The Faces of Redemption


I read Life After Murder* , by Nancy Mullane when it came out a year ago. I  read it in a day.  The book is about five men, Don Cronk, Eddie Ramirez, Richie Rael, Phillip Seiler and Jesse Reed, all who admitted to murdering another person.  The story is about their struggles to live life in pursuit of redemption after beating the odds and receiving a grant of parole by the board that the Governor did not overturn (approximately 6% of lifers are paroled without having the decision overturned by the Governor, who is the one who appointed the people who decided to parole them in the first place. Note, some of the men featured in the book were paroled through winning a court reversal of the Governor’s decision).

Tonight, on NPR, the author and the men featured in the book were on City Arts and Lectures.  I would highly recommend listening the broadcast (unfortunately I do not think it is yet available online or on itunes) and reading the book.

These men are the faces of redemption. When I use the term redemption, I do not mean to conjure images of being saved, Christianity or Jesus. I am a Jew so in general, those images do not naturally pop in my head when I hear words.

Instead, the image that pops in my mind when I hear the word redemption is taking a plastic bottle to a recycling center to redeem it for pennies.  Redemption is about giving something up for pennies *change*.   Redemption is when you accept responsibility for what you’ve done, you feel the pain you caused others, the damage you’ve done to your soul and to the hearts and souls of those you are connected to (read: the world), and you decide to take the pain and shame from that and turn it into change. You turn in all the bullshit excuses in exchange for change.

A beautiful moment in the broadcast–and I, unfortunately did not hear the whole thing–was when one of the men is asked about redemption. You can hear his voice quivering as he talks about redemption meaning he is so very sorry for what he did.  You can feel his pain and the pain he knows he caused.   These five men are the faces of redemption.  Their stories remind me why I love hoping that all people are ultimately good instead of believing that some are evil.  We are not our worst acts.  Whether that act is failing to pay the butcher promptly** or murdering someone in cold blood, the lowest thing we have done does not have to be what we are remembered for. We have the power to change.

*Disclaimer, if you order Life After Murder via that link or here for Kindle, JJC gets 4% of the cost of the book (approximately chump change).

**From the Talmud: “What do you call ‘profaning God’s name?” Rav said, “In my case, since I am reputed to live strictly under the discipline of Torah, it would be failing to pay the butcher promptly.”

Striker Solidarity: Carlos’ Story

I previously posted my support of the hunger strikers. Their demands seem pretty basic to me and noncontroversial. Wow, was I naïve.

This dude’s article – in addition to the SacBees pathetic editorial—shocked me to my core.  I understand that there are some scary dudes and shot callers in prison.  Maybe said shot callers need to be isolated from genpoppas (read: general population folks; also, I don’t have that much street cred, I do not think that is actually a term used in the joint #stilltryintobringbackthetermthejoint.)  What was wrong with the SacBee article by Morain is that it essentially amounted to an ad-hominem attack against one of the strikers, which is too easy when we are talking about someone in the SHU in Pelican Bay.  Do you really think you should get a Pulitzer for pointing out that someone in the place reserved for the worst of the worst in California’s state prisons is violent and scary?  And I have awarded JJC Pulitzers to the Onion, TMZ and BuzzFeed.

My problem with Morain’s article is that we are talking about a nonviolent social movement where people are literally (proper use of the term) starving themselves and dying for a cause, and this “journalist” does not even report what that cause is. Instead, the article reads as if the cause is to release everyone from the SHU immediately. The disappointing thing is, he is not the only one reporting on the hunger strike in a manner that is akin to a baby pooping his mother’s milk.  Is that a phrase? i.e. the prison officials just feed the media the story and they poop out this shit: big bad scary gang dudes are behind this, be scared, don’t think for yourselves, and other such diarrhea. (Compare Beard’s op-ed to this AP story.)

I am less interested in how scary these dudes are and more interested in what they are willing to die for.

Here are the stated demands of the strikers:

The Pelican Bay Five Core Demands:
1. Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommendations and end long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.
5. Create and expand constructive programming.

The US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommends some pretty basic things:

1. Make segregation a last resort and a more productive form of confinement, and stop releasing people directly from segregation to the streets. Tighten admissions criteria and safely transition people out of segregation as soon as possible. And go further: To the extent that safety allows, give prisoners in segregation opportunities to fully engage in treatment, work, study, and other productive activities, and to feel part of a community.

2. End conditions of isolation. Ensure that segregated prisoners have regular and meaningful human contact and are free from extreme physical conditions that cause lasting harm.

3. Protect mentally ill prisoners. Prisoners with a mental illness that would make them particularly vulnerable to conditions in segregation must be housed in secure therapeutic units. Facilities need rigorous screening and assessment tools to ensure the proper treatment of prisoners who are both mentally ill and difficult to control.

Dear Morain et al, which of the 5 demands and 3 recommendations do you oppose? Just curious because you forgot to mention them in your articles.

How can we discuss whether the strike is merely a political ploy by the power players in prison without evaluating what they’re asking for? It seems to me that they are not actually asking for everyone in the SHU to be released or for it even to be abolished; only that if it is used it is administered in a fair and humane way. And we are opposed to this why?

When I was researching articles on the Hunger Strike, one thing occurred to me.  I’ve read stories about how bad the strikers are (thank you Morain).  I have read stories about how bad the conditions are.  I have not read, though, a well-researched and thorough story documenting who those in the SHU are and how we know they are so dangerous today that they must endure seeing the sun four times over a period of 28 years (true story). Surely the dude in Morain’s article is a badass.  I’m more interested in the average dude in the SHU. Who is he?

Because I have a full time job and a corgi to care for,  I could not do the systematic research on this point I’d love to do.  Here, though, is just one story. Carlos’ story.

To understand Carlos’  story, you must first understand that even when prison officials agree that you are not a gang member, but are merely an “associate,” you can be placed in the SHU indefinitely. An associate is “an inmate/parolee or any person who is involved periodically or regularly with members or associates of a gang.”  Cal.Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3378(c)(4). Pretty. Fucking. Vague.

Carlos has been in the SHU since 1991—22 years, with the exception of a few years when he was let out after prison officials realized they were relying on the Cole memo horseshit to hold him there.  Carlos has been in prison since he was 17 years old for a second degree murder that he pled guilty to.  I wish I knew more about who he is and his crime, but that’s all I have. Sidebar, not only murderers are thrown in the SHU.  Gabriel Reyes, someone who is serving 25 to life for burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, has been in there for 16 years.

In prison, before officials placed Carlos in the SHU, he obtained his GED and was working toward a college degree. (Castro v. Terhune, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, Case Number C98-4877 WHA, Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, January 14, 2010, at p. 4.)  After several people, as part of the “debriefing” wherein these informants purportedly tell prison officials everything they know about the gangs so that they can get out of the SHU, accused Carlos of stabbing another inmate, he was thrown in the SHU.  Carlos was later exonerated of the false claim when a work supervisor told officials that Castro was in another part of the prison when the stabbing occurred.  (Id.  at p. 5).

Nevertheless, Castro remained a validated gang member, continuing to be housed in the SHU, after officials relied on a statement by the same informant who falsely accused Castro of the stabbing event. (Ibid.)  After spending 4 years in the SHU based on that informant’s statement, a statement which had been proved to be unreliable in other respects, prison officials deleted their determination that Castro was a gang associate.  Except that prison officials, much like DMV workers, make mistakes (either intentionally or unintentionally, you never really know which).  They “forgot” to delete the gang validation from Castro’s prison file. (Id. at p. 7.)

Castro was later transferred to another prison and was thrown back into the SHU because his file still stated that he was a validated gang member.  (Ibid.)

After years of litigation (the most recent Ninth Circuit opinion on his case was published April 5, 2013, he originally sought relief in the court in 1998), this is the sum total of the evidence of Castro’s gang association which the state says justifies placing him in the extreme conditions of the SHU:

(1)   a drawing, previously found in Castro’s cell, which depicted the “Shield of the Eternal Warrior” (an image commonly identified with the Mexican Mafia);

(2)   testimony of an inmate contained in a debriefing report, identifying Castro as the gang member who supervised the inmate’s portion of the prison;

(3)   a hand-drawn birthday card for a validated Mexican Mafia associate, which Castro had signed;

(4)   two drawings containing the “Mactlactlomei” symbol, which is distinctively identified with the Mexican Mafia gang; and

(5)   a statement in a second debriefing report, implicating Castro in a gang-related plot to stab an inmate.

(Castro v. Terhune (9th Cir. 2013) 712 F.3d 1304, 1309.)

Here are the problems with 1-5:

First, interestingly, after Carlos won his procedural claim, the prison officials said ok well we are going to see if you are a gang associate startinnnnnng…… NOW! They raid his cell and find items he claims were planted.  Good luck getting anyone to believe that. Dear Carlos, I believe you. Anyway, here are other reasons that 1-5 suck:

1)      The drawing was at least 2 years old, even assuming that having a drawing of a “Shield of the Eternal Warrior” means you are a gang associate;

2)      This statement was 4-5 years old at the time the court reviewed whether it justified throwing Castro in the SHU;

3)      It’s a fucking birthday card. Jesus. Enough said.

4)      4.5 years old.

5)      10 years old.

(See Castro v. Terhune, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Case Number 11-16837, Plaintiff-Appellant Carlos Castro Opening Brief, at p. 35 (#3 is not a quote, it is my legal analysis.))

We can surely debate whether Carlos should be in the SHU.  I have omitted much of the injustice in his story including how little due process he was afforded, how he had to fight like hell for decades to enjoy the due process the constitution entitles him to, and how heartbreakingly gutwrentching (phrase?) it is that his person who was only a baby when he committed a terrible crime has been locked in a bathroom with little to no human contact, healthy food, or sunlight because of a birthday card he signed, allegations by people who have a vested and very real interest in lying about him, and the possession of a Mexican themed drawing.

Dear investigative journalists out there: I am a lawyer not a journalist. You do your job, I’ll do mine. Investigate how many Carloses there are. Don’t just take the big bad prison management dude’s word for it.

Dear JJC readers: never stop talking about the injustice you see.  Here is a quote from Carlos: “for while one voice alone might be like a raindrop in the ocean, one million or one hundred million voices together are like a thunderous bolt in the sky.”  Let’s start a fucking storm. #strikersolidarity.


Hunger Strike: My Letter to the Editor

It is no secret that JJC was born and raised in sacratomato california. JJC hearts all things sacramento, from the state fair, to the diversity (most diverse city in the country) and the trees (city with the most trees in the world). In fact, I have been sporting a Sacramento sweatshirt for the last 12 years during which time I haven’t lived in Sacramento.

So, you can imagine my heartbreak and disappointment when a JJC reader tipped me off to this POS editorial in the Sacramento Bee. I’ll spare you the waste of time in reading it. The gist is that the prison hunger strikers are terrible gang members, celebrities are stupid for supporting the strike, and this gem: “Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that the hunger strike has nothing to do with conditions and everything to do with gang leaders wanting to get into the general population so they can more readily conduct their gang business. We see no reason to gainsay his statement.”

This statement actually made my blood boil.  Literally. Sidebar, don’t you just love when people misuse the term literally? I find that really funny and intend to start doing it all the time.  Credit: the Soup for pointing this out:

Anyway, here is JJC’s letter to the editor in response to this editorial.  Now, obviously, I support the strikers. That the bee supports the torturers prison management is not my beef.  Here is my beef:


Dear Editor,

I was shocked, appalled, and outraged to read your editorial on the prison hunger strikes.  Those adjectives are an understatement.  Glaringly missing from your piece was a list of what the hunger strikers’ demands are and an analysis of why or how they are unreasonable.  Now, we can agree or disagree over the morality and necessity of solitary confinement.  What we cannot do, though, is meaningfully discuss whether a nonviolent social movement is justified when you do not even comment upon the demands of the movers.  Instead, your editorial focuses on sensationalistic tactics meant to illicit emotional responses from readers such as describing how evil those experiencing the conditions are.  Dear Sacramento Bee, some of your readers (at least one) are smarter than that.  The hunger strike is not about whether the inmates are the worst of the worst, whether they are in the worst most dangerous gangs of all time, or whether they have perpetrated the worst crimes of humanity ever to have occurred.  I’ll assume they are and they have for purposes of this letter.  What is at issue in the hunger strike is, notwithstanding all of those evils, should we, as a civilized society, incarcerate the worst of the worst under the conditions currently in place in the SHU.  The strikers ask only that Pelican Bay stop punishing individuals because of the acts of a group that they are associated with, stop conditioning release from severely detrimental conditions upon “debriefing” which would expose the person to serious safety risks while in the general population, start providing those in the SHU with adequate and nutritious food, and offer them with a chance for reform and rehabilitation.  Indeed, only one of the five demands of the strikers involves actual release from the SHU, and even then they do not demand that everyone in the SHU be released.  They simply ask for an end to incarceration in the SHU for decades on end.

What I found most disturbing about your editorial, and especially repugnant of a so-called newspaper whose function is to ask questions , was your statement that you “see no reason to gainsay” the Corrections Secretary’s statement regarding the political motivations of the strike.  Since when is a newspaper’s job to take the word of a completely biased party and tell its readers that you agree with it without question.  Such a statement is offensive not only to your readers but does a disservice to the public as a whole. If a newspaper simply takes the word of one side of a dispute as truth, without investigating its truth, without exploring the potential biases, and without evaluating its merits through questioning, then we really do not need a newspaper at all.  We can just rely simply on the press releases of those in power.

You should be ashamed of your editorial. Not because of the position you took, but because you failed to adequately provide your readers with a valid reason for taking it that is based on fact and investigative journalism as opposed to regurgitating sensationalist statements of those being challenged.

I cannot imagine reading a story about the BART strike without finding somewhere in the story the stated demands of the strikers. I think the hunger strike should be no different.

Holder Proposes Changes In Criminal Justice System: Why I don’t buy it

So Eric Holder apparently released this statement prior to a speech he is to give at the ABA conference in SF on 8/12 at 10AM:

“I have mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels, will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences[.]”

What does this mean? How do you decide whether they have ties to large-scale organizations? Can we refute that determination? If the mandatory minimums are “draconian” why are they ok for kingpins?? By its very definition, draconian means excessively harsh…so why is it ever ok to sentence someone to an excessively harsh sentence? In fact doesn’t 18 USC 3553(a) specifically say that the sentence should not be excessively harsh? (“The court shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth in paragraph (2) of this subsection.”) WTF?

Dear Eric Holder,

I don’t believe you. I just don’t. In 2009, I was way too pumped after your office released this policy on prosecuting those in compliance with state law in providing patients with medical marijuana:

“The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the Department’s efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs, and the Department’s investigative and prosecutorial resources should be directed towards these objectives. As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” (The Ogden Memorandum.)

Within two years, your Deputy AG, i.e. number 2 in command, James Cole, released a memo to all US Attorneys stating:

“The Department’s view of the efficient use of limited federal resources as articulated in the Ogden Memorandum has not changed. There has, however, been an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes. For example, within the past 12 months, several jurisdictions have considered or enacted legislation to authorize multiple large-scale, privately-operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers. Some of these planned facilities have revenue projections of the millions of dollars based on the plant cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants.

The Odgen Memorandum was never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law.” (The Horseshit Memorandum signed by James Cole.)

That shit is infuriating because not only do you 100% change the policy, in the same paragraph, you claim your policies are consistent. Also, how does the size if the dispensary matter at all? Why was the Ogden memo never intended to shield that? I have one word for this memo. It has two syllables. it is a compound word: horseshit.

Sidebar, OTR (off the record), I recently saw Cole speak and thought he 100% misled the audience about the frequency that the US government violates Brady. He proudly claimed it was 1/3 of 1% of 1 million prosecutions. Sounded like a pretty fuckin good stat. Then, I asked how he came to that stat. Simple, they reviewed formal complaints to DC (um, ya who the hell does that? that must be a pretty fucking egregious brady violation to report it to DC) or where the judge or appellate court admonished the AUSA. Such a complaint or admonition occurred in 1% of cases. They determined that only 1/3 of those cases involved actual violations.

The thing about a Brady violation, Mr. Cole, is that by its very nature the defendant usually doesn’t complain about it to DC and the judge usually doesn’t admonish the AUSA, because D doesn’t find out about it. You are the one who knows it happened, not him.

That said, I do not think Brady violations are as widespread and systematically acceptable in the federal system as compared to the state system, at least in California.

Back on the record. I am glad you are trying to do something about the fact that someone can go to prison for more than 5 years for having a lil meth (ok 5 grams). But, I am very fucking skeptical of yo ass.

UPDATE: so I really really heart this post. Here’s my favorite quote: “It looks more like a fairly minor shift dressed up in major rhetorical flourishes.” -Professor Somin. Dear Prof. Somin, you get today’s JJC Heart of Approval. 143.


Where do you send a 7th grader who kills his abusive father? Amazing story on buzzfeed

great story on buzzfeed about the kid who killed his kkk dad who was physically abusing him after the kid saw a tv show where a kid did something similar and didn’t get in trouble. The kid will be locked up for 10 years.

The judge must decide whether to send him to cya aka djj or somewhere else where he can actually get treatment for the effects of the abuse and help with his learning disabilities. Really great article on buzzfeed. #sosad.