The following account of a recent incident involving several California Prison Guards was submitted to the LA Progressive by long-time journalist and prison activist B. Cayenne Bird. The identities of the prison guards is being withheld until this matter is further investigated. To read the full account click here.
This past week-end my First Amendment Rights were once again trampled although I violated no prison visiting code. The prison guard Brassiere Brigade at Sierra Conservation Center went to great lengths to deny me an important visit for no valid reason and construed my informing them that I intended to report the events that transpired in my columns as a “threat” to the guards who oppressed me.
The prison guards made a very big issue out of my undergarments and went to great lengths in a concerted effort to intimidate, degrade and humiliate me by using an arbitrary and vague dress code as their justification. The harsh treatment that I received because of my bra choice is probably indicative of why the parking lot was nearly empty at 9:30 am on a holiday weekend.
I am writing this report for every family and friend of a prisoner who has been turned away from visiting a loved one at a California State Prison based on invented rules and arbitrary dress codes. The people have a right to know what is taking place in the prisons, which are taxpayer financed institutions wasting billions of our education and human services dollars.
When I became a California journalist in the 1960’s, I never dreamed that I would be using my advanced education to write about how I support my breasts, especially in what should be my Golden Years. But the reason I was turned away was not really about my bra choice, it was because I identified myself as a journalist and promised to expose their abuses in my columns well after they made the decision not to let me re-enter once I complied.
I was wearing an undergarment and as anyone can see from the photo of my “offending blouse”, there was no bare skin, translucent or tight fitting material, no nipples showing or anything that would have sparked a riot. What a ridiculous notion! Prison guard #1 was leering at my breasts after I had already made it through processing. I was already at the second phase about to enter the visiting room.
I suspect that this young female guard, less than half my age, resorts to this tactic routinely, no matter how elderly the visitor might be or whether or not they even have a breast after a mastectomy. She considers herself a dedicated member of the prison guard Brassiere Brigade. Why, without her keen eye to stop me, my elderly breasts might have caused the young prisoners to rage out of control.
Normally when family members are turned away at the whim of a guard, they are re-admitted once they comply with their arbitrary, vague and often nonsensical objections. I left before entering the visiting room — once prison guard #1 decided to harass me — in order to go out looking for the one store in the area that sold bras.
When I passed by Prison Guard #2, the extremely rude guard who had cleared me after a verbal scolding over the speed at which I placed my shoes on the counter, wanted a detailed explanation of why I was leaving. I had no duty, nor is there any law that says I must speak to her at all, but to be polite, I truthfully remarked that I would need medication to be able to make it through this day and that I would be back in awhile. She told me that once I had to leave the visiting area that I would not be allowed back in. But I hadn’t actually entered the visiting room. Besides, people get sick all the time and need to go to their cars to get medicine since bringing it in is such a hassle.
Prison Guard #2 was making up her own rules, and looking for any excuse to keep me from being able to visit. I was not at all rude and drove the 15 miles to the nearest Walmart store to comply with what I thought might be their idea of a bra, even though I was already wearing the kind that dancers wear which is more of a half tank with no straps that would not irritate the open wound on my back from recent surgery.
There are at least 30 different types of brassieres on the market. This does not include the unconventional ones such as those worn by movie stars and the codes do not specify exactly what type of bra a visitor is required to wear, only that they must not contain metal or be obscene in any way. They did not check to see what type of undergarment I was wearing, but obviously Prison Guard #2 would have caught anything that was too offensive. The photo of just what the guards saw when they decided to make my shirt their business is shown on this page.
Who are these guards to dictate which bra I choose as long as there is no metal in it in the first place? While I was gone, Prison Guard #2 obviously called down to the visiting room to find out what transpired. She was no doubt angry that she missed what Prison Guard #1 perceived as breasts so voluptuous that they might cause a sexual frenzy and a riot amongst the prisoners in the visiting room, which actually had very few people in it. Most of the prisoners are very young and not interested in a matronly woman old enough to be their grandmother, even if I had walked in that room stark naked.
The last time that a similar bully tactic was used to keep me from a prison visit was in 2006. After I brought 200 people to protest Salinas Valley Prison for routine visiting abuses after I was turned away for “wearing a sleeveless tank top under the jacket of a 3 piece suit” the offending prison guard was fired. Of course, it took statewide media coverage of the protest and three other people who were similarly abused winning lawsuits to bring about a satisfactory conclusion of removing that particular bully from her job. That’s because there is almost never any accountability of prison guards, as those of us who covered the landmark Plata Coleman vs. Brown case well know, even when they torture and murder prisoners. Each legal victory requires many dollars and many years to achieve, but there cannot be too many lawsuits filed when prison guards are running amok violating rights.
That’s why I have written about prison conditions for 15 years and many articles have resulted in a lawyer stepping forward who is willing to file a pro bono complaint because the voiceless have no representation or protection.
Since January, 2012, I have been working on a documentary film to detail the horrific injustice and abuses that I have witnessed within our corrupt criminal justice system and it will be an eye-opening national wake-up call when the producers and I are ready to release it. For this reason, I hadn’t journeyed to Sierra Conservation Center in nine months and was really looking forward to the visit, although at my age and condition of health as a disabled senior citizen, it is exhausting to travel 840 miles in two days. This is the case for thousands of others who visit someone in prison as well.
I drove for seven hours each way in order to make this visit over the holiday weekend. Recently I had some minor surgery on my back, so I was somewhat impaired, as are many visitors who go to the prisons at any given time. It is impossible for an ill and elderly person especially to travel so far and return by car in the same day.
Clearly, I was heavily invested in this grueling journey and knowing the power games which are almost always played during a prison visit, there was no way that I was going to intentionally jeopardize completing my mission. In addition, the trip cost me more than $300 with gas priced from up to $4.79 per gallon and the necessity of an inexpensive hotel room.
The prisons are intentionally built far away from cities in order to discourage visiting and to be able to hide from the public what takes place in these fascistically managed facilities, beneath the radar of the media. A prisoner dies almost every day, while thousands of others living under intense daily stress only wish that they were dead.
It is a well known fact that the State of California and especially prison employees certainly do not want a journalist who has written hundreds of articles about abuse coming to visit within the bowels of the beast. I have observed over the two decades that I have been visiting prisons in California the way the guards treat both prisoners and their visitors is pure evil, yet only lawsuits and media coverage can even begin to hold them accountable.
The large contributions given by the CCPOA to the politicians pays off handsomely so prison workers are often held above the law, even when the guards commit the most unethical and sometimes gruesome crimes. In this circumstance, Senator Darrell Steinberg’s office did make a call to the prison to get an explanation of just what code I had violated. The lame excuse given was 3176 “disrupting the processing area.”
Sierra Conservation Center is a one-guard processing area. On this day it was staffed by Prison Guard #2 and she processed only one individual or visitor family at a time, the same as always. There was no one in front of me or behind me when I returned the prison around 11 a.m. with a different bra in order to comply with their degrading demands which wasted half my day.
They had already decided while I was out complying with their “requirement” that my visit would be disallowed. When I returned, Prison Guard #3 informed me that I was denied the visit even though I complied by changing my bra because I didn’t give Prison Guard #2 a detailed answer on my way out. I had no legal obligation to speak to her at all, so this reflects the poor training of both prison guards.
Their power high was the only thing I disrupted after I advised them that they were dealing with a journalist, and not a regular member of the public. I had an ethical responsibility to advise them that I fully intended to publicly report my abuse at their hands. I was completely calm when informing Prison Guard #2 of this fact which was done in private. She had several opportunities to right the wrongs that she and the other two guards committed against me. They also traumatized the prisoner who had already seen that I was there to visit him through the glass.
Prison Guard #2 construed my advising her that I am a journalist, which I did well after I was denied the visit, as a threat. Prison Guard #2 picked up the phone, yelled out a code, and called for back up causing six guards to show up in a flash ready to beat the hell out of me, although I never raised my voice. I am 5’4″, a senior citizen and the sight of this attempt to intimidate me would have been comical if it were not so pathetic, unconstitutional and wrong.
They were called and had their batons ready as soon as I told them I was a journalist and that an article would appear about their actions. Apparently that statement was taken as a “threat.” I have witnessed similar responses to visiting family members of inmates who dare voice any type of frustration or objection to actions taken that come between them and their loved one. Actually, had I been boisterous; which I was not, it was well within my First Amendment Rights to do so.
The case of US vs. Poocha is but one that indicates that people cannot be penalized for their free speech responses to law enforcement. They are supposed to be trained to expect this normal human response especially when an injustice has been committed against a person. I never once raised my voice or acted in any kind of physically threatening way. I was exhausted, dealing with six, mostly young, heavily armed guards who were yelling and making degrading comments to me over my bra choice. Prison Guard #3 over-reacted so much to the idea that his name would be in the news that he ordered me off the prison grounds in oppressive heat where I had to wait for four hours for the other person who was with me to visit.
This trip was to visit a young paralegal around the time of his birthday. This young man has repeatedly tried to stand up to the inhumane treatment he is subjected to. We were also meeting regarding his continuously denied court access. You see, there is a lawsuit in progress against former warden Frank X. Chavez due to his cruelty. Cruelty, I have observed over the years, is usually richly rewarded within the ranks of the prison culture. The laws of probability dictate that there must be some good people within this human-bondage-for-profit system that wastes billions of dollars that could be better spent on crime prevention.
What I have observed amounts to a public employee gang, no better than a mafia-like organization that controls and puts our lawmakers into power. The other labor unions should be embarrassed and outraged by their unlawful operations. Also being sued are a few of the administrators, and doctors involved at Sierra Conservation Center for serious legal violations including forging medical and mental health records, carelessly double-celling and tormenting a mentally ill prisoner and for the unlawful obstruction of mail to name just a few of the items in the complaint.
In fact, just last month, the mailroom “accidentally” shredded 300 pages of important documents, which I sent regarding this litigation that necessitated an in-person visit to the person litigating the case himself, which prisoners are often forced to do due to their great poverty. That willful act of shredding my mail was yet another violation of my First Amendment Rights, even though it was followed with an apology to the prisoner, it caused considerable expense, irreparable damage and unnecessary stress to the prisoner and to me. Sierra Conservation Center recently fired their legal librarian and cut back on resources so that inmates cannot fight for themselves in courts. There is no serious regard for the laws of unimpeded court access at this or any other California State Prison, even though cases forbidding it have been won in the past.
While this violation of my First Amendment Rights is not as important as the July 28, 2012 “suicide” of 47 year old Daniel Gonzales who was scheduled to be paroled in just two years, it does further illustrate the very decided attitude amongst the guards that they can say or do anything they want to inmates and their visitors with impunity.
It is no mystery to me why a prisoner would commit suicide living in this atmosphere. Their unhealthy cortisol level is continuously flowing which is caused by prison employees when minor instances are met with over-reactions. This intentional stress is a key reason why there is so much sickness in the prisons and among the families who are also subjected to constant harassment. With three million Californians connected to state prisoners, it is no wonder that the bully prison guards are so unpopular due to their power trips frequently exercised against visitors. Most of the guards have little education. They are attracted to this high paying work because, unlike similarly paid jobs, prison guards do not have to be degreed. They get the added bonus of being able to belittle, insult and commit violent and psychologically cruel acts against people who can’t really fight back. The old addage “shooting fish in a barrel” applies here and for some this sick treatment of people gets their adrenaline going. The daily death toll will continue as long as there are no severe consequences for these rogue prison guards, administrators, wardens and sadly, even some of the medical people who are sworn to provide care and healing to those who need it most.
The three guards I mention were extremely callous to my medical condition, tried to make me feel as if I were an elderly brazen hussy although this didn’t really work out too well for them when they tried it on me. I am certain that their degrading, humiliating and unprofessional tactics have worked to discourage many other women from attempting to visit their loved ones in prison. While the routine torture and murder of prisoners is more important than the intentional harm inflicted upon me by these three prison guards, it is my duty as a lifelong journalist to describe my first person experiences whenever possible to an unknowing public.
It is also my duty to advise those who are committing unlawful rights violations of my intentions to report their wrongdoing and give them a chance to rectify the situation with me before it escalates. When identifying myself as a journalist is considered a “threat” and I am banned from visiting for two days with the lame excuse of my bra choice, these events result in an important first amendment rights violation. When Senator Steinberg’s office is told that I wasn’t allowed to visit because I disrupted a processing area where there is only myself and one guard AFTER I was denied the visit, then it is clear that I violated no visiting codes.
When I am, a journalist who is also a disabled senior citizen, expected to take such abuse and not say a word about such a heavy-handed emotional, financial and physical punch in the gut, then policymakers need to realize journalists must be allowed back into the prisons. Imagine what they are doing to the prisoners when the guards have such arrogant attitudes. The recent suicide of Daniel Gonzales is just one example of the human response to such oppression.
Judge Henderson made an appropriate decision not to return prison health care back to the state without federal oversight. After the callous treatment that I have received and witnessed almost every time I visit a prison, I see that there is far more focus on covering up wrongdoing than establishing family ties and rehabilitating the prisoners.
I have witnessed such inhumane practices in the visiting room as the guards only allowing ill prisoners to be escorted to the bathroom once an hour so that they won’t be inconvenienced. An hour is a long time when diseases that cause diarrhea such as hepatitis, affect nearly half the inmates.
The Prison Guard’s Academy doesn’t teach people skills and compassion, it teaches the opposite. The power high guards do not take these jobs because they love people. They are far more dangerous than the prisoners in my qualified opinion.
There are a few examples of why no leading criminologist believes that prisons do anything but break mostly non-violent offenders in mind, body and spirit and I certainly agree with those conclusions. What was done to me served no penological interest and I believe that the three prison guards owe the prisoner that I came to visit and me an apology and reimbursement for the $300 that I had to save up for which was wasted.
There is no way that they can compensate me for also wasting three days of my life, forcing me to go buy an undergarment and put it directly over a painful surgical wound, then still deny me the visit. They laughed when I told them that I would write this article because their abuse is so routine and the families are too fearful to say or do anything about it, because retaliation is real.
Additionally, how many women with an advanced education would put their brassiere choice out there in the national news. As promised, here is the story of how I was booby trapped by the Brassiere Brigade at Sierra Conservation Center because the people have a right to know what is being done in their names and paid for with their tax dollars. To my university professors, both living and dead, I apologize for these primitive creatures who reduce both prisoners and their visitors to their low-brow level. Sometimes a person has no choice but to roll in the pig pen or the slop continues to affect too many lives adversely.
I would like to hear from anyone who has been turned away who was wearing an undergarment that had no metal wire because I believe that they had no right to condemn my bra choice in the first place. If prison guards ever abused you as a visitor to Sierra Conservation Center, I would like to hear from you. The lawsuits now in progress need participation and support in every way, otherwise the bullies in charge will continue to do this kind of harm which serves no penological interest.
Title15-2012 — this link will take you to the Title 15 and the Department of Operations Manual. As anyone can see, I violated none of these codes. The institutions also make up more detailed rules but these do not supercede the authority of the Title 15.
By B. Cayenne Bird