[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Lockdown Drag Out

[whitespace] Prison Down Time: During lockdown, jail guards earn overtime while inmates are prohibited from using the recreation yard and from working their prison jobs.

Family members of prisoners at Salinas Valley State Prison think the protracted state of emergency there poses more of a threat to prison security than the violent event that triggered it

By Jim Rendon

WHEN SUSAN STEFFENS saw her husband through the glass in a Salinas Valley State Prison visiting room, he looked worn out, thin and tired. It had been two months since they had even spoken on the phone, and after only 15 minutes of conversation, guards took him away, returning him to the 6-foot-by-9-foot cell that he shares with another inmate. Steffens drove back to San Jose, frustrated and upset.

Two months earlier, on May 17, her husband (who was sentenced to 50 years in prison under California's three strikes law for committing $800 worth of credit card fraud) had been handcuffed and taken from his cell. He and the other 120 inmates in his unit were kept cuffed in the dining hall while corrections officers searched every corner of their cells. Guards confiscated Steffens' pillow, cardboard, fruit, even the wrapper around the roll of toilet paper, and the items were never returned. Seven hours later, shoulders numb and stiff, he was put back in his cell. Like each of the other 4,000 inmates in this maximum-security prison, Steffens has remained locked there 24 hours a day for the last two months, leaving only twice a week in handcuffs to take a shower.

This is what is known as a lockdown, a prison state of emergency which was implemented at Salinas Valley State Prison 12 weeks ago. Those close to inmates say that the prison population is on the verge of revolt, and that years of shoddy management and inmate abuse have created a situation that is growing out of control. And the desperate effort to regain control through the lockdown is cruel and unnecessary, inmates say. Under lockdown, visitation rights and recreation time on the yard are suspended and inmates can no longer make phone calls, even to family members. No one has been allowed to go to their prison jobs or to participate in classes. Inmates have complained that medical care is nonexistent and they are not getting enough food. Eventually, even the tiny glass window in each cell, where inmates sat day after day without reprieve, was covered over.

"You're never rewarded for good deeds in here," Steffens wrote to his wife on June 22. "Later you always get screwed for doing them. I'm just waiting to die. That's all a life sentence really is."

THE LOCKDOWN started soon after May 17, when an inmate attacked a corrections officer in the kitchen of C Yard, stabbing him in the back and in the arms with a homemade knife. Soon a swarm of other officers subdued the inmate, and the guard was rushed to a local hospital, where he was treated for the injuries and is recovering from the attack. The case is currently being investigated by the Monterey County district attorney's office, but prison spokesman Lt. John Westphal says that no motive for the attack has yet been made public. The attack comes on the heels of ongoing fights between rival gangs and even inmate protests. In 1998, there were more than 90 assaults on staff, making Salinas Valley State Prison the seventh most dangerous prison for corrections officers in the state.

The prison is divided into four separate yards, A through D, and according to spokesman Westphal, the prison was designed to keep inmates on each yard totally separate, with zero interaction. Yet following the stabbing in C yard, the entire prison was placed on lockdown.

On July 20, the administration eased restrictions for some inmates. But just two days later, on July 22, inmates from C yard stabbed three more guards. This time C yard was returned to full lockdown. Since the attacker was a Mexican from Southern California, all Mexicans from Southern California in the entire prison were also returned to full lockdown.

"This has been going on for longer than you would hope for," says Tom Clanon, who has worked for the California Department of Corrections for 25 years and served as the superintendent at California's Vacaville State Prison from 1972 to 1980. "Prisoners sit in their cells and don't even get out one hour a day. They don't know how many months or days it will continue. It's very disheartening. While you keep people locked up, you are not helping them to do their time."

Prison High Tension: The inmate population grows tense at Salinas Valley Prison as an emergency condition known as "lockdown" goes into its 12th week.

UNDER NORMAL OPERATING conditions at Salinas Valley, most inmates go to jobs in which they cook, serve food, clean the prison and perform most of the menial tasks. When not working, they can use the yard, a large open space off the cell block surrounded by high cement walls and ringed with armed guards. Some inmates also take classes toward their GED, or vocational training. Many work on legal appeals.

During lockdown all of this is suspended. Guards and other prison staff must clean the prison, cook and serve meals to inmates in their cells. Some inmates say the portions of food are tiny, that guards drop it on the floor and serve it cold. Some inmates have complained that the showers are filthy and that even when they offer to clean up, the necessary supplies are removed.

"Lockdowns are an expensive proposition," Clanon says. "Staff has to work overtime and do the work of prisoners. Some of it, like searching cells, is quite time-consuming."

Steffens and others interested in the inmates' welfare are concerned that officers prolong lockdowns in order to earn more overtime money.

Though Westphal says that prison staff do not work long overtime hours, he admits that there is some overtime for some staff during a lockdown.

Westphal explains that after the stabbing, the entire prison population--all 4,000 inmates--was placed on lockdown as a result of a memo that administrators received from other prison officials outlining a possible conspiracy by Southern California Mexicans to attack corrections officers. Following the attack, the administrations did not want to take any chances. And during the searches, officials found 40 homemade weapons and small amounts of drugs, including black-tar heroin.

"Searches eliminate the root causes of inmate violence," Westphal says. Without contraband, there is less for them to fight about, and no weapons with which to do damage. "Confidential inmate interviews and intelligence gathering are crucial."

But in letters written to family members, inmates complained bitterly about the interview process and what they consider to be policies designed to punish all the inmates for one man's violence against one guard. Inmates say they were forced to go to these interviews wearing nothing but T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and sandals.

Westphal counters that inmates often relax on the cell block in their underwear, but he was unable to say whether or not inmates were forced to attend interviews in their underwear.

Steve Fama, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, which files civil rights lawsuits on behalf of inmates, has long been aware of complaints about Salinas Valley. "It has had more than its share of problems," he says. "I don't think the prison has ever gotten its sea legs. It has always had rough periods."

LOCATED AN HOUR SOUTH of San Jose, just off Highway 101 and framed by steep brown mountains and lush green irrigated fields, the prison marks the end of a decade-long prison-construction boom in California. But soon this state-of-the-art prison became as troubled as many of the older prisons in the state, if not more so.

Between its opening in 1996 and 1998, Salinas Valley had 272 reported assaults on its staff. And it is the fourth most violent prison in California's system. In three years, the prison has had seven different wardens, most of them appointed as interim place-holders.

The prison has a tough population, housing inmates convicted of some of the worst crimes in the state. Most are violent offenders serving long sentences. Like most prisons in the state, it is overcrowded. Within six months of opening it was at 166 percent of capacity. Now it is at 192 percent, meaning that all of the 6-by-9 cells house two prisoners.

In that high-pressure environment, Westphal says, lockdowns are common. Though he will not say how many times Salinas Valley has gone on lockdown in the last year, he says some units might go a whole year in various stages of lockdown.

But not all prisons have so many problems. At Vacaville, which has a much less violent and less permanent population, lockdowns are rare. During Clanon's eight years as superintendent, he says he remembers going on lockdown three times. The Department of Corrections was not able to provide statistics on lockdowns in other institutions.

Inmates and activists have seen many other problem areas at Salinas Valley, especially medical care. "I'm concerned about everything [at Salinas Valley], the adequacy of care, the ability to provide basic minimum care to people with serious illnesses," says Fama, who won a recent court decision forcing California to improve medical care in all of its prisons. "There have been improvements recently, but there have been stretches where it's been pretty close to horrible."

WHEN MIKKI JEANES visits her son at Salinas Valley, she is amazed at what she sees. He's so thin she can see his veins, and when she buys him food from the vending machine in the visiting room, he cannot get enough. Many inmates have complained about the shrinking portions of food during the lockdown. But for Jeanes' son, who asked that Metro not use his name for fear of retribution from the staff, food is a minor problem.

Jeanes' son is at risk for a rare form of hereditary cancer, a cancer that nearly killed her and which spreads rapidly if left untreated. Though Jeanes says the medical staff found evidence of cancer when he was tested, they told her son that he was fine.

After a minor operation was performed on her son to remove a cyst, which may have actually been a tumor, he was left untended for 24 days during the lockdown. His stitches were not removed after the operation, and the gauze was never once changed. If he is not treated quickly by a specialist, Jeanes fears, her son may die before his expected release after a 10-year sentence in 2005. But doctors do not communicate with her, and her efforts to get her son transferred to a prison near a specialist that she is willing to pay to treat her son have failed.

The system is not the problem. Salinas Valley, she says, has been negligent. "My son was in another prison for 2.5 years and I never had to write a letter [to the administration]. It's not like I'm the mom from hell, but no one else will do it. He is my only son. He has no voice."

Other inmates have also had problems with Salinas Valley's medical staff. In a letter to Steffens, who has begun collecting inmate accounts of misconduct at the prison, one inmate writes, "My medications ran out on the 26th of June. I started submitting requests to be seen by the doctor on June 16. As of today, July 12, I still haven't been seen by the medical department here and I remain without my medication."

Westphal denies that any of the institution's core services like medical care have been affected in any way by the lockdown. The infirmary at the facility has just been accredited by the state as a hospital, only the second prison infirmary in the state to be granted that distinction, he says.

But that has not helped Jeanes' son. And, she says, the lockdown has made her frantic. She cannot communicate with her son on the phone, and mail takes up to two weeks to be processed by the staff because more inmates are writing letters since they lost phone privileges. And all the while, her son's health, and perhaps his life, hangs in the balance.

"When your son is in prison you are a second-class citizen by default," she says. "I have taken a whole new look at what I believe in. There is no justice--not in prison, not in the courts."

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]


From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate