About one a month is usually my limit for Op/Ed pieces, and for this issue of our paper I had previously written my As I See It column on the subject of my kids and going home to face them, which I will be doing soon. But it was an easy call to know that I could not possibly be true to my job as a reporter and to the readers of this paper if I did not write about my recent unforgettable journey to Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) here at San Quentin. Carson Section, to be precise. For the uninformed, Ad Seg is The Hole in these parts.
And truly it is with a heavy heart that I sit to write this candid, but necessary, piece. For I can only imagine the fallout that will come my way as a result. But I stand behind the truth and veracity of all that I write and publish, and this piece will carry my name.
THE EARLIER ARTICLE
Most longtime readers of our newspaper will remember the issue of January 2009 when the San Quentin News published a story about the conditions that could be found in The Hole. The story was based upon interviews with four inmates, each of whom had recently endured a stretch in Ad Seg. The article was by Journalism Guild writer Jeff Brooks.
Jeff wrote about the plumbing in the cells that didn’t work and the lights that failed to come on. As I recollect, some of the interviewees had to eat with their fingers for a while and contend with the filth in cells that appeared not to have been cleaned for quite some time. There was more, as I remember, much, much more! And none of it pretty.
We at the San Quentin News verified the accuracy of Brook’s story to our trained standards of journalistic integrity. In short, we were quite satisfied that we got it right. And so we ran the story in our January ’09 edition. And a storm followed.
As I previously mentioned, I recently spent three glorious weeks in Carson Section for something which I knew absolutely nothing about (but that’s fodder for a story of a different nature entirely).
I haven’t swapped notes with Brooks to ascertain whether I, in fact, shared at different times the same cell as one of his interviewees. But in my cell the plumbing and the lights both worked. And the cell was reasonably clean.
READERS CAN JUDGE
But before we get too deeply into the kudos for these relatively minor upgrades made during the year since we ran Brook’s story in our paper, let the reader judge for himself how much progress has been made toward bringing San Quentin’s modern day equivalent version of the “dungeon” up to a minimum acceptable standard.
I slept the first night without benefit of a blanket or sheets. (I was taken into custody at the newsroom of the San Quentin News). The tier officers couldn’t figure out how I had arrived at the unit without my bedroll from H Unit, and said that, unfortunately, there were no blankets provided for them to give out to new arrivals. So for the first night, I did without.
Same story with a spoon or eating utensil. And the same explanation from the tier officers: “None to give.” So the first few meals were eaten with my fingers. Others I have talked to have fared far worse and were forced to do without for much longer.
Make no mistake about how many times I made the request for these essential items to each of the officers who worked the tier. And to their credit, I believe their explanation that these items were not available to give. And therein lies the ongoing problem in the Administrative Segregation units in San Quentin.
But the problem runs deeper. Much deeper. For when an inmate finds himself subjected to Ad Seg for the first time, it can truly be overwhelming. Never at any time during a period of incarceration is a prisoner’s access to a Title 15 regulations manual ever going to seem more important than it might during a SHU term. How else can a novice begin to understand what his rights are or how to effectively challenge a perceived rule violation?
In spite of my repeated requests for a copy of the Title 15, a writing utensil and a 602 appeals form, I never received a Title 15 during my three-week stay, and only after five days was I given something with which to write. The 602 form appeared after only eight days and numerous requests. A Bible took a bit more than two weeks to obtain.
Never during the three weeks that I was there was I given any of my personal property. And opportunities for exercise during the three weeks were limited to two short trips to a small cage outside for about an hour and one half each
Those are the facts as I know them to be from my recent, first-hand experience. Do I hold the tier officers responsible for the essential things I wasn’t given in a reasonably prompt manner? No, I really don’t think so. I believe they provide to inmates what is made available for them to dispense.
The anger that may be directed at me for writing on this topic will be exceeded only by my own anger that I was subjected to such deplorable conditions. I am not the message itself, but only the messenger. The reason for this column is an attempt to improve these substandard conditions that still are the rule of the day in Ad Seg one year after our original story. This, alas, is far from a perfect world in which we live.
Many of my peers are betting this story will never be allowed to make its way onto the pages of our newspaper. Me, I’m an optimist, and I am confident that in spite of all, that it will. And perhaps that, itself, is a true sign of just how far the conditions in prison; in THIS prison, have come. For we do, after all, have a newspaper. And I’m betting that this piece will be in there.