Buried Alive on San Quentin’s Death Row

When death row inmates are subjected to degrading and grossly unjust treatment, the rest of us ought to pay close attention, whether we subscribe to Mathew:40 or not: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Prisons officials are public officials, acting on our behalf, presumably for our benefit. If through our inattention or neglect we license prison officials to mistreat prisoners-some of the most helpless, abject souls among us-we license public officials to treat the public at large with contempt.

In its broad outline, Steve and Anthony’s story, which I first began to tell in January 2006 (see “Why are They Rounding Up Tookie Williams’ Friends?”), is straightforward. A few days prior to William’s execution on December 13, 2005, they along with several other inmates were rounded up and detained in the Adjustment Center, San Quentin death row’s “hole,” on charges they had conspired to retaliate against prison officials for their friend’s execution. For the past twenty months, they have been held there in stark cells on property control and with no phone privileges. From day one, both men have vehemently denied involvement in any kind of conspiracy. Indeed, judging by their many and varied writings, both have long-since transcended their violent gang pasts, explicitly repudiating, as did their friend Tookie Williams, the sorts of values, beliefs, and behaviors that fuel gangs and destroy communities. Both men, however, are award-winning prison writers and outspoken critics of San Quentin and the prison industrial complex in general. And therein lies the rub.

As I reprise their never-ending story, over a year and a half in now, the question of credibility looms large. Why should I, much less anyone else, believe two condemned men, two people who have nothing to lose by lying, and, perhaps, something to gain in the form of winning the sympathies of supporters and drawing the attention of prison critics.

But the same kind of logic can be used to establish the credibility of our informants. Unlike many of us living “free,” they have nothing to lose-jobs or social standing-by telling the bald truth. In a recent letter to me, Anthony Ross notes: “We have nothing to hide, which is more than I can say about them.”

As with any institution, the more corrupt a prison, the greater its stake in polishing its image, preserving it legitimacy, and squelching stories that subvert the official one it tells the public about itself. And near-absolute power, of the kind prison officials hold over death row inmates, can too easily, through all manner of manipulation, cripple the people who would tell subversive stories. If you think corporate whistler blowers take risks, imagine blowing the whistle from inside a death row prison cell.

In becoming well-read, self-reflective thinkers and accomplished writers while in the hell of death row, these two men, like Tookie Williams himself, have symbolically defeated the system designed to dehumanize and, ultimately, to destroy them. Through their essays, stories, and poems, they have vehemently insisted on their humanity and steadfastly maintained their dignity. Such self-redemptive effort undermines the familiar and necessary assumption that men sentenced to death have, by their own conduct, forfeited their humanity-have become, as is often suggested, “animals.” And we can kill animals, so the magical thinking goes, without becoming animals ourselves. If we can kill them with impunity, all the more reason we can mistreat them in the meantime. Who will care? Who will defend them? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?

The human voices of Ross and Champion put the whole inhumane, barbaric American killing apparatus on trial, and such a reversal cannot stand.

The darkly ironic truth revealed by Steve and Anthony’s interminable ordeal is that San Quentin officials themselves are the ones conspiring to retaliate-against the late Tookie Williams and his friends! For what? For liberating themselves and for expressing their humanity in writing-while still in confinement on America’s morally bankrupt death row.

Of course, the ins and outs of the tale are complicated, involving false charges, time-devouring grievance procedures, published articles, various letters and documents, and lots of bone crushing time in the hole for Anthony and Steve. The opaque complexity of disciplinary procedures and appeals in prison is itself very often strategic, yet another way to punish inmates and confound transparency and accountability. Who on the outside can possibly stay abreast of internal prison proceedings? Who can possibly bear witness?

On occasion, however, moments of clarity present themselves, and Anthony Ross has seized upon one of these as the occasion for the following article, which I quote below in its entirety. I received this article and a copy of the document Ross refers to (Form # CDC-128-B (4-74)) on August 28, 2007. Although I cannot reproduce the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) document here, I can attest to its prima facie authenticity and official form and format.

Writing Under Fire: Resisting the Regime
by Anthony Ross

“Neither hegemony nor power can determine truth.”

-Prof. Molefi Kete Asante

In May 2007, my brother Steve Champion and I co-authored an articled entitled “The Paradigm of Abuse: San Quentin’s Adjustment Center Revisited,” which was published in The San Francisco Bay View newspaper. In this article, we mention George Jackson to illustrate the stark similarities between the hostile environment of the Adjustment Center (AC) in 1971 and the hostile environment of the AC in 2007. This comparison was based on factual events and personal experience and is demonstrative of both eras. Now we have received a CDCR 128 Report that targets us for investigation into gang activity. According to the report, the basis for this is our use of the word “comrade” in relation to George Jackson. According to Agent T. De La Rosa, this constitutes gang sympathy or association, and anyone who uses the term “comrade” (a name descriptive of George Jackson) must be, ipso facto, a gang member.

This notion of a priori culpability, whereby one’s very philosophy, ideas, or character renders them criminal, suggests an insidious and racist mindset within the CDCR. Yet such flights of myopic thinking are common features of a system wherein humanity and justice have been supplanted by degrading abuse and repressive prison policies [see the Bay View article mentioned above].

I am reminded of the weeks and days leading up to the execution of our brother Stanley Tookie Williams. San Quentin Spokesman Vernell Crittenden went on a virulent smear campaign to paint Tookie as an active gang member, offering no proof and despite the fact that Tookie had been cleared of any gang association by the former Warden, Jennie S. Woodford. Then, of course, in his statement justifying his denial of clemency, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger argued that since Tookie had mentioned Malcolm X, Assata Shukur, George Jackson, and Geronimo Pratt in his book on prison life, Life in Prison, he could not have redeemed himself.

This pattern of criminalizing and vilifying black leaders and personages is an old one. And some San Quentin officials are taking this practice a step farther by making the mere mention of a name a gang offense. This bizarre leap of flawed logic provides them with an erroneous catalyst for action against us. It sets in motion a malicious process that can disrupt our mail, personal property, visits, and trust account-indefinitely!

There is a real and present danger here. This intentional misreading of language makes it possible to write up any prisoner who elects to use certain appellations in his writings, such as comrade, chairman, minister, brother, homeboy, etc.

The retaliatory targeting of prison writers has a clear objective: to intimidate and discourage those voices willing to expose violations of basic human rights and degrading conditions in prison. If successful, this strategy becomes an unwritten policy for censorship and will eventually leave only one version, one interpretation, of life in the CDCR-that of the CDCR!

It is worth noting that our Bay View article consisted of over 1,300 words, yet only three-“comrade George Jackson”-were plucked from their context and reinterpreted as something criminal or, worse, seditious. Agent T. De La Rosa’s semantic alchemy defies the criteria for gang activity as defined in the CDCR rules and regulations, as well as the standard set forth in the 1994 case Castillo v. Alameida, Jr. [No. 94-2974], which establish specific guidelines for gang identification. The use of the word “comrade” is not included in either of these sources.

It is a relatively easy matter to persecute us. There is no real redress here. The inmate appeal process is controlled by the very people who violate policy and abuse prisoners. Now, the intent is to silence truth.

P.S. During a unit search on July 11, 2007, all of my writing paper was confiscated and all of Steve Champion’s reference books were taken. We were never given a reason for this. We believe it was a blatant attempt to disrupt the writing projects we are currently working on. Since December 2005, we have been isolated in the Adjustment Center on the bogus allegation of conspiracy to assault staff in the wake of Stanley Tookie Williams’ execution. We are in an on-going legal battle to fight this false charge and regain our dignity and the very modest “privileges” afforded to death row prisoners. To these ends, we are seeking legal assistance and/or monetary donations [see contact information at the end of this article].

When we consider how hard it is to confront the deceptions and lies of this country’s leaders, including Bush, Cheney, Libby, Gonzales and others, we can only imagine the daunting challenge faced by death row prisoners confronting deceptions and lies perpetrated by their keepers. There are no meaningful checks and balances. And with the exception of some mainstream, highly sensationalized and largely pro-prison, media depictions of life inside our prison industrial complex, the system, as a whole and in its parts, remains a closed book-a black hole in a putatively open society.

As their editor and long-time correspondent, I am convinced that Steve Champion and Anthony Ross, with no help from San Quentin, have in their twenty-five years on death row made themselves over. They have evolved from young, admittedly violent gang members into mature, thoughtful men who have reflected long and hard on their past lives and on their present circumstances as black men on death row in America. Although they might, like most of us, defend themselves if attacked, both have become strong advocates of non-violent remedies to personal and political problems. They have become writers who can tell the stories of their transformation and defend themselves against degrading treatment and excessively punitive prison policies, and for this they have been buried alive on death row.

You can write either man to express your concern or offer support at these addresses:

Anthony Ross, C-58000, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA 94964

Steve Champion, C-58001, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA 94964

TOM KERR is Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric and Ithaca College. You can email him at tkerr@ithaca.edu.