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Historic Settlement Ends CA Indefinite Solitary Confinement

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Federal Judge Claudia Wilken this week approved the final agreement to end indefinite solitary confinement in California calling the settlement humane, innovative and fair.

 

Prisoners celebrated Tuesday’s settlement agreement, whose terms were agreed on last September, claiming it as a victory that bolstered their struggle for human rights.

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Oakland civil rights attorney Anne Weills, one of the attorneys representing the prisoners, said, “What was missing from the courtroom were all the prisoners who risked their lives in the hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013.”

 

Attorney Anne Weills speaks at a press conference in Oakland.

Attorney Anne Weills speaks at a press conference in Oakland.

 

“Yes, our litigation team did the best we could to bring our clients out of indefinite solitary confinement and into the light of day – but there is no doubt that we could not have gotten where we have with this settlement without the leadership of the brilliant, courageous, fearless and enlightened men in the Short Corridor at Pelican Bay who in 2011 set this all in motion,” she said.

 

The Center for Constitutional Rights released data showing the agreement has already led to the transfer of hundreds of prisoners from segregated housing units back to the state’s general prison population.

 

 

Between preliminary approval of the California settlement in October and Jan. 22, 686 out of a total of 1,813 prisoners entitled to reviews under the settlement have been reviewed for release into the general prisoner population; 546 of the prisoners reviewed, nearly 80 percent, have been cleared for release into general population; and 437 have actually been released from solitary confinement.

 

The vast majority of prisoners who have been reviewed but not cleared are awaiting a higher-level prison review; most are expected to be released into general population as well.

 

The settlement requires all first-level reviews to be complete within one year.

 

Jules Lobel, the attorney representing the Center for Constitutional Rights said “we look forward to the full implementation of all its terms.”

 

One of the longtime prisoner organizers, Mutope Duguma, cautions, “The power of the legal support and the family/community support is what literally humanized us prisoners to the rest of the world. The countless families and friends did a remarkable job in representing us from an emotional and human perspective and our legal support represented our civil and human rights, and together they re-humanized us as men and women.”

 

“This is what made it possible for us to be able to demand such a settlement. It is with this family, community, and legal support that we demand accountable implementation of the settlement. We know what works so let’s stay the course,” he said.

 

A recently released letter written by one of the main representatives of the prisoners asks that prisoners “Monitor and report on the functional implementation of prison conditions and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employees, holding their feet to the ground and letting CDCR employees know that they are not above the Ashker v. Brown Settlement Agreement.”

 

The settlement transforms California’s use of solitary confinement from a status-based system, in which prisoners were isolated indefinitely based on vague and unsubstantiated allegations of gang affiliation, to a behavior-based system, in which solitary confinement is used only as punishment for serious rule infractions and only for determinate periods of time. It also limits the total amount of time a prisoner can spend in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison.

 

The settlement includes a two-year monitoring period, which may be extended if the CDCR is found to be violating prisoners’ constitutional rights or the settlement terms.

 

When the case was filed in 2012 on behalf of prisoners in Pelican Bay, more than 500 of them had been isolated in the SHU for over 10 years, and 78 had been there for more than 20 years. They spent 22-and-a-half to 24-hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell, and were denied telephone calls, physical contact with visitors, and vocational, recreational, and educational programming.

 

Hundreds of other prisoners throughout California have been held in similar SHU conditions, and the settlement applies to all of them.

Community

Ramachandran is the Only Candidate Who Lives in Oakland in the District 18 Assembly Race 

Oakland makes up 66% of Assembly District 18. Yet all the other major candidates live in Alameda or San Leandro. Our district has not had a representative from Oakland since the 1990s.

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Janani Ramachandran

Note: Janani Ramachandran is a social justice attorney. She has the sole endorsement of organizations rooted in Oakland, including ILWU, Oakland East Bay Democratic Club, Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club and Oakland Tenants Union. 

Oakland makes up 66% of Assembly District 18. Yet all the other major candidates live in Alameda or San Leandro. Our district has not had a representative from Oakland since the 1990s. Oakland deserves true representation in our Legislature, and here are some reasons why:

Howard Terminal

Look no further than the Howard Terminal to see the power that state legislation can have on local issues. Our most recent District 18 assembly member who lives in Alameda, facilitated the development of Howard Terminal by introducing AB 1191 and AB 734 – ultimately to benefit the billionaire Fisher family and their allies. By contrast, a legislator from Oakland would understand the disastrous consequences of the project for West Oakland residents, such as worsening air quality and stimulating rapid gentrification. 

A legislator from Oakland would also understand that such a project would threaten the job security of 85,000 workers at the Port of Oakland. As the only major candidate in this election publicly opposed to Howard Terminal, I promise to stand firmly by Oakland community groups in vocalizing my opposition to this project, and any others that prioritize billionaire interests over those of our neighbors.

OUSD Takeover

Oakland has been unable to run our own public schools since the deeply problematic state takeover of OUSD in 2003. This takeover, and the actions by the State-appointed administrator  in running up OUSD’s debt, led to the closure of many majority-Black public schools and the proliferation of charter schools (in fact, OUSD has the highest percentage of charter schools out of any school district in the state). 

Oakland deserves a legislator who will prioritize winning immediate return of full local control of our schools to our residents as soon as possible. It takes a genuine understanding of the hardship and trauma that the state takeover inflicted on our City to meaningfully fight for Oakland’s youth at the State Legislature – something that I unequivocally vow to do.

Tenant Protections

Tenants comprise over 60% of our city’s residents. Thanks to decades of local activism, Oakland has one of the strongest rent control ordinances in the state. However, our city’s hands are tied on many state laws that prevent tenants from being meaningfully protected. For example, the state law Costa Hawkins prevents Oakland from being able to expand rent control to units constructed after 1983 and to single-family homes. Having supported tenants facing eviction in Oakland in the course of my legal career – including during the pandemic –  I’m acutely aware of the need for stronger statewide tenant protections to support our city.

 For example, despite Oakland City Council passing a resolution calling upon the State Legislature to repeal the Ellis Act, or at least suspend these evictions during the pandemic, our legislature refused to act. As a tenant advocate who helped launch the coalition that spearheaded Ellis Act legislation, and as a tenant myself (if elected, I would be just 1 of 3 tenants, out of 120 state lawmakers), I would bring a tenants rights framework to our legislature to support the needs of Oakland tenants.

Gun Violence

Last year, nearly as many Black Oaklanders died from a gunfire as did from COVID-19. It isn’t enough to just say we need tougher statewide gun control laws – California already has some of the strongest in the country.

 Oakland deserves a state legislator who understands the root causes of this violence and the state action needed to address it – including more funding for community-based organizations that do meaningful prevention work, economic development and expanded career opportunities for our youth, and more broadly, treating gun violence as a public health crisis – all of which are pillars of my platform.

This special election, vote for the only Oakland candidate on the ballot, a person who will take action based on the needs of our city, and work towards achieving economic, educational, racial, and environmental justice. Learn more at www.jananiforca.com 

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Community

Legislative Summary from State Senator Nancy Skinner

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NancySkinnerCA and Facebook and to visit my Senate website for regular updates on the status of my legislation and information on the state budget. It is a pleasure serving you in the state Senate.

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Sen. Nancy Skinner. Photo courtesy of Nancy Skinner.

Here’s a brief summary of the bills I introduced this year that are still moving through the legislative process. All so far were passed by the state Senate and are now on their way to the Assembly:

  • SB 8 Extends Housing Crisis Act of 2019: The Housing Crisis Act helped expedite housing that meets local rules by asking local governments to process permits faster and not change the rules midstream. SB 8 extends the sunset on the Housing Crisis Act until 2030.
  • SB 16 Coming Clean on Police Records: Thanks to my 2018 bill, SB 1421, Californians now have access to a limited set of police misconduct records. SB 16 expands access to records on officers who have engaged in biased or discriminatory behavior, unlawful arrests and searches, and excessive force.
  • SB 65 California Momnibus Act: California’s infant and maternal death rates, especially for families of color, persist at high rates. SB 65 expands pre- and postpartum services, such as doula care and financial support, to reduce death rates and ensures data is collected to understand what’s causing these disparities.
  • SB 65 California Momnibus Act: California’s infant and maternal death rates, especially for families of color, persist at high rates. SB 65 expands pre- and postpartum services, such as doula care and financial support, to reduce death rates and ensures data is collected to understand what’s causing these disparities.
  • SB 81 Judicial Guidelines for Sentencing Enhancements: California has over 160 enhancements that add time to a prison sentence over and above the time required for the crime committed. SB 81 establishes parameters for judges to determine whether a sentence enhancement is needed to help ensure that sentences are the length the judge believes is necessary to protect public safety.
  • SB 262 Bail Reform: I’m a joint author of SB 262 to reform CA’s bail system so no one is kept in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.
  • SB 290 Clarifying CA’s Density Bonus Law: Allows low-income student housing and for-sale low- and moderate-income housing to benefit from California’s Density Bonus law.
  • SB 354 Relative Placement: Reduces barriers that prevent children in foster care from being placed with relatives and extended family.

And great news, the funding to support my bill, SB 364, Free School Meals for All, was included in the Legislature’s budget proposal, which means millions of our K-12 students will get a free meal at school.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NancySkinnerCA and Facebook and to visit my Senate website for regular updates on the status of my legislation and information on the state budget. It is a pleasure serving you in the state Senate.

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Community

Closing Youth Prisons Is Not Enough

But without a plan to invest in and institute a restorative justice framework, most of that money might find its way back into local youth jails rather than into treatment and rehabilitation.

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Ella Baker Center staff and members attend a Books Not Bars rally in Sacramento advocating to close youth prisons in California. Courtesy of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

COMMENTARY

As a parent who was involved in the juvenile system as a teenager, I know too well that children who are struggling should never be incarcerated and treated like criminals. 

Instead, they should be cared for as young people in need of restorative help. This May, dedicated as National Mental Health Awareness Month, was the perfect opportunity to embrace human rights and racial justice by moving from a carceral system of punishment to a community-based health system of restorative care.

“We have a system in place that is not really focused on rehabilitation,” Los Angeles State Senator Sydney Kamlager told CalMatters in January. Unlike some states, we have not had a governing body in California to oversee trauma-responsive, culturally informed services for youth–the majority of whom are youth of color–in the juvenile justice system.

Fortunately, we in California finally have a chance to make a change. California Senate Bill 823, signed by Gov. Newsom last December, shuts down California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and redirects millions of dollars to counties to provide care and resources for young people. But without a plan to invest in and institute a restorative justice framework, most of that money might find its way back into local youth jails rather than into treatment and rehabilitation.

Sonya Abbott and her son Anthony Johnson can attest that a transformation is long overdue. When Anthony was 16, Sonya found a bag of Xanax in his back pocket. Believing that he intended to sell the drugs, she made the difficult decision to turn him in. At the time, she viewed her decision as a way to save her son’s life, and the lives of others.  Now she says, “I feel like it just made things worse.”

As is too often the case, Anthony was cycled through a number of ineffective programs and has been shuttled back and forth among several facilities. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the DJJ went into lockdown, Anthony was at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in San Joaquin County. Feeling lonely and depressed because of the isolation, Anthony asked for extra counseling.

“They refused to give it to me. They laughed at me,” Anthony says.

 Anthony attempted suicide roughly two days later. He remembers a Chaderjian staff member witnessing his suicide attempt and saying, “You’re not doing it right, I’ll call this one in later,” then walking away. Afterward, Anthony was kept in the medical unit for a month, locked in a room for 23 hours a day, without any counseling or companionship.

Throughout all of this, the DJJ did not inform Abbott of her son’s suicide attempt, nor his consequent transfer to Patton State Hospital. After Anthony missed a scheduled Skype visit, Abbott had to call every juvenile facility in California to locate him, and only then learned that he had tried to take his own life. He remains at Patton today.

Statistics show that suicide and suicide attempts are too common. According to a 2014 report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection, “11% of the youth (in the juvenile justice system) had attempted suicide at least once,” far exceeding the percentage  in the general population.

Nor are the dangers of youth incarceration justified by the outcomes. A 2015 study from the University of Washington, observed that, “juvenile incarceration is not only ineffective at reducing criminal behavior,” but that those who were incarcerated in their youth were more likely to suffer negative consequences in every aspect of their adult lives.

Abbott describes Anthony as a good kid who just got himself a little lost. “I don’t understand why there’s no resources for these kids,” she says. “They are just locked up and forgotten. I can’t let my kid be one of their victims.”

We now have an unprecedented opportunity to chart a new direction. Part of SB 823 creates Juvenile Justice Coordinating Councils (JJCC) in each of our 58 California counties, bringing together experts and constituents like Abbott and Anthony, whose lives have intersected with the juvenile justice system. 

These new councils will help guide how the millions of dollars in new state funding can best be deployed to provide a continuum of care. To inform that process, youth advocates have been working to implement a community vision of care to replace the old carceral model that has failed so many of our most vulnerable young people of color.

Advocates are also pushing the state to properly resource the new department within Health and Human Services (HHS) that will provide oversight for the new system. The proposed budget is a woefully inadequate $3 million; Assemblymember Cristina Garcia and state Senator Maria Elena Durazo, joined by the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice and members of the Free Our Kids Coalition, are pushing for a larger allocation to help scale up community-based interventions by local groups. 

If a community system rooted in healing had already been in place, Sonya Abbott and Anthony might have received the help they really needed. We can do better for our kids and our communities.

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