Rural Prison as Colonial Master
In 1964 a tsunami swept over Crescent
City, California completely destroying the downtown. Only
nine people died, but the town—nestled just below the
Oregon border—never recovered. It was rebuilt as a
shabby imitation of Southern California’s worst planning
examples; empty parking spaces and box-like buildings
dominate the landscape.
In 1989 another tsunami hit—this
time the tidal wave was political. The California Department
of Corrections (CDC) rolled in, and with little opposition,
built the sprawling, $277.5 million Pelican Bay State Prison,
one of the newest, meanest super-max prisons in the system.
Pelican Bay is now an international model of sensory
deprivation and isolation; half the inmates are deemed
incorrigible and locked in their cells 23 hours-a-day. The
prison is also Crescent City and Del Norte county’s
largest employer—and, some say, its new colonial master.
The new prison has political and
economic clout which is all the more exaggerated due to
Crescent City’s extreme isolation and poverty. Only 4 of
the area’s 17 sawmills were still in operation when the
prison arrived, commercial salmon fishing was dead, and
during the mid-1980s, 164 businesses had gone under. By the
time the CDC came scouting for a new prison site,
unemployment had reached 20 percent. Del Norte County, with
Crescent City at its heart, was in a seemingly terminal
economic torpor—the prison was its only hope.
It is a situation that has been
replicated a dozen times in recent years—from Bowling
Green, Missouri to rural Florida to Dannemora, New
York—economically battered small towns are rolling over
for new prisons. In fact, punishment is such a big industry
in the American countryside, that, according to the National
Criminal Justice Commission, 5 percent of the growth in rural
population between 1980 and 1990 is accounted for by
But the story of the rural prison boom
is not all rosy economic statistics, critics say prisons
bring an array of political costs. "We’re a penal
colony, plain and simple. This is California’s Siberia
or Guyana," says John Levy, a Crescent City lawyer, who
used to make his living defending Pelican Bay prisoners
charged with committing crimes in prison. Levy says that, at
least in Crescent City, the CDC’s power extends far
beyond the prison gate and prison officials use economic
leverage and violent intimidation to silence dissent. Several
other persecuted defense attorneys, former guards, and
community members, tell a similar story.
For the most part, people in Del Norte
county don’t agree, they’re just happy to have
jobs. Pelican Bay provides 1,500 jobs, an annual payroll of
$50 million dollars, and a budget of over $90 million.
Indirectly, the prison has created work in everything from
construction and pumping gas, to domestic violence
counseling. The contract for hauling away the prison’s
garbage is worth $130,000 a year—big money in the
state’s poorest county. Following the employment boom
came almost 6,000 new residents, Del Norte’s population
(including 4,000 prisoners) is now 28,000. In the last ten
years the average rate of housing starts doubled as has the
value of local real estate.
With the building boom came a huge Ace
Hardware, a private hospital, and a 90,000 square foot
K-Mart. Across from K-Mart is an equally mammoth Safeway.
"In 1986 the county collected $73 million in sales tax;
last year it was $142 million," says Cochran. On top of
that, local government is saving money by using low-security
"level-one" prisoners instead of public works
crews. Between January 1990 and December 1996, Pelican Bay
inmates worked almost 150,000 hours on everything from school
grounds to public buildings. According to one report, the
prison labor, billed at $7 hour, would have cost the county
at least $766,300. "Without the prison we wouldn’t
exist," says assessor Cochran.
While the CDC’s economic impact is
plain to see, its power in Del Norte County courts is quite
opaque but just as real. "From our investigations it
seems that the prison, in conjunction with local judges and
prosecutors, is using every excuse it can to keep more people
locked up for longer," says Leslie DiBenedetto-Skopek of
the California Prison Focus (CPF), a human rights group based
in San Francisco which investigates conditions in Pelican
Bay. CPF investigators, who visited Pelican Bay in late
January, say that minor administrative infractions—such
as spitting on guards—are often embellished and
prosecuted as felonies in the local courts in front of juries
stacked with guards and their families. As a result, Pelican
Bay inmates are getting new convictions and becoming
permanently trapped in prison, regardless of their original
"For example," says attorney
and CPF investigator Rose Braz, "I interviewed this one
kid G—-; he’s 21, a white guy from [rural] Trinity
County. He got 4 years for robbery, turned 18 in the Corcoran
SHU (Security Housing Unity). But due to several fights
inside, some of which were staged by guards at Corcoran, this
guy is now facing his third strike."
"I am afraid I’ll never get
out," said G—- in a taped CPF interview. Just to
make sure, the CDC is paying 35 percent of the Del Norte
county District Attorneys’ budget. The money covers the
costs of convicting prisoners charged with committing new
crimes. District Attorney Bill Cornel, says the CDC’s
contributions don’t even cover the full cost of handling
an annual average of 80 Pelican Bay cases. "It’s
clear what this is all about," says CPF investigator
Noelle Hanrahan. "These prison convictions are job
security for the whole area."
Crescent City criminal defense
attorneys say that while the CDC bolsters the local
prosecutor’s office, it also uses behind-the-scenes
leverage to prevent effective inmate defense. "Hell, all
I know is that in 1995 I won four out of five of my Pelican
Bay cases and they were almost all three strikes. Then, in
1996 the judge gave me only one case," says criminal
defense attorney Mario de Solenni, a self-proclaimed
"conservative, redneck pain-in-the-ass." According
to de Solenni—who owns and drives a collection of
military vehicles—successfully defending prisoners is a
no-no: "Let’s just say the system doesn’t seem
to like it if the defense wins."
Other lawyers tell similar stories of
beating the prosecution too many times and then finding
themselves with fewer defense appointments. "Now the
judges go all the way down to Humbolt to find incompetent,
pony-tailed fuck-ups who alienate juries and can’t win
cases," says de Solenni.
Tom Easton—a defense attorney with
the slightly euphoric air of someone who’s just survived
a major auto wreck—in a modest house overlooking the
sea. The National Review and American Spectator>
cover his coffee table, but right-wing reading habits
haven’t helped endear him to CDC compradors.
"The prison and the DA are trying
to destroy my career," says Easton, who was facing
felony charges including soliciting perjury from a prisoner.
Easton says the charges were nothing more than retaliation
for providing defense in criminal cases and handling civil
rights suits on behalf of Pelican Bay inmates. In late
January, all charges against Easton, save one misdemeanor
count of soliciting business, were dropped or ended in hung
juries. "But the DA could still try to have me
disbarred," says Easton. In the meantime, he has been
banned from communicating with the seven Pelican Bay
prisoners he represents.
"I am convinced that they went
after Easton because he filed suits on behalf of
prisoners," say defense attorney Paul Gallegos, who has
been accused of gang affiliation by the DA. "That
accusation was patently absurd. The DA didn’t even
realize he was, by implication, accusing the judge who
appointed me to the case."
Absurd or not, DA harassment has a
chilling effect. "I can see the writing on the
wall," says John Levy. "They just don’t want
these prisoners to get defense. The more of ‘em they can
pack in, the more money comes down the pipe. I’ve had
enough of it. I’m leaving town."
Among Levy’s clients are four
prison maintenance workers who testified against
administrators in a recent corruption case. "The former
head of operations out there made death threats against my
clients, the state is still investigating," says Levy,
adding that one of his clients has since been forced to leave
town after being fired from the local hardware store at the
behest of a prison official. "Hey, the prison is the
only place that buys in bulk," says Levy.
According to Levy and others, the CDC
also has covert investigative units, with classified budgets,
that conduct surveillance in the community and keep dossiers
on trouble-makers. "Internal Affairs does investigations
in the community but I don’t think that’s
inappropriate," says Tom Hopper, former Del Norte county
sheriff and the current Community Resource Manager at Pelican
Bay. CDC officials in Sacramento also confirm that the
department’s two undercover police forces—the
Special Services Unit (SSU) and the Investigative Services
Unit—do at times carry out surveillance off of prison
grounds. During recent revelations of officially sponsored
violence at Corcoran State Prison, SSU officers were caught
trying to intimidate whistle-blowers. They even chased down a
guard as he raced to the FBI with scandalous evidence.
John Cox looks like a poster boy for
the CDC. But the former Pelican Bay correctional officer (CO)
is, instead, a CDC target. Trouble began in 1991 when Cox
broke the guards’ code of silence and testified against
a fellow officer who had beaten an inmate’s head with
the butt of a gas gun, and then framed the victim. Cox
refused to go along with yet another set-up. According to
findings in Madrid vs. Gomez—a high-profile class
action against the CDC—Pelican Bay administrators called
Cox a "snitch" and told him to "watch his
Even before Cox broke ranks in court he
was hated by other guards. As sergeant in charge of the D
yard SHU, Cox gave all his officers 100 extra hours of
on-the-job training beyond the standard 40. This was seen as
treachery by some hard-line CO’s. "They called
D-Yard SHU, ‘fluffy SHU,’ because we didn’t
hog-tie inmates to toilets or kick them in the face after
cell extractions," says Cox. "There was one officer
in there who used to take photos of every shooting and
decorate his office with them."
Federal court papers are replete with
other heinous examples of abuse at Pelican Bay, such as the
notorious case of guards and medical staff who boiled an
inmate alive. A central element in this slow-motion riot of
sadism was the constant framing of prisoners, so that their
sentences grew by decades with each year inside.
Cox—trying to play by the rules—found it almost
impossible to do his job.
"I broke up one fight without
assistance, called for back-up but none came, and got a torn
rotator cuff," says Cox. "The next day the
lieutenant made me climb every guard tower ladder. It was
pure harassment." The final straw was a series of death
threats and close calls on the job. In one incident Cox found
himself alone, surrounded by eight inmates and unable to get
back-up. "That was it. If I stayed and tried to do my
job I probably would have been killed," says Cox, who is
currently suing the CDC.
Things have hardly improved since Cox
quit. "Bullets through the window, death threats on my
kids, hang-up calls, sugar in the gas tank, slashed
tires— you name it," says Cox, recounting the
continued harassment he still suffers at the hands of the CDC
and its allies. "The DA and the sheriff have refused to
even investigate. They told me to talk to the prison."
Other former guards have also had
problems, most notably James Carp, who says he was harassed
by superiors for pointing out security faults, such as an
automatic door system which failed to lock and required a $2
million dollar overhaul.
Officials at Pelican Bay refuse to comment
on Cox’s case. But Pelican Bay’s Tom Hopper did say:
"The prison saved this community and people are grateful.
There are a few disgruntled employees and other fringe elements
that complain, but you can’t please everybody." As
evidence of CDC bullying mounts this line may become harder to
"Face it—Crescent City has sold
its soul to the devil. They got a few jobs but that’s about
it," says CPF investigator and former prisoner, Louis
Talamantez. According to the critics, the wreckage from Crescent
City’s latest tsunami—rule by the CDC—takes the
form, not of fallen buildings, but shattered lives.
"Remember, the whole lockdown economy," says
Talamantez, "feeds off prisoners, many of whom will never
see the world again."
Christian Parenti teaches sociology at the
New College of California in San Francisco and is working on a
PhD for the London School of Economics.