Legal Corner: Punish and Isolate?

by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
A recent visit at CCWF. Front row: Saron and Katherine Back row: Urszula, Beverly, ChristinaPrisons are designed to punish and isolate. We hear stories about guards who set up fights between prisoners of different ethnic backgrounds and then open fire on them to quell the “riot.” We read about the horrendous medical care afforded prisoners. We are told that prisoners in the SHU are the “worst of the worst.” However, we rarely, if ever, hear about how prisoners overcome the isolation and “division” and work together.
Prisons allow and often encourage the “divide-and-conquer” mentality. For example, section 3170.1 of Title 15 provides that a visitor may visit with only one inmate at a time unless the visitor and prisoner(s) can show they are immediate family members. So if my mother and sister are in the same prison and both are allowed to have contact visits, I could receive permission to visit with them at one visit instead of seeing them separately. However, if I had other relatives in the same prison such as aunts or cousins, I would have to schedule separate visits for each of them because they are not considered “immediate family.” Strange, isn’t it, that prison officials get to decide who the important family members are in your family?
Prison officials also get to decide whether you should associate with prisoners of a different ethnicity even though race discrimination is supposed to be unconstitutional. It is not unusual for entire groups of one ethnicity to be locked down for weeks at a time while other prisoners continue to program, have visits, etc. Generally this is a tactic used in men’s institutions and it often causes hostility where none may have existed before.
At least one man has chosen to fight the race-based discrimination in prisons in California. Viet Mike Ngo filed a civil rights lawsuit complaining that San Quentin was violating his and other prisoners’ 14th Amendment right of equal protection because the prison uses race as a factor in determining where and with whom a prisoner will be housed. Mr. Ngo’s attorney, Charles Carbone states that because, “ninety-five percent of all prisoners are housed with someone of the same race,” this proves that race is the main factor in these decisions.
Prisoners find ways to share what little they have with others–Sherrie Chapman was awarded a monetary settlement as a result of the lawsuit she brought and then used some of the award to arrange for the purchase of quarterly packages for women at CIW (California Institution for Women) who had no one on the outside to help them. She would also arrange for money to be sent to the families of women so they could travel to CIW to visit their loved one.
There are prisoners who assist others as jailhouse lawyers, those who act as translators for monolingual prisoners, those who serve on advisory councils at the prison, prisoners who teach others to read, prisoners who are peer educators, and the list goes on. Every time a prisoner steps outside of herself or himself to address an issue for someone else, she/he is demonstrating solidarity.