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Veteran Op-Ed writer denied prison visit for identifying herself as a journalist

By       Message B. Cayenne Bird     Permalink
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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."

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Sierra Conservation Center is a one-guard processing area. On this day it was staffed by Tracy Brown 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 D. Alfaro informed me that I was denied the visit even though I complied by changing my bra because I didn't give Prison Guard Tracy Brown 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 Tracy Brown 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 Tracy Brown construed my advising her that I am a journalist, which I did well after I was denied the visit, as a threat. Tracy Brown 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.

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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 D. Alfaro 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 adage "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 Tracy Brown, E. Vazquez, and D. Alfaro 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.

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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 as 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.

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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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