Friday, June 9, 2017
Friday, June 9, 2017
Friday, June 9, 2017
The GCCC Summer Festival is an annual event that allows inmates a unique opportunity to spend a longer period of time with family in an outdoor environment, and perhaps the one day of the year that justifies the massive amount of parking space at the facility. This year, the Summer Festival took place on June 9, 2017. In previous years, Clayton and his family were unable to participate because he was in a Protective Custody (PC) status, and PC inmates are automatically excluded from all special events held at the prison. However, with his new housing status, he found out within days of his transfer that he could apply to participate.
Normally, a limit of 10 or 11 inmates at a time can participate in any given visitation hour, and usually much less than that actually have visitors. So, the parking lot is often mostly empty, with the staff only migrating into that area to get out of the way of snow plowing on their side. Today, however, the parking lot was filling up fast.
The procedure for checking and was much different because there would be many more people than normal. Instead of using the lockers inside the facility, most visitors were encouraged to leave their belongings inside their vehicles. There was a canopy set up outside the front door, with two guards checking visitors off of a massive list, and stamping their hands. Visitors were still processed through the metal detectors and into the holding area like normal, but when leaving the first building and heading towards the yard, they were met by buses outside.
These buses were the same ones used to transport prisoners to various facilities and other destinations. They are painted a rich blue with very high windows along the sides. The windows are much too high up for anyone to see in from the outside, and the only thing you can see from the inside is the sky. The buses are capable of holding 40 people, so the bus had to make multiple trips to move the visitors from the main entry area back to the ballfields that would be used for the day.
Each bus was such sectioned off in the middle with a large metal gate, and on the first few trips visitors were asked to place their feet in the way of the gate, so it would not slam shut dramatically whenever the bus made a turn. In later trips, the COs found a bungee cord to solve this problem. There was also a small metal cage in the front of the bus that held two seats inside of it. Clayton’s family assumed that these seats are used for transporting higher-security or protective custody inmates, but the cage was simply left locked and shut that day.
Getting to See the Ballfields
Upon arriving at the back ballfields, visitors were let in through a very large gate. All visitors were fully processed and brought into the ballfields before any inmates were released out into the area. There were picnic tables, plastic folding tables, blue plastic chairs, and canopies spread out all across the ballfields. All of these items were placed with decent space between them to allow families and friends the ability to converse somewhat independently.
On the side of the field closest to the facility buildings, a buffet line and serving area was set up. Clayton’s family couldn’t help but laugh after noting the buffet line was divided by crime scene tape. Perhaps displayed as one of the most serious buffet lines of all time, it definitely made you think twice about crossing sides.
Before participating inmates were released, a group of inmates dressed in all white entered the area and began setting up to serve food. This is the first time Clayton’s family got a chance to see the standard kitchen worker uniform. Inmates are sometimes assigned a different set of clothing in a different color when they’re working on jobs throughout the facility. Clayton himself had prepared some of the food that they were setting out, as he had started working in the kitchen shortly before the event took place.
Towards home plate in the ballfields, there was a stage set up which could hold: at least a half a dozen men, a variety of instruments, and an ornate wooden sign that displayed the name of the facility. There was also a small sound booth attached a small distance away, with an inmate who appeared to be the one assigned to run it.
A large drop cloth was set up over the fence for inmates to be able to stand in front of and have their photo taken with family members, and a couple of beanbag toss games were set up in the yard. Clayton’s wife quickly noted that there was an asphalt footpath surrounding the entire ballfield. Upon seeing it, she realized that this is the very field the SMU inmates were first taken into when they were finally granted outdoor recreation this winter. Now surrounded by trees, and filled in with green grass, it was hard to imagine what it must’ve been like running around the plowed track with a few feet of snow piled up on either side of you.
Being back in the ballfield gives a unique viewpoint of the facility itself that most visitors would never get to see. The recreation yard sits between two rows of large buildings. On one side, the buildings are all lined up together with different colored stripes on their doors and different letters corresponding to each of the housing units. On the other side are the buildings used for: visitation, the SMU, and facilities like the kitchen and dining halls. Smaller cubes jut out of the top of the housing units, with windows on all sides. Clayton has explained previously that these are the only windows visible from inside the mods; which is why inmates cannot actually see the outdoors unless they leave the units they live in.
Not all inmates were allowed to participate in the Summer Festival. There are very strict qualifications an inmate has to meet, and they have to apply for participation in advance. You could not participate if you’d had any write-ups for misbehavior within a certain period of time before the event. You had to be actively participating in programming, or actively employed, within that period as well.
Clayton had been worried about this requirement because they had just been transferred out of the SMU and into new housing very close to the deadline. While working in the SMU, there were not many jobs available, so he had not pushed too hard to get into one. They also were not considered to be in programming anymore, because the classes he had participated in were no longer available in his new mod. Ultimately, he submitted his application, managed to get a position working in the kitchen very quickly, and was approved to participate in the event.
One additional nice thing about the Summer Festival was that inmates did not have to have approved visitors to be able to participate. This meant that some individuals who never have personal visitors were still able to come out, enjoy the sunshine, and socialize during the event. Those who did have visitors, had to specify in advance which one or two visitors would be participating in the event, and get approval for those individuals in advance that was specific to the event. However, no children were allowed to participate. All visitors that could be approved had to be over the age of 18. For this special opportunity, Clayton chose his wife and his mother-in-law to spend the day with him.
Warm Yet Brief Greetings
Eventually, after all of the visitors had arrived, and all of the kitchen workers had begun their set-up for serving lunch, the inmates were released into the ballfield. It was later reported that more than 600 people participated in the event total, which we believe is the most participants they’ve ever had in a given year. There was a lot of hustle and bustle of activity, and a lot of COs mingling throughout the crowds, but the excitement in the air was palpable.
Clayton had been talking about his excitement over the event for weeks. The opportunity to be outside of the visitation room with his family members would be a unique treat. More than anything, the type of interaction would be amazing. In standard contact visits, Clayton spends the majority of the visit on one side of the table, with his family on the other side, and an actual plastic partition between them. While the contact visit itself is for an hour long, Inmates are actually not allowed more than roughly 8 seconds of physical contact during that period.
Clayton talked a lot about the fact that he had been dreaming about holding his wife’s hand. This is something that he is never normally allowed to do. When talking to one of the staff members at the facility about it, one of them had become teary-eyed over his level of excitement at such a basic human interaction. After searching their way through the crowd, Clayton’s family located him fairly simply. They were able to give him warm, heartfelt hugs, and Clayton was visibly buzzing with excitement. However, after a few minutes of holding his wife’s hand while sitting at the table, a CO quickly admonished them that handholding would not be permitted even on the special day. They were supposed to spend the entire four hour period of time without any more additional physical contact than they would have if they were confined to the tiny visitation room.
The rule was unnecessarily restrictive, and painfully disappointing, but Clayton and his family quickly shook off the effect as much as they could and focused on enjoying the unique opportunity. Sitting next to each other at the table, introducing other inmates he often socialized with to his family, and sharing a meal gave Clayton the brief sensation of being in an almost “normal” life. He and some of the other inmates commented that it almost allowed them to forget where they were for a moment, and that feeling alone made all of the hoops they had to jump through to participate worth it.
A Meal Together
Food was served right as the event got underway. There was a huge quantity of it, and it was good quality. They had options of hamburgers, hot dogs, baked salmon and pulled pork. There were sides like pasta salad, corn, and fried bread. The inmates dressed in their kitchen worker uniforms wore big smiles and were generally very enthusiastic about what they offered. It was almost difficult to say no to anything in the face of such excitement, and many visitors and inmates alike left the line with plates piled high with food.
A few of the inmates Clayton has come to know very well over the last couple of years were participating, but did not have any visitors who came to see them specifically. Clayton and his family invited them over to share their table and their meal together. It was obvious that some of them were very nervous about this, and seemed to be worried about intruding on Clayton’s time. However, his family tried to encourage them that this was a unique opportunity for them to actually meet some of the people that Clayton talked about so much during his daily visits. The conversation was light and fun, with lots of discussion about what people were doing with their time while they were still in the facility, or what they planned to do when they finally get to go home.
Inmate Performances & Opportunities
Throughout the meal, and the entire four-hour visitation, there were various performances going on up at the stage. The inmates performed a color guard early on. There were numerous musical performances, and even dance routines performed by inmates who had been practicing for weeks. Many of the men talked about their faith before or during performances. In the middle of one of the performances, Clayton burst into laughter. The rap/hip-hop song that was being performed, included a man who worked with Clay in the kitchen. He had seen the guy busting out various rap lyrics and dancing around the kitchen on multiple occasions in recent days, but had never understood that the man was rehearsing for the upcoming event.
It now made perfect sense in context.
“He’s actually really good with music,” Clay said.
After finishing their meal, Clayton and his family took the opportunity to get a couple of pictures for the day. The picture that appears at the top of this blog post is one of those pictures. Inmates had been encouraged to get approval for these photos in advance of the event, but forms were still available on-site for them to fill out if they had not been able to take that opportunity. Clayton had to wait for a couple of weeks after the event was over for the pictures to be delivered. Then he had to mail them out to family for us to make copies and mail him a copy back. This was a huge blessing after such a long SMU experience. For whatever reason, photos that were taken for SMU inmates during their long period of confinement never seemed to make their way back to the inmates themselves, even though the payments were usually deducted from their accounts anyway. GP inmates do not appear to have the same difficulty.
Clayton and his family also took advantage of every rare opportunity they could think of. They played a few games of beanbag toss, despite none of them being terribly good at it. Clayton won by a landslide, and at some point his wife was so excited that she’d actually managed to get one of the beanbags where it was supposed to go that she leapt up on the balls of her feet with a shout. A nearby elderly inmate, who she hadn’t realized had been watching, started to laugh and clap not at the game, but at her somewhat girlish display. They also took time to walk around the track and talk, and then laid in the grass to talk some more.
That was by far Clayton’s wife’s happiest few moments in years. Lying in the grass and talking was something she and her husband used to do in happier times. With her mother’s feet strategically placed between them to keep the COs at bay, they could lie there and look up at the sky and pretend for at least a few minutes that they were somewhere else. Soon the guards would call out the end of the visit, and visitors would have to board the buses once again while the inmates waited for hours to be processed back inside, but in these moments none of that mattered.
It was a priceless, irreplaceable day.
Monday, June 5, 2017
Monday, June 5, 2017
Shortly after the men in Goose Creek Correctional Center’s (GCCC) Special Management Unit (SMU) gained access to the outdoors for occasional recreation, a new announcement was posted in the protective custody (PC) mod. The announcement claimed that one of the other mods, or housing units, in the facility had a large number of beds open, and inmates from the SMU were being encouraged to sign up for transfer. The mod had special programming, and inmates were advised that it would be ‘safe’ because even though it was run like a general population (GP) mod, it had much stricter requirements for inmates to be eligible for placement there.
Clayton agonized over the decision. However, things had been so bad in the SMU for so long, that even the recent victory of outdoor recreation fell short of the relief the transfer seemed to promise. After applying, the Parole Officer (PO) who interviewed Clayton claimed he was an ideal candidate, and after that point, all he could talk about in his daily visits and phone calls was his hope for transfer.
There was a strange lull in the following weeks defined mostly by a lack of information. Inmates who had applied were not informed of who had been accepted and who would be denied. They also were not told when the transfer would be happening. Guards seemed to have expectations of transfer, but then the transfer wouldn’t come and inmates were left wondering. Then finally, at visitation one night, Clayton informed his family that he had received word just an hour before that he and several other inmates would be transferring first thing in the morning.
After arriving in the new mod, Clayton and the other SMU transfers were in a bit of shock. They had previously been informed that this mod they were transferring into had additional programming and requirements that made it a different kind of environment than standard GP mods. However, after arriving one of the guards commented to Clayton that, “Oh no. It’s just like all the other GP mods now. They just changed it recently.”
Clayton was also informed that the day after their transfer, there had been an announcement in the SMU that all remaining inmates were going to be transitioned out to other mods over time, and the SMU itself was being emptied out and repurposed. For what purpose, no one knew.
Clayton suddenly found himself in GP.
He and his family felt tricked and vulnerable after the misinformation, but prayed that God would protect Clayton in the new environment. He and the other transfers took comfort in their movement as a group, and the fact that the mod they were now in had a high percentage of previously PC inmates. There were still inmates here who were obviously outright hostile against PC folks, but they didn’t have the full force of power they would have in some of the other mods.
Over the next couple of months, it became apparent that GCCC was following through with its plans to empty out the SMU. Groups of new transfers would periodically appear in Clayton’s new mod, and the new recreation schedule had them outside at the same time as the other mods SMU folks were being moved into. This meant, Clayton could get word about what else was going on in his former mod, and with the inmates he had come to know so well. That information, however, often came in bits and pieces. The letter Clayton’s wife received from the State of Alaska Ombudsman was the first real confirmation of the bigger picture taking place at the facility.
Freedom of Movement
In the new mod, Clayton found the amount of options he had for everyday choices were staggering. All but a few months of the last two years he’d spent at GCCC had been spent in administrative-segregation-like conditions. He suddenly had access to almost all of the items he purchased through commissary; much of which he’d been forced to distribute already to family, and could not get back without repurchasing. Instead of spending a few precious hours a day out of his 8’ x 10’ cell, he could now spend nearly the entire day out in the common area. He had access to a staggering amount of programming and vocational classes that were never accessible to the PC population. There was a library instead of a book cart, and the option to go to medical instead of begging for them to come to you.
Clayton was surprised at how exhausted he became just walking back and forth to different destinations. Even the exercise he attempted to require himself to maintain in the small space of his cell, and the brief periods he spent in the indoor gym, had not maintained the muscle strength for walking even moderate distances. In this new environment, he had to walk to the dining hall for meals instead of having them brought to him. He was allowed in the outdoor yard for recreation. Even visitation now required walking to an entirely different building.
In making this transition, Clayton and some of the other previously-PC inmates soon found that movement around the facility was disturbingly easy. The first day Clayton was called for visitation, he stood at the guard’s podium waiting for an escort until the guard looked at him and said, “What are you waiting for? You have a visit.”
“I can just go?” Clayton asked a bit stunned. He had never gone to visitation without an escort.
However, he and some of the other inmates soon learned that moving around by yourself could become dangerous quickly. Even though inmates told the guards they were leaving a mod for a specific purpose, there was not close monitoring to ensure that’s where they actually went. Some of the inmates that folks from the SMU had needed protection from now knew where they had been transferred to, and were abusing this freedom as a means of accessing and injuring them. Clayton had already heard of one inmate being jumped by someone in the yard, when that person was from a mod that shouldn’t have even been in the yard. Then Clayton witnessed it himself when someone he knew from the SMU was jumped in the gym by six men who, again, shouldn’t have been there. The previously SMU inmates within his mod quickly resolved not to travel alone whenever possible.
The Prison’s Response
To their credit, GCCC began making changes fairly quickly after that. Inmates are still not monitored terribly closely as they move from place to place, however, they have begun making it more difficult for inmates to get back into their own mods without raising question of why they had been out in the first place. It is now more obvious when inmates are accessing areas like the yard, the gym, and other common areas during times when they are not scheduled to be out in those areas. Clayton has not heard any rumors of additional incidents since the changes were implemented.
The Change that Clayton look forward to the most with the transfer was a new level of access to visitation. For more than a year and a half, he had been limited to one contact visit a week and six nights a week of video visitation. Realistically, this boils down to eight seconds of physical contact per week, because GCCC does not allow actual physical contact throughout most of a contact visit. In this new environment, Clayton could now access contact visitation six days a week with one day a week not eligible for visitation in any form.
Visitation is one of the areas, however, where he frequently runs into a complete mixed bag of inmates from other mods. In less than a few weeks, one of the situations he worried about the most became a reality. One of the inmates who had threatened him after his initial arrival at GCCC was standing at the door waiting for a visit as well. Clayton hoped the man would not recognize him, but instead the man walked straight up to him and called him out by name. Clayton was stunned by the words of followed. The man actually apologized for his earlier behavior, and told Clayton he had “no hard feelings.” They agreed that what was in the past was over and done. Clayton has no idea what caused the man’s change of heart, but it gave him hope for finding real success in his new location, and he thanks God for his continued protection and favor.
Learning the Ropes Again
All of these changes meant an infinite number of new things Clayton had to learn. It was a little overwhelming at first, but brought Clayton and the others a fresh sense of hope. With summer just beginning, and the promise of some special events on the horizon, Clayton set out to learn what he needed as quickly as he could. He planned to take advantage of every opportunity afforded him, and not spend any more days sitting around with nothing to do but wait.
Thursday, June 1, 2017
Thursday, June 1, 2017
Achieving victory for constitutional rights against a state agency feels a lot like suddenly realizing that you actually managed to wrestle a 500 pound gorilla into submission. There is this distinct pause, where you’re not sure whether it’s safe to let go and accept that victory, or whether he’ll flip you onto your back and squash you. Eventually, it sinks in that you really did win. Now you have to figure out what on Earth is next, since it never seemed like you’d really get here.
For this blog, we’ve been hovering in that pause for a while, unsure of whether it was safe for us to provide updates without jeopardizing the inmates involved. However, we’ve recently received word that makes us fairly certain it is safe to begin providing those updates again. Check out the letter to Clayton’s wife from the office of the State of Alaska Ombudsman. In the letter, they make it clear that they too are, “relieved that the SMU [at Goose Creek Correctional Center] is no longer being managed as a giant segregation unit.”
What brought us to this point?
Those of you who have been following our blog for some time are familiar with the battle we’ve been engaged in. On September 16, 2015, the administration at GCCC lashed out in what we believe to be retaliation against inmates who were cooperating with the Governor’s investigation into DOC. GCCC disbanded the housing unit (Mod) that these protective custody (PC) inmates were being held in, which afforded them a somewhat similar quality of life to the general population (GP). They were thrown into the Special Management Unit (SMU) at the facility, and into conditions initially equivalent to solitary confinement, with no foreseeable release into better conditions in the future.
Over the next year and a half, Clayton and another inmate became advocates for inmates in the SMU in an experimental program which allowed them to discuss their needs with staff more directly. Conditions began to improve in tiny increments through incredible effort, but some of their basic constitutional rights were still being violated by conditions they were told would never change. Clayton’s family took the wheel in spreading word about the violation of these rights as far and wide as they could. The conditions were covered on public radio. Case law clearly outlining the constitutional violation was provided to the ACLU, the Ombudsman’s office, and statewide DOC itself. Yet, months continued to pass with no relief as family and friends watched Clayton and the other inmates suffer and deteriorate.
On February 1, 2017, Clayton’s wife sent out a call for help to all his supporters on Facebook. The post explained:
“Without time for a longer blog entry, Clayton could use some prayer support. He has been showing signs of more difficulty for the last few weeks, but vocalized it yesterday during visitation when he explained, “It’s like a combination of claustrophobia and intense boredom. Even when I am out in the big room, the walls are too close. I eat, sleep, call CJ, go to visitation, and exercise at night. Nothing changes, and I just sleep most of the time.” Clayton explained that he has things he could do to occupy his time, but is losing all motivation to do them. He has almost entirely stopped writing letters, which he feels intensely guilty about, but cannot seem to manage to do anymore. He said, “I try to write something, and then when I re-read it I realize, this is just going to make them cry. So, I just throw it away instead.” … I cannot imagine what it must be like for the other inmates who do not have the support Clayton does. Despite the reality of time and seasons we experience, Clayton has not seen snow since his trial in 2015.”
Many people responded to the news with prayer, and words of encouragement. Then, miraculously, on February 3rd Clayton called to inform everyone that a poster had been placed in the SMU allowing a small amount of OUTDOOR recreation time for SMU inmates each week. That time outside was a week away, but for inmates who had been waiting for nearly a year and a half for the chance to stand outside, it felt as if it was a mere blink away. You can access the earlier February 12 blog post for more details on how that initial outdoor experience went for the inmates.
Weeks after the inmates finally had access to the outdoors, Clayton’s wife, CJ, attended town hall meetings in Palmer and Wasilla which were designed to provide information to Mat-Su residents about the changes occurring in Alaska’s justice system due to SB 91. This was just another part of the activism she does regularly in the state. At the Wasilla meeting, she was shocked by the venomous nature of the public testimony. Attendees refused to allow panelists to present their information before literally just calling out and shouting opinions from their chairs. Many residents were upset about the rash of thefts which had been occurring in Wasilla, and were speaking as if inmates were somehow not being punished at all through the current judicial system.
There were shouts of, “Make them all wear pink underwear!” and “Put a wall between them and anyone who wants to see them! That’ll solve your drug problem!” and “Why do they get to have visits anyway?!”
Finally, CJ had enough.
Throwing her own voice into the fray, she asked to speak as an individual who actually had a loved one in prison. Addressing the group, instead of the panel, she explained that indeed, DOC DID make the inmates wear pink and purple underwear. Inmates already faced intense difficulty accessing loved ones. Alaska is experiencing an opioid crisis, and the addiction problem so many people were referring to like it was a “personal problem” was in fact, usually exacerbated if not induced by isolation, hopelessness, and exposure to other inmates in DOC; something all of their recommendations would only make worse. Eighty percent of these inmates, or more, would eventually be released out into their neighborhoods and their streets after serving their time. She asked the crowd if they specifically wanted to make these individuals mentally unstable before that release, because there were numerous ones like her husband at GCCC already being held in conditions known to cause mental illness. The crowd grew quiet, and continued their dialogue with much less venom.
Then, before the next town hall meeting in Palmer, current DOC Commissioner Dean Williams took a brief moment to speak with CJ.
“I want you to know that I am aware of the conditions your husband and those other men are being held in, and I’m not happy about it,” Williams said. “I am working on it, but there’s a lot involved at DOC and it’s going to take me a little more time.”
William’s words seemed to indicate his support in the tiny victory they’d achieved in gaining access to the outdoors for the men in the SMU. CJ tried to encourage Clayton to have hope for even better conditions in the future.
The events that continued to progress after that were confusing, but encouraging. We waited to update the blog until we felt like the SMU inmates were in a much safer environment, and until it seemed like we could see some kind of comprehensive picture forming from the random puzzle pieces. Now, we finally understand that picture.
Clayton No Longer In the SMU
The next series of posts will attempt to summarize the new conditions Clayton has been moved into at GCCC. In short, nearly all of the inmates once housed in the SMU have been moved into other locations like a giant shell game. Clayton went from almost no options for daily activity, to an overload of options and space. He is very excited and his mental and physical health are improving daily. We cannot thank you all enough for your prayers and support through the many months of torment. Clayton can finally stand in the sunlight, and is loving every moment of it.
Monday, February 13, 2017
Clayton, and the other inmates locked within the walls of Goose Creek Correctional Center’s (GCCC) Special Management Unit (SMU), have waited for more than a year and five months for their first opportunity to stand outdoors since September 16, 2017. They have been waiting more than a week since the announcement that they would finally be given that opportunity on Saturday, February 11, 2017. Despite the fact that, according to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, denial of outdoor recreation is a violation of the constitutional right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, it has taken that long for administrators in GCCC to acknowledge those rights and act upon them. Even the new schedule they are providing, does not afforded prisoners the standard minimum time provided across the U.S. of one hour per day, or seven hours per week. They are instead offering four hours per week; however, the inmates are thankful for any time at all after what they have endured.
To be clear, when the inmates were moved into the SMU, they were moved into a building attached to the visitation area. This means that unlike those in the other housing mods, the lucky few SMU inmates who would normally have to walk across the outdoor recreation yard for contact visitation opportunities, instead walk through interior hallways. The inmates in that unit are literally never outdoors unless they have been moved back and forth to court, in and out of other housing mods, or had other rare circumstances. Clayton had one of these rare experiences on July 3, 2016, when he was transported to and from his mother’s funeral. At that time, the experience had been overwhelming.
Saturday Morning, February 11, 2017
On the morning of February 11th, the long-awaited moment finally arrived. The new scheduled opportunities for outdoor recreation come on Saturday mornings and evenings, Sunday mornings, and Monday evenings. The opportunities are scheduled so early in the morning, and so late at night, that inmates will not see the sun or feel it on their skin until the spring and summer months, but the experience is not just about the sunshine. It’s about the basic experience of being outdoors.
Clayton and the other inmates had been talking about the upcoming experience for days, completely unsure of what to expect. Inmates had talked about everything from running in the snow, to building snowmen, to rolling around in it; however they were advised right away that snowballs are not allowed. Making a snowball can actually be an offense worthy of a write-up because it could be considered a weapon.
Clayton’s family and friends had spent the week praying for coats and hats, after some early confusion among the guard staff had seemed to indicate they might not be provided. Thankfully, when Clayton lined up to participate that cold Saturday morning, there were large bins of coats and hats being handed out at the beginning, which were then collected after recreation was over.
Truthfully, “coat” is an overly generous term. In the photo at the top of this page, you can see the shirt Clayton is wearing. The shirts and pants provided by the prison are made of a rough, single-layered material which is dyed yellow (for general population), orange (for protective custody), or red (for segregation) to indicate the inmate’s status. The “coats” are a long-sleeved versions of this same material which zips up in front. It has been a point of argument between SMU inmates and the GCCC administration since they were first placed in the SMU that they are not provided with coats as everyone in the general population is. It seems that they have elected to use some of the yellow coats for these outdoor recreation experiences, as it is the same protection afforded to GP inmates.
Clayton was very excited that first morning as he lined up with the 30-40 men who chose to participate at the early hour that morning. He has a long-sleeved thermal top which he was able to obtain from his property months ago, and put it beneath his shirt for extra warmth. Despite the fact that he already owns thermal bottoms, and that they are available for purchase through the commissary, he has been unable to get the prison to release them back into his possession from when they were originally seized and placed in his property in 2015. Therefore, he had to go without for now. He added an extra layer of socks to his feet beneath his tennis shoes, and a pair of socks for his hands. Some inmates wore a towel to protect their neck and face, although Clayton did not.
Inmates were also allowed to bring out their MP3 players, and cups of hot liquid like coffee or tea, with them. The music players give them something to listen to while exercising and keeping their body temperature up. The hot liquid serves the same purpose. Two weeks ago, without knowing this opportunity would be coming up, Clayton had been inspired to buy hot chocolate from the commissary which arrived this same day. That fact, in combination with the large beard Clayton has been growing in recent months led many of the inmates to tease him that he must have foreseen the opportunity finally arriving. Clayton acknowledged that the beard is a big help.
“They kept asking me, ‘How did you know?!’” Clayton laughed.
When they stepped outside, the experience was overwhelming for many. They were able to see snow, trees in the distance, the moon, and even a few stars beneath the glow of the overhead lights.
“It was like shock and awe, you first few steps out the door,” he explained.
He said that a strange aspect of the experience was the feel of the air on their faces. They have spent more than a year in a strictly temperature-controlled environment. In recent weeks Clayton had described the growing sense of claustrophobia, saying the walls felt too close even when out in the main room. The simple temperature change of the outside air hitting their face was a big deal for many.
“We were like, oh man. Don’t cry. The tears are freezing to our faces,” he laughed.
Several of them ended up jammed up around the door just outside the building before the guards prompted them to keep moving to where their recreation would actually take place. Instead of using the outdoor yard where most inmates have recreation, they were marched out to the outer ballfields. A square of walkway had been plowed around the outside with many, many inches of snow piled up along the sides. It was wide enough for two men to walk side-by-side during their time out.
“I finally understand how much snow you were talking about,” Clayton said with excitement. “I had to resist the urge to roll around in it like a dog. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just walked past it admiringly.”
Clayton laughed and explained that the song Do You Want to Build A Snowman from the movie Frozen was very popular that morning among the MP3 players. Keeping constant movement was important, to keep their blood flowing. Clayton said many of the men were freezing various extremities off, but loving every minute of it. His own legs got severely cold, and he plans to buy thermal bottoms again immediately since he can’t get access to the ones he already owns. It will take two weeks for them to arrive.
He noted with excitement that a special commissary opportunity will be coming up soon. In past opportunities, they have had the option to purchase yarn and crochet hooks from that rare list, as well as other clothing you cannot buy on regular commissary. One older man who took advantage of the yarn months ago, and who learned how to crochet without any assistance through pure trial and error, has crocheted his own gloves, socks, and hat. He previously was using them to endure the cold in the SMU’s private indoor gym.
Clayton said running outdoors was a big difference as well. He had given up on running in their indoor gym when water trickling inside from melting drifted snow had caused him to slip and injure his foot. Running outside in the arctic air had been a serious exercise experience, although he is taking his inhaler in advance to try to protect his lungs.
“Even in our little gym here we can’t really run like that,” Clayton explained, “I’m gonna go march around some more tonight.”
Saturday Night, February, 11, 2017
The next day, Clayton’s family was shocked to learn that outdoor recreation Saturday night had been a completely different experience. It is common at GCCC to experience entirely different types of rules and treatment depending on the shift of guards on duty at any given time, and the experience of outdoor recreation proved to be no different. A new shift had come on mid-day, and the abusive treatment the inmates received was unbelievable.
Clayton had been in visitation with family, describing his excitement about that morning, right up until the announcement was made to assemble. Many, many more men participated that evening as the typical SMU schedule keeps them up late and they are hesitant to rise early for anything. Before the men were even escorted from the mod, however, an entirely new set of restrictions were announced.
Inmates would not be allowed to bring their MP3 players with them, or cups of warm liquid. The guards were threatening to take away inmates thermals and personal t-shirts if they tried to wear them outside, prompting the majority of men to run back to their cells and remove the extra protection. Clayton wore his anyway, afraid of being subjected to that kind of cold again without the extra warmth on his core. He said less than a dozen men wore their thermals out that night, due to the threats, despite many more owning them.
“That’s personal property,” Clayton explained with frustration. “Why would you take that from someone going out into the cold?”
It is important to note that the contrast cannot be explained by leniency from the early morning shift. In fact, when asked, the staff at GCCC confirmed that warm drinks, thermals, and MP3 players were all standard items allowed to any inmates participating in outdoor recreation if they owned them. The inmates in the SMU already knew this, because some of them had recently come to the SMU after living in the general population mods. Many were shocked and outraged that they would now be treated differently just because they were in the SMU.
When the inmates lined up to go out for outdoor recreation, they were counted before leaving SMU. Then they were counted again before going outside, and then marched to the ball fields as they had been that morning. Yet, despite having been counted twice, less than 20 minutes before, the inmates were stopped outside and forced to stand still for an extended period to be counted yet again. Fortunately, the outside temperature had warmed up enough that it was snowing slightly, but these are men who have been indoors for more than a year and are adapting to arctic temperatures.
There were more guards assigned to them on that shift, and the atmosphere was very intense and intimidating. There seemed to be enough guards assigned to stop all the men and check to see if people brought out any of the newly-prohibited items. Strangely, despite the threats about thermal wear, no one was stopped for wearing them or had them taken away. However, many of the men had stuffed a towel around their shoulders, trying to have added protection of some kind, and guards were taking towels from any men who had brought them and throwing them into a large pile on the ground. The towels sat in a big frozen pile on the ground the next morning.
It is important to note that if you choose to participate in outdoor recreation, you do not have the option to go back inside if you become too cold. If you go out at all, you are outside for the full hour. One man who was struggling with his ears being too cold, pulled up his shirt to cover the back of his neck and ears from beneath his coat. The guards stopped him and literally took the shirt off his back, and left him that way with only the thin outer coat. The inmates could not believe that particular turn of events. The obvious cruelty aside, an inmate can be written up for not wearing his color-coded shirt at all times, and they were literally forcing him into that prohibited behavior.
Inmates attempted to argue against the cruelty, citing statewide and GCCC policies. Some of the guards responded with the all-too-familiar excuse of “security reasons,” others with the equally-familiar excuse that AS-5 (protective custody) inmates do not have to be afforded standard treatment. At least one seemed to feel compelled to explain that they were all acting under orders, and had to do as they were instructed.
“It had a bullying feel to it,” Clayton explained in obvious frustration. “The rules didn’t make sense and people knew it. We were getting picked on because of who we are. You’re sub-human. We can take the clothes off your body.”
Once back inside, men began filing tons of paperwork complaining about the treatment, but it is unclear whether any intervention will take place at all; especially before the next time for outdoor recreation on this particular shift on Monday night. Many of the inmates fear that the intimidation and cruelty were meant to discourage inmates from participating in outdoor recreation after families on the outside fought so hard to demand the constitutional right. They are afraid that they will use decreased participation to justify taking away that right once again.
“We’re all hoping it warms up soon, so we can get more people out there,” he explained.
Despite the events, Clayton said he and many of the others were determined to enjoy themselves all the more. For many of them, this was their first time out after missing the morning opportunity.
“Even with all the stupidness, people had a blast honey,” he explained to his wife with a sigh and a smile.
He described in detail a man crawling through the deep snow on his hands and knees, with only his head visible above the fluffy snow. People were jumping in and out of the snow, goofing off, and leaving giant leg holes behind. He said the moon was beautiful, and they could see very fine snow drifting down onto them while lit-up from the overhead lights. People were running and walking around the track as much as they were allowed. Clayton exchanged memories of his previous experiences with hypothermia with other inmates as they walked.
He was looking forward to the next opportunity for outdoor recreation the next morning, to see how much things would have changed.
Sunday Morning, February 12, 2017
The next morning was very, VERY cold. The guards advised the inmates before making the choice to go out that it was -8 degrees outside. In these colder temperatures, GP inmates are offered an indoor heated gym as an alternative, but the SMU inmates have only ever been afforded their own indoor gym which maintains the same temperature as the outdoors. After last night’s experience, the colder temperature, and the early hour, only eight people participated, but Clayton was proudly among them.
The rules seemed to be back to how they had been the morning before. The guards had no problem with inmates bringing their MP3 players and radios, thermals, and cups of hot liquid out. Clayton’s cup of boiling hot tea eventually froze during his walk, but he poked a hole back through the ice on top. The morning shift guard explained, after he passed the frozen pile of their confiscated towels, that the towels could not be allowed because of the security risk of their faces being covered as a prelude to escape. He was even more thankful for the beard, as it grew icicles on the front of his face.
“You could feel it in your lungs this morning,” he explained as he described the outside air.
He said he liked his walk this morning, and the sun was coming up enough that it wasn’t quite as dark outside as it had been the night before.
That morning he also decided to try wearing personal knee braces on both legs to see if they would afford any extra protection for his legs. When he came back inside, Clayton said the knee braces did make a surprising amount of difference. The skin beneath the braces was a normal skin tone, where above and below them were a bright lobster-red color.
He noted that his cheeks were wind-burned, but he didn’t think they’d have a risk for actual frostbite as long as they weren’t stuck outside for more than an hour.
“If it had been windy, we would have been in trouble,” he acknowledged.
Clayton’s family and friends can only hope and pray that the night shift is educated quickly about the inappropriate nature of the abusive treatment they forced on the inmates Saturday night, and that it is not repeated again in the future.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
But… You’re Filing for Appeal, Right?
Clayton Allison was wrongfully convicted on February 13, 2015. That means that in exactly three weeks, Clayton will have served two full years of a wrongful sentence. More people than we could possibly count over the last two years, who have learned of our story, have led with the question, “But… you’re filing for appeal, right?”
There is nothing wrong with this question. In fact, it is completely logical. This is the only “solution” our system of government affords us in situations like these. However, that solution falls woefully short of justice; as the wrongfully convicted waste away for years, waiting to prove their trials were a farce with evidence they could have presented immediately.
Initial Automatic Delays of the Appeals Process
After Clayton’s conviction, he was not allowed to notify the court of his intent to appeal until after his sentencing hearing five months later. That notice is basically a glorified memo with a bullet list of items you intend to appeal on at that point in time; which only serves to preserve your right to do so.
Then, in Alaska you are assigned to a set of public defenders who specialize in appeals and are grossly overworked; unless of course you are independently wealthy and can afford private appeal representation. These professionals handle cases on a first-noticed-first-served basis, the only way they have decided they can make it fair for their clients. This means that their first order of business in Clayton’s case was to file for an automatic 460+ day extension before being required to file the appeal itself. The court grants this extension without blinking because they know how desperately backlogged the appeals system is. You are not even officially assigned to an attorney until closer to the time that your appeal will actually be filed. In Clayton’s case, an extension was granted until this Friday, January 27, 2017, and his attorney was assigned in the fourth quarter of last year.
This is what happens when you ARE in the ACTIVE process of appeal in Alaska. Years and years go by.
At this point in time, Clayton has had an opportunity to speak with his attorney on two occasions. He feels very confident in their knowledge, experience, and strategy. The attorney feels very positive about the chances of successful appeal due to the severity of issues that presented at trial. However, this is where the law and justice diverge once again.
In learning about the appeals process itself, we have learned that the way the courts operate - not necessarily the law itself - hinder the opportunity for true justice to be served simply by the expectations of the players involved. To put forth your best effort to win an appeal, actually requires you to sacrifice some of your rights. This is similar to how you must waive your right to a speedy trial immediately if you do not want to go to prison simply because your lawyer doesn’t even know who you are, much less the details of your case.
In the appeals example, it boils down to how much judges want to, or expect to, read. An appeal is a one-shot process. You cannot submit appeals over and over on separate subjects, trying to find the right one to convince the court to overturn the conviction. Everything that you want to preserve your right to appeal on, must be included in the original appeal brief. If any appeal-worthy subject has not been included, and sufficiently argued, in the original document, it is considered waived indefinitely at all levels - even in moving to higher courts. Yes, you read that right. Waived. Indefinitely. Permanently.
Also, an appeal cannot include all subject matter related to the case. Things like new exculpatory evidence, misbehavior that can be proven through further investigation, and errors discovered after trial, cannot be addressed except through a process called Post-Conviction Relief (PCR). An appeal can only address issues in the official appeals record from your trial.
The complete hundreds or thousands of pages of discovery evidence in your case are NOT automatically part of the appeals record. Instead, the specific document highlighting the problem would have to be formally submitted in trial as an evidence exhibit. This means that in Clayton’s case, examples of the prosecutors involved lying about case evidence and the contents of police transcripts cannot be included, because the actual physical evidence they were lying about was never logged in the “official record.” Transcripts especially, are not submitted unless challenged on a specific issue during the process. Other misconduct or mistakes like these from your trial can only be addressed through the PCR, which normally comes after appeal because it is also a one-shot process.
This is why, during your trial - the literal battle for your life - your will find your attorneys obsessed with “preserving” issues. They not only have to battle the arguments in front of them. They have to catch and remember each screw-up, and try to find a way to preserve the fact that it occurred within the official record. In Clayton’s case, this was even more difficult than it should have been due to interference from Judge Vanessa White.
White was supposed to be the unbiased guardian of the process, but instead served to block attempts to preserve multiple issues on the record through inappropriate rulings. For example, disallowing Clayton’s wife from “testifying about the demeanor of the police interrogating her” without allowing her to provide her honest responses on record, outside the presence of the jury, prevents the appeals court from considering the clearly false inferences within the unfair questioning she was being subjected to. The questioning was implying to jurors that she was being asked questions and had not been providing information, as if she was now fabricating facts, when in fact, she was being tortured by police and they were not accepting any information she attempted to provide. Judges are not supposed to manipulate the appeals record, but unfortunately have the seemingly unchecked power to do so.
So, now we know there are numerous issues of misconduct or flat-out provably incorrect facts that simply cannot be considered part of the appeal. We also know that there are still numerous elements that are appeal eligible within Clayton’s case. However, the nature of the process means he will not be able to appeal them all.
An appeal brief is limited by the courts in Alaska to 50 pages. These pages must contain not only the appeal subjects, but the legal arguments and case law which show them to be valid to overturn the conviction. It is expected by the professionals in the field that if you have a very good, very solid case for winning an appeal, there will be 3-4 appeal items included. That’s it! It was explained to us that in cases which did not have good grounds for appeal, and were essentially grasping at straws, you would see 10+ items listed. However, this tradition biases the appeals court itself.
Let’s say you had seven extreme violations of your rights occur in your trial which were all on record and eligible for appeal, and which all were worthy of reversing your conviction. You would have to waive your right to 3-4 of them to prevent the lawyer from running out of room to argue them sufficiently, and the judges from assuming you don’t have a legal leg to stand on at first glance. In cases like Clayton’s, where there were many, many violations of his rights and due process, things literally have to be left out and given up if you want to win.
This is what will be happening in Clayton’s case.
Due to the seriousness of the issues that have been chosen, the attorney is currently working on cutting back to fit within the page limitation, and still have strong legal argument included for each chosen item. The brief is due this Friday, January 27th, and will be submitted on time. However, Clayton will not have the opportunity to read the brief before it is filed. I wish I could say this is unusual, but it is actually very common at all levels for things to be filed on your legal behalf without ever actually being read by you. He will receive a copy from the court after it has been filed, and the general contents and intentions of the arguments have been discussed with him.
What to Expect - 3 Years of More Delays
There are three typical phases to motions and briefs filed within our courts: the initial motion/brief is filed; the opposing party is given an opportunity to file a written response; and then the original author files a response to the oppositions reply. When asking what to expect in this process, it was explained to Clayton that the State is given an automatic six month extension for filing their response to the brief, and they always use the full amount of time. (Which of course guarantees that people remain prisoners at least a little longer, even if unjustly put there.) By our approximation, this means the State’s reply will not be due until around July 27, 2017.
Then Clayton’s appeals attorney will be given 1-2 weeks to respond to the State’s reply. Therefore, their reply would be due around mid-August 2017.
Then the oral argument takes place if requested. Strangely, in Alaska this process involves the attorneys from both sides providing argument before the panel of three appeals judges WITHOUT the defendant present. We were informed that Clayton could request to be connected telephonically, but is likely to be denied. So a bunch of people are standing around in a closed courtroom, arguing about your life and future and you’re not even allowed to be there. We have no idea when the court would decide to schedule such a closed meeting, but we could guesstimate to September 2017, and likely not be more than a year off.
The panel of judges do not issue a ruling during this closed session, and oral arguments effectively end the active appeal process. Then you wait around for the court to issue its decision. Currently, the Alaska Court of Appeals is taking roughly 2.5 years to issue a ruling after the entire process described above. Meaning we could be waiting until March 2020 or later to even hear their decision.
When Clayton was originally convicted, we were told it was taking them as long as 2 years. Their timeliness seems to be slipping further and further as time progresses. They’re not taking that time to make their decision. They’re literally stacking it on top of a pile and waiting to get around to it after they’ve finished the other cases they’re behind on; which have nothing to do with you. The arguments will not even be fresh in their minds by the time they actually work on your case.
What a strange perversion of the American Dream.
What Happens When We Win?
Let’s assume we’ve made it three years down the line, and we win the appeal (again, chances VERY good). What happens to Clayton?
First, he is not automatically released. He would revert back to a pre-trial status, even while the district attorney is working to get a new indictment in place. This means he will be reassigned to the local public defender’s office, and to specific attorneys. Who you get assigned to largely has to do with whether your original trial lawyers are even still working in that office by then. The same goes for the District Attorney’s office; so yes, Clayton could theoretically end up battling the same corrupt prosecutors.
After being assigned representation, he would have to request a new bail hearing. The family will have to pay whatever new bail the judge assigns (and not get it back, AGAIN), and Clayton will be placed on whatever new pre-trial restrictions they choose - up to the third party requirements he was on for years before. However, SB 91 made many positive changes to pre-trial in Alaska, and those changes should be implemented statewide by that time. If unable to make bail, or disallowed from release of custody, Clayton would remain in prison until the new trial takes place.
Most shocking and disappointing of all, the trial will be reassigned to the original trial judge - Judge White; the same woman who sat by before and allowed blatant misconduct, and manipulated the original appeals record. We can request that she recuse herself from the case, but she has to agree in order to be removed. Otherwise, it just becomes an appeal point for the second time around.
The new trial is not as likely to take the 6+ years it did before, however, that’s not saying much for specifics. We will essentially be starting over at phase 1.
Free Clayton Allison supporters have no intention of sitting by and watching this farce continue without fighting the system in any and every legal way we can find. We have multiple avenues right now that we are pursuing to demand justice and request investigations of the officials involved. If you want to learn more about how you can provide assistance to these efforts, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If we assume the current standard appeals process timeline will be played out to completion, Clayton will have spent 5+ years wrongfully convicted. Before resuming a brand new trial process, this case will have already consumed 11 of his less than 40 years of life. This is why wrongful conviction literally destroys lives, even when you win the battle. It is also why the average exoneree spends 15 or more years wrongfully convicted before finding release. Please educate everyone you meet about the dangers of the U.S. justice system, and the Clayton Allison case.