There are many ways to die in the “custody and care” of the criminal justice system. We see it seemingly every day in America. Whether it is an NYPD shooting or an Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) shanking, clearly the government agencies have failed to uphold the “care” of the phrase used in courts to demand someone’s release. An immigration attorney once told me, in response to the death of detainee Jason Ng, “If they don’t want to be responsible for keeping people alive, they shouldn’t be taking them into custody.”
Recent revelations in California indicate that Christian Gomez died under the watchful eye of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and specifically Corcoran Penitentiary medical staff. Although the story broke today, Gomez died on February 2nd, during yet another wave of the California hunger strike set off in Pelican Bay last year. As negotiations with the CDCR failed, prisoners again pushed back against what the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed “inhumane” conditions.
Allegedly Christian Gomez was known to be on strike, which CDCR defines as three days of missed meals, and all hunger strikers are then put under medical monitoring. The 27-year-old man died in Administrative Segregation, experiencing the inhumane conditions of California lock-down. He died within a few days of his hunger strike, indicating (if true) he may have had some other medical condition. Gomez’ family will have a difficult time getting any information from the CDCR, as prison officials perpetuate veils of secrecy over this public institution.
Prisoners are typically the source of information from behind the walls. I heard through the grapevine when my friend Joe died mysteriously in his cell, and I immediately began pestering the prison director. Prison officials ultimately assured me it was a freak brain aneurism; the type of thing that could happen to anybody who has no medical care. My friend Deb, on the other hand, discovered a great deal of prison culpability when staff at first denied her son’s methadone over a weekend, and then triple-dosed it on a Monday. Substance abuse is treatable, but not when untrained people have “custody and control.” Her son became another homicide under the watchful eye of a prison.
I can never grow immune to all this. My friend Roger killed himself in segregation, having never gotten over his uncle killing himself years before -- also in segregation. Roger called out to the guards throughout the night, who never went to check on his uncle, and he always held them responsible. Prisons can be savage scenarios, but it often seems like prisoners are the only ones who want humane conditions and a civil society.
Christian Gomez was one of thousands in California struggling for things such as food, sunlight, and changes to the segregation policies -- the everyday torture in America's prisons. It is important to remember the words of Frederick Douglass, a former slave, when he said “Power concedes nothing without demand.” Americans need to be curious about what is done in their name. It is for good reason that prison issues, human rights issues, can be called a “laundry list.” There are so many problems, and mostly because the prison is allowed to operate in secrecy. Where there is darkness, abuses go unchecked, and public policy is not created publicly, nor enforced publicly.
All of this is being done in Americans’ names. All of it. Legislators could begin demanding prison oversight committees, or other forms of public participation. And the people can be Occupying Prisons, among a host of other things. The campaign to divest from private prisons has drawn new energy to this work, as has coordination amongst groups such as the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement. It remains to be seen how many families will need to receive their loved one returned to them, as the Gomez family did, before a true critical mass has been reached.