The Abuse of Authority – San Quentin Adjustment Center
Steve Champion(Adisa Kamara)
On 21st March, 2007, an incident occurred inside the Adjustment Center. A prison guard was allegedly assaulted by an inmate. Never ones to miss an opportunity for retributive and repressive punishment, San Quentin prison officials exaggerated the nature of this threat posed to guards and declared a State of Emergency. It was as if Homeland Security had upgraded the Terror Alert. A memorandum was swiftly issued to every prisoner stating, hyperbolically, that an inmate attempted to murder a guard.
After a series of invasive cell searches and mandatory interviews, (some inmates, already cuffed and shackled, were physically forced to the interview room) prison officials were still not satisfied. Consquently, they meted out collective punishment to everyone in the Adjustment Center, as follows : Every prisoner is now forced to wear leg shackles and shower shoes (or go barefoot wherever he goes) whether to the shower, the visiting room, the legal law library, or the hospital and the exercise yard. We are allowed to carry our shoes and put them on once we arrive at the yard. Some consolation!
The yard policy was changed sharply, as well. In the past, when the yard was recalled, inmates were escorted inside AC, strip searched, and then escorted to their assigned cells. Now, each inmate is strip searched on the yard, in plain view of everyone, before being returned to his cell. According to California code of Regulations Title 15, Section 3287 (4)(B), “Whenever possible, unclothed body inspections of inmates shall be conducted in an area where [they] can be conducted in safety and allow the inmate to preserve some measure of dignity and respect.” These regulations recognise the fact that prisoners are entitled to some modicum of dignity, respect and privacy. But basic human rights are immaterial to prison officials who view prisoners as the scum of the earth.
On April 4, 2007, when yard was recalled at 11:30am, I and two other inmates (Ward and B) refused to be strip searched on the yard. We were immediately confronted by a bevy of guards demanding to know why we refused. One at a time, each of us, (caged in walk alone yard cages) explained that we were not refusing to come off the yard or cuff up, we were only refusing to be strip searched on the yard.
As the Guantanamo Bay-like cages slowly emptied around us, prisoners hobbled pas us in ankle-pinching leg restraints, nodding to us in solidarity – the equivalent of a clenched fist salute.
A sergeant, obviously unfamiliar with AC protocol and/or badly misinformed, tried to convince us that strip searching in open view had always been the policy. A little later, Lieutenant S, flanked by a small army of guards, asked us what the the problem was. Again, each of us explained our position, just as we had before. But as if he had not heard us, S retorted, “You refusing to come off the yard?”
I shook my head in disbelief. The Lieutenant didn’t want to understand. He told us if we were refusing to come off the yard, he would be justified in using force of some kind. He could use pepper spray, blast us with water cannon or stun gun, taser us, order a platoon of guards to suit up and forcibly remove us, or command the guard on the gun rail to shoot us. But we were not refusing to come off the yard. At this impasse, the Lieutenant told us he would give us “a cooling off period” and went to consult with his superiors.
Two and a half hours later, around 2:00 pm, we could hear the guards outside AC yelling to the guard operating the bar box, which opens and closes cell doors, to open cell 61, 63 and 66. This meant that they were entering our cells and punishing us by removing our personal property.
We continued to stand our ground and pass the time discussing current events, bracing ourselves for the worst. Eventually, a squadron of guards headed by Associate Warden D and Captain F arrived. D asked Ward, “What’s the problem?” Ward once again explained that he refused to strip out on the yard, quoting verbatim the relevant portion of the California Code regulations, Title 15 (3287) (4)(B). Apparently taken aback, D adjusted his jacket and replied, “The Warden is our Title 15” The Captain then asked B what the problem was, and B repeated what Ward had just said. It was clear to us at this point in that these San Quentin officials were not interested in our reasons or prison policy. We had explained ourselves to guards, the sergeant, the Lieutenant, the Captain and the Associate Warden.
Finally, Captain F, morphing into John Wayne, barked that we were coming off the yard. At this point, I turned to the guard holding the video camera and said bluntly, “I’m not refusing to cuff up but I’m not stripping out on the yard.” The Captain then ordered me to “Cuff up” and a guard slid a flattened cardboard box between a slit opening in the fence of my cage. I placed the cardboard on the pavement next to the sink and toilet combo. Then I walked over to the small port to get cuffed, before returning, to kneel on the cardboard (to cushion my knees against the concrete.) Several guards entered the walk-alone cage to shackle my ankles. Shackled, I stood up and guards escorted me toward the fence.
At this point, the scene switched to something right out of Abu Ghraib. The Captain ordered a guard holding a large pair of scissors to cut off my state-issue boxes. The guard obeyed and shred my underwear until they were hanging around my ankles.
At that moment, I felt something ancient, something powerful, as if my ancestors were channeling through me, imploring me to stay firm – as if I had been through this before.
Another guard scanned my entire body with a metal detector. I was then marched nude and shackled inside the Adjustment Center and placed in a middle sallyport on the first floor. Shortly thereafter, inmates B and Ward were brought in shackled, nude and held in separate holding ports on the first floor. All the while, prison personnel entered and exited the building, peering at us as if we were a small group of captured baboons.
Twenty five minutes or so passed this way,before each of us was escorted to the third floor and paraded down the tier naked, like slaves on display, into our now empty cells. We were officially placed on property control, which means : no personal property, no purchased food items and no canteen for 90 days.
On April 10, the three of us received Rules Violation Reports. The specific violation: wilfully obstructing a peace officer. On April 12, I attended an Institutional Classificiation Committee (ICC) meeting, where my 90-day property control status was reaffirmed. All the same people who had violated my human rights – the Lieutenant, the Captain, the Associate Warden – were present. ICC was chaired by Deputy Warden L. He informed me that if I were to repeat my ‘Performance’ I would be taken off the yard for a minimum period of 90 days and my case referred to the Director for review.
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
Poetry, writing & Lessons in Life from San Quentin death row