In 1985 another tsunami hit -- this 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 prisoners are deemed incorrigible and locked in their cells 23 hours-a-day. The prison is also Crescent City and Del Norte county's largest employer -- and, some say, its new colonial master.
The new prison has political clout which is all the more exaggerated due to Crescent City's extreme isolation and poverty. Only 4 of the area's 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 torpor -- the prison was its only hope.
It is a situation that has been replicated a dozen times in recent years -- from Bowling Green, Missouri to rural Florida to Dannemora, New York -- economically 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. "We're a penal colony, plain and simple. This is California's 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 CDC's 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 don't agree, they're 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 prison's garbage is worth $130,000 a year -- big money in the state's poorest county. Following the employment boom came almost 6,000 new residents, Del Norte's 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 county assessor Jerry 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 prisoners 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 wouldn't exist," says Cochran.
While CDC's economic impact is plain to see, its power in Del Norte courts is quite opaque but just as real. "From our investigation 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 January, 1997, say that minor administrative infractions -- such as spitting on guards are 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 prisoners 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_ _ _; he's 21, a white guy from [rural] Trinity County. He got 4 years for robbery, turned 18 in the Corcoran SHU (Security Housing Unit). 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 I'll 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. This money covers the cost of convicting prisoners charged with committing new crimes. District Attorney Bill Cornel says the CDC's contributions don't even cover the full cost of handling an average of 80 Pelican Bay cases.
"It's 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 prosecutor's office, it also uses behind-the-scenes leverage to prevent effective prisoner 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 Solenni -- who owns and drives a collection of military vehicles -- successfully defending prisoners is a no-no: "Let's just say the system doesn't 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 can't win cases," says de Solenni.
Tom Easton -- a defense attorney with the slightly euphoric air of someone who's just survived a major auto wreck -- lives in a modest house overlooking the sea. The National Review and American Spectator cover his coffee table, but right-wing reading habits haven't 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 prisoners. In late January, 1997, 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," says defense attorney Paul Gallegos, who has been accused of gang affiliation by the DA. "That accusation was patently absurd. The DA didn't 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 don't want these prisoners to get a defense. The more of 'em they can pack in, the more money comes down the pipe. I've had enough of it. I'm leaving town."
Among Levy's 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 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 don't think that's 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 department's two undercover police forces -- the Special Services Unit (SSU) and the Investigative Services Unit -- do at times carry out surveillance off of prison grounds. During recent revelations of officially sponsored violence at Corcoran State Prison, SSU officials were caught trying to intimidate whistle-blowers.
Enforcing the Code
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 guard's code of silence and testified against a fellow guard who had beaten a prisoner's 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 v. Gomez -- a high profile class action against the CDC -- Pelican 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 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 didn't 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 a prisoner 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. Cox -- trying to play by the rules found 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 prisoners and unable to get back-up. "That was it. If I stayed and tried to do my job I would probably 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, 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 investigate. They told me to talk to the prison."
Other former guards have had problems, 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 Cox's case. But Pelican Bay's 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 can't please everybody." As evidence of CDC bullying mounts this line may become harder to maintain.
"Face it -- Crescent City has sold its soul to the devil. They got a few jobs but that's about it," says CPF investigator and former prisoner Luis Talamantez. According to the critics, the wreckage from Crescent City's latest tsunami -- rule by the CDC takes 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,
Reprinted by permission from the June '97 issue of Z Magazine
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login