Thursday, August 25, 2016

August 25 - Inhuman Conditions

Thursday, August 25, 2016

"They've finally done it," Clayton said to me yesterday while venting his frustration. "It's finally happened, and now people are freaking out."

The "it" Clayton was referring to is the placement of "boats" within the Special Management Unit (SMU) cells; something the family had previously believed was beyond possibility, even with the calloused Goose Creek administration.  Boats are a portable bed used by Alaska DOC in overcrowded prisons to change cells that were designed for double occupancy, or even original single occupancy, to sleep three inmates instead.  Clayton describes the boats being used at Goose Creek as hard plastic units that serve as a shelf which an inmate can place their thin mattress upon to hold them up a few inches above the ground.  Although inmates use the term "roll up" to indicate being moved from a cell or a bed being moved out of the way, they are in no way a flimsy or flexible plastic construction, or they would not be able to serve their intended purpose.  

Inhumane Conditions in the SMU Not Recent News

The inhumane conditions within the SMU have existed long before yesterday's latest blow to morale.  When GCCC staff retaliated against inmates in September of 2015, disbanding the protective custody (PC) housing unit and throwing all the PC inmates into the SMU to begin with, they were faced with immediate inhumane conditions.  As was reported then: cells were being maintained at freezing temperatures while personally owned warm clothing was confiscated; inmates were being told they would never again be permitted contact visitation with family members and friends; inmates were being denied access to vitamins and non-punitive commissary lists; and for the first couple of days inmates were being "locked down," or confined within their cells, for 23 or more hours per day.   

Clayton and his wife later learned that the response was, at least in part, a direct retaliation against them personally, and they were threatened with further retaliation if Clayton's wife did not "back off."  Family members and friends of the affected inmates, and Clayton's own family, fought back against the retaliatory actions, and attempted to raise awareness with statewide authorities about the ongoing abuse.  Clayton eventually became the "Advocate" for his tier of inmates (a position he was elected to), to advocate with staff for improved living conditions for the inmates housed within the SMU.  The Advocate positions throughout the prison proved to be a failed effort outside of the SMU, and were eventually disbanded when Clayton was the last remaining individual in the position working successfully to bring change. 

Small victories have been won over time.  GCCC was forced to concede that a minimum of one contact hour of visitation was required to be accessible to all inmates statewide who were not being actively punished for bad behavior.  After statewide authorities intervened, the prison has provided that hour every week, but continues to restrict it to a single day that inmate families must choose from while maintaining the staffing to allow it multiple days per week; an obviously spiteful and punitive policy which requires more work for staff.  Vitamins were added to the commissary list, but are still inaccessible to indigent inmates who cannot afford them and are being denied access through medical.  The hours of confinement have changed many times, and currently SMU inmates are allowed 3.75 hours per day (broken up in smaller segments) out of their cells instead of the 1 hour or less they started with.  Inmates have also gained access to things like art supplies and minimal game pieces over time, to give them options for keeping themselves occupied during the 20+ hours of confinement each day.  

Despite these small victories, the conditions within the SMU remain far from humane, and basic rights afforded to prisoners across the state are still being staunchly denied.  One example is access to outdoor recreation.  Current DOC Policy #815.01.E.3 states, "A prisoner in administrative segregation has the same right to outdoor recreation as the general population for at least one hour per day, seven days per week, unless an individualized determination [is] made that the prisoner is a security risk as in section 1 above."

However, despite this seemingly obvious requirement, this access has not been afforded to SMU inmates since K Mod was disbanded on September 16, 2015.  Instead, SMU inmates have access to an enclosed concrete gymnasium.  Inmates have filed grievances, but the facility has maintained that the small grate, serving as a window to allow in outside air which does not display any visual other than the sky, qualifies as meeting the "outdoor" requirement.  Therefore, there are an untold number of inmates within the SMU who have not seen a tree, plant, blade of grass, or pile of snow for nearly a full year.  

Clayton's first exposure to the outdoors came in January when he entered the visitation building in the middle of the day for his first Advocate meeting with staff.  He and the other two advocates from the SMU who were present froze up, and held back tears, because they could see trees through the window in the large room; even if they couldn't see the ground.  They hadn't seen trees in 4 months!  Staff at the meeting seemed completely oblivious to the nearly religious experience they were having, and hurried them into their seats.  Clayton's last exposure to the outdoors came on July 3, 2016, as he was escorted to his mother's funeral.  The kind-hearted guards who served as his escorts talked him through the experience as he wept the whole way to the funeral home.  It wasn't his mother's passing alone that overwhelmed him, but the utter shock of being surrounded by so much green; so much life.  He explained to them that he had not been outside in nearly 9 months.  

The conditions within the SMU have been reported to numerous statewide authorities including: the Ombudsman's office, state legislators, Alaska's U.S. Representative and Senators, Governor Walker's administration, and statewide Department of Corrections.  More than one authority has expressed that, "Reasons for the disbanding of K Mod were provided.  We will not claim to agree with, or understand, those reasons; but they have been provided."  

Yet, in nearly a year of inhumane treatment, no action has been taken to remedy the situation at Goose Creek, and yesterday the situation escalated back to dire.  

Boats in the SMU Are A Health and Safety Violation

The image at the top of this post is a photo of an actual cell in Goose Creek Correctional Center; made available to the press shortly before the facility opened.  It shows the general layout of cells within the facility as they were originally designed, for dual occupancy.  The metal bunks attached to the wall provide sleeping space for 2 inmates, and the plastic tubs beneath them provide a space for storage of personal items.  The small metal desk, and 2 fixed metal stools, provide a place for the inmates to work and eat.  It is not known whether this photo was taken within the SMU, but it is likely.  Cells within the general population (GP) housing units (mods) do not have toilets inside of them, but there are larger bathroom facilities out in the common area instead.  

Imagine yourself locked within this space for 20+ hours every day of your life.  Now imagine that a second person is locked in there with you.  That person may be a "cell warrior;" someone who stands at the door of their cell and screams all hours of the day and night.  That person might be a thief; requiring you to monitor your belongings closely.  Or, more often than not, that person may be physically or mentally disabled.  In a GP mod, you would be allowed to eat your meals in the common area.  In the SMU, you have to do so locked within your cell.  

It is important to note that the SMU was not designed for long-term housing and confinement.  It's original design was intended to facilitate "transitional" housing for inmates who were waiting to be reintroduced to the GP mods after punishment or recovery from injury and illness.  The indoor gym was an option for temporary accomodation during these periods, and not meant to replace outdoor access entirely.  In fact, staff on the ground at Goose Creek have confirmed that the SMU was not run anything like it has been run since the men from the former PC mod known as "K" or "Kilo mod" were placed there. The changes were all implemented as a direct result of the PC inmates now being housed there. 

Placing a boat within the available floor space of the cell, takes the conditions from damaging to torturous.  For 20+ hours a day the three men will have nowhere to stand without standing on the boat or in the small inches of space around it.  Therefore, all three men will have little choice but to lay in bed nearly the entire time; leading to countless health problems.  For every meal, the third inmate will have nowhere to sit his meal tray to eat without placing it in his lap or on his bedding.  Due to the way meal trays are served, the bottoms of the trays are often covered in food from the tray below them, and leave a significant mess behind on any surface they touch.  Bedding and clothing are only exchanged once a week.  

The third inmate will have nowhere to store his personal belongings, without it being offered by the 2 inmates already in the cell.  The third inmate will have no hook to hang his towel to dry to prevent it from mildewing during the week he must use it.  None of the inmates have the ability to use the bathroom without being practically on top of the third occupant; completely eliminating the former illusion of privacy which could be achieved.  Throwing in the complication of physically or mentally handicapped inmates who have difficulty using the bathroom without making a mess... and the situation has the potential to become downright gross.  

It doesn't take a human rights activist to outline the severity of the situation.  According to a  
2010 report from the ACLU titled Rethinking Alaska's Corrections Policy: Avoiding an Everyday Crisis, it was found that:

"The American Corrections Association (ACA), the organization which prescribes correctional industry standards, produces a list of standards on running correctional institutions. They provide that each inmate should have 25 square feet of “unencumbered space” for each single cell occupant; “unencumbered” meaning that the space occupied by furnishings like the bunks and the toilet/sink unit must be discounted from the total. However, where prisoners spend at least 10 hours a day [emphasis added] in a cell, each prisoner must have at least 80 square feet of floor space per occupant. These standards do post-date the construction of most of the in-state facilities, so the Department has enacted procedures requiring that double cells be 80 square feet in size and 90 square feet if the prisoners spend 10 hours or more in the cell.  However, even the Department’s own standards would require 140 square feet or more for a cell housing three prisoners. The ACA further prohibits the use of such “boats” outright – saying that each inmate must have “a sleeping surface and mattress at least 12 inches off the floor; storage for personal items; and adequate storage space for clothes and personal belongings.” The ACA is not an inmate-rights organization. It is a reputable national correctional standards organization, whose standards are recognized by the Department as authoritative within the industry."
The boats are being used all over Goose Creek, but prior to yesterday inmate families could not imagine them being placed within the SMU.  One of the major differences is the presence of the toilet within the cell, and the problems it presents.  The other major issue is the prolonged confinement.  In the GP mods where these boats are used often, as they were in Kilo before, inmates can escape the confinement of the crowded cell for most of the day they are not sleeping.  SMU does not afford anyone this option, and in recent weeks circumstances have resulted in numerous "rec times," or times out of the cell, being outright cancelled for staff convenience.  

This issue is a potential powder keg waiting to go off in the face of both inmates and staff.  Many of the men confined to these cells already have personal issues like anger management and explosive disorders.  Some of them are mentally ill, and most of them are suffering enduring mental anguish caused by the already poor conditions without relief.  After only a single day of the implementation of this choice, many inmates are feeling panicky, and starting to file grievances through paperwork.  

Clayton's Current Condition

Clayton currently has not been assigned a third cellmate, which he is expressly thankful about.  So far, only a few inmates have been placed into cells but the presence of more boats being stacked beneath the stairs implies that many more are on their way.  Clayton's wife was disgusted to learn the news after hearing a guard comment that the prison was "far from" overcrowded, and it was only the SMU and administrative segregation (Ad Seg - The Hole) which were experiencing the problem.  

This aligns with the family's belief that it was inappropriate to disband Kilo Mod for protective custody, and force the men into SMU and Ad Seg when there were even less beds to work with.  Kilo Mod (when it was PC) had already experience constant overcrowding for the entire time Clayton was placed there.  Now that Palmer Correctional is closing down, many of the formerly minimum security offenders who could get by in GP in that facility are "PC'ing up" because they cannot survive the harsh abuse of the gangs which operate in Goose Creek's GP mods.  

Clayton's current, and fairly recent, cellmate presents a plethora of problems which he is struggling to adapt to, and should be the content of an entirely separate post on mental illness and insufficient care.  The man is frequently mentally disoriented and struggles with memory issues, hallucinations, sleep talking/shouting, not wearing clothing as required, and physical clumsiness which leaves constant messes ranging from bathroom to food cleanups.  

"I can deal with that," Clay explained with a sigh, "I can adapt and learn to manage it.  He's a nice old guy, he just has issues.  But this... I can't imagine a third guy."

Action Taken

In addition to the writing of this post, the Allison's have attempted to draw attention to the severity of the problem in the minimal ways that they can.  Clayton's wife was informed by statewide DOC staff that the "proper procedure" was for her to speak with the prison, and Clayton to file grievance paperwork.  Clayton was surprised by this because, although he intends to file, he expects to be screened out automatically for complaining about something that has not yet affected him personally.  His wife was even more surprised, after having been communicated to by prison staff on multiple occasions that "advocacy by family members" and indeed communication with the prison at all was "against policy."  

Even when properly adhered to, the grievance process can take weeks if not months to extend beyond the awareness of the prison's own staff.  Paper trails and documentation can be a very good thing, but when they are used as justification to ignore the concerned calls of the public - or send them right back to the potential source of the problem - the entire purpose of having them is defeated.  The Allison's can only hope that someone hears their plea and takes action before the powder kegs begin exploding.