Criminal Injustice System / Social Issues

Walking the Line (again)
 by Joe Power

It isn't nice to block the doorway
It isn't nice to go to jail
There are nicer ways to do it
But the nice ways always fail
It isn't nice, it isn't nice
You told us once, you told us twice
But if that is Freedom's price
We don't mind.

It isn't nice to carry banners
Or to sit in on the floor
Or to shout our cry of Freedom
At the hotel and the store
It isn't nice, it isn't nice
You told us once, you told us twice
But if that is Freedom's price
We don't mind.

We have tried negotiations
And the three-man picket line,
Mr. Charlie didn't see us
And he might as well be blind.
Now our new ways aren't nice
When we deal with men of ice,
But if that is Freedom's price
We don't mind.

How about those years of lynchings
And they shot in Evers' back?
Did you say it wasn't proper?
Did you stand out on the track?
You were quiet just like mice
Now you say we aren't nice
But if that is Freedom's price
We don't mind.


It isn't nice to block the doorway
    by Malvina Reynolds



MANY YEARS AGO a few brave members of NAMBLA had the audacity to demonstrate in front of Bridgewater State Hospital, a “psychiatric” prison in Bridgewater Massachussetts.  The demonstrators marched with signs denouncing the treatment of men being held for non-violent and consensual relationships deemed beyond the pale by the state. Such a protest was virtually unprecedented at the time and the shock value helped to focus a lot of attention on the message that true love should not be a crime.  Most of the men being held were released.  The injustice against them was so great that it could not stand the light of day.  This was one of NAMBLA’s proudest moments.

A few months ago, a coalition of family, friends and activists from a variety of groups(1) – including several NAMBLA members – demonstrated in front of Coalinga State Hospital in California. They were there to protest the subhuman treatment of men held for years – or even decades – beyond the ends of their sentences until they can prove to the state not that they are no longer dangerous (if they ever were), but that they now thoroughly embrace the state’s beliefs as to what forms of sexuality are acceptable. In short, these men are thoughtcriminals and we were there to let them know they were not forgotten and to let the state know it has no right to criminalize thoughts and feelings. This was another proud moment for all who participated.

While still uncommon, such a protest is not so unprecedented anymore and is part of a growing resistance to this unconstitutional and unconscionable pandering by politicians to the public’s irrational fears(2) – fears they have fanned for their own advantage.

To understand what drove us to protest, you need to know something about this West Coast Gulag.

Coalinga State Hospital (hereafter, CSH) is an incredible boondoggle. Costing over $388 Million to construct, the 1,500-bed facility is the largest sex offender civil commitment lockup in the US. Currently about 700 men are held there. Thanks to the voter approved (yet now increasingly regretted) Proposition 73, most of these men will be there until they die.

In keeping with California’s current practice of building prisons in the remotest areas possible, CSH is out in the middle of nowhere, its nearest big neighbor a giant commercial cattle farm (which regularly graces the ‘hospital’ with a malodorous stench.) 

On its website, the department responsible for CSH claims that it is a state-of-the-art mental hospital. This is a lie. It is staffed heavily by prison guards because the state can’t find enough “therapists” who want to work there even at more than twice the pay of equivalent workers at other state hospitals. (The few staff psychiatrists working at CSH were brought over from India, because the state couldn’t find any American doctors willing to take these positions.)

The so-called “hospital” serves prison food (which is neither terribly tasty nor healthy, but the state has a nearly $20 Billion dollar budget shortfall so I guess they’re lucky to eat at all!)

The inmates (we refuse to call them patients) are subjected to arbitrary and capricious rules – often worse than regular prison rules – regarding possessions, activities, etc. In fact, inmates who refuse to participate in the ‘treatment’ program (the vast majority, by the way) are illegally denied exercise and other opportunities.

Currently, I know of three men in CSH. All three have served the long sentences they received for non-violent offenses.  All three have spent years awaiting their first (and now, effectively, their only) civil commitment hearing, longer than they would have been on parole.

I am in regular contact with one of these men. He has chosen to actively resist the banal evil of the place. He reports frequently of a revolving door at the top of the administration (it isn’t just low level folks the state can’t keep) which causes low staff morale and institutional gridlock preventing any and all promised improvements (how convenient!) He tells of utterly dispirited men who have come to realize they are no longer seen as human beings with human rights but simply sources of income for the Dept. of Mental Health and the highly paid evaluators.(3)

Most of them know the only way they will get out is feet-first (an increasingly common occurrence given the substandard medical treatment they receive at this “state-of-the-art hospital”.) But what disheartens many of them the most is the feeling they have been totally abandoned and forgotten – that no one on the outside knows or cares that they are in there.

One of the main purposes of our protest was to let these men know that they are not forgotten – that there are family and friends on the outside who continue to care for them and who continue to fight on their behalf. (Some of the protesters drove in from out of state. I was lucky enough to be only about a 5-hour drive away.) The protesters included wives, parents, children – even some of the “victims” who don’t feel it right to treat human beings so inhumanely.

Also participating were social and political activists who see the harm this approach is doing both to the inmates and to society as a whole – the way enforced conformity to the orthodoxy of the moment has always harmed individuals and societies. After years of neo-conservative browbeating, progressives are once again finding their voices and once again remembering that you must fight each injustice to fight all injustice.

And then there was our contingent. We marched and spoke and protested for all the reasons mentioned above. We marched in spite of the fact that all of us were named defendants in the then active (now properly dismissed) baseless lawsuit against us. We marched in solidarity with our brothers who protested outside Bridgewater so long ago. We marched because it was the right thing to do.

So what was the result? Well, the staff freaked out and put the “hospital” on lock-down – exactly like a prison would.(4) The inmates took heart and broke out in simultaneous, spontaneous protests of their own. News crews from a half dozen or more regional stations came and filmed us for reports on the nightly news and the story was picked up by several national news organizations and independent bloggers. Best of all, it got a lot of people to start asking some rather pointed questions about the vast sums of money that are being spent on CSH with little or nothing to show for it.(5)


Notes:

(1)    The protest was cosponsored by Friends and Family of California Civil Detainees (detainees@gmail.com) and the group Reform of Sex Offender Laws (http://www.rsol.org). Also participating were Tom Madison, President of S.O.Clear, Jeff Griffen of the “Citizens Committee on Human Rights”, Starchild (a Libertarian and Human Rights activist) and several others.

(2)    Though the US Supreme Court ruled that civil commitment of sex offenders was legal (in Kansas v. Hendricks), I believe this will someday be overturned just as Plessy v. Ferguson was. Since California’s law went into effect in 1996, almost 600 men have been committed under its provisions, with many more waiting in county jails for the state to decide what to do with them.

(3)    The California Department of Mental Health (DMH) has admitted they screen out the more aggressive candidates because they are too much trouble. They want passive folks who won’t cause them problems. This revelation could lead inmates to conclude that if you ever find yourself facing civil commitment, be aggressive, be violent, join a gang – do whatever you need to do to make yourself too bitter a pill to swallow.

(4)    At first staff at CSH gave several conflicting excuses for the lockdown (a need to clean the visiting room, a broken camera in the visiting center, discovery of a “shank” buried in the yard and the ever popular “lost keys”) before claiming it was instituted to allow hospital police to investigate claims that visitors were smuggling contraband into the hospital. When all of these flimsy excuses failed the laugh test, a hospital spokeswoman testily indicated she would not comment on hospital security.

(5)    Because of the severe staff shortages, CSH can only handle about 700 inmates instead of the 1500 it was designed to hold. This means that it spends about twice as much per inmate on power, water, heat, etc. than it should be. Because it can’t hire adequate staff, it must rely on outside evaluators – a number of whom are making over a million dollars a year as a consequence. Because Prop 83’s changes to the law have resulted in an explosion of cases requiring evaluation the state will be spending an extra $27 million doing them. This will result in NO increase in the number of inmates at CSH because it can’t handle any more so the newly referred will have to sit in protective custody in county jails running up even greater bills.


Copyright © NAMBLA, 2008


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