I've been hearing from a lot of guys lately who are about to go to prison with what are called "issues" - reasons to request protective custody (also known as the 805 process, named after the DOC policy that covers it). I hate to say it, but AZ has the reputation of being the worst place in the country to do time in state prison. The DOC is facing a class action suit for gross medical neglect, inappropriate use of solitary confinement, and neglect and abuse of mentally ill prisoners. Race riots are erupting. The prison suicide and homicide rates doubled when Jan Brewer too over four years ago, and have remained among the highest in the nation. Assaults are out of control. And the officers are apparently as violent and criminally-inclined as the people they guard.
The prison yards across the state are being run by prisoners and gangs, not DOC staff, it's quite clear to me now. When you land you have to show the "leader" (or someone who will report to him) your police report - those are your "papers". By these you will be judged as a snitch (if you spilled the beans to the cops on arrest), as a perpetrtor of crime (ANY kind) against a woman or a child, or any number of other things they can use to justify telling you your papers are "no good". Then they may tell you that you either need to "clear your name" by doing dirty work for them, risk getting smashed into a coma and airvac'ed, or PC up and leave the yard. Not showing your papers is an indication that you have something to hide.
Prisoners are given no choice on this. If your police papers are good, get a copy so you can get cleared quickly by the guys on the yard. If not, I wouldn't bring them in with you - they get stolen by porters and used as evidence against you among your peers, who will be much harder on you than the courts were. Have your family hold on to a copy of anything that can be shown to the DOC as evidence that you are at risk, though - anything suggesting you cooperated with police or prosecutors, court papers of your testimony, media articles about your crime or victim (even if your crime was pickpocketing, if your victim was a woman or child, you could be at risk), etc. If you need to apply for PC, they will need to send that material directly to Central Office to support your argument while making sure it doesn't get into the hands of the prisoner population.
Once on the yard, if your paperwork is bad:
If you're given the chance to "clear your name" don't try to do so by hurting another prisoner, especially some guy who never did a thing to you himself. It will not guarantee you protection. The gangs will turn on you once you no longer meet their needs, and you'll be the next one they put the green light on - and no other prisoner will respect you enough by then to have your back, so you'll have to tuck your tail between your legs and go scurrying to the guards for safety, anyway.
Paying extortion money (often demanded of gay prisoners to assure their safety) won't protect you for long, either. And for god's sake, don't get into any debt - not drugs, not gambling, not a little advance on your store - nothing. All that does is put a green light on you - the okay to hurt or kill you - that can be activated as soon as you default. If you owe money, then sooner or later all you're going to do is lead those people home to threaten those who love you. Don't do it.
My advice is to do some real reflecting now so you know what you will and won't compromise in order to assure your own safety. Realize that the most precious freedoms are often taken from us without a scratch - it's the freedom to choose who we are and how we live in whatever world we are confined to. What are you willing to take a beating for, or even risk dying for? Is there anything - like the sanctity of human life, or the deepest part of your soul - that's worth putting yourself on the line for? If not, then you have some more serious issues than those which got you into trouble with other prisoners.
If someone tells you the only way you can survive is to compromise that which you've determined you won't, tell them to fuck off - then brace yourself, and get to safety. Don't stand around and wait to be smashed - PC up if you need to, and get a hold of me right away. I'm Peggy Plews at Arizona Prison Watch / PO box 20494 / Phoenix, AZ 85036.
This comes up this morning because of a call I had with a prisoner's mom last night - her kid's a new arrival, facing over 6 years for burglary. He's a little guy with asthma and some learning disabilities, maybe a mental illness as well - he's scared to death. I wrote up this letter below for him, based on what a lot of other guys have told me about surviving prison with one's integrity intact. It seems appropriate to share here, for those of you about to hit the AZ DOC.
If you're heading in for a term yourself, spend a little time perusing this blog first, call me if you have any questions, and make sure your family knows I'm an accessible resource for them and you - no charge. This is my own little way of fighting back against both gang and state violence. I seek to "abolish" the prisons of today by breaking through those walls and touching every person I can. I bring with me a mirror by which people who have been told their lives are worth less than nothing can look into their own souls to find what is worth loving and believing in again, and fighting for. And I try to give prisoners the basic tools they need to resist the violence, despair, and oppression of incarceration. It's relatively easy for me - for anyone out there - to do. The real hard work - and the greatest risk - is on the prisoner.
Feel free to print up the letter below and send it in to anyone who may be hitting the DOC in similar straits. Here, also, is the letter I wrote to all prisoners dealing with protective custody applications:
--------to a male prisoner in the AZ DOC assessment/intake process------
I got your postcard and spoke with your mom tonight. Sorry to hear you’re in such a jam. The DOC has likely already told you they won’t be placing you in protective custody - the PC yards are all full and the detention cells across the state are spilling over with guys in your shoes, or worse, right now, so they’re going to hand you some BS to justify sending you into GP. Appeal the decision so they have to give you a denial in writing, but don’t get your hopes up - my bet is that you’re heading for a 3 yard, and as soon as you hit they’ll want your papers, which I understand are the problem.
Once you land on a regular yard, PC up right away if it isn’t feeling safe there, and get ahold of me. - I need you to outline the argument you’re making to the DOC for why the threat you face is statewide, etc. If you refuse to house, they may ticket you. Fight the ticket on the grounds that going on the yard would endanger you - that’s very important. Make them explicitly justify putting you in harms way and punishing you for resisting, get copies of everything you can, and send me all your documentation. That’s ammunition for your fight down the road.
Your application will take longer - more denials and appeals - if you don’t show that you’ve actually been threatened or assaulted on the yard they send you to, but I can’t guarantee that you can survive the first attack, so I don’t encourage guys to wait for it before they PC up. By law, you don’t have to be assaulted in order to prove your need for protective segregation. But in practice, you’ll need to be able to build a stronger case for it than you have now to overcome all the barriers to getting into PC these days.
Basically, the violence in the state prisons is so out of control that more people are fleeing it than perpetrating it. No one is getting approved for PC who doesn’t have a lawyer or some heavy artillery on their side. Your mom and I are going to work on the artillery since she can’t swing a lawyer, but that doesn’t get you off the hook. You need to become a damn good advocate and exercise your power yourself, in a very short time. You’re the one the DOC needs to be afraid of, not us, as only you can file a federal suit if your civil rights are violated. The DOC needs to know that you’re smart enough and assertive enough to do so. You’re going to need to scare them even while you’re sitting quietly in your shorts in the hole.
It should come as no surprise that the DOC isn’t primarily concerned about the danger you guys are in - they’re concerned with the danger the institution may be in from any of you or your families if you are hurt or killed. That’s how they appear to be prioritizing PC applications, so don’t think that your life has been devalued any more than any other prisoner’s, or that there’s anything you’ve said or done particularly wrong that means you deserve a worse time of it than any other prisoner.
You’re just landing in the AZ DOC at this time in history, when things are especially rough. I think you can get through this and still come out a better man - not because of anything the DOC does to help you, but because your mom believes you have it within you to transcend and grow beyond this experience. But you’re going to have to fight for your life in there, and it’s the state, not the other prisoners, that is most likely to kill you if you aren’t on your toes. Between your asthma, your vulnerability to assault, and your lack of political power, you are high risk and you can’t count on the AZ DOC to care for or protect you - they are there to punish you, to make you suffer. You need to build the best relationships you can with other prisoners, instead - and arm yourself with civil rights law as if your life depended on it like water - it does.
If you screwed up on the streets or hurt someone bad, take responsibility for it and show others that you’re a man of integrity now. The gangs give guys a chance to “clear your name” by doing bad things to others - don’t hurt someone else even if it seems like the only way to survive yourself. Develop a simple moral code you can easily explain and always fall back on when faced with dilemmas, one that gives you spiritual strength when people treat you as if you deserve to die.
If you learn all about prisoner rights and how to navigate the system in there, the other guys will begin to respect and value you for who you are now; who you once were becomes less important, then. Build a reputation of being someone who can be trusted to show good judgement and to know how to fight back against state oppression - become that kind of warrior. You don’t need to become some big jailhouse lawyer - keep it on the downlow, actually, if you do figure out the ropes, so the DOC doesn’t slap you down and try to cut you off from other guys who need the help. Become useful in there, but remain humble and discreet.
If you can do those things, they will protect you more in the long run than the DOC ever will, because all the DOC can do is put a wall between you and those who would hurt you - it doesn’t change anyone thinking they have the right or need to hurt you, though, which will catch up to you someday, when the walls are gone. You need to fix that now. Think of the detention cells and hardships you’re about to face as giving you a period of spiritual and mental training, like a Jedi knight being held as a prisoner of war in a dungeon full of lions. It’s okay to fantasize silly things like that if they build your inner strength, The danger you face there is real and bigger than normal life, and you’ll need to psych yourself up somehow, with superhuman powers, to get through it, because there will be times when you’ll just want to lie down and quietly die. Don’t. Write to me or your mom instead.
I’m enclosing a guide to fighting for your 805 that another prisoner helped us come up with, based on his experience. I’m also enclosing a letter about the 805 process - it’s from February, but it’s all still good. I’m also sending you a questionnaire to give me a better idea of how else I can help; send that back when you land someplace. Keep your eyes and ears open for folks who might hurt you, but keep your head up, too - don’t let your shame tell anyone else it’s okay to hurt you. Make real amends where you can and take responsibility for what you feel bad about instead, or that’s the crap that will get you killed.
Hang in there and keep me posted on how things are going - I told your mom I’m yours as long as you guys need me, for whatever it’s worth, until you land someplace you feel relatively safe. My arms aren’t long enough to wrap around you guys in there, though - I can’t protect you. I can only really support, encourage, pray for you and be witness to your struggle.
Let me know when you land on the next yard.
Take care -