How CDCr Undermines Peace: An Essay on Gladiator Fights

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Families lead a rally in support of loved ones inside, joined by IWOC Oakland members. 

As part of living up to the radical legacy that is our inspiration, we strive to be experts on our place, and time in the movement, and more importantly experts on our enemy. The fight against prisons is a series of moves and countermoves. Over the past several months our chapter has been engaged against CDCr’s most recent strategy, and in support of organized family members, and prisoners themselves. What follows is an attempt to synthesize this ongoing struggle and what it’s taught us. We have also taken the opportunity to begin undoing some of the myths that the state perpetuates and weaponizes against the people it has caged. Finally, we use this moment to outline the historical context of our work, specifically the fearless, and tireless organizing of prisoners whose gains we seek to protect.


“Gangs” The Criminalization of Association and Self Defense

Before we can even start to ask what’s going on here, we first have to ask, what is a “gang”? The reality of so-called “gang” culture is the need to band together for survival. The term “gang” is an invention of the state, designed to invalidate whole swaths of people who won’t comply with it. We’re not going to use the word. We’re going to refer to these groups as population segments or street organizations. To understand what these organizations are, we need to understand that their history is one of oppressed people defending themselves against white mob violence. That is how the street organizations formed in LA and other cities, as self-defense against roving white mobs that would kill, steal, and burn at whim.


Inside it’s no different: banding together is a survival response. Prison is a system to induce scarcity, deprivation, hardship, terror, and death as a form of business as usual. Its job is to crush you, to dehumanize you. And as an extension of the settler-colonial project, prison’s job is to atomize, to destroy our identity and cohesion as a people – whether we be the descendants of slaves, or the descendants of indigeneity under colonialism, or as queer people, or even as white dropouts, anyone who’s noncompliant with the demands of settler colonialism: in the big historical picture, that is what prison’s purpose is.


On the inside, the only way to secure or defend yourself is to collectively organize. This is how to secure food, protection, identity, agency, even your name. CDCr only gives you a number; within your crew, you still have a name. CDCr denies you links to the outside; but you can maintain communication if you’re affiliated. If you’re beat up or thrown into the hole, half the isolation is taken away because you have other people watching your back. On the yard, when the COs are successful at stoking violence, you have people to defend you. You also have a sense of purpose and belonging, creating and doing your own work defending others. So identity, pride, survival, communication, belonging, purpose, agency, all these are supplied by your clique, your set, or your organization. And these are all things that the State explicitly tries to take from you.


Why aren’t there prisoner associations to provide all those things? Well, prisoners tried. Their associations were taken away, smashed, criminalized, beheaded. So by denying other forms of association, the DOCs helped create all these organizations inside. They have even directly helped, in some cases: manipulating situations by holding one group up over the other, in order to sow division, or to create partners with which to negotiate.


Societies Inside, and the Agreement to End Hostilities

So, some recent historical context. Before 2010, there was a highly volatile state of war between different population segments. During that period, to hit a yard in the maximum security facilities was to jump into the middle of an ongoing battle. The California Department of Corrections and so-called Rehabilitation (CDCr) fueled this state of affairs, since a divided population is an easily ruled population. It’s easy to disrupt any social cohesion that forms inside, and under those conditions it’s easy to isolate key political figures by validating them as “gang members.” This categorization, based on criteria entirely of CDCr’s invention, was used as pretext for the long-term sequestration in solitary of numerous influential individuals, in the four facilities in the state called the Secure Housing Units (SHU).


In 2011, the first hunger strikes hit. These were the product of an interracial collective formed within these SHUs in Pelican Bay, the deepest and darkest northernmost facility in California, hundreds of miles from the nearest city. The Short Corridor Collective, as they called themselves, developed an understanding and a political practice. Because they had clout, credibility, lots of experience, and nothing left to lose, they helped organize hunger strikes against the use of long-term solitary.


Out of this evolved in 2012 an Agreement to End Hostilities between the major population segments: Whites, Blacks, Southern Mexicans, Northern Mexicans, plus numerous other signatories from other factions within the system. This called an end to interracial hostility between these segments, taking this tool of disruption, division, and summary punishment away from CDCr. The yards transformed immediately, violence dropping by half or even more in certain facilities. And this Agreement not only declared terms of truce, but also named the real predator in this situation: CDCr.


2013 saw the hunger strikes escalate tenfold, with some estimates as high as 70,000 people – in a system locking up 140,000. These strikes ultimately resulted in the Ashker v Brown settlement in 2015, which revised all the terms for gang validation, and the procedure for getting out of long-term solitary, what’s called the “step-down” procedure. This procedure was, like many of CDCr’s defensive initiatives, a trap, but that is a matter for another piece.


We have since learned that as this settlement was being negotiated by the hunger strikers’ lawyers, CDCr was busy concocting a plan called “Reintegration.” With their essential tool of long-term solitary being taken away, they needed a new weapon. With “Reintegration” they could weaponize Sensitive Needs Yard and Protective Custody prisoners (SNYs and PCs). These yards are historically populated by folks for whom being in a regular prison yard is dangerous, people with sex crime charges, and those who have “debriefed” (informed on other people). For this reason, these yards are largely stigmatized, and being on one for any length of time can mark a person for violence by general population prisoners.


In reality SNY yards at prisons across California have swelled in the last decade, and the reasons people end up on them have become more and more varied. Prisoners can end up on in SNY because of a disability, threats from other prisoners or within prisoner organizations, even seemingly simple things like being white and unwilling to roll with white gangs can land a person in SNY, willingly or unwillingly. Still the stigma persists. By forcibly throwing prisoners from these yards into General Population to stir up conflict CDCr undermines long standing truces between inside organizations, and weaponizes historic stigma between them. By arranging these fights, they can circumvent the limits on long-term solitary by providing themselves continuous pretext for people to be repeatedly thrown back into the SHU.


Re-Integration and Gladiator Fights

In September, 2018, we saw conflicts within a half dozen facilities within California. A non-signatory to the Agreement to End Hostilities, a group called the Fresno Bulldogs, started attacking Southern Mexicans. The Southern Mexicans were put into lockdown at Corcoran, and have been under lockdown ever since. For months. CDCr calls it “Modified Program,” but they’re playing word games. To be denied visitation, to be denied canteen, to be denied all educational and rehabilitation programming, and to be denied all yard time except for being fought like dogs? That is a lockdown.


The Bulldogs, however, have not been under lockdown, and they’ve been allowed a certain amount of programming. So in concert with the Reintegration Plan, there’s now a plan across multiple facilities within California to forcibly make rival groups – signatories and non-signatories –  program together. The previous plans in these facilities arranged for separation between these groups. These were thrown out, and new ones were written up.


Now when these groups yard together, it’s a guaranteed fight. Everyone knows this: CDCr, the wardens, the COs, the prisoners, their families. So under the guise of making groups “get along,” they are essentially doing gladiator fights. They’re deliberately escalating tensions, in order to undermine prisoners’ ability to negotiate peace on their own terms.


Although these forced fights have happened between other population segments, the primary group being targeted by these are Southern Mexicans. They have been targeted because they are the largest and most influential inside. Corcoran is the most serious facility in the state, known for its brutality. So it makes sense it’d be a place they’d try out this forcible yard policy. Releasing two or four prisoners from one faction onto a yard, and then dumping two or four from another group who are guaranteed to fight. These groups are actually under orders, in a manner of speaking, not to yard with each other. This is by virtue of their organizations being at odds. So dropping them in a yard together puts each under a threat of attack, a situation where hesitation to fight first could be fatal. Moreover, affiliation with any of these umbrella organizations relies on a hierarchical structure and discipline which people are motivated to uphold. Under other conditions, perhaps negotiation and a truce might be possible. After all, before the Agreement to End Hostilities, no one would have thought there’d be such an agreement. But it happened. For now, however, the irreconcilable differences are between signatories and non-signatories. And CDCr knows this.


In response to these forced fights and the retaliatory “modified program,” in the beginning of January, Southern Mexicans in Corcoran initiated a hunger strike that saw 270 people participating across 5 units. They refused trays for approximately three weeks. At the end, 245 were still on hunger strike, with many dropping out due to chest pain, shortness of breath, and all the other problems that come when your body starts to consume itself when you deny it food. Cells had been raided for all commissary once the hunger strike had started, so it wasn’t just a food strike, where people refused trays; it was a straight up hunger strike. So basically you’re starving to death in your cell, trying to get the outside to take notice. Hoping that they understand something of inside politics, to throw down with you. And IWOC was in a position to do so. We were proud to do so. They wanted it made public, and IWOC helped strikers’ families put together a phone pressure action for two days in January. That immediately escalated things. COs threw down sand pipes, which are long sandbags that cover up all the gaps beneath doorways, to keep people from sharing food, medicine, or information. And these dogfights continued. Every week there’d be another instance of either a two-on-two or a four-on-four, and not just between Southern Mexicans and this outlier group, but between whites and blacks as well, creating a widespread escalation of tensions.


Families have stepped up in a big way, especially since the public call for a phone action. That provided a lot of them with the opportunity to step forward, throwing off their shame or their silence in order to speak out and organize themselves. Since then, there have been outside protests out in the middle of nowhere in the central valley for weeks and weeks at one facility or another. The families said to themselves, “We’d be here anyways visiting, except there is no visitation.” So they gather on the outside and meet each other, and then march down to yell their love through a megaphone over the fence.


CDCr has been executing this policy at multiple facilities, not just Corcoran: also Pleasant Valley State Prison, Correctional Training Facility (CTF) – Soledad, and a couple others, all in this same region. These facilities all house both Southern Mexicans and this outlier group, the Fresno Bulldogs. By doing this, CDCr is basically laying an ultimatum: succumb to their organization of prison society, and surrender all your own survival mechanisms and loyalties, or you will be fought like dogs in the yard at the whim of sadists. And that’s pretty much the current situation, with the lockdown being most severe at Corcoran. Many different population segments are affected, but right now it isn’t an interracial organizing program. It’s primarily the Southerners that have maintained cohesion, and they’re the ones who called for the hunger strike.


Decades ago Corcoran made the news in a huge way – in a rare way. In 1996 the story broke that in its secure housing unit, guards were setting up matches between prisoners. Betting on them, bringing snacks, even shooting them dead when the fight didn’t go the way they wanted it to. The state’s narrative was basically guard gangs and guard culture run amok (guards do have their own gangs and cliques), theoretically under the inept management of a warden that hid his eyes. Five men lost their lives between 1990-96. Prisoners, their families, and their advocates had been vocal about this happening for quite some time. And this is a common practice, really, in facilities all across in the United States. Incarcerated people and their families know what we’re talking about when we talk about gladiator fights or dogfights. It’s a known practice for stoking hostility, gratifying guards’ sadism, or even as an extension of a DOC policy in terms of stirring up conflict between racial groups. In the 90s at Corcoran it just got noticed outside. It made the news, it made state assembly hearings, it made 60 Minutes. So Corcoran and gladiator matches became synonymous.


What we’re seeing today in California is not guard culture run amok. It’s coming from above. It’s policy. The guards are not arranging these fights on their own whim. Some of the recent responses from CDCr are playing ignorant, reiterating the old line of guard culture run amok and claiming that is not happening now. But that’s not our accusation; our charge is that these orders are coming from above. We’re seeing multiple facilities doing this simultaneously. And this fits within the timeline of CDCr needing to innovate new ways to control its populations, en masse, with violence and destabilization. Wardens at other facilities have even been anecdotally reported as complaining that they’re not deciding to make this happen, but that they’re being ordered to from Sacramento. So, the sensationalist story in the 90s was just an instance of a common practice within jails and prisons breaking through to the public. But with CDCr, at the moment, we’re seeing something very different: it’s a strategy and a policy coming from headquarters.


Why? CDCr is completely opaque. It has to be sued in order to release the slightest information. For example, it releases no racial demographics, and the only reason we have numbers on its own racial demographics is through federally available numbers that it makes available to the Department of Justice. 


So why is this happening now? 

We think it’s due to the end of the federal court’s observation and follow-up period for the 2015 Ashker v Brown settlement. In the wake of the 2011-2013 hunger strikes, there was a two year observation and negotiation period between lawyers, judges, and CDCr regarding follow-up on the terms of the settlement. Last year it came to a halt. We think CDCr is counting this as a victory and a green light to proceed: this observation period is over, and they’ve successfully managed to maneuver around the restrictions on long-term solitary. We think they’ve reconciled themselves to solitary not being able to be used in the same way that it was before (i.e., almost completely without oversight and arbitrarily). So they’ve found a new way to confront the power of prisoner organizations on the inside, not just by creating constant disruption, but by doing it in a way that generates useful pretext for recurring bouts of back to back short term solitary. To that end, these outlier populations have always been there, as a potential weapon for CDCr. Protective Custody and Sensitive Needs Yard populations, and these non-signatories to the Agreement like the Fresno organization, are now being weaponized against the main line, against General Population. Being in need of new tactics of disruption, CDCr simply saw the opening and is taking it.


CDCr has a reputation for being an experimenter, for being on the leading edge of developing new means of surveillance, control, and isolation. They led the way in developing long-term solitary. They are on the forefront of investigation, manipulation, and exacerbation of so-called “gang culture” inside. Unlike many other states, they are highly professionalized, not provincial in any sense. And CDCr is huge. They’re the largest agency within our state government. Only education has a bigger budget; but that’s spent through different agencies and split up. CDCr has an $11 billion budget.


And it never stays still. To stay still is to essentially fall behind. Because, to quote C.L.R. James, “The people are always rebelling.” Prisoners are always resisting in some form or another. So if they sat on their laurels and let prisoners organize, didn’t innovate and try to stay ahead of them by instigating this kind of violence and division, they would lose an advantage. It’s a game of chess between opponents, and simply put they’re making moves.


On the 28th of January, immediately after the phone pressure campaign, the warden called a meeting with what are known as MAC reps, Men’s Advisory Council representatives, which are representatives that are sometimes chosen by prisoners to communicate with prison staff. The warden promised them canteen, beyond just hygiene: being able to actually buy food again. Promised they’d get packages. And promised to negotiate a yard schedule, to separate them from this other rival faction that intends them harm. They suspended the hunger strike and sat back for a week to see what would happen. The warden reneged on everything. These promises were just a political maneuver to break the strike.


So right now the hunger strikers are saying the strike is simply suspended, and they’re negotiating what next steps are. So far, some of what’s been asked of outside supporters is that we do what we can to get their story out there.


Always remember that any of these conflicts inside are already subject to the negotiated realities and agreements between prisoner groups. Inside every prison there’s a mini society, with its own agreements, its own code, its own statuses, its own manners and protocols. On any yard, on any tier, in a cell even with just two people in it, there’s a negotiated understanding between prisoners. Prisoners are people, with agency. They organize their own world as best they can, within the hellish environment that they’ve inherited or been subjected to. So it’s no surprise for prisoners to be able to organize agreements en masse across yards or across racial divisions. The Agreement to End Hostilities proves that prisoners can negotiate agreements between themselves. This could actually be supported in good faith. Instead, CDCr is weaponizing these conflicts to undermine prisoners’ agency and keep them from creating peace on their terms. To resolve these conflicts in a way that would work in the real world, prisoners’ ability to negotiate among themselves would need to come first.



How to help.


If you’re in California, get involved with IWOC, or the families that have organized rallies and events. If you’re close to these institutions, come lend support on the weekends that rallies are called. The families announce them through their Facebook pages, and IWOC pretty reliably mirrors their calls. We also do it on Twitter.


For people unacquainted with prison, or not directly connected to people inside, the best thing you can do right now is respond to calls for phone pressure actions or demonstrations. Beyond that, this a complicated situation that demands direct connections to the facilities in order to organize, so it’s not something you can just jump right into. But if this sounds like the sort of thing that you’d like to put your primary political work into, start by reaching out to IWOC or to other serious abolitionist organizations that do support work directly with prisoners – NOT “on behalf of” prisoners, or just addressing policy, but directly working with prisoners. Get involved that way. Because there are definitely not enough people that work directly with the inside. There’s an abundance of policy talking heads; and a lot of people like to grab the mic, grab the social capital of prisoners, and run with it. But there are a lot of organizations out there that don’t. So if this fight sounds like your thing, put in the work to make it your thing, and hook up with that organization wherever you are.


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