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Articles by Rick Anderson

California Prisons Struggle with Environmental Threats from Sewage Spills, Contaminated Water, Airborne Disease

by Rick Anderson

"When I walk into my cell and see a [toilet] bowl full of brown water, I’m reminded of my status in the world; I’m reminded of my value. All the pious talk in the world about rehabilitation doesn’t change this ugly reality.”

That was lifer Kenneth E. Hartman describing what some days are like at the California State Prison LAC in Lancaster, a maximum-security facility about 70 miles north of Los Angeles.

It’s crowded there, and the prison’s operations and sewer system are bearing the effects of more than 3,400 prisoners in a facility built to hold 2,300. Some newcomers bunk in the crowded gymnasium where beds are pushed together dormitory-style in long vertical rows and prisoners, unlike those in cells, have to line up to use the bathroom facilities.

California’s prison population peaked at more than 175,000 in 2006, roughly double the system’s intended capacity. Critics blamed the overcrowding on the state’s hard-line, 1990s policies which, over the years, increasingly saw incarceration and lengthy sentences as the best answers to rising crime: Lock ‘em all up, a majority of legislators believed.

With prisoners sleeping in hallways, gyms and program rooms, then-Governor Arnold ...

Registration, Tracking of Sex Offenders Drives Mass Incarceration Numbers and Costs

by Rick Anderson

The September 1988 rape and murder of 29-year-old Diane Ballasiotes in Seattle, Washington, followed by the 1989 rape and sexual mutilation of a 7-year-old Tacoma boy, were the seedlings of today’s nationwide sex offender registry laws – a 50-state network that tracks over 805,000 registrants and whose usefulness as a crime-prevention tool has been questioned and criticized.

Other cases from that same era – including the widely-reported 1989 kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota, which was solved only late last year – led to a series of 1990-2000 state and federal statutes that established central registries for sex offenders, as well as residency restrictions and civil commitment laws.

Attorneys and advocates for change wonder how many of the nation’s more than 805,000 registered sex offenders are in prison or jail on any given day just for violating registration requirements – which are technical violations rather than sex crimes, and did not even exist before 1990. And how much does that, and registry enforcement efforts, add to the rising costs of tracking and monitoring sex offenders? In Palm Beach County, Florida, one officer said 20 deputies are assigned full time to ...

Greenwashing Washington State’s Prison System in a River of Sewage

Greenwashing Washington State’s Prison System in a River of Sewage

by Rick Anderson

Greenwashing: When an agency or company spends more on marketing and public relations to promote the perception they are environmentally conscious than they spend on implementing environmentally conscious practices and policies.

In 2005, embarking on a new-found interest in creating more environmentally friendly prisons, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) built what it claimed was the nation’s first correctional building to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold rating. There was a lot of back patting and official ring kissing. The 10,000-square-foot Jimmie Evans Training Center at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) north of Seattle includes prisoner classrooms and a computer lab. Built to conserve energy, the training center featured waterless urinals and a rainwater system used to flush low-flow toilets. Almost a century old, the prison was going green and this time it wasn’t from moss.

The Monroe complex, which houses 2,400 male prisoners in separate reformatory, mental health, sex offender and minimum-security units, also got a new LEED-certified maintenance building that year. It was built with recycled construction materials and relied on more natural lighting from windows and skylights ...

In Washington State Prisons, Negligent Health Care Turns Illness into a Death Sentence

In Washington State Prisons, Negligent Health Care Turns Illness into a Death Sentence

Ricardo Cruz Mejia went to prison a murderer, he left a victim.

by Rick Anderson

Ricardo Cruz Mejia’s final days began with a stomach problem. It was October 2010. After the 26-year-old Walla Walla State Penitentiary prisoner discovered blood in his stool, he signed in at the prison infirmary. A test and exam turned up a severely inflamed colon. The onetime Latino gang member from Skagit County, doing 34 years for seven felonies including murder, was given hydrocortisone enemas and tabs of prednisone, used to treat inflammation. The prison medical staff also gave him sulfasalazine for abdominal pain.

In November, Mejia, a stocky, tattooed prisoner with a closely shaved head, began to experience other symptoms – headaches, sore throat, then vomiting. He also had begun to develop a rash, for which he was given penicillin, though it didn’t seem to help.

In the ensuing days, he became a familiar figure to infirmary nurses. From December through the first week of January 2011, he showed up at the infirmary 14 times. Nurses doled out a topical cortico-steroid for skin inflammation and tried other drugs to ease his symptoms ...

Unreported Jail Deaths: There have been two apparent suicides, one of which remains a mystery.

By Rick Anderson

Gas-station robber Ronald Ray Hicks went to sleep in his King County Jail bunk just before 10 p.m. July 25 and never woke up. His cellmate noticed Hicks still lying on his left side on the lower bunk, facing the wall, as the downtown jail was stirring at 7 a.m. The cellmate touched Hicks' ankle, then shook his shoulder. Hicks, 43, who had been on suicide watch in the past, was dead.

Though cause has yet to be determined, authorities think he may have intentionally overdosed on a drug illegally imported into the jail. Hicks had been convicted in 2003 for a poorly planned holdup of an Issaquah gas station—nabbed after running out of gas 200 yards away. For his third felony, he received a life sentence under the state's "three strikes" law. A week before he apparently committed suicide in his two-man cell last month, he learned his appeal was rejected.

Unreported until now, Hicks' death is considered the jail's first of 2005. "We've had no other jail deaths since the first of the year," says Maj. William Hayes, spokesperson for the county's Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention ...

Death Sentence: The Feds Throw the Book at King County'sJail as Prisoner Fatalities Skyrocket

Death Sentence: The Feds Throw the Book at King County's Jail as Prisoner Fatalities Skyrocket

by Rick Anderson

A few months after two prisoners in the downtown King County Jail in Seattle, Washington committed suicide in 2005--one by overdosing on hoarded jail medications, the other by hanging himself with a TV cord--County Executive Ron Sims pronounced jail medical care "efficient and well-managed."

The deaths weren't made public at the time; they were revealed months later by Seattle Weekly. But Sims did publicize what he called a "prestigious" performance review his jail had received from a national correctional health care group, giving KCJ high marks for prisoner care.
By December 2006, jail health officials had reclassified their services as "medically sound," even though prisoner complaints, medical errors, and deaths were on the rise.

Flash forward to late November, 2007, when U.S. Department of Justice investigators handed in their own performance review, determining that the two 2005 suicides, and at least three other deaths since then, were preventable. In a blistering report, the feds said King County Jail conditions had become so unsafe and abusive in the past three years that prisoners' civil rights were being violated.

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