May 22, 1958 – March 6, 2021
I want to tell you about my friend Jamie Lien, because the prison won’t. Jamie died in custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Jamie never needed correction. He needed humanity. Despite the odds from his deathly conditions and circumstances, over 34 years, Jamie rehabilitated himself and found his humanity. He expressed it whenever and however he could, until he passed away this Saturday morning in the infirmary at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, from complications associated with COVID-19.
Jamie was someone deeply connected to those in need, “the little guy.” He would rescue baby gophers on the yard, who were doomed to be exterminated by the prison or otherwise stomped on as vermin. He raised a baby gopher named Sweet Pea who would sit in his shirt pocket. After raising her, he helped smuggle her out to the family of a friend, who had a daughter whose pet hamster passed away. He raised a few other little gophers, his most recent pet was Star, who had a little white star shaped mark on her brown and pink nose. Jamie was known for these sweet acts, for being someone who always shared rather than took.
Jamie and his late wife, on a Christmas tree ornament, 2020. This was set up in front of a home owned by Kathleen Allison, current CDCR Secretary. Jamie, like thousands of other prisoners, knew of and called Allison“The Nurse of Death” for her notorious food service cutting programs.
Jamie was not an activist. You might not deem a him freedom fighter. He was not political. He wasn’t “conscious” in the activist way. But he preferred to look for the best in people, and in himself.
Jamie was a deeply complex and certainly a flawed person. He had suffered brain damage from two previous suicide attempts while in prison. He carried a lifetime of traumas with him. He was convicted of murder in 1989 and given a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. In his trial, evidence was brought on about his childhood circumstances of neglect and abuse that resulted in intellectual and some developmental disabilities.
But after 30 years of time done, Jamie didn’t let on that he carried emotional and physical scars. He was fun to be around. We met in the visiting room twice in 2019. He didn’t care too much about snacks, but he loved to share. His favorite thing was freshly popped popcorn and red licorice, and not much else unless I gently pressured him that he could get whatever he wanted. Whatever he got in his quarterly package, he would share. When he got store, he would give soup, toothpaste, deodorant and other necessities. He would recount to me someone saying in disbelief “I can’t pay you back!” Jamie told them he is just passing it on – that someone out there did this for him, so it’s not even really from him anyways.
He wasn’t quite tough, but he was a big guy. He had a strong frame, like a worker, not a brawler.
Jamie was steady when he would go through problems, I didn’t have any easy answers or solutions. He knew that he had to get the information out about what was going on in there, and I was just there to talk through and do what I could. He led an effort to get out information about SATF’s conditions, he called it a “ticking time bomb.” That bomb exploded in September when a huge outbreak of COVID-19 began at SATF. Eventually nearly 3000 people were infected, 15 released with an active case, and 6 people who died of the virus. (at the time of this writing, Jamie’s exact cause of death has not been confirmed and his death has not been recorded in the COVID tracker).
When talking about others, he always had a sense of urgency that matched the situation – he wasn’t defeated or blase, but he was determined. When talking about his own situation, he desperately wanted out, but he told me that he accepted what might happen to him, being old and in ill health, seeing what others went through with COVID, and already understanding that the prison wasn’t going to save lives.
Jamie kept several news clippings of his trial and sent them to me.
Jamie’s life was difficult. He grew up on Ragus Street in La Puente, CA. His father was an alcoholic who beat and abused him and his brother, and they lived in squalor He went into foster care. As a teenager, he worked jobs as a mechanic and in auto wrecking yards. He did a short stint in the military, and trained in airborne training in Kentucky and Texas. While landing from a parachute jump, he shattered his knee. He went back home and worked as a security guard and back at the wrecking yard. During that time, he was married and had three kids. The pressures of fatherhood and trying to make ends meet drove him to use alcohol and cocaine. 1987, Jamie killed someone, and was convicted and sent to Folsom Prison.
During his first year in prison, Jamie was taken in by the Aryan Brotherhood. Jamie speaks about this time with an inflection of anger in his voice. He hated the gang that dealt terror by owning people, and ordering them around. In the early 90s, Jamie refused to carry out an assassination order of a mixed race person on his yard. He went into protective custody and remained there for the rest of his time in prison.
Jamie had a glimmer of love and hope in his late wife, Mary Ann. Before she died, she put several thousand dollars down with a lawyer who she hoped would help reevaluate his LWOP sentence. Mary Ann had been a correctional officer who quit due to her conscience. She opened an embroidery store in the Central Valley and began to write people in prison through a pen pal service. When Jamie’s wife died, Jamie grieved for two weeks, unable to get out of bed. He cut off his hair. The Native American men on his yard saw how distressed he was, but they also already knew him as a kind man and somewhat of a peacekeeper on the yard. They invited him to a sweat ceremony, something that Jamie often talked about.
Jamie was always worried, because the prison only gives you worry – mentally, physically, spiritually. He deteriorated in prison. Before his cancer was discovered, he had multiple problems including asthma and a knee that needed a replacement. In September 2020, Jamie reported that his knee was repeatedly giving out and that it was difficult to stand or walk. All summer long, he kept complaining about the food. We used these facts about food to agitate, putting pictures and exposes online and on social media. It fell on either helpless or deaf ears. Those of us who know, know that the prison doesn’t care about the food, because they did their job of serving it but more importantly to them, the contracts to fulfill the food service were paid.
Jamie continuously complained about the prison conditions, the constant mold, and the roof materials buckling. We wrote exposes, and connected with other activists on the issue. Again it all fell on deaf or disheartened ears, powerless to help in a meaningful way. But we were always trying, and he was always calling, reporting, and hoping.
In the meantime, Jamie continued to voraciously complete his Bible studies in the hopes of showing the Parole Board, eventually, that he was reformed.
The Christmas Tree at the redecorated house of Kathleen Allison, Lemoore, CA Dec 2020.
Jamie passed away in discomfort, cold, and fear. The prison did nothing to really help him and what they did likely exacerbated his existing conditions. The first time Jamie got COVID was in November. On November 8 he called me and told me that he tested positive, but luckily did not really have symptoms except the lack of taste and smell. One major issue is that he was unable to hold down food, so he was eating tiny snacks here and there. He had a high temperature and had to have oxygen assistance. Despite having a septum tube, he could not lie down on his back because of the lung pain.
In January, we found out that Jamie’s cancer metastasized to his brain. He was provided an inhaler and was given codeine syrup three times a day. He was continuously administered codeine syrup. In February, he finally was given morphine for the pain, because he said that swallowing anything felt like swallowing knives. He could no longer keep food down, only pudding, jello, soup broth, and Ensure drinks.
When you search for a deceased person in CDCR’s inmate locator, this is what comes up, March 8, 2020.
The last time I spoke to Jamie was a few days after Valentine’s Day. It was difficult to hear him, as he was having difficulty speaking. The last letter I received from him was difficult to read, his hand had been so shaky he could barely write. He couldn’t write via his tablet, because from the infirmary in Valley State Prison, he didn’t have wifi because the prison isn’t one of the five contracted for the JPay pilot tablet program. It now seems we’re in the beginning phase of rollout of GTL tablets for all, where all captives held in CDCR will likely be given a tablet for their video phone calls, education, and entertainment, in exchange for human contact.
What happened to Jamie is what the prison wants. They don’t want to keep an inmate who is no longer a paying customer to the corporations that are paid billions of dollars in contracts by CDCR. Jamie became expensive, and his costs exceeded anything of worth to the corporations who profit from prison healthcare, aka prison-lack-of-healthcare. Between prison food, quarterly packages, and the little bits of money on his books, Jamie didn’t possess anything of monetary value except for the bed he occupied that was money paid to the Prison Industry Authority, the meals that he was slated to consume were paid for by the prison to Aramark and Sysco, and other companies that sold food that was literally unfit for human consumption. The prison does the bare minimum just to nearly keep their captives alive, in order to pay the corporations who supply the prison. The prison is a broker who then discards them when the costs exceed the payment due.
Jamie and me, the prison visiting room, 2019.
Even though we didn’t know each other long in the grand scheme of things, I came to care for Jamie a great deal. I didn’t set out meaning to start a friendship with Jamie. With the group Oakland Abolition and Solidarity, formerly known as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, I was writing prisoners mainly starting with introductory letters about our groups political intent. I joined out of the sense that something needed to be done, that all my past interactions with austerity and the carceral state were wrong, and that a better world was possible without all the constructed barriers put between humans, from the concrete of prison buildings, to the conceptual as class stratification.
In 2016 a mass of prisoners wrote to IWOC with that same hope. One day back in 2018 I was opening and scanning some letters for a fellow volunteer when I came across Jamie’s letter, saying that his wife had just passed away. I wrote Jamie a short and sweet condolence card. To my surprise, he wrote back, and then it kind of just continued. We started talking on the phone. He would often talk about his wife, and about his own grieving process and rituals. I listened and took some notes as I always did, of what fuckery was going down at the prison, but then we would use the rest of our call time to just talk about our days and interests.
Jamie’s thought process was kind of interesting, he didn’t have much to say on many topics, rather he would just shudder off discussions about politics or other more grand things. He didn’t care too much about movies, many books, or sports. The things he liked, he spoke about with heart and enthusiasm. He told me about the car monsters he used to weld together in the wrecking yard, the stone carvings he would make by grinding stones and shells from the dried lake bed that SATF prison was built upon. Then there were the culinary creations he and the guys would make. We did talk often about the indignities and injustices at the prison, and about the small ways he and many others resisted. We spoke towards bigger ways we could support bigger resistance efforts, but these were not as appealing to Jamie. Jamie liked to draw birds.
Jamie had powerful memories burst to his head. Like as soon as a memory came to him it was bright and vivid as if he was living it again. I had attempted to speak with Jamie about solidarity multiple times, questions about council building or gathering people within the prison. He did for instance talk about the Men’s Advisory Councils that were mostly useless because as soon as a representative did anything meaningful for the prisoners, they would be replaced. Once, we were talking about the possibility of trying for clemency. He said it wasn’t likely for him, because of his track record in the prison. He spoke about a situation where his cellie, a much younger man with only a few months in his term, shoved a CO in their cell out of anger over an unjust cell search. The young man was immediately remorseful and terrified. Jamie called another CO over and falsely admitted to the act, and took the 115 write up, which stays in your file and counts against you when up applying for parole. The young man eventually got to go home. Although Jamie didn’t protest, hunger strike, or truly take on the COs by force, that didn’t mean he wasn’t revolutionary – he was revolutionary for his daily acts of giving more than he kept, and giving up comfort for himself so that someone else might live.
His late wife was a baddie though. Even though I never told him particulars of what we were doing over phone or JPay, I told him we were doing something, and I told him when to call. He would without fail. When he called me when I was outside CDCR secretary Kathleen Allison’s house, he was so excited. “She knows me, you know,” he said excitedly. “My wife was on IFC and after an IFC meeting my wife went up and held on to Allison’s arm and wouldn’t let her go. She wouldn’t let up and Allison had to run away.”
Jamie helped me understand that we can evolve and build together, if we listen, understand, and move at a pace where everyone, especially ourselves, can join and participate.
Jamie shared his radical, revolutionary humanity with everyone who was around him. I feel lucky to have known him.
Rest in Peace, Jamie.
-Ashley Ragus, March 8, 2020
Our love is stronger than your walls. Protest outside SATF, December 2020.
(UPDATE 3/10/21 – CDCr tracker has been updated over the past two days to say that 7 people have passed away from COVID at SATF. However, the tracker shows “0” in the “active in custody” /new cases in the past 14 days. We are working to confirm if Jamie truly passed away from COVID-19, and if he contracted it from Madera Community Hospital, or another medical facility where he received cancer radiation treatment)