Wednesday, January 18, 2017

January 18 - Prejudice Inside and Out

Wednesday, January 18, 2016

Prejudice is something difficult to escape in daily life.  Most of us are prejudiced in one way or another, often without realizing it ourselves.  We see our own prejudice as truth or reality.  When that reality is challenged, we have a tendency to fight tooth-and-nail to prevent a perspective change that could be frightening and even painful.
Many prejudices in our daily lives are either accepted or shamed.  For example, much of our society has progressed to recognize that prejudice against people due to race, color, national origin, sex, and other factors is inappropriate.  However, demonstrated prejudices against people due to things like personal wealth/poverty, level of education, and criminal history are often justified in the minds of not only the prejudiced person, but many around them.  This raises the critical question – why would these categories be considered prejudice?  It is the very fact that they are categories at all. 

As human beings, we have a love of categorization.  It is one of the ways we study, and work to understand the world around us.  However, despite its usefulness in developing understanding, the second that we define the entirety of a human being by the limited boundaries of any particular category, we have the potential to demonstrate prejudice. 

When judging someone based on the fact that they are wealthy, do we naturally assume that they have no experience with poverty and therefore no perspective?  When judging someone for poverty, do we assume that they have chosen not to seize opportunity, or have simply not tried hard enough to escape its terrible grip?  When judging someone for their lack of education, do we assume they are less intelligent or less driven to succeed?  In reality, an unfathomable number of events could have occurred in that person’s life to put them in that category, no matter what their level of intelligence, wisdom, or desire to succeed may be. 

Prejudice Against Inmates and Family/Friends

Inmates and their families endure a shocking level of prejudice from much of society, which is often cheered and celebrated more often than challenged or shamed. 

For example, in the comments after a news article on the suspect of a burglary, it is not uncommon for someone to start posting things like, “It’s about time we start lining these people up and shooting them!” or “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!” 

When family members of the innocently accused/convicted attempt to show support and expose the reality of their situation, they often become targets of the same hatred.  I myself have had individuals, in the safe anonymity of the internet, literally state that I should be raped and killed for standing in support of my innocent husband.  The irony is, that the very people who seem to be outraged that our daughter died and who believe him to be at fault simply because they read an accusation on a computer screen, have called for not only murder but grotesque sexual violation of another human being and somehow feel justified. 

These threats and dangers are not limited to the online world either; although the internet seems to heighten the level of boldness and depravity.  Indeed, my vehicle has been tampered with and I have family members who have even had guns pulled on them out in the general public; simply because we we’re recognized as a family in support.  Even official businesses regularly demonstrate prejudice with no apparent fear of accountability, or even basic understanding that their actions are inappropriate.  When I was being evaluated for insurance by a company I have used for many years, and had to explain the situation of my husband’s incarceration due to other life changes, the company called me back three separate times to ask the same singular question.  “I’m sorry mam, but I need to clarify… do you intend to divorce your husband?”  What relevance does divorce have on my insurance when my husband’s sentence is 40 years?

Prejudice against inmates, and formerly incarcerated individuals, is nothing new.  It is rarely thought of as prejudice and simply labeled as common sense.  But this form of categorization is one of the most flawed in our society today. 

As a basic example, any individual being held in our prison system in Alaska is assigned an identifying number called an Offender Number.  This basic terminology assumes that all incarcerated individuals are offenders.  In truth, at least a quarter of Alaska’s prison population is held for days, months, or often years in a pretrial status; therefore, their guilt has not even been determined. They are supposed to be presumed innocent.  In a recent case, a 19 year old man was acquitted of rape in Palmer after spending nearly two years in prison awaiting trial.  In some felony cases, it is not uncommon for someone to wait five years or more for their day in court.  For my husband, Clayton Allison, the wait was more than six years. 

Then you have the other complication of wrongful conviction; which by definition labels an innocent as an offender.  The National Registry of Exonerations has already gathered data on more than 1,900 proven cases of exoneration since 1989.  They have only been gathering this information for a couple of years, and their scope is limited to official court actions.  Clayton’s wrongful conviction will not appear on this list until he is officially exonerated by the courts.  An unknown number of individuals across the country are wrongfully convicted, sometimes without hope of exoneration because they can gather no evidence that the crime they are accused of may not have even occurred, or have actually been a crime.

More and more people across our country are waking up to the fact that just because someone is accused of a crime does not make them guilty.  Just because they are convicted does not mean there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  Most importantly, just because someone is being confined within the walls of a prison, does not mean they have actually done anything wrong.  Even professionals in the field acknowledge this simple truth.  U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, in his article Criminal Law 2.0, reflected that, “much of the so-called wisdom that has been handed down to us about the workings of the legal system, and the criminal process in particular, has been undermined by experience, legal scholarship and common sense (2015).” 

Spreading the word of this important truth is a daunting task, but challenging the resulting prejudice will be much harder. 

Prejudice Against Specific Types of Inmates

Now, you might be tempted to think that society is prejudiced towards all inmates in the same way, but you would be sorely mistaken.  Even among those experiencing the prejudice, there are further levels to our drive for categorization.  I have an African-American friend who was once told by another African-American friend that she was “not really black” because one of her parents was white; therefore, she couldn’t truly understand the suffering of black people.  Obviously this was an inaccurate and laughable accusation.  Similarly, however, individuals have a tendency to categorize inmates based on the crime they are accused or convicted of.  This includes policy makers, lawyers, corrections staff, other inmates, and the general public. 

For example, it is not uncommon for policies to be written for justice reform with a seemingly automatic rubber stamp for the exclusion of sex offenders and/or violent crimes.  There is a tendency to speak about both “sex offenses” and “violent crimes” as if they are simplified classifications which we would all consider equivalent in their level of offense.  However, these broad generalizations fall woefully short of providing real context in our decision-making processes.
Imagine you have four men standing in front of you, and I told you they were all sex offenders.  Most people would have the tendency to treat them all similarly.  Then imagine that I clarified that: one man was convicted of having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old when he was 19; one man was convicted of forcibly raping and beating six women as a serial rapist; one man was convicted at 17 of sexual exploitation of a minor because he sexted naked photos of himself to a girl at his high school; and the fourth is a 70-year-old mentally ill man who experiences delusions and was convicted of exposing himself in public.  The facts have not changed, but do you still see all four men in exactly the same light?  Would you make the same opportunities available to them, and place them under identical restrictions? 

Even inmates exercise these prejudices as a way to justify causing harm to others within their limited reach.  Racial tensions and gangs affiliations already provide excuses for violence and the creation of a pecking order.  However, there is usually a complicated set of rules or a specific person for granting permission to inflict harm without fear of retaliation.  Categorizations and assumptions about someone’s offense can make them an easy, unprotected target for this aggression.  Therefore, many inmates are forced to enter what the Department of Corrections calls Protective Custody (PC), or an Ad Seg status, to keep themselves safe. 

Prejudice From Correctional Staff Against PC

What has been most shocking to me in recent months, is the blatant prejudice demonstrated by the corrections staff assigned to watching over these individuals.  In fact, corrections staff frequently use their Ad Seg status as an excuse to declare that they can house the individuals in any conditions they wish – even unconstitutional ones. 

In one example, my husband had an unpleasant encounter with a correctional officer who was lashing out at him, and failing at his duties in the process, for being in protective custody.  The man worked in property at the time (they rotate assignments often), and was supposed to be assisting my husband in reclaiming his property when returning from court.  Instead, the man was shouting vicious things at him, swearing, and flat out refusing to help him locate the property in question.  The man, who likely didn’t know who Clayton was or any of the details of his case, was screaming that he was a “Chester” (prison slang for child molester) simply because he was in protective custody.  Chester seems to be the default accusation against this population by both inmates and some staff; when it often clearly has no bearing on their actual cases.  Ultimately, another corrections officer intervened in removing Clayton from the verbal assault, and brought him the property personally later; apologizing for his co-workers behavior. 

In another example, Goose Creek Correctional Center administrators have demonstrated incredible levels of prejudice against this population in their decision-making for the entire facility.  On September 16, 2015, all men in PC status were moved from a housing unit, previously called K Mod, which allowed them the same general lifestyle afforded to general population (GP) inmates.  They were transferred into an area of the prison called the Special Management Unit (SMU) and forced into solitary-confinement-like conditions with no hope of being released into a less mentally traumatizing environment.  We have written extensively about the events that transpired on this blog, and encourage you to read the accounts from September 16, 17, 18, and 28, of 2015, if you have not done so already.
Since that time, these men have suffered under unconstitutional housing conditions for well over a year.  They are being permanently denied access to outdoor recreation, through the excuse of an indoor gym.  The inmates have attempted to fight this cruelty through official DOC paperwork, but have received no relief.  Unbelievably, Alaska DOC is maintaining the argument that the grate in the side of the wall of the indoor gym, which points at nothing but the sky, qualifies as outdoor recreation.  What is the problem with that argument?  Other than basic logic, it has already been found invalid by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  It's literally an argument they have already lost before, and are just ignoring.
In one 9th Circuit case it states that, "Exercise comprising a room with a roof and one wall of perforated steel, admitting sunlight only, during the top 1/3 did not meet the courts requirement for outdoor recreation." [Keenan v. Hall, 83 F.3d 1083, 1090 (9th Cir. 1996)]  

Further, the court has clarified that, "Long-term deprivation of outdoor exercise is unconstitutional" in Hearns v. Terhune, 413 F.3d 1036, 1042-43 (9th Cir. 2005). 

Lastly, DOC is maintaining their authority to do this to the inmates because they are classified as protective custody status.  However, the third case - Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1133 (9th Cir. 2000) - discusses two important issues. It clarifies that specific demonstrated harm is not necessary to cite in long-term cases which it measures in days, not weeks, months or years; because in long-term cases the harm is assumed.  It also clarifies that, "The courts held that it was not enough for officials to say that they kept a prisoner from the yard for his own protection.  They must justify why they did not provide some other opportunity for outdoor recreation."
It is also important to note that these men were forced into these conditions after the disbandment of their protective-custody-dedicated general-population-like housing unit; formerly known as K Mod.  In a recent California case, their courts determined that confining someone to indefinite solitary-like housing with an indoor gym like the current Goose Creek SMU was inappropriate, and a settlement was reached.  You can find the settlement documentation through the Huffington Post article.  I would note that section III.D. of the settlement outlines the requirement for the facility to establish the very form of housing unit Goose Creek recently abolished. 

Life Without the Outdoors

Since this issue was covered in more detail in a recent Alaska Public Media story, some have asked the question, “What is so cruel and unusual about the conditions?” 

First, I encourage you to read through some of the inmate letters on this blog and additional entries about life in the SMU.  Secondly, I encourage you to watch the video on the experience of solitary confinement from the perspective of Supermax inmates in the lower 48.  Most importantly, I ask you to consider the facts at play.

The gym available to the Goose Creek SMU inmates is completely enclosed except for the grate on the wall.  This grate points at the sky, so the inmates have not seen grass, trees, weather, accumulated snow, or any aspect of the outdoors for more than a year; an environment well-documented around the world to cause mental illness and distress.  Clayton commented to Alaska Public Media about attending his mother’s funeral last summer, and said, “I unashamedly admit that I was weeping on the ride there, not because of my mom’s death, but because of the car ride and being able to be outside,” he recalled. “I was able to see the many colors of the green on the trees and the flowers. It had been so long it was overwhelming for me.”

Additionally, this type of gym is inappropriate for use in arctic conditions.  The grate lets in not only the outdoor air, but sometimes the precipitation like rain or snow.  It’s not enough to really touch, but to affect the floors inside and make its way to the drain.  It also means that the gym temperature is a match to the temperature outside without the benefits of a view.  On days like today, when it is 20 below zero, their gym is also well below zero.  They are not afforded coats or other winter gear to use for exercise.  On days like today, GP inmates are given the option to use an indoor heated gym for exercise, because outdoor recreation would be a risk to health.  SMU inmates are not afforded this option because they “have their own gym.”  Which means, during periods of extreme cold (much of the winter here in Alaska) they have no options for recreation at all without inviting illness.  They are not allowed to exercise in the mod itself. 

Most shocking of all, Superintendent John Conant from Goose Creek freely admitted his own prejudice on the subject to the press. 

“There’s other units these guys can be in if they just have a little more courage, I guess you’d say, and just try it,” he said in the article, referring to other specialized GP mods.

This statement is not only prejudiced, but inaccurate.  First of all, his claim that there are other specialized mods they can transfer into is far from universally true.  Recent changes within the religious mod Clayton once considered have rendered him ineligible for transfer there.  The new program requires them to admit guilt for their crimes, which Clayton and anyone who is innocent and in active appeal cannot do.  There are also mods being designed for things like mental health support, but you have to need that support in the first place to qualify.  The only other option we are currently aware of, is the standard GP mods.
Secondly, he claims that their confinement to the SMU is related to their level of courage.  This implies that they have not “tried it” to begin with.  Most of the inmates in the SMU are there because they already have tried it, and found the conditions impossible to manage.  In GP, these inmates face not only extortion, but the constant risk of physical violence and potential death.  The risk does not only affect the inmate.  When Clayton was first placed in GP at Goose Creek, desperate to avoid PC status and potential solitary confinement, he had three groups of men threaten to knife him to death in the first 20 minutes he was placed there.  Eventually, the entire mod started to break out in riotous behavior – shouting threats, screaming, and banging their cups and other objects – and multiple guards were forced to put themselves at abnormal risk to surround him and remove him from the environment into safety.
Also, let’s say an inmate does “try it out” and meets with failure.  Sure, they could have a period of success, but as soon as another inmate decides they are an easy target they face injury, potential permanent disability, and even death for the sake of giving it a try.  At the least, they would end up with write-ups and potential punishment for being involved in an altercation they had no means of controlling.  Surely, the Superintendent of our largest institution realizes this.  Yet, he still allows his own prejudice about their courage to taint his decision-making. 

Extreme Prejudice From the Public

The Alaska Public Media article, while exposing the ongoing cruelty and potentially illegal nature of it, has also shed some light on the prejudice among the public against this population.  Some have stated that the SMU is full of “rapists and murderers” who have no right to humane treatment anyway. 

“Rapists and murderers” is an interesting colloquialism with no real relevance to the facts.  On one hand, yes many of the individuals that end up in PC status are there because they are sex offenders and GP inmates consider those crimes more heinous than whatever crime they have committed personally.  However, the murderers half of that flippant statement is blatantly untrue.  Yes, some of the men in the SMU, like Clayton, are convicted on murder charges.  However, many more convicted murderers walk around in GP without any need of protective custody.  It is not a crime that automatically causes the need for a PC status.
Secondly, use of this colloquialism is completely ignorant to the numerous other reasons an inmate might need a PC status.  Men may be in a PC status for numerous reasons, including, but not limited to:

  • Being elderly, which makes an easy target for aggression and exploitation;
  • Recovering from severe injury, illness, or medical treatment;
  • Being mentally ill, and unsafe to themselves or others, or at risk from others; 
  • Being homosexual, bisexual, or transgender and at risk for sexual and non-sexual violence; 
  • Being considered a “rat” or a “snitch” for cooperating with authorities in the investigation and prosecution of their case, and winding up at risk from their co-defendants and everyone else for the simple title; 
  • Attempting to leave a gang within the prison, which can result in a ‘contract’ going out to promise a reward to anyone who injures or kills that specific person; and 
  • Being accused or convicted of a crime that is sexual in nature, or against women and children.       
This begs the most basic of questions to the general public.  Do we believe that someone should risk their life and health because they are homosexual?  Do we believe that they should be left unprotected because they cooperated with investigators and prosecutors?  Do we believe that we should leave the elderly and mentally ill defenseless?  Some of these people are literally in PC status for other reasons, after being convicted of things like check forgery.  Yet, the administrators at Goose Creek seem to believe that these are valid reasons to confine men within unconstitutional, cruel, and unusual living conditions indefinitely, with no hope for relief. 

Please Take Action

If you believe this to be unacceptable, please spread the word and demand justice from your state.  Contact your legislators and congressmen to demand corrective actions.  Contact the Lieutenant Governor and Governor’s offices to file a complaint.  Spread the word about these conditions, and educate members of the public on this form of prejudice, in your own communities.  Stand Up and Speak Out for those who cannot speak out for themselves.  We thank you all for your support.  

1 comment:

  1. This is such an important post. Even I, who supports Clayton avidly am intimidated by the prejudices of the general public concerning and against these victims of the injustice system we have up here in Alaska. The State of Alaska is commiting crimes against the innocent and mislabeled citizens of our state. The whole system, at every level, deliberately takes action with the intent on tearing families and supporters apart as a means to a twisted and selfserving end.