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New Folsom Year Long Lockdown

by W. Wisely

Northern California Mexican prisoners have been locked down since November 21, 1998, at New Folsom Prison's C Facility. The lockdown began when Northern and Southern California Mexican prisoners, long time enemies, fought on the yard. Ken Hurdle, an ombudsman appointed by California Department of Corrections Director Cal Terhune, talked with leaders for the Norteños in December, 1999, in an unsuccessful attempt to end the conflict, according to The Sacramento Bee. By the time Hurdle talked with the prisoners, they were on the third week of a hunger strike.

The Norteños were offered contact visits with their families, church services, and use of prison telephones if they agreed to talk with representatives from the Southern California Mexican prisoners in the first of several steps intended to return the prison to normal operation. "They rejected those conditions outright," Ken Hurdle said. The protestors said they would only share the yard with black prisoners. Northern California Mexicans and blacks are usually allied in prison. Prison officials refused to consider segregating the yard to keep conflicting groups apart. "Then you'd have two groups normally aligned on the yard at the same time. They would then only have staff as their 'enemy'," said Hurdle.

At least two prisoners showed health problems from the hunger strike, according to prison staff. Hurdle claimed no prisoner was getting sick because they had canteen and food from packages. "It's just that they're not accepting CDC food. That's why we're moving from calling it a hunger strike to a food strike."

The Norteños have support outside. "They're being held against their will by a government that has a history of massacring indigenous people," said Maria Ortiz, coordinator of the San Jose based Barrio Defense Committee. Maria's son is serving 16 years to life for second degree murder at New Folsom. She says letters received from the protestors state three prisoners have become sick, and one has kidney damage due to the hunger strike.

About 67 Norteños are involved in the lockdown. They've presented prison officials with a list of 14 requests, including access to education and job training. One anonymous prisoner posted a message on the Internet describing the lock-down and denouncing prison officials and their policies as racist. "[I]f you are of Mexican descent and you have been tried, convicted and sentenced in a jurisdiction of Northern California, then you will be labeled a 'Northern Hispanic' inmate," he wrote. He described how Norteños were essentially in administrative segregation, although they had not been charged with violating any prison rule. Southern California Mexican prisoners, or Sureños, whites, blacks, and other ethnic groups had regular program and privileges during the past year. The official refusal to consider running segregated yards to avoid bloodshed is reminiscent of the integrated yard policy at Corcoran SHU that led to guards staging fights between prisoners for sport.

Prison officials threatened protestors with transfer to other prisons throughout the state if they don't agree to sign a nonviolence treaty. "We don't want to make it an either/or-it's not an either/or," Hurdle claimed. "It's just another attempt to resolve this situation." But, Maria Ortiz described the ultimatum as retaliation. "They're just preparing to transfer them to Pelican Bay or High Desert. They're trying to cover up. They're trying to isolate them."

Citing California Governor Gray Davis' ban on all face to face media interviews with people in prison, the department refused to allow reporters for the Bee into the prison to talk with protestors. A bill, overwhelmingly passed by the California Legislature, which would've restored the media's ability to interview and correspond confidentially with prisoners, was vetoed by Davis late last year. Davis, who took millions in donations from the prison guards union, and gave the union president's daughter a high-paying government job, stated he didn't want to make celebrities out of criminals as his reason for vetoing the legislation.

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