Literature on Lockdown: "Writing From Inside: Truth and Consequences"
By Michael Nye
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at email@example.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Boston Woodard
“If you don’t stop telling lies about me, I’ll start telling the truth about you” – Abraham Lincoln
That quote from our sixteenth president pretty much describes why I write about prison life. Many times I have read in mainstream media or viewed on news broadcasts stories of prison incidents, episodes, or conditions that were factually wrong and/or misleading. The public-at-large is quick to believe everything offered to it by a broken prison system: the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC).
Some prison public information officers (PIOs) are masterful at concocting spurious press releases prepared and tailored by prison administrators for public consumption. The falsely crafted information offered to the public (usually via media) has a one-sided take on any given issue behind prison walls. Because media access into the prison system has been severely restricted, to the point that prison officials have control of directing the coverage, the prisoner’s side of the story is seldom heard. Media delimitation deprives the public of a full account of how its prison system is being manages, which serves the CDRC well in concealing a corrupt and dysfunctional prison system.
The California Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA), the prison guard’s union, are masters of perpetuating many of the lies and information with the goal in ingratiating themselves with the public and a rapacious desire to fatten their coffer. Those of us on the inside, who observe the daily deportment of the self-proclaimed “peace officer”, see the impudence in their pronouncement that they “walk the toughest beat in the state”. Many prison staff negotiate their work day under calm and untroubled circumstances. This is not to say trouble does not arise at times, just not incessantly as claimed. In fact, some prison staff are so bored they make a game of targeting and harassing prisoners with impunity.
While some prison staff are feted by corrections officials as symbols of the “Safety and Security” of the public, there are others who are arrogant, pernicious, and dangerous to themselves and those around them. These rogue prison staff violate the rights of prisoners under the color of law exempt from punishment. Often, a snarky dig is the preferred language of prison officials when confronted by legitimate media seeking information.
When top prison officials condone, then cover up, bad behavior by its lower staff, it becomes commonplace for rogue guards and their supervising brass to employ miscreant conduct.
D.J. Vodicka, ex-prison guard and authors of The Green Wall, exposes rogue prison guards at their worst. The Green Wall was a gang of rogue guards within the CDCR. According to Vodicka, “Members of the The Green Wall placed contraband in prisoner’s cells, used unnecessary force at will, and become middle men for drug and weapons transfers within the prison. Some guards planted prisoner-manufactured weapons in prisoner’s cells, falsified reports, and stole or destroyed personal property belonging to prisoners.”
A Code of Silence was used by members of The Green Wall to cover up its activities and by some officials to protect its staff. The actions of rogue prison staff that use a Code of Silence as an unlawful tool to conspire among fellow staff do so to cover a multitude of violations. They use the Code of Silence to hide violations of policy and retaliate against staff and prisoners who don’t agree with them. “Fostering the Code of Silence includes the failure to act when there is an ethical and professional obligation to do so,” according to the memorandum issued by the CDCR on February 17th, 2004, to all California department of Corrections Employees proclaiming a “zero tolerance regarding the Code of Silence”.
The Code of Silence, still used by some prison staff, can and does evoke a desired reaction from some prisoners, which is then often used to concoct false disciplinary action against the prisoner-target.
A little more than nine years ago, I was given the opportunity by Mike Rhodes, editor of the Community Alliance newspaper in Fresno, California, to correspond as a journalist from behind state prison walls. Unlike “mainstream” news publications, the Community Alliance publishes uncensored, unfitted information about all matters of importance to the community, including the prison system.
When the CDCR fast-tracked the transferring of foreign national prisoners out-of-state, for-profit private prisons, the Community Alliance ran a series of articles of this bogus attempt by the CDCR to lower its population after being ordered to do so by federal courts. The CDRC began by bullying the most vulnerable of its charges (foreign nationals) by targeting them to be forcefully moved up to a thousand miles more from friends and families in California. My article, “Hog Tied”, told the story of Sopanareth Sok, a young Cambodian prisoner in Solano State prison who did not want to be forcefully transferred far from his family. He was handcuffed, shackled, and then hog-tied and whisked off to an undisclosed airport en route to a private prison in Mississippi.
I wrote several articles about California’s corrupt parole system, which has historically broken every rule in the book in an effort to keep thousands of life-term prisoners (who have earned the right to return to society) from being paroled. Two articles, “The Parole Conundrum: Vindictive Application of the Law” and “Parole Board Pillory: Courts Expose Corruption”, give a detailed history of why these life prisoners were not allowed to be paroled, even after decades of honest effort to rehabilitate themselves back into society where they no doubt would have been assets to many communities. Both articles are backed by numerous court rulings throughout California and the federal court system.
On several occasions, I was escorted to the prison’s custody office by prison guards, where I was encircled by prison officials who interrogated me about my articles. Two articles described the “possible” existence of “Zip Guns” on prison grounds, and another article detailed the destructive shakedowns (searches) that followed. Notes found in prison staff restrooms (not accessible to prisoners) prompted two lengthy lockdowns and institutional searches with no Zip Guns found. Many believe the lockdowns were nothing by concocted overtime ploys by the prison guards and their union.
During an interrogation, a “correctional sergeant” informed me, “We just came from the warden’s office. Sacramento (CDCR headquarters) is investigating several allegations you made in these articles.” My response was that my articles are records of facts as I witnessed or experienced everything I write about. I was escorted back to my housing unit and informed that I would be called back for more questioning. Prison officials interviewed several prisoners who were physically harmed and/or injured because of a shakedown. They were forced to stand in the hot sun for eight to ten hours. One elderly prisoner suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for weeks. Another 67-year old, partially paralyzed stroke survivor, suffered severe sunburned skin and was given two Tylenol for his extremely painful injuries. He has since passed away.
These men verified (during questioning) that my articles of the events and “allegations” depicting what happened to them were “true and accurate” as written. I was never called back for questioning.
My article, “It Ain’t So Funny When the Rabbit Has a Gun”, describes an unprecedented secretly employed staff event that caught the guards at California’s Solano State Prison, and other prison staff, completely by surprise. As employees arrived for morning shift change, they were thoroughly searched for contraband that some of them smuggle into prison.
Colloquial mumblings among the employees suggested that illegal cell-phones, tobacco, cigarette lighters, various unauthorized weapons (knives, etc), and other contraband were found secreted in various locations. The search was initiated after months of local news media reports revealed that it was prison staff that were smuggling contraband into Solano State Prison. Prison officials had been covering up their illegal doings for years. Prisoners have never been busted for smuggling cell phones into the prison. Only staff have the opportunity to bring cell phones and sell them for astronomical prices.
In 1996, I was targeted by prison officials for writing about California’s Three Strikes law and the rule changes regarding media access into the prison system. I filed a federal complaint against prison officials and the CDCR for violating my First Amendment right(s) to freedom of speech. Shortly after I won the summary judgment in that case, Woodard v. Duncan, the case was settled (in my favor) out of court in 1999.
A second intimidation-and-retaliation campaign against me, this time in a different prison, began in 2006 in an attempt to stop me from writing about my prison surroundings. It started with verbal threats. Every time I attempted to file a Citizen’s Complaint against rogue guards and administrative staff, harassment and retaliation followed. The prison’s Appeals Coordinator also threatened me with “appeals sanctions”, made verbal threats, and filed false documentation in an attempt to sully my prison record. I wrote, “Appealing the Impossible”, which prompted more threats.
In retaliation for filing a complaint on two rogue guards, a third guard using Code of Silence tactics concocted and filed a false disciplinary report against me for “threatening staff”, an extremely serious charge. A fourth, honest guard stepped up and told the disciplinary hearing officer (lieutenant) that I never made a threat to the guard who filed the false report or to any staff member. I was found not guilty of the charge, and the phony report was expunged from my prison file. Ex-prison guard D.J. Vodicka, and the guard who stepped up at my disciplinary hearing, are examples of honest officers doing their jobs and holding true to their oath to do so.
I wrote “Rogue Prison Staff: Breaking all the Rules”, depicting the threatening and dangerous behavior of several rank-and-file and administrative staff. Shortly after my article appeared in the Community Alliance and on www.indybay.org, I was shackled (again) and escorted up to an isolation cell in administrative segregation (“the hole”). According to the lock-up order, I was placed in isolation because I was a “security risk” to prison staff because of my journalistic activities. In “Rogue Prison Staff”, I included the names of those violators who participated in the retaliation against me.
Once again, most of my personal property was stolen or destroyed by prison staff, and I was forced to donate or mail out my typewriter and what was left of my belongings. To further punish me for exercising my First Amendment right to define my surroundings, I was subsequently transferred to hundreds of miles away to a remote prison on the northeastern slopes of California’s Sierra Mountain range in Susanville. My transfer was adverse and illegal.
I filed second civil rights lawsuit against those responsible for violating my right to freedom of speech in the Federal Eastern District Court in Sacramento. After five years, that case will be going to trial, according to my attorney, at the end of 2014 or early 2015.
After my arrival in Susanville, the Community Alliance and others have published several of my articles detailing abases and violations by some prison staff at that prison. Reports I have submitted describe how Muslim and Native American prisoners were targeted and had their religious rights violated, how prisoners are punished by being forced to stand outside in freezing weather half naked for hours (as written in my “Punishment by Cold” article), the way mobility-impaired and elderly men on canes and crutches have to stand in long lines for hours in the rain, snow and hot sun to receive medical prescriptions, and instances of the abuse of authority by appeal and mailroom staff.
I’ve filed three Citizen’s Complaints on three staff members at Susanville for violation of my civil rights, including trashing and stealing my personal property. I’ve only written complains on rogue prison staff and the administrative officials who condone their dangerous behavior. Most of my encounters with prison staff (on a daily basis) occur without incident because they do their job. Period!
The abuse of authority and retaliation I write about befalls prisoners throughout California’s prison system from the high-powered “Level-IV” prisons such as High Desert, Pelican Bay, Salinas Valley, New Flosom, and Corcoran state prisons to Soledad, Solano, Tracy, Tehachapi, and Calipatria state prisons. I would guess women’s prisons such as California Institution for Women (CIW) and Chowchilla have their rogue prison staff problems as well.
My reporting is small, but it is honest and unfettered. As a good friend of mine calls it, I’m “keeping it real”. My articles barely scratch the surface of the multitude of violations rogue prison staff escape punishment from with impunity. Legal efforts have been made in recent years to stop violations by staff and to improve prisoner’s living conditions. It’s a work in progress that needs all the illumination we as prisoners can muster.
Boston Woodard is a jailhouse journalist, musician, literary tutor, event organizer and prisoner’s rights activist. He has been writing about the system’s failures and abuses for twenty five years in both free world and prisoner publications. His work can be found in The Communicator, Soledad Star, Folsom Observer and the San Quentin News. He currently writes the “Prison Press” column for the Community Alliance (Fresno, CA) from his prison cell. Boston is author of “Inside the Broken California Prison System” (Amazon). He is currently co-authoring “PRISON, the Ins and Outs” with Maria Telesco, longtime prison advocate. More information on Boston’s writing can be found on www.humblepress.com and www.fresnoalliance.com