californias worst planning examples; empty parking spaces and box-like buildings dominate the landscape.
In 1989 another tsunami hitthis time the tidal wave was political. The California Department of Corrections (CDC) rolled in, and with little opposition, built the sprawling, $277.5 million Pelican Bay State Prison, one of the newest, meanest super-max prisons in the system. Pelican Bay is now an international model of sensory deprivation and isolation; half the inmates are deemed incorrigible and locked in their cells 23 hours-a-day. The prison is also Crescent City and Del Norte countys largest employerand, some say, its new colonial master.
The new prison has political and economic clout which is all the more exaggerated due to Crescent Citys extreme isolation and poverty. Only 4 of the areas 17 sawmills were still in operation when the prison arrived, commercial salmon fishing was dead, and during the mid-1980s, 164 businesses had gone under. By the time the CDC came scouting for a new prison site, unemployment had reached 20 percent. Del Norte County, with Crescent City at its heart, was in a seemingly terminal economic torporthe prison was its only hope.
It is a situation that has been replicated a dozen times in recent yearsfrom Bowling Green, Missouri to rural Florida to Dannemora, New Yorkeconomically battered small towns are rolling over for new prisons. In fact, punishment is such a big industry in the American countryside, that, according to the National Criminal Justice Commission, 5 percent of the growth in rural population between 1980 and 1990 is accounted for by prisoners.
But the story of the rural prison boom is not all rosy economic statistics, critics say prisons bring an array of political costs. "Were a penal colony, plain and simple. This is Californias Siberia or Guyana," says John Levy, a Crescent City lawyer, who used to make his living defending Pelican Bay prisoners charged with committing crimes in prison. Levy says that, at least in Crescent City, the CDCs power extends far beyond the prison gate and prison officials use economic leverage and violent intimidation to silence dissent. Several other persecuted defense attorneys, former guards, and community members, tell a similar story.
For the most part, people in Del Norte county dont agree, theyre just happy to have jobs. Pelican Bay provides 1,500 jobs, an annual payroll of $50 million dollars, and a budget of over $90 million. Indirectly, the prison has created work in everything from construction and pumping gas, to domestic violence counseling. The contract for hauling away the prisons garbage is worth $130,000 a yearbig money in the states poorest county. Following the employment boom came almost 6,000 new residents, Del Nortes population (including 4,000 prisoners) is now 28,000. In the last ten years the average rate of housing starts doubled as has the value of local real estate.
With the building boom came a huge Ace Hardware, a private hospital, and a 90,000 square foot K-Mart. Across from K-Mart is an equally mammoth Safeway. "In 1986 the county collected $73 million in sales tax; last year it was $142 million," says Cochran. On top of that, local government is saving money by using low-security "level-one" prisoners instead of public works crews. Between January 1990 and December 1996, Pelican Bay inmates worked almost 150,000 hours on everything from school grounds to public buildings. According to one report, the prison labor, billed at $7 hour, would have cost the county at least $766,300. "Without the prison we wouldnt exist," says assessor Cochran.
While the CDCs economic impact is plain to see, its power in Del Norte County courts is quite opaque but just as real. "From our investigations it seems that the prison, in conjunction with local judges and prosecutors, is using every excuse it can to keep more people locked up for longer," says Leslie DiBenedetto-Skopek of the California Prison Focus (CPF), a human rights group based in San Francisco which investigates conditions in Pelican Bay. CPF investigators, who visited Pelican Bay in late January, say that minor administrative infractionssuch as spitting on guardsare often embellished and prosecuted as felonies in the local courts in front of juries stacked with guards and their families. As a result, Pelican Bay inmates are getting new convictions and becoming permanently trapped in prison, regardless of their original conviction.
"For example," says attorney and CPF investigator Rose Braz, "I interviewed this one kid G-; hes 21, a white guy from [rural] Trinity County. He got 4 years for robbery, turned 18 in the Corcoran SHU (Security Housing Unity). But due to several fights inside, some of which were staged by guards at Corcoran, this guy is now facing his third strike."
"I am afraid Ill never get out," said G- in a taped CPF interview. Just to make sure, the CDC is paying 35 percent of the Del Norte county District Attorneys budget. The money covers the costs of convicting prisoners charged with committing new crimes. District Attorney Bill Cornel, says the CDCs contributions dont even cover the full cost of handling an annual average of 80 Pelican Bay cases. "Its clear what this is all about," says CPF investigator Noelle Hanrahan. "These prison convictions are job security for the whole area."
Crescent City criminal defense attorneys say that while the CDC bolsters the local prosecutors office, it also uses behind-the-scenes leverage to prevent effective inmate defense. "Hell, all I know is that in 1995 I won four out of five of my Pelican Bay cases and they were almost all three strikes. Then, in 1996 the judge gave me only one case," says criminal defense attorney Mario de Solenni, a self-proclaimed "conservative, redneck pain-in-the-ass." According to de Solenniwho owns and drives a collection of military vehiclessuccessfully defending prisoners is a no-no: "Lets just say the system doesnt seem to like it if the defense wins."
Other lawyers tell similar stories of beating the prosecution too many times and then finding themselves with fewer defense appointments. "Now the judges go all the way down to Humbolt to find incompetent, pony-tailed fuck-ups who alienate juries and cant win cases," says de Solenni.
Tom Eastona defense attorney with the slightly euphoric air of someone whos just survived a major auto wreckin a modest house overlooking the sea. The National Review and American Spectator> cover his coffee table, but right-wing reading habits havent helped endear him to CDC compradors.
"The prison and the DA are trying to destroy my career," says Easton, who was facing felony charges including soliciting perjury from a prisoner. Easton says the charges were nothing more than retaliation for providing defense in criminal cases and handling civil rights suits on behalf of Pelican Bay inmates. In late January, all charges against Easton, save one misdemeanor count of soliciting business, were dropped or ended in hung juries. "But the DA could still try to have me disbarred," says Easton. In the meantime, he has been banned from communicating with the seven Pelican Bay prisoners he represents.
"I am convinced that they went after Easton because he filed suits on behalf of prisoners," say defense attorney Paul Gallegos, who has been accused of gang affiliation by the DA. "That accusation was patently absurd. The DA didnt even realize he was, by implication, accusing the judge who appointed me to the case."
Absurd or not, DA harassment has a chilling effect. "I can see the writing on the wall," says John Levy. "They just dont want these prisoners to get defense. The more of em they can pack in, the more money comes down the pipe. Ive had enough of it. Im leaving town."
Among Levys clients are four prison maintenance workers who testified against administrators in a recent corruption case. "The former head of operations out there made death threats against my clients, the state is still investigating," says Levy, adding that one of his clients has since been forced to leave town after being fired from the local hardware store at the behest of a prison official. "Hey, the prison is the only place that buys in bulk," says Levy.
According to Levy and others, the CDC also has covert investigative units, with classified budgets, that conduct surveillance in the community and keep dossiers on trouble-makers. "Internal Affairs does investigations in the community but I dont think thats inappropriate," says Tom Hopper, former Del Norte county sheriff and the current Community Resource Manager at Pelican Bay. CDC officials in Sacramento also confirm that the departments two undercover police forcesthe Special Services Unit (SSU) and the Investigative Services Unitdo at times carry out surveillance off of prison grounds. During recent revelations of officially sponsored violence at Corcoran State Prison, SSU officers were caught trying to intimidate whistle-blowers. They even chased down a guard as he raced to the FBI with scandalous evidence.
John Cox looks like a poster boy for the CDC. But the former Pelican Bay correctional officer (CO) is, instead, a CDC target. Trouble began in 1991 when Cox broke the guards code of silence and testified against a fellow officer who had beaten an inmates head with the butt of a gas gun, and then framed the victim. Cox refused to go along with yet another set-up. According to findings in Madrid vs. Gomeza high-profile class action against the CDCPelican Bay administrators called Cox a "snitch" and told him to "watch his back."
Even before Cox broke ranks in court he was hated by other guards. As sergeant in charge of the D yard SHU, Cox gave all his officers 100 extra hours of on-the-job training beyond the standard 40. This was seen as treachery by some hard-line COs. "They called D-Yard SHU, fluffy SHU, because we didnt hog-tie inmates to toilets or kick them in the face after cell extractions," says Cox. "There was one officer in there who used to take photos of every shooting and decorate his office with them."
Federal court papers are replete with other heinous examples of abuse at Pelican Bay, such as the notorious case of guards and medical staff who boiled an inmate alive. A central element in this slow-motion riot of sadism was the constant framing of prisoners, so that their sentences grew by decades with each year inside. Coxtrying to play by the rulesfound it almost impossible to do his job.
"I broke up one fight without assistance, called for back-up but none came, and got a torn rotator cuff," says Cox. "The next day the lieutenant made me climb every guard tower ladder. It was pure harassment." The final straw was a series of death threats and close calls on the job. In one incident Cox found himself alone, surrounded by eight inmates and unable to get back-up. "That was it. If I stayed and tried to do my job I probably would have been killed," says Cox, who is currently suing the CDC.
Things have hardly improved since Cox quit. "Bullets through the window, death threats on my kids, hang-up calls, sugar in the gas tank, slashed tires you name it," says Cox, recounting the continued harassment he still suffers at the hands of the CDC and its allies. "The DA and the sheriff have refused to even investigate. They told me to talk to the prison."
Other former guards have also had problems, most notably James Carp, who says he was harassed by superiors for pointing out security faults, such as an automatic door system which failed to lock and required a $2 million dollar overhaul.
Officials at Pelican Bay refuse to comment on Coxs case. But Pelican Bays Tom Hopper did say: "The prison saved this community and people are grateful. There are a few disgruntled employees and other fringe elements that complain, but you cant please everybody." As evidence of CDC bullying mounts this line may become harder to maintain.
"Face itCrescent City has sold its soul to the devil. They got a few jobs but thats about it," says CPF investigator and former prisoner, Louis Talamantez. According to the critics, the wreckage from Crescent Citys latest tsunamirule by the CDCtakes the form, not of fallen buildings, but shattered lives. "Remember, the whole lockdown economy," says Talamantez, "feeds off prisoners, many of whom will never see the world again."
Christian Parenti teaches sociology at the New College of California in San Francisco and is working on a PhD for the London School of Economics.