Monday, February 13, 2017

Feb 12 - Like Night and Day

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.