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Prisoner Release Ruling is Long Overdue as the Death Toll Mounts

By       Message Dr. B. Cayenne Bird     Permalink
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Hundreds, possibly thousands, of my columns were published by California newspapers and Internet magazines on the humanitarian crisis in our state beginning in 1998.  That's when I first discovered the medical neglect death toll and rampant abuse of the mentally ill taking place in California's prisons.   I took this shocking news to my colleagues in the news media and  found that only a handful knew about it.  Since then, I probably attended more of the Plata hearings, as well as other trials around abuses in California prisons, than any other living person except for the capable attorneys who fought these cases and of course, the heroic Judge Thelton Henderson, later joined by Judges Lawrence Karlton and Stephen Reinhardt.

This article is my first person historical account of only a tiny bit of what took place during a campaign of life and death importance which has gripped me for more than a decade. Why did it take ten years for this dramatic step to finally be taken when all the journalists were screaming bloody murder about it in the news media? 

The stress from watching all the deaths, combined with personal knowledge of deliberate indifference by "public servants" toward those whom we've locked in cages, nearly destroyed my health, left me impoverished in my senior years,  deeply shook my faith in our system, and made me keenly aware of what happens when uneducated people cave in to apathy and fear.

I was more than a passive messenger because my own life was devastated by this course of events, and that oppression continues today. I see a ray of hope, but it is not yet within reach for me or for most of the three million Californians related to a state prisoner. The ruling of the three-judge panel is encouraging, but we who fought this battle 24/7 for a decade are afraid to expect too much. All these long years of sick worry and witnessing one death after another, one torment after another in a system that is cruel and corrupt arrest through parole.  

These are the moms, wives, and a few dads of the UNION, who rallied in San Francisco on Nov 21, 2008 outside the Federal Courthouse where the historic Plata trial took place which went on since the year 2000. Many of them have loved ones who are suffering now and can't get any relief from any source. Without their public outcry, no one would even know about the high death toll because the media is banned from interviewing specific inmates. 

This is really happening, right here in America under everyone's noses. Collectively, we've sued more than 1,000 guards, wardens and administrators for abuses and wrongful deaths. Though many lawsuits are still in progress, Plata is where we've seen the greatest result in a system totally biased toward the punishers who control it.

It was the moms, wives, and a few dads of the UNION, who rallied in San Francisco three times between Nov 21, 2008 and Feb 4, 2009, outside the Federal Courthouse where the historic Plata trial took place which went on since the year 2000.  We must have found lawyers for more than 100 families whose loved one died since 1998 and the death toll is still rising. 

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Many of the UNION parents have loved ones who are suffering now and can't get any relief from any source. Without their public outcry, no one would even know about the high death toll because the media is banned from interviewing specific inmates. This is really happening, right here in America under everyone's noses. Collectively we've sued more than 1,000 guards, wardens and administrators for abuses and wrongful deaths. Though many lawsuits are still in progress, the Plata case is where we've seen the greatest result in a system totally biased toward the punishers who control it.

Mark Arax and Mark Gladstone were investigative reporters for the Los Angeles Times who exposed the atrocities at Pelican Bay where a prisoner was boiled until his skin fell off in 1996. The United Nations came in and condemned Pelican Bay at that time, but abuses in other prisons were slow to reach the eyes and ears of the public. When the families of prisoners first started coming to me for help in 1998, about $400 million had been spent to make Pelican Bay more humane.

An op-ed that I penned for the Los Angeles Times in the year 2000 is still online. The three million readers of the Times were informed many times of the preventable deaths and abuses over the past decade which were taking place in their names, paid for with their tax dollars

http://articles.latimes.com/2000/sep/29/local/me-28723

The reason that the killings have continued unabated for so many years is that two of the primary politicians responsible for this crisis, then Governor Pete Wilson and his cohort Dan Lungren, banned the media in 1996. I was there that day when a clerk with a tape recorder held a hearing in Sacramento and addressed a room full of journalists to tell them that many restrictions were now imposed and that they could not bring in cameras or interview specific inmates without tons of red tape at the very least.

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As an old-school journalist who cut her teeth on news and published thousands of articles since the late 60's, I was outraged over this ban. I knew that the reason for it was to cover up abuses and wrongful deaths. These are taxpayer-financed institutions and the media shouldn't be restricted, especially during a humanitarian crisis where there is a death toll.

After four decades as a media professional, I also owned Bird Publishing Company for many years in Fullerton, California, which can be verified in the Dunn and Bradstreet records from the 1980's. I sold it in good order and thought that I was retired until my only son was swept up into a great travesty of injustice. Two years ago a key witness recanted her testimony, but he's still in prison today, although the matter is in court right now. We can only pray for justice, as the facts in his and other legal cases really don't seem to matter. There are people in prison for life for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, even though no one had a scratch upon them, sentenced more severely than if they committed murder.

I wrote a daily online newsletter which went to my media colleagues long before I knew that 450 to 600 people were dying in the prisons every year.

I can't be precise with the number of deaths because the state goes to great lengths to cover up death reports, another outrage that flies in the face of the First Amendment. I first learned the actual death statistics for recent years in court during the Plata hearings before the Receiver Sillen was appointed. It was mentioned in the testimony of the state's doctors. My guess is that it was probably higher in those early years when I first started recording my interactions with the families who sought me out to help them by writing about their nightmare experiences. Some of my first editorials in 1998 which were published in The Reporter newspaper in Vacaville, CA where there are two prisons can be viewed here where I maintained this record for eleven years in full public view as trained journalists are so inclined to do:

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http://www.linkedin.com/in/bcayennebird/

B. Cayenne Bird is a 45-year veteran op-ed journalist and publisher. A descendant of Mary Todd Lincoln, and General Andrew Porter, she is passionate about human rights and criminal justice issues. A mother and grandmother with advanced degrees in (more...)
 

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