Friday, 2 November 2012


Pelican Bay State Prison - Crescent City, CA, by Sandow Birk, one of his series of California prison landscapes, Prisonation: Visions of California in the 21st Century.

Shane Bauer was one of three American hikers imprisoned by Iran in 2009. Along with Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal, he was effectively held ransom by the regime, which eventually released all three on payment of about half a million dollars bail each.

Recently he visited Pelican Bay in California as part of a story on the use of solitary confinement in US prisons. He presents evidence that it is expensive, is often overused and unfair, is arbitrarily and secretively administered, and is ineffective or even counter-productive in reducing prison violence.

In his article, Shane Bauer looks at the case of Dietrich Pennington, serving a life sentence for robbery, kidnapping, and attempted murder. These crimes aren’t the reason he’s in solitary; he’s there because he’s accused of being an associate of a prison gang.
Pennington is not accused of giving or carrying out orders on behalf of any gang. In fact, there is no evidence that he's ever communicated with a member of a gang in his entire life. “I’ve never been, never want to be a part of no gang,” he wrote me. (He is currently trying to challenge his validation in court.)

To validate an inmate as a gang member, the state requires at least three pieces of evidence, which must be “indicative of actual membership” or association with a prison gang in the last six years. At least one item must show a “direct link,” like a note or other communication, to a validated gang member or associate. Once the prison’s gang investigator has gathered this evidence, it is reviewed in an administrative hearing and then sent to CDCR headquarters in Sacramento.

In Pennington’s file, the “direct link” is his possession of an article published in the San Francisco Bay View, an African American newspaper with a circulation of around 15,000. The paper is approved for distribution in California prisons, and Pennington’s right to receive it is protected under state law. In the op-ed style article he had in his cell, titled “Guards confiscate ‘revolutionary’ materials at Pelican Bay,” a validated member of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang complains about the seizure of literature and pictures from his cell and accuses the prison of pursuing “racist policy.” In Pennington’s validation documents, the gang investigator contends that, by naming the confiscated materials, the author “communicates to associates of the BGF... as to which material needs to be studied.” No one alleges that Pennington ever attempted to contact the author. It is enough that he possessed the article.
According to Bauer, other prisoners in solitary have been accused of gang membership on similarly tenuous evidence.
Gang evidence comes in countless forms. Possession of Machiavelli’s The Prince, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been invoked as evidence. One inmate’s validation includes a Christmas card with stars drawn on it - alleged gang symbols - among Hershey’s Kisses and a candy cane. Another included a poetry booklet the inmate had coauthored with a validated BGF member. One poem reflected on what it was like to feel human touch after 14 years and another warned against spreading HIV. The only reference to violence was the line, “this senseless dying gotta end.”

“Direct links” that appear in inmates’ case files are often things they have no control over, like having their names found in the cells of validated gang members or associates or having a validated gang affiliate send them a letter, even if they never received it or knew of its existence. Appearing in a group picture with one validated gang associate counts as a direct link, even if that person wasn’t validated at the time.

In the course of my investigation, I obtained CDCR’s confidential validation manual. It teaches investigators that use of the words tío or hermano, Spanish for uncle and brother, can indicate gang activity, as can señor. Validation files on Latino inmates have included drawings of the ancient Aztec jaguar knight and Aztec war shields, and anything in the indigenous Nahuatl language, spoken by an estimated 1.4 million people in central Mexico.
Read the whole article at Mother Jones.

In the UK, the most prominent argument over prisoners’ rights is currently on voting rights for convicted prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights, which rules on matters covered by the European Convention on Human Rights, ruled in 2005 that the UK’s indiscriminate denial of voting rights to convicted prisoners contravened the Convention.

As a party to the Convention treaty, the UK government has bound itself to abide by Court decisions, but UK politicians continue to pitch a dodgy nationalist argument about Parliamentary sovereignty as justification for not complying with an agreement freely entered into by the UK’s democratically elected government. Buyer’s remorse? Tough, caveat emptor! Voters should avoid sympathy for Parliament on this; the ECHR is intended for the protection of all citizens, not for the convenience of a particular state institution, nor for the comfort of the government of the day.

Human rights are a form of insurance policy, a legal instrument based on the idea that by allowing others to be abused, we leave ourselves open to be abused in future.

At the UK Human Rights Blog, Adam Wagner writes about More shenanigans on prisoner votes. And a year ago at the same place, an interesting discussion on the role of the Strasbourg Court in two posts and attendant comments, Why have a European Court of Human Rights? and Is the Attorney General right on prisoner votes and subsidiarity?

Yesterday, David Black, a Northern Ireland Prison Service officer was murdered by Nationalist Republicans opposed to the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

The murder was linked to an ongoing dispute over treatment of Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland. Arguing for the protection of prisoners’ rights is politically problematic when some of those prisoners are themselves convicted of gross human rights abuses such as assault, kidnapping, and murder. Even more difficult to navigate are the cases where supporters of anti-democratic murderously violent groups use the arguments of human rights as a political weapon.

Ross Frenett steers a narrow course on the Human Rights in Ireland blog, writing on Why they killed David Black.


Anonymous said...

I know someone who did time at Pelican Bay in the SHU. For all I know he is still in there. He should be locked up for the rest of life. I do not think solitary is best, but he has a proclivity for stabbing other inmates and attacking the guards. The mistake civilized people make is believing they (not all of them, just most) are the same as us. They are not! Many of them are sociopaths.

The saddest thing to me is this guy was a fairly run of the mill small town hood when he first went to jail. His parents were hippies. But as he continued to commit more crimes, and get locked up in more serious facilities, he definitely hardened into a meaner person. He came out with swastikas and SS on his neck and continued down the path of a wp thug.

kellie said...

I'm certainly not arguing against all prisons, and I've no basis for thinking solitary is never justified. I'd certainly support the killers of David Black going to prison for a long time.

The thought behind the post is more that prison is an area particularly vulnerable to abuse of power. If we could know that every action of prison authorities was justified and effective there would be no problem, but we can't, and therefore there needs to be as much transparency as possible, and actions need to be accountable in terms of justice, effectiveness, and cost.