Thursday, June 1, 2017

SMU Inmates Finally See Improvement

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. 

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