More on the NY Mag Prisoner Hunger Strike Story, LASD Inspector General Wants Town Hall Meetings, a Rundown on Sheriff Candidates…and MoreMarch 7th, 2014 by Taylor Walker
NPR’S FRESH AIR: HOW CALIFORNIA’S LARGEST PRISON HUNGER STRIKE WAS COORDINATED
On Tuesday, we pointed to an NY Magazine story by Benjamin Wallace-Wells about how an unusual foursome of California prison gang leaders in solitary confinement coordinated a hunger strike over isolation conditions that more than 30,000 prisoners participated in.
NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross speaks with Wallace-Wells about the NY Mag article. Gross also talks with UC Santa Cruz professor of psychology Craig Haney, who has been studying the psychological effects of solitary for decades (and is cited in the NY Mag story).
Wallace-Wells: In 2006, prison officials at Pelican Bay reorganized the SHU; they reallocated the prisoners into different spots in the Security Housing Unit. They thought that the gangs had found ways to work even within these extremely isolated environments. Gang leaders ended up next to gang lieutenants and they wanted to break that up.
So what they did, effectively, was they took all the people who they thought were the most influential, of whom they were the most scared, and they put them all together in one small part of the SHU — it’s called the Short Corridor. The theory was you would separate the guys who were very heavily monitored … from the guys who had become accustomed to doing their bidding, the more junior players. One thing that this did, effectively, was it brought all of the most senior and most influential men in the prison system into physical proximity with one another …
Every cell in solitary is part of a pod of eight cells, and though the prisoners don’t see each other, they can shout to the people in those other seven cells. Also, prisoners are ingenious, and they have figured out how to shout through toilet drains in their own cell to people in other cells and nearby parts of the prison. They figured out how those drain networks go.
On how long it took for the strike leaders to come together:
Wallace-Wells: I think it took a long time. These four men who led the hunger strike — Todd Ashker, [allegedly] of the Aryan Brotherhood, had the initial idea; Sitawa Jamaa, who is allegedly from the Black Guerilla Family; and Arturo Castellanos, allegedly a senior leader of the Mexican Mafia; and Antonio Guillen, allegedly one of the three “generals” of Nuestra Familia — they were put together in basically the same space years ago, in 2006, and it took five years for them come together.
That was a long process. They were very wary around one another at first, but they are each in their own way political and both Ashker and Sitawa Jamaa in particular had been reading revolutionary texts for years. In their own way, each of them had come to see their fight as fundamentally with the system itself rather than fundamentally with each other.
They also are all about the same age. They’re now in their late 40s and early 50s and they had a ton of time in the pod and they had nothing to do but talk. So what they will say is that they first came together, they first developed some intimacy, not by talking about the abuses that they believed they were suffering and not by talking about gang politics, but by talking about their families. The kind of catalyst, after all, of that was Ashker and the other white inmate on the pod … had become a kind of revolutionary book club and they would talk about these books by shouting through the pod. The impact for Ashker was to kind of highlight that they were members of a prisoner class, that the racial divisions among them were artificial and had been coached along by the guards.
LASD IG MAX HUNTSMAN WANTS INPUT FROM COMMUNITY REGARDING DEPARTMENT ISSUES
Inspector General for the LA County Sheriff’s Department, Max Huntsman, says he wants to hold town hall meetings to give LA County residents a voice regarding the Sheriff’s Dept. matters. Hunstman, who was hired in December to provide oversight of the LASD, says he wants to build a stronger connection between the department and the community it serves.
LA Daily News’ Christina Villacorte has the story. Here’s a clip:
“I view my job to be, in part, reaching out to the community and getting input from them over to the Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “At the same time, I’ll act as a buffer because there are certainly some people in the community who have very extreme views, and you can’t just vomit out that whole collection of thoughts on the Sheriff’s Department.”
Patrisse Cullors, who founded the community organization Dignity and Power Now after accusing deputies of assaulting her mentally ill brother in jail, believes town hall meetings are critical to restoring public trust. She even offered to help host and organize them.
“People who have been impacted by deputy violence are extremely angry,” she said. “They expect to get answers at these town hall meetings about what happened to their loved ones, who may have been beaten, shot, brutalized.”
American Civil Liberties Union legal director Peter Eliasberg said town hall meetings could indicate the seriousness of problems at the LASD.
“If people are coming in routinely angry, it doesn’t mean everything they say is true, but it’s a form of early warning.”
A Sheriff’s Department representative pointed out town hall meetings have been held at various stations for years. Those, however, suffered from a lack of public trust.
Huntsman wants his town hall meetings to create a bridge between the people and the LASD.
“It certainly has its limitations, but it’s very helpful,” he said. “I’d like to create something like that, because my job is to bring the community and the Sheriff’s Department together, try to get them to the same place as much as possible about what they want policing to look like.”
A GUIDE TO THE SEVEN LA SHERIFF HOPEFULS
WLA’s editor put together a comprehensive LA County Sheriff candidate rundown for LA Magazine. Here’s the intro:
In the March issue of Los Angeles, Celeste Fremon details the jaw-dropping details about the breakdown in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department under the leadership of Sheriff Lee Baca. This June, L.A. County voters have an opportunity to cast their vote for a new sheriff and, hopefully, a new approach to policing within the LASD. You can’t complain if you don’t vote, but how to vote if you don’t know much about the candidates? Here, Fremon provides a rundown of each of the men who want to run the fourth largest police force in the country.
STATE BAR OF TEXAS TO INVESTIGATE PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT CLAIMS MADE BY EXONERATED DEATH ROW INMATE
The LA Times’ Molly Hennessy-Fiske has a worthwhile story about Texas death row exoneree Anthony Graves, who is taking on the prosecutor in his case, after being wrongly imprisoned for 18 years (where he faced scheduled execution twice). Graves announced on Wednesday that the State Bar of Texas would be investigating the grievance he filed against Charles Sebesta, a former Burleson County district attorney.
Here’s a clip:
Graves was convicted in 1994 of killing a 45-year-old woman, her 16-year-old daughter and four grandchildren in a single stoplight town about 90 miles northwest of Houston in 1992. The victims were variously beaten, stabbed, strangled and shot.
The sole witness to the crime, Robert Carter, was also charged and initially implicated Graves, but later recanted.
Sebesta said he did not withhold a statement from Carter, and that it was the job of Graves’ attorney to question Carter more closely.
Both Carter and Graves were convicted. Carter was executed in 2000. Sebesta retired the same year.
Graves appealed. In 2006, his conviction was set aside by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found the prosecutor not only withheld evidence that would have helped Graves, but that he also encouraged witnesses to commit perjury. Four years later, the new district attorney dismissed the charges and declared Graves innocent…
Graves’ attorney filed a grievance with the state bar against Sebesta in 2007, but it was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired, he said (Sebesta disputes this). This year, Texas lawmakers extended the deadline for filing.
Above photo courtesy of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.