From The Archive
Christian Parenti
No. 12  March 1999

Bring Us Your Chained and Huddled Masses

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Massive waves pound the quarter-mile concrete jetty that shelters the bay off Crescent City, California. On either side of the inlet rise small and mangy hills, ravaged by cycles of clear-cut logging. Beneath these slopes is Highway 101 and the gaudy motel-littered strip of a typical California highway town. Miles from nowhere, Crescent City is a working-class burg with middle-class pretensions and aspirations. Normality radiates from its low bungalows, laid out on a bleak and arbitrary grid. Both geography and politics cast a pall over this desolate piece of coast, nestled just below the Oregon border. It’s a town only a mayor could love.

Crescent City hasn’t had an easy time clinging to normality. With its major industries, timber and fishing, depressed and dying by the mid-eighties and its economy reeling under the hammer blows of recession, Reaganomics, and globalization, Crescent City was desperate for a new way to finance its version of the American Dream. It found salvation in the arms of the California Department of Corrections (CDC). Today prison is the number one industry in Crescent City and surrounding Del Norte County. Thanks to the sprawling $277 million Pelican Bay State Prison—a “supermax” lockdown renowned as a model of sensory deprivation—a new breed of swine grow fat here on human misery and government cash.

As the same forces that ravaged Crescent City wrought havoc on the rest of the state as well, California’s predominantly white and suburban electorate began calling for blood in the “war on crime,” the “war on drugs,” and also in that thinly veiled war on people of color. This is the context in which Crescent City found its new economic function: Guarding the POWs at Pelican Bay, the place where the faint trail of California justice dead-ends in a sadistic carnival of violence and petty greed.

Outside attention first focused on the new Pelican Bay prison in 1993, when guards forced a raving, shit-smeared inmate—driven nuts by months of isolation in a small white cell—into a tub of scalding water. The prisoner, already dazed, paranoid, and psychotic, was kept in 148-degree water until his skin began to dissolve. He suffered third-degree burns and loss of pigmentation over much of his body. According to documents cited by a federal judge, one of the attending guards commented thusly on the black man’s ravaged flesh: “We’re going to have a white boy before this is all through.”

Madness among inmates at Pelican Bay is epidemic. Over half the prisoners there are deemed “incorrigible,” and are locked away in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), a prison with in a prison, where inmates are confined to windowless cells twenty-three hours a day. With no work, no education, no communal activity, and no recreation (save for one hour a day in an eight-by-twelve concrete box open to the sky) many prisoners break down psychologically. According to human rights investigators, psychiatric care for those thus affected often consists of nothing more than watching cartoons from inside a phone booth-sized cage. Even this sort of “care” is strictly rationed. As a result, convict insanity quickly spins out of control.

“The psychotic inmates are—unequivocally—the most disturbed people I’ve ever seen,” says Terry Kuppers, a veteran psychiatrist and one of the few independent medical experts to have toured the prison’s SHU. “They scream and throw feces all over their cells. In a mental hospital you’d never see anything like that. Patients would be sedated or stabilized with drugs. Their psychosis would be interrupted.”

But most folks in Del Norte County aren’t consumed with sympathy for Pelican Bay’s wards. After all, the prison injects more than $90 million a year into the local economy, feeding almost all other economic activity in the region. Town fathers and local boosters view the imported chattel from L.A., Fresno, and Oakland as economic raw material that keeps the town and surrounding county solvent. “With out the prison, we wouldn’t exist,” says County Assessor Jerry Cochran.

Many suspect that is exactly why the CDC chose Crescent City: Economically weak regions often make gracious hosts for prisons. Hard times, it seems, also have a wonderful way of dulling empathy among the local citizenry. So willing has the town been to accommodate the prison that it sometimes seems like Crescent City has sold its sovereignty to the CDC. Today it is very much a company town, and discipline is its mono-crop.

The county’s symbiotic relationship with the prison is most apparent, and appalling, in the local courts. According to research by California Prison Focus (CPF), a human rights group based in San Francisco, even minor disciplinary infractions at Pelican Bay, such as spitting on guards or refusing to return a meal tray, are routinely embellished and prosecuted as felony assault in the local courts. There the mostly black, Latino, and neo-Nazi prisoners face white jurors, who are often friends or family of prison employees.

“From our investigations it seems that the prison, in conjunction with local judges and prosecutors, is using every excuse it can to keep more people locked up for longer,” says CPF’s Leslie DiBenedetto-Skopek. “It’s job security for the whole region.”

In other words, the town benefits directly every time a ten-year sentence can be ratcheted up into a twenty- or thirty-year bid. Making matters worse, the CDC pays fully 35 percent of the Del Norte County District Attorney’s budget. Given these facts, it is hardly surprising that the citizen-jurors of Del Norte seem to hand out second and third strikes (i.e., life sentences) like lollipops at a bank. Thanks to the demonic economics of incarceration, those who enter Pelican Bay on small-time charges are often trapped permanently inside.

This is the Faustian bargain upon which Crescent City’s version of the American dream—its recent affluence and suburban twee—is being built. For their willingness to destroy human lives, the citizens of this county get to enjoy endless government cheese. It is in the town’s interest to keep the prison horrific as well: The more inmates who go mad, the more “three strikes” dollars can be channeled north from Sacramento.

Consider the case of Geza Hayes. At age 17, Geza, a white youth from rural Trinity County, got the bright idea of pulling a knife on someone during a brawl. For this Geza received a four-year sentence in the phenomenally brutal Corcoran State Prison. Like most California lockups, Corcoran is Bosnia in a box; a race war managed by local warlords and their outside allies, i.e., prison gangs and allied guards. Organizations like the Black Guerrilla Family, Nuestra Familia, and the Aryan Brotherhood manage the inside economy, and like feudal barons they wage war and extract money from the masses of inmates in the form of “taxes.”

Being white, Geza fell under the jurisdiction of the Aryan Brotherhood. Given the realities of Californian prisons, Geza had three choices. He could “pay taxes” to the mighty AB, he could join them, or he could become another semi-affiliated foot soldier on “the yard.” Whether or not Geza joined the AB is unclear, but as far as authorities are concerned he’s an AB soldier. For that he was sent to Corcoran’s SHU. And that’s where Geza’s future went through the meat grinder. To leave the SHU, Geza would have had to rat-out other AB soldiers, in a process known as “debriefing.” But if he did this and returned to the general population, he would most likely catch a shank in the ribs or worse. So his only real choice was to wait to finish his sentence. But that’s easier said than done.

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As it turns out, the corrections officers (COs) in the Corcoran SHU had an affinity for Roman games. To break the monotony of watching prisoners slowly go mad, the screws would stage fights between the rival races on the concrete yards of the SHU. Eventually this practice, exposed by the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, led to CDC director James Gomez’s “reassignment.” But the exposés came too late for many.

Geza, who turned nineteen in the abattoir that is the Corcoran SHU, says he was in nine such gladiator fights there. Even having survived these trials, however, he was eventually ensnared in the extreme violence endemic to the SHU. Due to severe overcrowding, Geza found himself double-celled with an alleged AB “snitch.” Quite predictably, Geza did what the masters of the AB expected of him: He attacked his new “cellie” with a home-made garrote.

The videotape of the assault, shot by guards preparing to intervene, looks in through the steel mesh door of what appears to be an underground cell. Inside one can make out two pale muscular frames: one twitching limply, the other rippling and shaking with rage, bundled like a human explosive behind the neck of the first. It’s clear that Geza has snapped. Then the door slides open, the kevlar-clad screws charge in, and the video stops.

As a result of this incident Geza, only halfway through his four-year sentence, found himself facing new criminal charges in superior court. He plea-bargained, received an additional four years, and was transferred to the very end of the line—Pelican Bay.

Now classified as “extremely violent,” Geza was placed in solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay SHU. But due to overcrowding, administrative error, or some malicious subterfuge, another alleged snitch soon landed in Geza’s cell. Not surprisingly, Geza again attacked his cellie. He now faces another attempted murder charge.

“I am afraid I’ll never get out,” Geza says. The young convict from Trinity is now facing his “third strike.” If found guilty he will remain in prison for the rest of his life. “I spend a lot of time studying Spanish,” Geza explains. “I figure I’ll be here for awhile.”

One other thing: Every year Geza stays inside costs California taxpayers a bit over $25,000, most of which will end up circulated in Del Norte County.

Targeting Attorneys

The CDC’s influence doesn’t stop at the prison walls. Crescent City criminal defense attorneys say that they too are targeted by prison officials, who use behind-the-scenes leverage to prevent effective legal defenses of inmates. “Hell, all I know is that in 1995 I won four out of five of my Pelican Bay cases and they were almost all third strikes—hard cases,” booms criminal defense attorney Mario de Solenni, a self-proclaimed “conservative redneck pain-in-the-ass.” “Then, in 1996 the judge gave me only one case.” According to de Solenni—who owns and drives a large collection of military vehicles—successfully defending prisoners is a no-no in these parts, a taboo that sends authorities far and wide in a search for guaranteed loser lawyers.

“It’s bad for the county’s economy when the defense wins,” agrees another attorney. Numerous Crescent City defense lawyers tell similar stories of beating the prosecution too many times and then finding themselves with no defense appointments. If they want to continue practicing criminal law they often end up leaving town.

Jon Levy, who holds a correspondence law degree, used to make his living defending Pelican Bay inmates charged with committing crimes inside prison. “I don’t do defense anymore,” says the nervous, balding Levy as he walks his small dog along the rubble-strewn beach. After winning a few cases Levy was cut off; the judges stopped assigning him work. “I can’t make a living here. Even if I switched to civil cases, all my potential clients work for the prison.” Levy is, quite literally, a victim of a company town blacklist. And he’s not alone.

Easton’s sin was that he strayed from his permitted role as provider of the mandatory feeble defense.

Tom Easton, a genteel civil rights attorney with the slightly euphoric air of someone who’s just survived a major auto wreck, lives with his Russian wife in a modest house overlooking the sea on the north side of town. The National Review and American Spectator cover his coffee table, but right-wing reading habits haven’t endeared him to the CDC compradors. “The prison and the DA are trying to destroy my career,” says Easton with a vacant smile. Until recently Easton faced several felony charges, including soliciting perjury from a prisoner, arising from his defense of Pelican Bay inmates. He says the charges were nothing more than retaliation for providing an effective defense in criminal cases and handling civil rights suits on behalf of convicts. Eventually all the charges against Easton were dropped, reversed, or ended in hung juries. “But the DA could still try to have me disbarred,” says Easton. In the meantime, he has been banned from communicating with the seven Pelican Bay prisoners he represents.

Easton’s sin was that he strayed from his permitted role as provider of the mandatory feeble defense, and even dared to file a few civil suits on behalf of maimed and tortured prisoners. “I am convinced they’re going after Easton because he helped prisoners,” says Paul Gallegos, a defense attorney, who, like others representing Pelican Bay convicts, has been harassed by the DA.

Carceral Keynesianism

What’s going on in Crescent City isn’t just free-floating meanness. The town’s culture of civic sadism appears to be the deliberate result of state policy. Economic troubles began here in the sixties, when the salmon and timber industries, long the lifeblood of the region, began to sputter. Then in 1964 a massive tsunami rolled in and crushed Crescent City’s quaint downtown. Only nine people died, but the place never fully recovered. After the waters receded the local planners carried on as best they could, and bulldozed the old town center’s twisted rubble across Highway 101 into the sea—where it still forms a contorted barrier of sidewalk slabs, tiled bathroom walls, and buckled asphalt. In place of the old redwood Victorians, a cheap and shabby imitation of Southern California was erected: minimalls, covered open-air walkways, empty parking spaces, dingy box-like motels.

By the early eighties Crescent City’s economy—part of the Golden State only in name—was hemorrhaging badly. All but a handful of the area’s sawmills had been shut down, commercial salmon fishing finally died, and businesses collapsed by the hundreds. The small businessmen and real estate boosters who ran the place made a clumsy series of attempts to “reposition” the regional economy. Like other towns, Crescent City latched on the idea of becoming a tourist destination. And as so often happens, the strategy failed, in part because of the region’s isolation and its unfortunate, newly built environment. The tourism strategy ultimately produced a few motels now used only by long haul truckers and a hulking botch of a “convention center.”

By 1989 unemployment reached 20 percent and population was declining. Crescent City and Del Norte County had sunk into a seemingly terminal economic torpor. Enter the California Department of Corrections, the knight in khaki armor, searching for a site to build a new mega-dungeon. Like any battered and anemic damsel in distress, the local boosters saw their chance: The region would move from exporting fish and trees to importing brown people and renegade white trash. From now on, the town’s fate would be tied to the weighty task of justice, its civic culture remade to reflect that somber mission. Facing little opposition the CDC moved in, commandeered some unincorporated land outside of town and set about building the state’s most feared lockup.

For the most part, the Faustian bargain has paid off. Del Norte County is, in its own distorted way, booming. Pelican Bay provides 1,500 jobs, an annual payroll of $50 million and a budget of over $90 million. Indirectly, the concrete beast at the edge of town has created work in everything from construction to domestic-violence counseling to drug-dealing. The contract for hauling away the prison’s garbage alone is worth $130,000 a year—big money in the state’s poorest county. With the employment boom came almost 6,000 new residents. In the last ten years the average rate of housing starts has doubled, as has the value of local real estate.

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The prison’s economic wake washed in a huge Ace Hardware, a private hospital, and a 90,000- square-foot Kmart, selling everything from toothpaste to Pocahontas pajamas. Across from Kmart is an equally gargantuan and bleak Safeway. “In 1986 the county collected $73 million in sales tax; last year it was $142 million,” says the gung-ho County Assessor Jerry Cochran. On top of that, local government is saving money by replacing public works crews with low-security “level-one” prisoners. Between January 1990 and December 1996, Pelican Bay inmates worked almost 150,000 hours on everything from school grounds to public buildings. According to one report, if the prison labor had been billed at the meager sum of $7 an hour, it would have cost the county at least $766,300.

Similar scenarios have been replicated scores of times in recent years. From Eolia, Missouri to Green Haven, New York, economically battered small towns are putting out for new prisons. And they end up paying for economic safety in ways they never imagined. They are beset not only by overloaded sewer systems but overburdened social services agencies, as whacked-out wives, children, and corrections officers stumble in, reeling from work-related stress, abuse, and addiction. But out here, Middle America’s thirty-year-old backlash and its lust for punishment means just one thing: jobs. According to the National Criminal Justice Commission, 5 percent of the growth in rural population between 1980 and 1990 is accounted for by prisoners, captured in the inner city and transported out to the to new carceral Arcadia.

The Keynesian stimulus that is awarded to prison towns does not, of course, explain the whole criminal justice crackdown. Ultimately, the Big Round-Up is a way of managing the renewed inequality of American capitalism, which is itself the result of the intensified quest for corporate profits—a crusade that became all the more desperate after the social and economic crisis of the early seventies.

It’s also the byproduct of politicians’ endless search for compelling issues that don’t address the realities of class power and exploitation. Crime mobilizes voters in a very safe way. And building prisons isn’t a bad way to dole out the federal pork that—editorial hosannas about American entrepreneurialism notwithstanding—has always been the driving economic force in American capitalism.

The CDC Eats Its Own

Prisoners and their defense attorneys aren’t the only ones in Crescent City who are apparently targeted by CDC skulduggery. Even screws who take the job seriously find themselves in trouble.

John Cox looks like a poster boy for the CDC. But the six-foot-four, ruddy-faced, former Pelican Bay CO is on the prison’s shit-list. Trouble began in 1991 when Cox broke the guards’ code of silence and testified against a fellow officer who had beaten an inmate’s head with the butt of a gas gun, and then framed the victim. Cox refused to go along with yet another set-up. According to findings in Madrid v. Gomez—a high-profile class action suit against the CDC—Pelican Bay administrators called Cox a “snitch” and told him to “watch his back.”

But even before Cox broke ranks in court he was hated by other guards. “I gave all my officers one hundred extra hours of on-the-job training beyond the standard forty,” explains Cox with evident pride. But his behavior as sergeant in charge of the D-yard SHU was seen as treachery by many hard-line COs. “They called D-Yard SHU ‘fluffy SHU,’ because we didn’t hog-tie inmates to toilets or kick in their teeth after cell extractions,” says Cox. Trying to explain the CO subculture, Cox relates: “There was one officer in there who used to take photos of every shooting and decorate his office with them. For some of them it was Vietnam or something.”

“Bullets through the windows, death threats sent to my kids, hang-up calls, sugar in the gas tank, slashed tires, you name it.”

In Pelican Bay’s slow-motion riot of sadism and corruption, Cox—trying to play by the rules—found it almost impossible to do his job. “I broke up one fight without assistance, called for backup but none came, and got a torn rotator cuff,” says Cox. “The next day the lieutenant made me climb every guard-tower ladder. It was pure harassment.” The final straw was a series of death threats and close calls on the job. In one incident Cox found himself alone, surrounded by eight inmates, and unable to get backup. “That was it. If I stayed and tried to do my job I probably would have been killed,” says Cox, who is currently suing the CDC.

Things have hardly improved since Cox quit: “Bullets through the windows, death threats sent to my kids, hang-up calls, sugar in the gas tank, slashed tires, you name it.” According to Cox, the DA and the sheriff have refused to investigate these allegations. “They told me to talk to the prison,” he says. Officials at Pelican Bay refuse to comment on Cox’s case. But Tom Hopper, former Del Norte County sheriff and the current community resource manager at Pelican Bay, did offer these barely coded remarks: “The prison saved this community and people are grateful. There are a few disgruntled employees and other fringe elements that complain, but you can’t please everybody.”

Even prison maintenance workers who testified against administrators in a recent corruption case say they’ve been harassed. “The former head of operations out there made death threats against my clients, and the state is still investigating,” says lawyer Levy, who defended one of the maintenance workers. His client has since been forced to leave town after being fired from the local hardware store, allegedly at the behest of a prison official. “The prison is the only place that buys in bulk,” explains Levy. “So suggestions by its officials are as good as direct orders as far as small businesses are concerned.”

The evil juggernaut of prison power gets even weirder. The CDC has covert investigative units that conduct surveillance in communities near prisons and keep dossiers on local troublemakers. “Internal Affairs does investigations in the community, but I don’t think that’s inappropriate,” says Tom Hopper Corrections officials in Sacramento also confirm that the department’s two undercover police forces do at times carry out surveillance outside prison grounds. During recent revelations of officially sponsored violence at Corcoran State Prison, officers from one of those units were caught trying to intimidate whistleblowers. They even went so far as to chase down one guard as he raced to the FBI with videotapes of the Corcoran gladiator fights.

The damage from Crescent City’s latest tsunami—rule by the CDC—isn’t limited to the shattered lives of inmates, whistleblowers, and lawyers. Though prison is often sold as a “clean industry,” it does bring with it what economists call “externalities” and “diseconomies.” In manufacturing, the externalities are things like pollution. But in the prison business they are madness and violence. Two years ago an inmate was released directly from the Pelican Bay SHU to the local bus station. He was found two days later, halfway to his hometown, splattered in blood, having raped a woman and put a hammer through her head.

So while capitalism restructures—driving down wages, breaking unions, decimating cities in the name of austerity and profits—a new niche market arises. The business of disciplining the surplus populations of the post-industrial landscape becomes a way of reincorporating the enraged remnants of middle America. Small cities from Bedford Falls to Peoria must become the Vichy regimes of fortress capitalism, they must “reinsert” themselves on the winners’ terms, or they must wither and die. Today, Middletown’s “comparative advantages” are the fury that receding prosperity has engendered and a cruelty sufficient to process the social wreckage of capital’s great march forward. The diseconomies of economic restructuring are recycled into politically useful raw material: Dislocation brings rage, and rage contains the dislocation, each movement in the process lubricated with a stupefying political silence.

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