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.