End mass incarceration


EDITORIAL We at the Bay Guardian wholeheartedly support the Stop Mass Incarceration Network and its call for the month of October to be “a month of resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression, and the criminalization of a generation.” It’s time to rediscover our humanity, redirect our resources, and invest in this country’s underclass instead of attacking it.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, 717 per 100,000 citizens last year, or about 2.3 million people behind bars. Put another way, the US has about 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, costing this country over $60 billion a year.

San Francisco has long been a leader in criminal justice reform, pursuing policies based on rehabilitation and redemption instead of the mindless “tough-on-crimes” approach of other jurisdictions. Two of our state legislators, Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, have chaired their respective Public Safety Committees and been important statewide leaders on prison reform.

Yet it hasn’t been enough in a state that still has among the world’s highest incarceration rates, and which is still resisting demands by federal judges that we reduce our prison population to address severe overcrowding and its unconstitutionally inadequate health care system.

So we need to join this broad and growing national movement that seeks to drastically reduce our prison population and redirect those resources into social services, education, and other more productive pursuits.

The Stop Mass Incarceration Network began in 2011 with a proclamation by Carl Dix and Cornell West, two important thinkers who have highlighted the disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates of Latino and African American young men.

“If you don’t want to live in a world where people’s humanity is routinely violated because of the color of their skin, JOIN US. And if you are shocked to hear that this kind of thing happens in this so-called homeland of freedom and democracy — it does happen, all the damned time — you need to JOIN US too — you can’t stand aside and let this injustice be done in your name,” they wrote.

Recently, this movement has been joined by a wide variety of activists from the Bay Area, including Van Jones and Matt Haney, who have co-founded #50Cut, an initiative focused on cutting the US prison population in half in the next 10 years (see “Schools not prisons,” 9/3/14).

While dissident Chinese artist Ai WeiWei laudably uses his new exhibit on Alcatraz Island to focus attention on political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, the injustice of incarceration here in the US is even broader and deeper, affecting entire generations of young people and their families. It must end.


Urban decay


FILM It increasingly seems like the ultimate plan for the poor must be simply to drive them into the sea. What else is going to be done with them if we realize the Koch brothers’ dream of no minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, or Social Security? (One alternative already in practice: Build more prisons, of course.) Hostility toward the have-nots, believing that somehow they got there by being lazy or criminal or genetically inferior, is of course as old as civilization itself. But legislating to create poverty rather than to solve it is a significant reversal over the general trend of American history over the last century or so.

This kind of “Sorry, you’re screwed” mentality may seem alarming here, but it’s a basic part of the social structure wherever economic resources have always been scarcer and a drastic wealth-power divide taken for granted. Part of the impact of Ira Sachs’ excellent Love is Strange, now playing, comes from our horror that this doesn’t happen to these people, since educated, middle-class white Americans aren’t supposed to become more or less homeless. The protagonists in UK-Philippines co-production Metro Manila, however, stir our sympathy but little surprise when they become completely homeless. (Unlike the Strange characters, they have no safety net of friends and relatives who can take them in.)

Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and Mai Ramirez (Althea Vega) are rice farmers who live in the Ifugao province, tending their crop on 2,000-year-old terraces cut into the mountains. It’s grueling work in which nine-year-old daughter, Angel (Erin Panlilio), is already enlisted; another child is still a babe in arms. This stunning verdant landscape, shot by former fashion photographer Sean Ellis (also the director and co-scenarist), might be paradise on Earth with less toil and a lot more pay. But as the Ramirez family discovers, the crop that paid 10 cents a pound last year now only pays two. The family can’t survive on that return — it’s not even enough to buy seeds for next year’s harvest.

There’s nothing they can think to do but to follow the path of so many impoverished rural folk before them and head to the big city. Upon arriving in Manila, they’re stunned by the noise, crowds, and the aggressive police presence; one day they’re horrified witnesses as an attractive woman walking alone is pulled screaming into a passing car and spirited away, though no one else seems to blink. What seems a lucky break with a Good Samaritan turns out to be a scam that robs them of their paltry cash store and the shelter they thought they’d bought with it. Hustling frantically, Oscar gets himself a day’s physical labor, only to be paid with a sandwich.

Time and again, they find those who offer help are predators who recognize easy marks when they see them. Mai is tipped to a barmaid job that even has babysitting. But it’s the kind that starts with the interviewer saying “Show me your tits.” “Daycare” consists of letting the kids crawl around the women’s changing room, and keeping customers “happy” is scarcely distinguishable from straight-up prostitution. Then Oscar’s military-service tattoo gets him embraced as a fellow veteran by older Ong (local film and TV veteran John Arcilla). The latter seems a savior, setting up the family in a fairly nice apartment, taking on Oscar as his new partner in an armed security-guard service where the main duty seems to be running questionably legal amounts of money around.

All this happens in Metro Manila‘s first half, after which it becomes less a tally of everyday exploitations and slum indignities than a crime drama in the mode of Training Day (2001), or Brillante Mendoza’s notorious 2009 Kinatay, which won a controversial Cannes Best Director Prize in 2009 and subsequently played Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (YBCA’s New Filipino Cinema festival provided Metro‘s area premiere earlier this summer — the Roxie’s single showing this Thursday evening will doubtless be as close to a regular theatrical release as it gets hereabouts.) Ellis’ film isn’t as slickly hyperbolic as Day or as challengingly grungy as Kinatay, inhabiting a useful middle ground between thriller and case-pleading exposé. Itself an audience award winner at Sundance, Metro feels creditably engulfed in its cultural setting — if this were a movie by an old-school Filipino director, there might have been a heavier emphasis on the Ramirezes’ Christianity, which is presented simply and respectfully here but not used to milk viewer emotions.

Ellis funded this feature (his third) himself, the story inspired by a violent fight he witnessed between security guards during a prior trip to the Philippines. He doesn’t speak Tagalog, making Metro one of the better films in recent history by a director shooting in a language he doesn’t understand, something that happens more often than you might think. (Interestingly, Metro has already been remade as the Hindi movie CityLights.) The script he’s co-written with Frank E. Flowers is economical, such that when there’s a rare moment of what otherwise might pass for preachiness, the truth stings instead. When a suddenly less grateful than fearful Oscar tells his boss, “I don’t believe in hurting people,” Ong snaps, “Don’t speak. You have no voice in this world.”

Indeed. Money talks. The rest of you, STFU. *


Thu/11, 7pm, $10 (followed by Skype interview with Sean Ellis)

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St, SF


Schools not prisons


OPINION Jay-Z doesn’t usually make political endorsements.

But at a recent concert in Los Angeles, he took the rare and unexpected step of endorsing a California ballot initiative. “California, build more schools, less prisons,” he rapped to the crowd, and then encouraged them to all vote yes on Proposition 47.

Jay-Z chose the right issue to speak out about. On an otherwise quiet state ballot, Californians have the opportunity to make history this fall with Prop. 47, also known as the “Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act.”

While California has long been known as an incarceration trailblazer for all the wrong reasons, Prop, 47 will give us an opportunity to reduce overcrowded prisons and bloated corrections budgets, roll back the failed drug war, and reinvest in public education.

Most importantly, Prop 47 will reduce the penalty for most nonviolent, non-serious crimes, such as drug possession, shoplifting, and bouncing a check, from a felony to a misdemeanor. These offenses are closely associated with drug addiction or poverty, and are not well addressed in prison.

This change will also be retroactive, allowing us to make amends for misguided policies. Approximately 10,000 inmates will be eligible for re-sentencing, helping to alleviate California’s notoriously overcrowded prisons. Hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people with past felony convictions will have them reduced to misdemeanors, lifting existing barriers to employment and housing.

The estimated $150–<\d>$250 million in savings each year will be reinvested into K-12 education, victim compensation, and community-based rehabilitation and re-entry programs.

There are a number of reasons why Prop. 47 would be a huge step forward for California. First, we have to stop wasting money unnecessarily locking people up for long periods of time. California currently spends $10 billion on corrections, which has increased 1500 percent since 1981. Even as crime rates have fallen, corrections spending keeps going up.

The astronomical increase in prison spending has squeezed public education and services. We spend $62,000 to imprison someone for one year, while only about $9,000 per K-12 student. California built 22 prisons since 1980, but we built just one university. Imagine if both of those numbers were flipped. In light of all of our urgent priorities as a state, the cost of imprisonment for minor offenses simply isn’t worth it.

Second, prison time and felony convictions can have a devastating impact on individuals and communities. When a person is sent away to prison, they are separated from their family, community, and employment. Their time spent behind bars often leads to serious negative consequences for their physical health, mental health, and overall wellbeing. When they come out, they can face insurmountable barriers to employment, housing, and assistance.

Others feel the impact too: Hundreds of thousands of children in California have parents who are incarcerated. A recent study showed that for many kids, having a parent in prison is more detrimental to a child’s health and development than divorce or even the death of a parent.

Third, locking people up for drug crimes and petty theft is ineffective. Many California prisoners need drug or mental health treatment, not longer prison sentences. There are now three times as many people with mental illnesses in prisons and jails than there are in hospitals.

And instead of treating drug use as a health issue, we have criminalized it and enforced laws selectively, with communities of color bearing the brunt of this counterproductive war on ourselves.

California has long been one of the country’s pioneers in creative and expansive ways to lock people up. We were one of the first to pass a “Three Strikes” law, and have the unfortunate distinction of being the only prison system found by the US Supreme Court to be unconstitutionally overcrowded.

But just like our fellow citizens who made mistakes in the past, California too deserves a second chance. Prop. 47 gives us our own shot at redemption.

Prop. 47 can provide a mandate for a better California, one where we support each other and invest in our people, and put an end to misguided approaches that have been punitive and wasteful. Demanding “Schools Not Prisons,” a new California majority is emerging, one that will shape our state’s future this November and beyond.

Matt Haney is an elected member of San Francisco’s Board of Education and the co-founder of #Cut50, a new initiative to cut the prison population nationally by 50 percent in 10 years.


More time, same crime


Roll up a dollar bill, snort a line of coke, sit back and smile: If your cocaine use leads to a conviction, your drug of choice will be spared from the harsher penalties associated with inhaling the substance through a glass pipe. When it comes to busts for cocaine possession and dealing, those caught with a rock instead of the powdered stuff are kept behind bars longer. But that could soon change.

The drug is the same, the punishment is not — and a new bill may soon end that decades-long disparity, one that critics have called racist. But crack cocaine use is now at a historic low in San Francisco, raising a question: What took so long?

The California Assembly voted 50-19 Friday [8/16] to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, which aims to lower the sentence for possession with intent to sell crack cocaine to be on par with that of powder cocaine.

The bill, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), is seen as championing racial justice.

“The Fair Sentencing Act will take a brick out of the wall of the failed 1980s drug-war era laws that have devastated communities of color, especially black and Latino men,” Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance said in a prepared statement.

Crack cocaine rocks have tended to be more heavily used by African Americans, while powdered cocaine tends to be the province of rich white folks. The bill would lessen the maximum sentence for crack cocaine possession with intent to sell to four years, down from five. It would still constitute a felony.

In California, having a drug-related felony on record can prevent the formerly incarcerated from accessing housing assistance and food stamps, further feeding a cycle of poverty. The Fair Sentencing Act now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s pen. But some say this disparity should have been addressed some 30 years ago.

The 1980s gave rise to the “crack epidemic” narrative, a supposedly sweeping addiction promulgated by media reports on crack’s outsized harm to pregnant women and newborn babies. But those health impacts are now understood to be on par with tobacco use during pregnancy, rather than the terrifying danger it was presented to be.

Still, the images and narratives from that era were powerful.

In a television news report that aired in the 1980s, an unnaturally tiny baby quivers and shakes on the screen. Then-First Lady Nancy Reagan appears and hammers the point home: “Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart, and replace it with a nightmare.” Flash forward to the future, and university researchers have produced studies showing that the babies born to crack-using mothers that so frightened the country were simply prematurely born, and went on to lead healthy lives.

True or not, people were outraged. The change in laws happened “virtually overnight,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi told us. Crack cocaine hit San Francisco hard.

Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, remembers it well. He had just come out of homelessness in the Tenderloin in the ’80s. Just prior to starting as a staffer at Hospitality House, he saw the worst of it.

“People were killing each other over the stupidest shit. It got really violent,” he said. “What crack cocaine did is it divided a community against itself. I never thought I’d get to a point where I missed heroin.”

But, he added, “I do think the advent of crack and the assumption that every black male was doing crack gave the cops carte blanche for all of their racist patterns.”

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, people of color accounted for over 98 percent of men sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale. Two-thirds were black, and the rest were Latino.

Long since the days when cops regularly raided the Tenderloin on a hunt for every glass crack pipe, the SFPD is now a somewhat more lenient beast in the drug realm. Drug arrests in the city dropped by 85 percent in the last five years, according to California Department of Justice data. Police Chief Greg Suhr downsized his narcotics unit, shifting to focus on violent crime.

“People that sell drugs belong in jail because they’re preying upon sick people,” Suhr told the Guardian, although he added, “People with a drug problem need to be treated, as it’s a public health issue.”

Suhr said he supports the lower sentencing for crack cocaine to make it on par with powder.

“Cocaine,” he said, “is cocaine.”

District Attorney George Gascon’s office also prosecutes mostly violent and property crimes as opposed to drug possession, reflecting a rare show of agreement between the Public Defender’s Office, the SFPD, and the DA. San Franciscans battling drug problems are often diverted to drug courts and rehabilitation programs.

Crack cocaine has largely moved on from San Francisco, leaving its ugly legacy. Meanwhile, heroin use is on the rise, but nevertheless carries the same harsh sentence as crack cocaine for possession with intent to sell.

“It’s the pathetic state of politics today that it took this long for this to happen,” Boden told us, on sentencing reform. “Now it won’t cost me anything, I’ll show what a great liberal I am.”


Reducing phone charges helps inmates connect with families



It’s expensive being poor. Families of inmates often live on the edge of insolvency.

I know a mother of two, married to a man doing time in the San Francisco jail, who is trapped between the domino effect of poverty and the desire to maintain her children’s relationship with their father. The trouble began when her credit rating dropped due to late bill payments, which triggered the repossession of her car, which put her job at risk because public transit couldn’t get her to work on-time.

Now she relies on loan centers that charge high interest rates or paying the rent on her dilapidated apartment late, all while trying to stave off eviction. She says she contemplates leaving San Francisco on a daily basis. To do so would improve her financial situation, but would reduce her children’s already limited access to their father.

Depending if they can afford the time it takes to take transit to County Jail 5 in San Bruno for a weekly visit, or the unreasonable cost of a phone call, this family must literally choose between putting food on the table or connecting with their loved one.

Research shows that inmates who preserve ties with their families, especially their spouses and children, have a much better chance of staying out of jail once released. Keeping in touch is almost an impossible reality considering the jolting cost of making a $1 per minute in-state, long-distance or pre-paid collect call.

Until a cap on interstate calling rates was introduced earlier this year by the Federal Communications Commission, the telephone companies providing inmate phone services were largely unregulated. As a result, correctional facilities allowed inmate phone service providers to charge jacked-up calling rates in exchange for a cut of the revenue, paid to the facility in the form of a phone commission. Because these commissions are used to fund services for inmates, this decades-old practice created a paradoxical relationship between inmates, inmate phone service companies, prisons, and county jails.

In the San Francisco Sheriff Department’s most recent contract with its phone service provider, Global Tel*Link (GTL), we broke this counterproductive cycle and changed the way we do business. We’ve dramatically reduced calling rates and surcharges for inmate phone calls, including a 70 percent reduction for a 15-minute collect or pre-paid collect, in-state, long-distance call, from $13.35 to $4.05, and a 32 percent reduction for a 15-minute debit, in-state, long-distance call, from $5.98 to $4.05.

Given the city’s longtime dependence on phone commissions to fund rehabilitative programs, like Resolve to Stop the Violence and the One Family visitation program, reducing inmate calling rates endangers program stability while spotlighting an addiction that’s shared by almost every prison and jail in the country: balancing incarceration budgets on the backs of people who can afford it least. According to the US Department of Justice, 80 percent of families who have a member incarcerated live at or below poverty levels.

Fortunately, our department recently won a settlement against GTL’s predecessor, enabling us to fund programs for several years without taking a hit. But, in the long run, City Hall must realize that gouging poor people doesn’t improve public safety. It punishes innocent children by limiting their communication with their family, subordinates the healing value of family reunification to profit, and strengthens the inter-generational resentment that is laced between impoverished communities and the justice system that is supposed to protect them.

Gratified with the unanimous support of our phone rate reform by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is proud to be one of the first county jail systems in the nation to dramatically reduce its telecom rates.

Our next policy reform will be the unregulated, exorbitant cost of inmate commissary fees and commissions.

Ross Mirkarimi is elected Sheriff of San Francisco

#TBT: That time we called for California’s break-up


So another scheme — in a long and rich history of such schemes — is attempting to break California into more digestible parts, and gaining national attention. Venture capitalist Tim Draper’s Six Californias is all but on the ballot, attempting to rechristen the Bay Area as Silicon Valley. Good luck with that! (Although we have to say, it might create the first openly weed-driven state economy — Northern California — which would be fun to see.)

In 2009, we, too, put forth a proposal to split California up — building on an idea from conservative Central California, and echoed in Daily Kos. It was a doozy, but a logical one, with some actual Six Californias affinity.

Our May 27 cover story, written by Rebecca Bowe and Tim Redmond, proposed to split Cali up for better management, representation, and economic/social justice, creating the playfully named states of Greenland, Sierrastan, Pinkostan, Coastland, Palm Sprawl, North Mexico, and Disney. (The accompanying cover, designed by Ben Hopfer and shown above, aped the New Yorker’s famous “New Yorkistan” cover.)  

The cover story itself grew from a Politics Blog post Tim Redmond had written in March of 2009, asking “Should California be split up?” — read the post below. As for creating states, we’ll be dreaming of Puerto Rico …


By Tim Redmond

It’s an interesting question. Nothing new, really — folks up in the northern part of the state have been talking about secession since the 1940s.

But these days, the talk has shifted from North-South to Central Valley-Coast.

There’s plenty of discussion going on — the New York Times
reports on a move by farmers in Visalia, who say those of us in the more liberal western regions don’t understand what it’s like in the center of the state:

Frustrated by what they call uninformed urban voters dictating faulty farm policy, Mr. Rogers and the other members of the movement have proposed splitting off 13 counties on the state’s coast, leaving the remaining 45, mostly inland, counties as the “real” California.

The reason, they say, is that people in those coastal counties, which include San Francisco and Los Angeles, simply do not understand what life is like in areas where the sea breezes do not reach.
“They think fish are more important than people, that pigs are treated mean and chickens should run loose,” said Mr. Rogers, who said he hitched a ride in 1940 to Visalia from Oklahoma to escape the Dust Bowl, with his wife and baby son in tow. “City people just don’t know what it takes to get food on their table.”

A former Assembly member is pushing a vertical split, too :

“Citizens of our once Golden State are frustrated and desperately concerned about the imposition of burdensome regulations, taxation, fees, fees and more fees, and bureaucratic intrusion into our daily lives and businesses,” declares, the movement’s website.

And all of this comes as reformers form both the left and the right are talking about a new Constitutional Convention.

Athough some of the proponents are clearly nutty, the idea isn’t. As the noted political economist Gar Alperovitz wrote two years ago

The United States is almost certainly too big to be a meaningful democracy. What does “participatory democracy” mean in a continent? Sooner or later, a profound, probably regional, decentralization of the federal system may be all but inevitable.

He was talking about California becoming its own nation, but I’d argue that the same problem applies here. The budget crisis, the gridlock in Sacramento … all of it suggests that maybe California itself is too big to govern. There’s also clear evidence of dramatic regional differences. If you take the Central Valley from about Redding on down, and wrap in Orange County, you have a red state within a blue state where most of the residents say they want lower taxes and smaller government. Along the coast from about Sonoma County down to the southern part of Los Angeles County, you have people who generally would like to see taxes pay for public services. If the coast were a state, we could repeal Prop. 13 and build world-class schools. We’d have same-sex marriage and single-payer health insurance. And we’d still be one of the biggest states in America.

Now, I’m not sure the people in the central valley quite realize the problem with their plans, which is illustrated in this wonderful chart that comes from the office of Assemblywoman Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa (PDF).

The chart shows that the people who dislike and distrust government and don’t want to pay taxes are in fact the beneficiaries of the tax dollars that the rest of us pay. In California, tax money from the coast winds up paying for services in the central valley.

But that’s okay — if they don’t want our money any more, maybe we should tell them we’re fine with that. Maybe we should split the state not just in two but into three: Let the northern counties become the state of Jefferson, where pot will be legal and the residents will be so wealthy from taxes and exports of that cash crop that they’ll make oil-richAlaskans seem like paupers. Pot will be legal in the coastal communities, too, and will generate tax revenue.

We’ll have a Democratic governor, and overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, fewer prisons, better schools, cleaner air, no Ellis Act, rent controls on vacant apartments, more money for transit, strict gun control, support for immigrant rights … and no more of these ugly battles over budgets held hostage by right-wing Republicans.

And in the central valley, they can have their low taxes and conservative values, and watch their roads, schools, and public services go to hell. Maybe eventually they’ll figure it out.

Of course, we’d have to figure out the water rights. The folks in Jefferson would have control over much of the water that now goes South, and there would have to be some long-term water contracts between the states, but that shouldn’t be an insurmountable roadblock.

And the solution would create its own problems; The GOP would control the central state, and would move to abolish the Agricultural Labor Relations Act and make life even more miserable for farmworkers. But then, maybe Jefferson would turn off the water and big agribusiness would be SOL anyway.

As part of the break-up, all parties would have to agree to create a special relocation fund to help lonely, sad liberals from Modesto come west and to help lonely, sad Republicans in San Francisco to move east. I wonder which way the net migration would go.

Meanwhile, Evans has introduced my favorite tax bill of the year, AB 1342, and it’s related to this entire discussion. She wants to allow counties to levy their own income taxes and vehicle license fees. “We went through this difficult process of trying to arrive at a budget,” her spokesperson, Anthony Matthews, told me. “For those communities that have a different view of government [than the Republicans], this bill would let them raise their own taxes to fund their priorities.”


Protest against “Prison of Love” Armory party leads to arrests


At least six people were arrested and taken into custody shortly before midnight on Saturday at the 16th Street Mission BART Plaza following a raucous protest of’s pre-Pride party, according to San Francisco Police Department spokesman Albie Esparza.

The protest, put on by LGBTQ activist group Gay Shame, totaled around 150 people who were unhappy with the theme of the party, “Prison of Love.” They allege that the company used sexual assault in prisons as a means of revenue, saying it has “turned these genocidal practices into a cash-making joke.” (Tickets to the party were as much as $175.)

Though a statement from Gay Shame said the protesters were arrested “without provocation,” Esparza told us they stemmed from alleged assaults on the security guards at the party by protesters. According to an account of the protest compiled by Armory facilities manager Andrew Harvill and provided by CEO and Armory owner Peter Acworth, “protesters were largely peaceful, though unruly. Having said that, at least a dozen were highly militant.” 

Witnesses recalled seeing a security guard follow protesters to 16th Street roughly 30 minutes after the protest ended and begin “targeting people who were casually standing on the sidewalk getting ready to go home.” According to the witnesses, “the arrests and police violence were reportedly in retaliation for the night’s protest.”

Esparza confirmed that a security guard followed the protesters down to the plaza, though for the purpose of identifying the offenders when the police arrived. One protester reportedly threw a metal object and made threats toward a security guard during the protest, both of which are being charged as felonies, while another allegedly through an egg and spit on a security guard. When the police attempted to arrest the protester for the alleged felonies, Esparza said two other protesters tried to intervene. They were arrested and charged with lynching—a violation of Penal Code 405a, defined as “the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer.”

Two other protesters were cited for interfering with an officer and resisting arrest, and released, according to Esparza. The protesters who allegedly threw the egg was cited for battery and released, he said. But those involved in the protest see it a bit differently.

“A friend of mine was standing with a bicycle and they arrested her seemingly at random,” said protester Erin McElroy, who was at the BART station and said the police were simply searching for someone with a bike, which led to her friend’s arrest. Similarly, another person was arrested because the police “were looking for an Asian woman with short hair,” according to McElroy, and the woman was “identified as somebody who had been with a provocateur.”

Those arrested and facing felony charges are Prisca Carpenter, Sarai Robles-Mendez, and Rebecca Ruiz-Lichter, although District Attorney George Gascón is unlikely to pursue the lynching charges, according to Rachel Lederman, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

“I can pretty much guarantee that the DA will not be proceeding on those charges. It is the DA who makes the charging decision…[the protesters are] being subjected to preemptive punishment right now,” Lederman wrote in an email.

Video of the Prison of Love pride party provided by

Harvill’s account of the events stated that protesters “used a slingshot to propel objects at security,” and punched and spat in the face of the Armory’s manager of security. The Armory guards reportedly did not retaliate or detain anyone, though they had to “block/deny intrusion onto property a few times.”

In his account, Harvill also wrote, “There was a decent contingent of protesters who were militant and provoking. Our own security was extremely professional in face of numerous provoking acts and assaults. Any claims of police brutality would be highly unlikely, but I will confirm exact details of those arrested.”

Those involved with the protest were unsurprisingly dismayed by the night’s proceedings, including members of Gay Shame.

“Like the Stonewall rebellion 45 years ago, last night’s attack reminds us how trans and queer people of color are criminalized and arrested for simply gathering in public space, like the 16th Street BART plaza,” said Gay Shame representative Mary Lou Ratchet in a statement.

Attorney John Viola, sent as an observer from the National Lawyers Guild, was also arrested, according to Lederman. The NLG is “appalled by all of the arrests…particularly that three people have been held in jail since Saturday night on groundless charges, in violation of their constitutional rights,” wrote Lederman in her email.

Four arrestees have since been released, including Viola, and all were initially medically cleared, indicating that they likely did not sustain injuries. Nevertheless, Lederman said the NLG is still working to get the three women released, with their bail currently set at a combined $178,000, Chief Deputy Kathy Gorwood told the Guardian. (Carpenter’s bail is set at $78,000, while Robles-Mendez and Ruiz-Lichter are each at $50,000.)

Acworth expressed his thoughts about his party in an open letter, stating he believes that “if a group wants to organize a particular kind of party, they should be free to do so without shame,” though conceding that “the extent to which some groups find this theme offensive because the party is happening during the San Francisco Pride weekend has given me cause to reflect.”

The CEO has also voiced his support for the protesters’ contention, writing in an email, “I attempted to negotiate directly with the crowd, but this proved unsuccessful. This was frustrating, because I agree with the underlying issue that we are in need of prison reform,” adding, “Had it been possible to change the theme, we would have done so.”

Sex behind bars

7’s pre-Pride party “Pride at the Armory: Prison of Love” on Sat/28 promises to create the “world’s largest megaclub prison yard” as a backdrop for the festivities. However, this party is doing more than raising the roof — it’s raising concerns about incarceration rates and prison assaults of LGBTQ peoples. Critics argue that the party fetishizes sexual assault in prisons.

The argument is that the Prison of Love theme is turning sexual assault in prisons into a commodity. With tickets ranging from $50 to $175, there’s definitely something being sold. Since the party can be seen as selling BDSM and prison fantasies, critics worry that it condones prison rape and makes it seem sexy. That’s causing an uproar in the LGBTQ community, especially since statistics show that being LGBTQ is a main risk factor of prison rape.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender adult inmates are sexually abused 13 times more often than other inmates and nearly 1 in 6 transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. The US Department of Justice reports that juvenile LGBTQ prisoners report sexual assault 12 times more often than straight youths. And that’s just what’s reported.

The BoycottSFPride letter posted on Tumblr criticizes the party’s theme and states that one of the main issues with the party is the way it’s marketed. The letter argues that “the party…fetishizes prison sexual assault, a form of violence that primarily affects low-income people of color, particularly LGBTQ people.” But what about sexual fetishes and preferences on a personal level? “While it is certainly appropriate for individuals to participate in scenes, or even larger events that explore prison fetishes, throwing a major event billed as the city’s largest Pride party is inappropriate.”

The Transgender Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project also posted an open letter in response to the event. The letter is, most notably, signed by this year’s SF Pride Grand Marshal, Miss Major. The letter states that it’s not the kinkiness of the party that’s an issue — it’s the theme. “It’s not that we don’t love sex, sex parties, sex workers, and kink. It’s that we love it as much as we love justice, and are appalled by the casual use of the Prison Industrial Complex.”

(A protest march to the Armory during the party is planned by Gay Shame and others, Sat/28, 10pm, starting from the 16th St. BART station. More details at CEO Peter Acworth told the Guardian that his company tries to draw the line between reality and fantasy, sexual justice issues and sexual fantasies. He points out the structural differences between fantasy and reality and, in our interview, pointed out that BDSM has parameters to ensure that it’s consensual: “The notion of consent is central in BDSM—that is, no one is held against their will, everything must be negotiated, there are safe words. None of that exists in actual prison.”

In regards to the marketing issue, Acworth said that Kink is contractually bound to the theme and it’s too late to order new costumes, sets, and props. The closest Acworth gets to saying whether or not the theme is appropriate is this statement: “Had I thought that a prison fantasy party would detract from the very serious issue of the prison industrial complex in this country, I would have insisted on another theme.”

Acworth said that he was particularly chagrined by the protest because “the LGBTQ communities are strongly represented and cherished at the core of” That point was echoed by Andrew Harvill, the main coordinator of the party. Not only does Harvill identify with the LGBTQ community, he worked with prisoners and Death Row inmates as a missionary in Georgia. When asked about his feelings on the theme, Harvill described the prison as a backdrop to the party, as scenery that’s no different from that of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black or gay bars such as Cell Block in Pennsylvania. Harvill also stressed that there are two parts to the theme: “Our detractors skip over the whole love part of the theme. Everyone just wants to talk about one part of a two-part theme.”

We talked to Courtney Trouble, a local indie pornographer, about sexual fantasies involving transgressive realms such as rape, which she said can be useful and enjoyable. Trouble points out that “millions of people in this world are survivors of abuse, and those of them with kinks or fetishes may find solace in their BDSM practice.”

She said an abuse survivor could queer something that happened to them in order to gain control of the situation, but sexual fantasies aren’t limited to victims. “It may be that the person is attracted to the edge, pushing their own boundaries into unsafe space in order to disconnect from the real world and heighten their focus on sexual pleasure.”

So how can the issues with the theme be fixed? Acworth promises that Kink is changing the invitation to add links to highlight the political issue and remove words like “incarceration” and “arrested.” Regarding the economic aspects of the event, Acworth says that Kink is “happy to talk with any groups about ways we can help support them.” Trouble suggests creating a space that allows attendees to define the surroundings themselves. “That way, those queers with prison fantasies could play out their desires in a safe space, while also making space for people who may actually be quite triggered by sexual prison fantasy, but still want to participate in a kinky pride play space. “

Although the party’s theme is controversial, it’s at least opening the discussion around the incarceration rate and prison-related violence toward LGBTQ people. The BoycottSFPride letter provides great facts about sexual assault in prisons and the party invitation will soon help educate as well. Harvill stated that “the point of the party is to have fun, more than it is intended to raise consciousness of a political issue.”

Now, maybe it will do both.

Kevin Epps’ new film targets outsize black and latino student suspensions


A second grader recounts his school calling in the police to stop his tantrum. A young girl repeatedly suspended by her school lowers her head in sorrow. A community confronts a seemingly-violent teen who lost his way.

Kevin Epps’ 2002 film Straight Outta Hunters Point pulled viewers through the painful churn of poverty in a historically black San Francisco neighborhood. In his newest film, Solutions not Suspensions, Epps shows viewers one systemic cause of poverty: kids who are suspended and sent out onto the streets, instead of embraced by their communities when they falter.

These students aren’t only held back by each other, they’re held back by their schools. Studies show African American and Latino students are disproportionately suspended compared to other ethnic groups, a topic we wrote about in our cover story “Suspending Judgement, [12/13].”

That’s now changing, and Epps’ film chronicles the efforts of Coleman Advocates and other youth groups to push the San Francisco Unified School District to implement Restorative Practices, a new form of discipline focusing on community-building as opposed to punishment.

The stakes are high. Though some argue students need punishment, the film (and Coleman Advocates) argue this is counter-intuitive. Suspensions don’t heal wounds, don’t address behavior, and exacerbate the school to prisons pipeline.

“I’m a troublemaker, I have a police record,” one girl in the film says, talking about how her teachers and counselors no longer trust her. “They don’t care about me now.”

Restorative Practices are a new set of rules for handling conflict in SFUSD schools, calling for students and teachers in disagreements to enter into restorative circles to discuss their differences. One of the most powerful moments in Solutions not Suspensions puts you right in the middle of one teen’s restorative circle.

A teenager sits in a room surrounded by teachers and his community. To his left is his crying mother, to his right is a man leading the restorative circle.

“I need for you to fall back a little bit from that man role in taking the lead,” the man tells the teen. “Just be a young man. Enjoy this journey to being a man. One thing I know is you love that woman right there so much.”

He points to the teens’ crying mom. 

“I know you carry a heavy load sometimes,” he says. “You worry about her, you worry about your family, and worrying about your family may be behind the decisions in life you made. But you’ve got a network of people. You’ve got to let us know about that load.”

“You’ve got to tell us. You’ve got to tell us.”

Epps told the Guardian that the teen had gotten into fights at school. He came from a broken home and his mother had troubles with substance abuse. The fight, Epps said, “was his cry for help.” 

And that’s the power of restorative practices, he said, it gives students help instead of sending them to the streets.

“Instead of suspending him they took him to the side,” Epps said. “They said ‘let’s talk about this.'”

Epps said Solutions not Suspensions has direct ties to his seminal film, Straight Outta Hunters Point, and its sequel. The kids suspended from schools, he said, were the same kids living in poverty and getting caught up in “mischievious things” in his other films.

“It’s a direct connection,” he said.

Solutions not Suspensions premieres tonight at th San Francisco Public Library Main Branch, in the Latino room, at 6pm. Coleman Advocates will then host the film on their website for viewing, and announce a number of subsequent showings.


Alerts: April 2 – 8, 2014




Anti-eviction march

24th and Mission BART Station, SF. 11:30am, free. Eviction Free San Francisco will lead “a spirited lunchtime march and picket” to the Mission offices of Vanguard Properties, in response to an Ellis Act eviction that has been filed against longtime tenant Benito Santiago, a Duboce Triangle resident who was born and raised in San Francisco.



Public meeting on tech shuttle plan

City Hall, 1 Dr Carlton B Goodlett, SF. 3pm, free. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote on a controversial pilot program that will allow private shuttles, such as Google buses, to use Muni bus stops for a fee of $1 per stop per day. The program, approved by the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency in January, has been appealed on the grounds that it should undergo a full environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act. The Board will vote on whether the appeal should move forward.





Laney College, 900 Fallon, Oakl. 7:30pm, $20. This is the opening night of IMPACT, a full-length work featuring a cast of 42 talented youth ages 9 to 18 performing a combination of hip-hop, modern and aerial dance, theater, spoken word, rap and song. This group has chosen to take a stand around issues that have powerful impact on themselves, their communities and their world: Environmental destruction, unhealthy food and water, negative attitudes about their bodies, and violence of all kinds.



Talk: Robots and new media

Banatao Auditorium, Sutardja Dai Hall, UC Berkeley. 2594 Hearst, Berk. 9am-5pm, free. The Center for New Media at UC Berkeley will host this daylong symposium to explore “a new range of more social, personal, expressive, nurturing, and emotional robotic platforms and applications.” Featuring talks by philosopher Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley, Mark Pauline of Survival Research Labs, UC Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg and more.




SF LGBT Center’s Annual Soiree

City View at Metreon, 135 4th St, SF. 6:30-8pm VIP reception; party admission 8pm-midnight; $150 or $95 respectively. Come out in support of San Francisco’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Community Center, which offers free services like career counseling, job fairs, social activities, mentorships, youth meals, daycare and a space for LGBT people to organize and secure equal rights. With a hosted bar, gourmet morsels, silent auction, music, dancing and live entertainment it promises to be a fancy affair.


Ending Solitary Confinement Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists’ Hall, 1924 Bonita, Berk. 2pm, $5-10 suggested donation, no one turned away for lack of funds. Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee will be speaking on Solitary Confinement in California prisons, and what we can do to work to abolish it or promote its more limited use. She will be joined by Marie Levin, sister of a prisoner who has organized and participated in prisoner hunger strikes in the past few years.

Watchdogs in action


The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California, will honor the following James Madison Freedom of Information Award winners during a March 20 banquet. Details on their work and the dinner are available at



Throughout his 29-year journalism career, Peter Sussman, a retired San Francisco Chronicle editor, advocated for greater media access to prisoners and fought to uphold the rights of inmate journalists. In the 1980s, federal prison officials cracked down on inmate Dannie “Red Hog” Martin for writing to Sussman to share what life was like behind bars.

The retaliation spurred an epic battle over free speech within prison walls, and Sussman responded by publishing Martin’s regular writings about prison life, and later co-authoring a book with him titled Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog.

In the mid-’90s, Sussman fought state prison officials’ restrictions on media interviews with prisoners. He also helped write and sponsor statewide legislation to overturn limits restricting media access to prisons. Sussman will receive the Norwin S. Yoffie Award for Career Achievement.



Beverly Kees Educator Award winner Rob Gunnison is a former instructor and administrator at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he arrived after spending 15 years covering government and politics in Sacramento for the San Francisco Chronicle.

As a longtime instructor of a course called “Reporting and Writing the News,” Gunnison has continued to educate hungry young journalists on how to seek public records and carry out investigative reporting projects.



Peter Buxton will be honored with the FOI Whistleblower/Source Award. In 1972, Buxton played a key role in alerting the press to the ongoing operation of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where African American sharecroppers were intentionally exposed to the disease, without treatment or their knowledge, so researchers could study its progression.

By the time the story was related to the press, 28 men had died of syphilis, and 100 others had died of related complications. That leak helped spur Congressional hearings on the practice beginning in 1973, ultimately spurring a complete overhaul of federal regulations. A class-action lawsuit was filed, resulting in a $10 million settlement.



Reporter Tom Vacar of KTVU pushed for records determining whether replacement drivers that BART was training to help break last year’s labor strike were qualified to safely operate the trains, eventually finding that they had been simply rubber-stamped by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Those findings proved gravely significant on Oct. 21 when two workers on the tracks were killed by a BART train operated at the time by an uncertified trainee, an accident still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.



California Sen. Leland Yee is once again being honored by SPJ Norcal for his work on sunshine issues, including last year criticizing Gov. Jerry Brown and other fellow Democrats who had sought to weaken the California Public Records Act, instead seeking to strengthen the ability of the courts to enforce the law.



Freelance journalist Richard Knee’s Distinguished Service Award caps a 12-year fight for open government in a city eager to stash its skeletons securely in closets.

Knee is a longtime member of the San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, created in 1994 to safeguard the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, and he has fought to maintain its power and relevance.

Over the years, many city agencies have fought against the task force, from the City Attorney’s Office to a group of four supervisors who claimed the task force was wasting public money, a struggle that is still ongoing.



The Lake County News and its co-founders Elizabeth Larson and John Jensen will received a News Media Award for a protracted legal battle with local law enforcement for a simple journalistic right: interview access.

The scrappy local paper detailed allegations that Lake County Sheriff Frank Rivero and his deputies wrongfully detained suspects on trumped up charges, made threats, conducted warrantless home searches, and violated suspects’ civil rights.

Rivero’s office responded by blacklisting the paper from interviews, a fundamental building block of news coverage. The paper sued the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, eventually winning its battle to obtain the right to keep asking the sheriff the tough questions.



When Saratoga High School student Audrie Potts committed suicide in September 2012, her parents alleged she was pushed over the edge by cyber bullying over photos of Potts at a party. High school journalists Samuel Liu, Sabrina Chen, and Cristina Curcelli of The Saratoga Falcon scooped the sensational national media outlets that descended on the story, but they were subpoenaed by the Potts family to reveal their sources.

They refused, citing California’s shield law in a successful legal defense that strengthened the rights of student journalists. As Liu said, “We are not willing to destroy our journalistic integrity by giving up our confidential sources, we got this information on the condition of anonymity, from people that trusted us.”



Bay Guardian News Editor Rebecca Bowe and Reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez are being honored with a Journalist Award for “Friends in the Shadows,” (10/8/13) our investigation of the shady ways that developers and other powerful players buy influence at City Hall.

“Their detailed and thorough account explored a trail of money through myriad city agencies and departments,” the awards committee wrote, noting how the paper “used public records, interviews and independent research to probe how developers, corporations and city contractors use indirect gifts to city agencies to buy influence.”



For accomplishing “extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances,” The San Quentin News is being honored with a News Media Award. It is California’s only inmate-produced newspaper, and one of the few in existence worldwide.

The San Quentin News publishes about 20 pages monthly, and has a press run of 11,500 for inmates, correctional officers, staff, and community members. It’s distributed to 17 other prisons throughout California.

Under the scrutiny of prison authorities, the inmate journalists and volunteers wound up covering a historic prison hunger strike, the overcrowding of the prison population, and the denial of compassionate release for a dying inmate, an octogenarian with a terminal illness.



The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), better known as the name it held prior to 2001, the School of the Americas, is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers and commanders, with many graduates going on to commit human rights atrocities.

School of the Americas Watch founder Judith Litesky, a former nun, and Theresa Cameranesi, filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco seeking the list of those who had gone though courses that include counter insurgency techniques, sniper training, psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics.

Last year, the pair won a significant victory when a federal judge in Oakland ruled that the government could not cite national security reasons in withholding the names. Although the case is ongoing, they are being honored with a Citizen Award.



In 2008, journalists from The New York Times and BusinessWeek looked to Terry Gross of Gross Belsky Alonso for legal counsel in a case against Hewlett-Packard. In a staggering display of corporate snooping, the tech giant had illegally obtained private telephone records of the journalists, in an attempt to gain access to the identities of their sources.

Gross has also defended journalists against police in cases regarding media access for breaking-news events, and he’s helped to expand the rights of online journalists. This year, Gross will receive the FOI Legal Counsel Award.



Sacramento Bee Senior Investigative Reporter Charles Piller will be honored with a Journalist Award for exposing corrosion problems in the long delayed, cost-plagued eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. His breaking story and subsequent follow-ups revealed Caltrans’ inadequate corrosion testing, as well as inadequate responses to bridge inspectors who for more than two years warned Caltrans of water leaks and corrosion — only to go unheeded.



Editorial and Commentary Award winner Daniel Borenstein, who writes for the Bay Area News Group, issued a strong response to a legislative attack on California’s Public Records Act last year, ultimately helping to defeat proposed changes that would have gutted the law.

“Without the state Public Records Act, we would never know about the Oakley City Manager’s $366,500 taxpayer-funded mortgage scheme, the Washington Township hospital CEO’s $800,000-plus annual compensation or the retired San Ramon Valley fire chief’s $310,000 yearly pension,” Borenstein wrote in one of his columns. “We would be ignorant of broken bolts on the Bay Bridge, the cover-up of Moraga teachers sexually abusing students, a BART train operator who collected salary and benefits totaling $193,407, the former BART general manager who received $420,000 the year after she was fired or the Port of Oakland executives who spent $4,500 one night at a Texas strip club.”

In the cut


LIT “Everywhere the gay narrative in this country is about freedom, but the reality doesn’t match up. I’m interested in exploring the corners that aren’t free — from bullied queer children killing themselves to the elaborate social prisons we concoct for ourselves online,” Randall Mann told me. “The landscape is definitely changing, but I’m not convinced that the most exciting, most pressing thing is to slap a smiley face over everything and post about ‘look how awesome my life is.’ I think it diminishes the present and the past.”

That may seem like a cynical take on the spurty arc of gay liberation. And a quick glance at Mann’s latest book Straight Razor (Persea Books), prickling with darkness, insecurity, suicide, longing, and Smear the Queer, probably bears that observation out. But the thrilling poems in Mann’s third volume are tenderly, uncannily, often hilariously on point when it comes to how we live our gay life now: the blundered hookups, halfhearted experiments, weird ghosts of old behaviors, buried childhoods, shady exchanges, unbelievable luck, the precarious balance of living at once in the glaring political spotlight and the throbbing shadows of history.

Or, as Mann exclaims with either surprise or sarcasm (or both) in “Teaser”:


Look at us — we’re smarter

Than our hair!


Mann and I met in the Castro near his house, at a posh wine bar in that increasingly upscale, mainstream neighborhood — a scrubbing that sometimes renders Mann’s gritty lines (As I skipped out this morning,/ skipping down Castro Street,/ the queens upon the asphalt/ were racks of hanging meat) into totems of nostalgia, no matter how recent they were written. But his electric language is so of the moment it carries the past into a timeless, shared present, as in one of my favorite poems from the collection, eerie AIDS-survivor ode “The Afterparty”:


I hover over the caviar, between

two spray-on queens, their asides –


eye cream, Pac Heights, microderm

winningly vulgar. And when someone turns

the beat around, pure disco,


we’re dated, we’re done for…


“Our walls are crumbling, but that also means we’re losing our queer space,” said the soft-spoken but impassioned Mann, who spent his childhood in Florida before moving here in the late 1990s. “Gay people are shifting from a very defined identity to an unknown, and we’re performing this shift very much on a public stage. I’m fascinated by the way we construct and perform our identities — but at the same time we’re always undercutting ourselves. That moment or mode of undercutting, of self-effacement, is the poetic moment I always find myself seeking out.”

The pivotal moment of undercutting, when the straight razor is lifted, provides much of the humor in the book, as in the wonderful “Blind Date at the Blue Plate,” in which Mann, in “Striped shirt, skinny jeans, new-old Chucks/ I am sporting the usual bankruptcies” awaits a possible mate by reliving his entire sexual past — who doesn’t? — finally wishing he could redo it all, “much richer, cleaner,/ yet still dark, dark, dark./ A Michael Haneke shot-by-shot remake of my life.” One guesses the date won’t top that.

Mann’s poems are direct and structural — he was enthralled by formal-leaning Modernist icons Bishop, Moore, Auden, Lowell, and Stevens in college, rather than the shaggy Beats or the hyper-experimental Language Poets most young poets his age were obsessing over. His biggest influence is the great gay poet Thom Gunn, who died in the Haight 10 years ago next month. Gunn cheekily set strict forms and an Elizabethan wit against often-raunchy contemporary subject matter. (His Man With Night Sweats is an AIDS-era monument.)

Mann’s not after that kind of irony; for him, “Structure is something erotic to me, it leads me places that free verse doesn’t, it gives me a definition that I can surmount, a path to take and sometimes step off from.” His loose forms and half-rhymes become a metaphor for a community that’s redefining itself against its past even as it clings to its history. One shiver-inducing poem, the horror-porn-meets-Judy-Garland riff “Fantasy Suite,” is literally an invert — the first half of the poem is repeated in the second half in reverse order.

“Structure also gives me a sort of permission to speak about the unspeakable,” Mann told me, in context of the Straight Razor poem that’s getting the most attention, “September Elegies.” That poem, heartbreaking yet hardly mawkish, is dedicated to Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, and Tyler Clementi, four young people who killed themselves after being bullied about their sexuality.

“I had to be very careful with that one, but I couldn’t be silent. I didn’t want to capitalize on or cheapen their deaths with useless sentiment, but I was driven to honor them in some way. I found that the repetition of their ages — 13, 15, 18 — and their final social media messages (“jumping off the gw bridge sorry”), those secondhand details, it became a kind of incantation, of bringing them back into our world,” Mann said.

“The words turn and turn on themselves,” Mann says in that poem — just like we turn on ourselves and each other, and the world still turns on us.



I’m a little punchy after all the lines

and torture-lite. And since this isn’t glitter underneath

my nails, pass me an emery board and the strip brush –


I’ll meet you out front, by the STD truck.

We’ll get Ray-Banned, and torch

a Castro twink, or three. And kee kee.


Enough with the ritual attachments. I prefer the steel

implication, the gash in the erstwhile

model’s face, the snip of the top chef’s tongue.


Your assignment is to lurk, but not

like that shower goblin at the gym. No. Like a cemetery

wildflower at Badlands. Like monogamy.


No use now for embarrassment,

the blinking-back-the-tears.

The administration will exempt each one of us


with a bathwater apology, an errata list…  


“Errata” by Randall Mann, from Straight Razor, copyright © 2013 by Randall Mann. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, New York.

Suspending judgment


The Guardian is publishing only the first names of minors and their relatives named in this story, to protect their privacy.

In San Francisco public schools students can be sent home for talking back to a teacher, wearing a hat indoors, or sporting sagging pants. These infractions sound like the daily life of a kid, but the state calls them “willful defiance,” a category of suspensions that are nebulous to define at best.

Like the old saying about pornography, teachers say they know it when they see it, but students and parents alike are now calling foul on the practice.

The suspensions are so abundant in the San Francisco Unified School District that a movement has risen up against it. Sending kids home not only is an ineffective punishment, opponents say, it also can lead youth into the criminal justice system.

Now San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Matt Haney is proposing a resolution that would ban willful defiance suspensions in San Francisco schools altogether.

“There will still be situations where we need to send a student home, but willful defiance will not be one of those reasons,” he told the Guardian. “Change is hard, complicated, and messy. But we can no longer deal with discipline or interactions with our students in that sort of way.”

He plans to introduce the resolution at the Dec. 10 Board of Education meeting, and if it passes, he said full implementation may take until the next school year.

There’s a fight to ban willful defiance suspensions statewide as well, but so far it’s been stymied. Just last month, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 420, a bill mirroring aspects of Haney’s proposal. Those advocating for such a ban say it’s an issue of racial justice.

San Francisco’s African American and Latino students together suffer 80 percent of willful defiance suspensions, according to SFUSD data. The nonprofit student group Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth decried this statistic as an injustice, supporting the ban.

The San Francisco Board of Education took tentative steps to reduce suspensions as a whole in 2010, voting to introduce a new disciplinary system called Restorative Practices district wide. It’s complex, but basically asks students to talk things out in what are called “restorative circles” that include everyone involved in an incident, like a fight.

It’s also about changing the culture around discipline. It encourages teachers and students to establish a rapport, turning around the way some schools have practiced authority for decades.

At the time, there was hope. Fast forward three years, and that hope has dwindled.

Early evidence shows that Restorative Practices work better than suspensions, and prevent behavioral problems down the road, too. But out of SFUSD’s more than 100 schools, less than half of them started to implement the new reform.

Few schools have fully integrated the change, officials told us. Haney’s resolution addresses this with a mandate: SFUSD must implement Restorative Practices throughout the San Francisco school district.

The program is important, proponents say, because the majority of the 55,000 students a year moving through San Francisco schools still face school discipline that can set them way back in school and later may lead to incarceration. And suspensions can be levied for the smallest of infractions.

Cupcakes and justice

Xochitl is a 15-year-old SFUSD sophomore with long brown hair. She watches the TV show Supernatural (Dean is cuter than Sam) and yearns to one day live with her relatives in Nicaragua. Years ago on her middle school playground, she once faced a hungry child’s ultimate temptation: Free cupcakes.

The baked goods sat in a box on the cement by the playground, unattended. The frosting sat un-licked, the wrappers unwrapped.

She and her friend looked around, searching for a possible pastry owner nearby. Runners circled around the track in the distance, but no one else was around. The cupcakes met a satisfying fate inside Xochitl’s belly. The next morning went decidedly downhill.

As she walked into school, the counselor told her to go home: she was suspended.

“The cupcakes belonged to this girl because it was her birthday,” Xochitl said, something she found out only once she was being punished. “They went straight to suspension, they didn’t even let me speak.”

Restorative practices would have sat her with the birthday girl to explain her mistake and apologize. Maybe she would’ve bought the girl new cupcakes. That wasn’t what happened.

Suspended, Xochitl spent the day at her grandparents’ house. Not every suspended student has a safe place to go. Some turn to the streets.


In October a group of mostly black young students marched to the Board of Education to protest willful defiance suspensions. The group, 100 Percent College Prep Institute, formed in the ashes of violence.

“I drive a school bus for a living, and I had a boy on my bus who was not bad, but not good,” said 100 Percent College Prep Institute co-founder Jackie Cohen, speaking with the Guardian as she marched with her students. “When we got back from Christmas break, he wasn’t back on the bus. Turns out he decided to ‘live that life.’ Three days later, I found he was shot and killed.”

In some communities the jaws of crime and drugs are forever nipping at their children’s heels. A child inside school is safe. Suspensions throw the most vulnerable students into the wild.

“Preventing crime in San Francisco begins with keeping children in the classroom,” SFPD Chief Greg Suhr wrote in a letter to the SF Examiner last year. “Proactive policies, such as the ‘restorative practices’ implemented by the SFUSD, emphasize the importance of building positive relationships while holding kids accountable for their actions.”

Black students make up about 10 percent of SFUSD’s population, but they represented 46 percent of SFUSD’s total suspensions in 2012, according to SFUSD data. Latino students represented about 30 percent of suspensions.

The racial disparity of suspensions mirror the disparity of incarceration. A study by nonprofit group The Advancement Project found that in 2002, African American youths made up 16 percent of the juvenile population but were 43 percent of juvenile arrests.

Xochitl sees that with her own eyes every day.

“Some kids turn to the streets, you know. I’ve seen people younger than me go to jail,” Xochitl said. “I was on Instagram and saw a friend locked up. I knew that girl, she’s in my PE class.”

It’s one of our country’s many shameful open secrets. Nearly half of all adult men in the United States serving life sentences are African Americans, and one in six is Latino, according to data from the nonprofit group the Sentencing Project.

Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all trapped in a cycle of poverty to prisons that for some starts at school.

“As a school district, when that’s staring us in the face, we can’t not do something about it,” Haney said.

Sometimes it begins when students are still learning their ABC’s.

Bruises inside and out

Restorative Practices are implemented from kindergarten to high school.

“If [students] don’t have a sense of belonging… that’s going to prevent schools from addressing behavior,” Kerry Berkowitz, the district’s program administrator of Restorative Practices, told us. The seeds of mistrust are planted when students are young.

Desamuel could not yet spell the world “police” when he first met them.

He was five years old, and as kindergartners sometimes do, he threw a temper tantrum. In the school’s desperation to contain him, officials called the SFPD.

“The police only came one time,” Desamuel, now seven, told the Guardian. Sitting in his San Francisco home with his uncle Lionel, Desamuel sounded ashamed. “But I didn’t go to jail because they only put kids in jail for being bad, like kids taking guns to school.”

The memory angers Desamuel’s uncle, who feels restorative practices would have prevented the misunderstanding. His home is a testament to bridge building.

Lionel, his brothers and mother all pitch in to take care of Desamuel while the boy’s father makes what he calls “a transition.” The home is large by San Francisco standards. Drawings of Spiderman and Batman line the wall, equal in number only to the portraits of their family, most of whom live in the city. There’s a lot of care in Desamuel’s life. That hasn’t stopped his tantrums, though.

The family tried to get him therapy, psychological analysis, anything to help. But as any parent can tell you, sometimes a child just needs love.

Lionel struggled with the school’s administration, and asked them to try less punitive ways of handling his nephew. “I told them to just hug the boy. Their response was ‘it’s hard to hug someone swinging at you.'”

The last time Desamuel fought a student he was tackled to the ground by a school security guard. The now-second grader came home with a bruise on his face.

“When I was bad I hurted the children. I wasn’t supposed to get up, and couldn’t get up off the ground. He took me by the arms and legs,” Desamuel said.

The problem with outsize use of suspensions and punitive action, Berkowitz said, is that it breeds a fear of school that shouldn’t exist. Desamuel is no different.

“I got sent to the office and I had to go to the principal’s office and they talked about me being bad,” Desamuel said. “I think because I make too much trouble I have a lot of problems and they don’t want me to be there.”

Cat Reyes is a history teacher who is now a Restorative Practices coach at Mission High School. She said transformation in behavior is the whole point.

She told the Guardian about a student recorded a fight on film. The two fighting teenagers tried to let the incident go, but with the video online for all to see their pride came between them. If the school suspended the girl who recorded the fight there may never have been resolution. The wounds would fester.

But now the girl will join a restorative circle and explain her actions to those involved in the fight, and their parents. That’s far more daunting to kids than simply going home for a day, Reyes said. It doesn’t just stop at the talk though. “On one end she has to say sorry,” Reyes said. “But now she may go to the media center and create a [movie] about it on our closed circuit TV. The consequence fits the crime.”

As students talk out their differences enemies can become friends, she said. After all, the goal is to correct bad behavior and break destructive cycles. Yet less than half of the schools in SFUSD are employing Restorative Practices.

Slowly but surely

One of the biggest critiques of Restorative Practices is that it removes consequences. That’s the wrong way to look at it, Berkowitz said: “When people say consequences, they mean punishment. We want to work with students to find root causes.”

The numbers back her up: 2,700 SFUSD staff members have trained in Restorative Practices, according to data provided by the district. This consequently led to a strong reduction in suspensions, the district says, from more than 3,000 in 2009 to about 1,800 last year.

SFUSD recognized a good thing when it saw it, growing the Restorative Practices budget from $650,000 in 2009 to $900,000 in 2013.

But only about 25 schools started measurable implementation, Berkowitz said. She put it plainly, saying the program is in its infancy. “Are they ‘there’ yet?” she said. “No.”

“Our team is pretty maxed out,” she said. “To really bring this to scale and implement Restorative Practices, there’d need to be a lot of discussions around that.”

Asked how much she’d need to fully fund the program across all schools, she was evasive. Haney was more direct. When asked if his resolution tied funding to the mandate of implementing Restorative Practices district-wide, he admitted that a funding source hadn’t yet been identified.

“Mostly we hear there needs to be more: more support, more social workers, more people in schools to make this functional,” he said. “It’s a longer term challenge.”

That solution may emerge as the resolution goes through the approval process, but the program faces other problems besides funding.

Teachers have depended on suspensions as a tool for years. Money is one thing, but changing educators’ minds about discipline is another.

The “R” word

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the integration of schools, but in a speech about Vietnam he said something that could apply to the SFUSD today.

“Life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides,” the southern preacher said in one of his last speeches before his death.

There is one issue simmering under this entire debate, festering, unspoken. Why are black and Latino students suspended more than other groups? Is this system inherently racist?

It’s a tough question. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, overworked, under supported, and asked to enforce the newest policies at the drop of a hat. The teachers the Guardian spoke to all described a packed year filled with new methods to learn, all with a common purpose — a love of their profession and a love of their students.

“There’s a hesitancy to talk about race with this,” said Kevin Boggess, civic engagement leader for Coleman Advocates, the group leading the charge for the willful defiance ban.

Nevertheless the question of racism permeates the discussion. Xochitl felt persecuted as one of the few Latinas in a mostly Asian middle school.

In the case of Desamuel, the young black child who had the police called on him at age five, his uncle stressed the need for culturally aware teaching. Lionel said Desamuel was well-behaved when he had an authoritative, elderly black female teacher, but acted up in the hands of substitutes who weren’t black and whom he characterized as “young and new” to teaching. Then again, the principal who called the police to handle Desamuel was herself black.

Norm “Math” Mattox is a former James Lick Middle School math and science teacher, and he said from his perspective as an African American he’s seen the issues Haney’s resolution addresses clear as day.

“My sense is that teachers might be blowing the alarm a little bit too soon as far as their brown and black students are concerned, especially the boys. They don’t know how to manage them,” he said. In his experience, misbehaving children are sent out of the room too soon.

In the short term, suspensions are an expedient tool, but punishment without communication does long lasting damage. “The dynamic between teacher and student did not get resolved inside of the class,” he said.

One SFUSD school tackled the specter of racism head on. Mission High School is at the vanguard of what its principal calls “anti-racist teaching.”

Mission High has a higher African American student college placement rate than many SFUSD schools, a group that struggles to perform elsewhere. And as a designated “newcomer pathway” for new immigrants, the school has 40 percent English language learners.

Mission High’s principal, Eric Guthertz, is energized by the challenge. He revamped the way the school teaches to address race and ethnicity directly.

The geometry teachers use Bayview district planning data to illustrate mathematical lessons, and teachers look at grades by ethnicity and address disparities directly.

Guthertz credited Restorative Practices with lowering the school’s suspensions. SFUSD data shows Mission High’s steady suspension decline, with a 14 percent suspension rate in 2009, before the program started, and down to a 0.4 percent suspension rate by 2012.


Mission High School Principal Eric Guthertz. Guardian photo by Brittany M. Powell

“We’ve deeply embraced Restorative Practices,” he said.

Next week San Francisco will see if the Board of Education will take the same leap Gutherz did. As he is quick to point out, shifting the culture at Mission High School took years.

The Guardian contacted members of the school board, but did not hear back from them before press time to see how they may vote.

Either way, it’s time for SFUSD to change its ways, Haney said. But no matter what side of the matter you fall on, he said, it’s important to remember one thing.

“Everyone involved in this conversation wants to do better by these students,” he said.

The San Francisco Board of Education will vote on the ban of willful defiance suspensions and full implementation of Restorative Practices at their Dec. 10 meeting.

Reduce California’s prison population


EDITORIAL California must reduce its prison population — as federal judges have been ordering for years to address severe overcrowding and substandard health care — and it should use this opportunity to completely reform its approach to criminal justice.

Instead, Gov. Jerry Brown has chosen to fight this reasonable directive, exporting thousands more of our inmates to other states and propping up the unseemly private prison industry in the process by signing a $28.5 million contract with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America.

Last month, the federal judges overseeing California’s prison downsizing once again extended their Dec. 31 deadline for the state to cut its 134,000-person prison population by another 9,600 inmates, pushing it back to Feb. 24 while the state and lawyers for the prisoners try to negotiate a deal. An update on the status of negotiations is due Nov. 18.

We urge Gov. Brown to follow the lead of his fellow Bay Area Democrats in choosing a more enlightened path forward. Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-SF), who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, has convened several recent hearings looking at alternatives to incarceration, including one on Nov. 13 focused on diversion and sentencing.

“I’m hoping to come up with a sentencing reform bill out of this hearing,” Ammiano told the Guardian, expressing hopes that Californians are ready to move past the fear-based escalation of sentences that pandering politicians pushed throughout the ’90s, continuing the progress the state has already made on reforming Three Strikes and some drug laws. Sen. Mark Leno has also provided important leadership on these issues.

There’s no justification for California to have among the highest incarceration rates in the world, four times the European average, and we should embrace the mandate to reduce our prison population with everything from sentencing reform to addressing poverty, police and prosecutorial bias, early childhood education, and other social and economic justice issues.

Closely related to reducing our prison population, at least in term of dropping the “get tough” attitudes that undermine our compassionate and humanity, is treating those we do incarcerate more humanely.

Ammiano and Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) helped end this summer’s prisoner hunger strike by holding a hearing on improving conditions in the prisons, including the possibility of abolishing cruel solitary confinement practices, as the United Nations recommends and even Mississippi has managed to do. And we think abolition of capital punishment should remain an important near-term goal.

Brown isn’t the most progressive on criminal justice issues, following in an unfortunate tradition of Democratic governors who fear being called soft on crime. But Ammiano sees hopeful signs of potential progress, and he has our support. Now is the time to move California’s criminal justice system into the 21st century.

Home from prison


Danielle Evans, director of Women’s Services at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, likes to tell the story of a woman who managed to turn over a new leaf after spending a year in a residential support program.

The client was found on the streets of San Francisco, pregnant, after an overdose. She was over 40, had never graduated from high school, and had a string of drug offenses on her rap sheet. She had multiple children who had been given up for adoption, and she was homeless.

But after getting emergency treatment at San Francisco General Hospital and entering substance abuse counseling and transitional housing from there, she was able to overcome her drug addiction, regain custody of her daughter from Child Protective Services, and enroll in a vocational program for janitorial work.

The woman was aided through a yearlong stay at Cameo House, a transitional home for homeless pregnant women and new moms run by CJCJ. After living there with her daughter while getting pointers on parenting from the staff, she’s now working toward her GED and has a goal of landing a job — something she’s never had.

“I’m like, look where you came from and where you are today,” Evans reflected. The client’s daughter is now a healthy two-year-old, Evans said, and “she is so motivated to be a good mom.”

It’s not a typical narrative. A recent event hosted by New America Media focused on the personal stories of Bay Area youth who’ve grown up with parents entangled in the criminal justice system. More often, those parent-child relationships are strained or nonexistent, especially in cases where parents are far away from home, serving out prison sentences.



For many, having a parent behind bars has the potential of becoming a vicious cycle, but new realizations about how harmful that childhood experience can be are giving rise to a new way of thinking about how to deal with parents in the criminal justice system.

New approaches include alternatives to incarceration, something that’s gaining momentum in this era of prison overcrowding and realignment, which has shifted some responsibility of housing inmates from the state to California counties.

Children of incarcerated parents are three times as likely as their peers to wind up in the criminal justice system, Jessica Flintoff, director of the Reentry Division at San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department, said at the New America Media forum in downtown San Francisco. Some policies that the county has embraced are designed to factor in long-term youth impacts, at the time when key decisions are being made about their parents’ fates.

The event featured a series of short films and multimedia projects spotlighting the experiences of youth and their formerly incarcerated parents, with a focus on what happened when the parents returned home.

Young producers, working with the nonprofit Silicon Valley DeBug and community newspaper Richmond Pulse, created the projects through hours of interviews in which parents and kids divulged intensely personal details about their experiences. The idea behind the Children of Reentry media project was to open up a conversation that kids with incarcerated parents often shy away from, because of an associated stigma.

The project conveyed intimate narratives about an experience that an estimated 2.7 million children of incarcerated parents are familiar with nationwide: A son who got to know his father in a prison visitation room; a mother who gave birth to her daughter in prison only to be separated until completing her sentence; a father who barely knew his daughter before her 21st birthday because he’d been in prison for the duration of her childhood.



In San Francisco, the mission of the San Francisco Adult Probation Department explicitly includes a goal of “breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration,” Flintoff explained at the forum.

The city tries to take a child’s needs into account before the parent is sentenced, she said. Under this system, a deputy probation officer is required to conduct an investigation into the needs of the affected children, and even maps out a genogram of the convicted person’s familial ties, to convey to a judge what kind of situation the child will wind up in once their parent is imprisoned.

The sentencing then takes this background information into account. “The criminal justice system is a series of decisions,” Flintoff said. “We can make different decisions at every turn.”

The impact of parental incarceration on youth has been a hot topic lately. In August, a White House conference was devoted to understanding the problem, which is fueled by an American incarceration rate that’s four times higher than it was in the 1970s.

Research has yielded sobering data. According to the American Bar Foundation, which hosted the White House conference, roughly half of all inmates serving time in U.S. prisons are parents. Communities of color are disproportionately impacted — nationwide, one in four black children has had a parent behind bars at some point. These youth tend to have a tougher time once they reach adulthood, with typically lower rates of academic achievement, decreased chances of graduating from college, and a higher percentage facing unemployment.

“I feel like I saw both of my parents in each video,” Mailee Wang said after the series of short film screenings, tearing up a little. Wang, whose mother and father each spent time in prison, is now program director at Project WHAT! (We’re Here And Talking), an initiative run by local nonprofit Community Works that aims to assist these impacted youth.

“Having a prison mentality is real,” she added. “How do you lock somebody up, and keep them from their kids, and release them, and expect that prison mentality to turn off? It’s chaos when the person returns home. People talk about family reunification, but what does that look like?”


Meanwhile, a new partnership between San Francisco and CJCJ seeks to eliminate the traumatizing effect of parental incarceration by swapping out time behind bars for a different rehabilitative approach. That option involves sending would-be inmates to Cameo House, the transitional home that already helps homeless moms to get on track as providers for their young kids.

Housed in an 11-unit Victorian in the Mission, the center offers group therapy, parenting classes, training for job seekers, and other kinds of support services to help put women in the position of being able to provide for their kids. Cameo House contracts with the Department of U.S. Housing and Urban Development to provide the services, and receives local funding and assistance from private donors.

Under this alternative, pregnant women or mothers with children under six who are facing prison or jail time could be placed in Cameo House instead of being made to spend time behind bars away from their kids.

“It’s an option on the table, where before it was, ‘you’re going to county jail, and there is no other option,'” Evans said. “But we’re saying, ‘hey, let’s try this. Let’s intervene where intervention is needed. Let’s not re-traumatize this family.'”

Shit happened (Oct. 23-29)


Tenant proposals and Guardian forum address eviction crisis

Tenant advocates have proposed a sweeping set of legislative proposals to address what they’re calling the “eviction epidemic” that has hit San Francisco, seeking to slow the rapid displacement of tenants by real estate speculators with changes to land use, building, rent control, and other city codes.

“In essence, it’s a comprehensive agenda to restrict the speculation on rental units,” Chinatown Community Development Center Policy Director Gen Fujioka told the Guardian. “We can’t directly regulate the Ellis Act [the state law allowing property owners to evict tenants and take their apartments off the rental market], but we’re asking the city to do everything but that.”

The package was announced Oct. 24 on the steps of City Hall by representatives of CCDC, San Francisco Tenants Union, Housing Rights Committee of SF, Causa Justa-Just Cause, Tenderloin Housing Clinic, UNITE HERE Local 2, Community Tenants Association, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“San Francisco is falling into one of the deepest and most severe eviction crises in 40 years,” SFTU Director Ted Gullicksen said. “It is bad now and is going to get worse unless the city acts.”

The announcement came a day after the Lee family — an elderly couple on Social Security who care for their disabled daughter — was finally Ellis Act evicted from its longtime Chinatown home after headline-grabbing activism by CCDC and other groups had twice turned away deputies and persuaded the Mayor’s Office to intervene with the landlord.

But Mayor Ed Lee has been mum — his office ignored our repeated requests for comment — on the worsening eviction crisis, the tenant groups’ proposals, and the still-unresolved fate of the Lees, who are temporarily holed up in a hotel and still hoping to find permanent housing they can afford.

The package proposed by tenant advocates includes: require those converting rental units into tenancies-in-common to get a conditional use permit and bring the building into compliance with current codes (to discourage speculation and flipping buildings); regulate TIC agreements to discourage Ellis Act abuse; increase required payments to evicted tenants and improve city assistance to those displaced by eviction; require more reporting on the status of units cleared with the Ellis Act by their owners; investigate and prosecute Ellis Act fraud (units are often secretly re-rented at market rates after supposedly being removed from the market); increase inspections of construction on buildings with tenants (to prevent landlords from pressuring them to move); prohibit the demolition, mergers, or conversions of rental units that have been cleared of tenants using no-fault evictions in the last 10 years (Sup. John Avalos has already introduced this legislation).

“The evidence is clear. We are facing not only an eviction crisis but also a crisis associated with the loss of affordable rental housing across the city. Speculative investments in housing has resulted in the loss of thousands affordable apartments through conversions and demolitions. And the trend points to the situation becoming much worse,” the coalition wrote in a public statement proposing the reforms.

Evictions have reached their highest level since the height of the last dot-com boom in 1999-2000, with 1,934 evictions filed in San Francisco in fiscal year 2012-13, and the rate has picked up since then. The Sheriff’s Department sometimes does three evictions per day, last year carrying out 998 court-ordered evictions, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi told us, arguing for an expansion of city services to the displaced.

At “Housing for Whom?” a community forum the Guardian hosted Oct. 23 in the LGBT Center, panelists and audience members talked about the urgent need to protect and expand affordable housing in the city. They say the current eviction epidemic is being compounded by buyouts, demolitions, and the failure of developers to build below-market-rate units.

“We’re bleeding affordable housing units now,” Fred Sherburn-Zimmer of Housing Right Committee said last night, noting the steadily declining percentage of housing in the city that is affordable to current city residents since rent control was approved by voters in 1979. “We took out more housing than we’ve built since then.”

Peter Cohen of the Council of Community Housing Organizations actually quantified the problem, citing studies showing that only 15 percent of San Franciscans can afford the rents and home prices of new housing units coming online. He said the housing isn’t being built for current city residents: “It’s a demand derived from a market calculation.”

Cohen said the city’s inclusionary housing laws that he helped write more than a decade ago were intended to encourage developers to actually build below-market-rate units in their projects, but almost all of them choose to pay the in-lieu fee instead, letting the city find ways to build the affordable housing and thereby delaying construction by years.

“It was not about writing checks,” Cohen said. “It was about building affordable units.”

Discussion at the forum began with a debate about the waterfront luxury condo project proposed for 8 Washington St., which either Props. B or C would allow the developer to build. Project opponent Jon Golinger squared off against proponent Tim Colen, who argued that the $11 million that the developer is contributing to the city’s affordable housing fund is an acceptable tradeoff.

But Sherburn-Zimmer said the developer should be held to a far higher standard given the obscene profits that he’ll be making from waterfront property that includes a city-owned seawall lot. “Public land needs to be used for the public good.”

Longtime progressive activist Ernestine Weiss sat in the front row during the forum, blasting Colen and his Prop. B as a deceptive land grab and arguing that San Francisco’s much ballyhooed rent control law was a loophole-ridden compromise that should be strengthened to prevent rents from jumping to market rate when a master tenant moves out, and to limit rent increases that exceed wage increases (rent can now rise 1.9 percent annually on rent controlled apartment).

“That’s baloney that it’s rent control!” she told the crowd. (Steven T. Jones)

Students fight suspensions targeting young people of color

Sagging pants, hats worn indoors, or having a really bad day — the list of infractions that can get a student suspended from a San Francisco Unified School District school sounds like the daily life of a teenager. The technical term for it is “willful defiance,” and there are so many suspensions made in its name that a student movement has risen up against it.

The punishment is the first step to derailing a child’s education, opponents said.

Student activists recognize the familiar path from suspensions to the streets to prisons, and they took to the streets Oct. 22 to push the SFUSD to change its ways. Around 20 or so students and their mentors marched up to City Hall and into the Board of Education to demand a stop of suspensions over willful defiance.

A quarter of all suspensions in SFUSD for the 2011-12 school year were made for “disruption or defiance,” according to the California Department of Education. Half of all suspensions in the state were for defiance.

When a student is willfully defiant and suspended, it’s seen as a downward spiral as students are pushed out of school and onto the streets, edging that much closer to a life of crime.

“What do we want? COLLEGE! What are we gonna do? WORK HARD!” the students shouted as they marched to the Board of Education’s meeting room, on Franklin Street.

They were dressed in graduation gowns of many colors, signs raised high. They smiled and danced and the mood was infectious. One driver drove by, honked and said “Yes, alright!” Assorted passersby of all ethnicities cheered on the group. The students were from 100% College Prep Institute, a Bayview tutoring and mentoring group founded in 1999 aiming to educate students of color in San Francisco. Their battle is a tough one. Though African American students make up only 10 percent of SFUSD students, they accounted for 46 percent of suspensions in 2012, according to SFUSD data. Latinos made up the next largest group, at 30 percent. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)

Techies to NSA: Stop spying on us!

Thousands of privacy and civil liberties activists, including many from the Bay Area, headed to Washington DC for an Oct. 26 rally calling for surveillance legislation reform, in response to National Security Agency spying programs. It was organized by more than 100 groups that have joined together as part of the Stop Watching Us coalition. The group has launched an online petition opposing NSA spying, and planned to deliver about 500,000 signatures to Congress. Many of the key drivers behind Stop Watching Us, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Mozilla, are based in San Francisco. (Rebecca Bowe)

Alerts: October 9 – 15, 2013



March against evictions Bayanihan Center, 1010 Mission, SF. 12:30-2pm, free. “Soma Time, and the Livin Ain’t Easy: Walk of Shame” will start at the Bayanihan Center near Sixth and Mission. The march is intended to call attention to and protest matters such as ever-increasing rents and unfair evictions of senior citizens and other long-term residents by profit seekers. This demonstration is a joint effort of local residents, Senior and Disability Action, the Bill Sorro Housing Program and the Housing Rights Committee. For more information, contact Senior and Disability Action at (415) 546-1333. SATURDAY 12


Ohlone Big Time Cultural Event Crissy Field Center, 603 Mason, SF. 12-6pm Saturday; 12-5pm Sunday, free. This festival will feature tribal dances, music, traditional skills demos, discussions, vendors and camping. It coincides with Fleet Week and Indigenous People’s Weekend. Several California Indian tribes will be participating. Organizers hope to make this an annual event. The Ohlone are a Native American tribe indigenous to Northern California but not currently recognized by the federal government, and the event is meant to raise awareness about their presence in the Bay Area.


Help find the way forward The Way Christian Center, 1305 University, Berk. 9:30-noon, free. Donations accepted. The Oakland-based Ella Baker Center has been empowering low-income populations in the Bay Area since 1996. Its latest effort — Which Way Forward California? — is pushing for state funds to be spent on education, job training and other helpful services — rather than prisons. Join the center at this inaugural community strategy session, and give your input on ways to achieve this change. RSVP at


Book reading: The Great Sioux Nation Eric Quezada Community Center, 518 Valencia, SF. 4-6 p.m., free. Author Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz and Sioux elder Bill Means will discuss the new edition of the important book, “The Great Sioux Nation: Sitting in Judgment on America,” originally published in 1977. Join them the day before Columbus Day as they discuss both the impact of the book and the present-day attitude toward a holiday that many perceive as nothing more than an endorsement of genocide.

California prisoners end hunger strike after Bay Area legislators call hearings


Bay Area legislators Tom Ammiano (D-SF) and Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) — who chair the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees, respectively — played pivotal roles in today’s decision by California prison inmates to end their hunger strike after 60 days.

The legislators last week called for legislative hearings to consider implementing some of the reforms that the prisoners and their supporters have been calling for, including changes to solitary confinement policies that critics say amount to illegal torture under international law.

“I am relieved and gratified that the hunger strike has ended without further sacrifice or risk of human life,” Sen. Hancock said in a joint public statement with Ammiano. “The issues raised by the hunger strike are real – concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons – and will not be ignored.”

“I’m happy that no one had to die in order to bring attention to these conditions,” Ammiano said. “The prisoners’ decision to take meals should be a relief to CDCR and the Brown administration, as well as to those who support the strikers.”

The question now is whether the legislative hearings, set for next month, can persuade the executive branch to finally take action, despite the fact that both Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have taken a hard line on prison issues, even resisting federal court orders to reduce the population in the severely overcrowded prison system and to improve substandard health care.

Ammiano spokesperson Carlos Alcala told the Guardian that the end of the hunger strike could help end that stalemate: “Mr. Ammiano is hopeful that CDCR’s intransigence has been directed at negotiating under the hunger strike pressure, but that they will now be open to making some changes that are meaningful.”

CRCR head Jeffrey Beard issued a public statement saying, “We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill.”

Issac Ontiveros of the Oakland-based California Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group said the hunger strike generated international attention and support, waking the public up to horrific conditions in the prisons and putting pressure on the CDCR to implement reforms.

“Their demands are legitimate and they are pointing out human rigths violations in California’s prisons,” Ontiveros told the Guardian, noting that Amnesty International and a long list of other groups are putting pressure on California to reform its prison practices. “What made them call off the strike was the political gains that they made…It was a thoughtful civil rights strategy.”

This latest hunger strike was called for and organized by prisoners in the “secure housing units,” aka solitary confinement cells, at the maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison, many of whom have gone years without meaningful human interaction. Court filings indicated that more than 400 prisoners have been locked up in solidary for more than a decade, despite the psychological harm that experts say such confinement causes.   

The prisoners today issued a long statement announcing the end of the hunger strike, which includes this excerpt: “To be clear, our Peaceful Protest of Resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system’s solitary confinement units is far from over. Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met (despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable). The core group of prisoners has been, and remains 100% committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice.  With that said, we clarify this point by stating prisoner deaths are not the objective, we recognize such sacrifice is at times the only means to an end of fascist oppression.

“Our goal remains: force the powers that be to end their torture policies and practices in which serious physical and psychological harm is inflicted on tens of thousands of prisoners as well as our loved ones outside.  We also call for ending the related practices of using prisoners to promote the agenda of the police state by seeking to greatly expand the numbers of the working class poor warehoused in prisons, and particularly those of us held in solitary, based on psychological/social manipulation, and divisive tactics keeping prisoners fighting amongst each other. Those in power promote mass warehousing to justify more guards, more tax dollars for “security”, and spend mere pennies for rehabilitation — all of which demonstrates a failed penal system, high recidivism, and ultimately compromising public safety.”

Slipping away


By Amy Yannello

Note: This article has been corrected from an earlier version.

As she had done countless times before, Gloria Davidson sat and waited for her son to be brought into the courtroom. His hands and feet were shackled, and his blue uniform branded him as different — someone to be judged apart from the rest of the crowd in this room.

His crime? Aaron Davidson has schizophrenia.

On that day earlier this year, which Gloria recounted and shared with the Guardian in a recent interview, he faced charges for violating one of five restraining orders against him — but he didn’t understand what he’d done to deserve them, his mother said.

“The neurons and synapses in his brain fire inappropriately and he sees and hears things that are not really there,” Gloria explained. “As a result, his responses to his perceived reality are often unwarranted or make no sense,” she continued, “or frighten the people around him.” Aaron could neither speak coherently nor acknowledge that his actions had led to restraining orders, she said.

In his case, the judge deemed Aaron “incompetent to stand trial” and sent him to Napa State Hospital for treatment. He remains there, where he’ll turn 36 later this month.

Davidson is one of three Bay Area mothers with adult sons at NSH to push for full, statewide implementation of Laura’s Law.

Known formally as “assisted outpatient treatment” (AOT), the law is named for Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old college student who lost her life when Scott Harlan Thorpe, a man with a persistent and severe mental illness who had stopped taking his medication, shot and killed her and a coworker at a Nevada City mental health clinic.

While Thorpe, then 41, was in too deep of a state of psychosis to benefit from AOT at the time of the shootings, his family, psychiatrist, and the Wilcoxes all believed that if the legislation had been in effect even six months earlier, when Thorpe’s family first noticed he’d stopped taking medication, the tragedy could have been averted.



Through AOT, an individual’s family, doctor, or trusted third party may advocate to a judge that a patient is at risk of decompensation — serious psychological deterioration making it impossible to function independently — if left untreated. In very narrow circumstances, a judge may order a person to receive AOT as a condition of being allowed to continue living independently.

Currently, only Nevada, Los Angeles and Yolo counties have embraced the law, which allows courts in very limited circumstances to compel into treatment those residents who are too ill to know they are ill.

This “lack of insight” — a neurological condition known as “anosognosia” — is said to affect upward of 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses.

Gloria Davidson and Teresa Pasquini, another mother of a mentally ill NSH patient, are now pushing for Laura’s Law implementation in Contra Costa County. They’re joined by a third mother, Candy DeWitt, who founded a project called Voices of Mothers Project to bring together parents of people suffering from anosognosia. Alameda County’s Behavioral Health Care Services has issued a report recommending to its Board of Supervisors that it approve a one-year AOT pilot project. The issue is expected to be taken up at the BOS’ Oct. 28 meeting, where it would need a majority vote to be approved, DeWitt said. 

Laura’s Law isn’t without its detractors. “Where does it end?” asked Dan Brzovic, an attorney based in the Oakland office of Disability Rights California. “Pretty soon, we’ll have people saying that anyone with a mental illness cannot think for themselves.”

“The moral issue is that people who are competent to make choices for themselves must be given that right,” he continued. “That’s if they have the capacity. If they don’t, then there are involuntary treatment options already on the books, like conservatorship.”

But the debate surrounding Laura’s Law and mental health service delivery goes deeper, since underlying questions remain about whether dedicated funding has translated to sufficient levels of care. Each of the three mothers told the Guardian that their sons — all deemed to be suffering from “serious mental illness” — never received adequate treatment as they moved through California’s fragmented and broken public mental health system, despite the advent of Proposition 63, the 2004 ballot initiative that created California’s Mental Health Services Act.

A staggering report released in mid-August by State Auditor Elaine Howle brings this claim into focus. According to the audit, the California Department of Mental Health and the Oversight and Accountability Commission have exercised such “minimal oversight” since MHSA went into effect that the state has “little assurance” that $7.4 billion has been used “effectively and appropriately.” That amount represents the total funding generated by the MHSA — which imposes a 1 percent tax on personal income in excess of $1 million — from 2006 to 2012.

In response to these revelations, Rose King, a co-author of Prop. 63 who previously served as a consultant for then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer, stated, “No county has been required to demonstrate its accountability for any spending or program choices. The public — and state officials — have no idea whether counties have improved county mental health systems, whether spending complies with the law, and whether private contractors have delivered promised services.”



The MHSA ramped up services for some 600,000 adults and children in the public mental health system, bringing in $1 billion per year in dedicated funding for the treatment of serious mental illness.

But beyond patients tracked via Medi-Cal, no one tracks the true number of uninsured patients served. There isn’t a data system capturing all the clients or services tied to MHSA funds, making outcomes impossible to track with accuracy.

Some funding has gone to client advocacy groups who actively oppose Laura’s Law. Disability Rights California and the California Network of Mental Health Clients, both opponents of AOT, received $3 million and $1.5 million in MHSA grants respectively. These groups believe voluntary services should be the only programs to receive funding through MHSA and have actively threatened to sue counties that have tried to implement Laura’s Law.

Some of the very people who campaigned hardest for MHSA have since become watchdogs monitoring its implementation. They include King, who lost both a husband and son to suicide due to lack of treatment for their severe mental illnesses, and Pasquini — whose only son is languishing in NSH with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and a felony charge for an alleged assault on a fellow patient while on the incorrect medication.

These embattled mothers say they’ve observed a system awash in “waste, fraud and mismanagement.” They also charge that the system results in disproportionate services for what King terms the “worried well” — people merely experiencing life’s ups and downs — in many cases to the neglect of those struggling with what’s classified as “serious mental illness.”



Under the MHSA, only a specified population may receive treatment using these funds. Patients must have been diagnosed with “serious mental illness,” amounting to psychological problems that are severe enough to prevent an individual from functioning independently without assistance should they go untreated.

But critics like King and DJ Jaffe of the Mental Illness Policy Org. (MIPO), a national think tank that has been critical of California’s management of MHSA monies, contend that the 20 percent of MHSA funds designated for Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) programs are instead being funneled into programs with little connection to mental illness treatment.

The MHSA specifically limits PEI dollars to programs that “prevent mental illnesses from becoming severe or disabling” or that “limit the duration of untreated mental illness.”

Yet King contends that these funds have been used instead to underwrite social service programs ranging from domestic violence prevention and parenting classes, to social skills for disadvantaged youth — all good causes that are nevertheless “not legitimate recipients” of money intended for mental illness treatment, King says.



Jaffe’s organization has seized on the PEI expenditures as a violation of the MHSA, turning a skeptical eye on the 16-member Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission.

In 2011, according to a MIPO analysis, more than $23 million in PEI grants went to advocacy organizations and service providers with direct financial ties to both OAC commissioners and committee members. MIPO characterized it as “insider dealing” and a violation of California conflict-of-interest laws.

OAC committee member Rusty Selix, a lobbyist and Prop. 63 co-author, dismissed the MIPO report, saying, “I don’t see any conflict.”

Selix added that unpaid OAC board members recuse themselves from voting whenever it’s deemed to be necessary. And he defended a system where stakeholders, such as consumers and family members, also serve on committees, saying, “You can’t expect to include them in the process without crisscrossing some stakeholders who also receive MHSA grants.”

Jaffe took a different tack. “The problem, besides the blatant conflict-of-interest,” countered Jaffe, “is how these PEI monies are being spent. And they’re not being spent to help the seriously mentally ill,” he continued. “Yet year after year, they’re getting approved. Millions and millions of taxpayer dollars that were supposed to go to treat the sickest among us are being spent on social programs.”



Some believe the broad issue of funds not making it to the intended target population might be playing out within the microcosm of San Francisco. In 2010-11, the most recent available data, San Francisco County received $23 million in MHSA funding, 75 percent of which was earmarked for direct services.

But that money hasn’t gone toward ensuring that there are enough beds for treating mentally ill patients, according to Geoff Wilson, president of the Physicians’ Organizing Committee. Wilson’s organization reported that as of August, San Francisco General Hospital had dropped to 19 emergency psychiatric beds, down from 88 two years ago.

“It’s unconscionable. We’ve got the highest 5150 rate in the state,” Wilson told The Guardian, referring to 72-hour psychiatric holds imposed by law enforcement. We’re not saying ‘lock everyone up,’ we’re just saying that for people who need it, the beds need to be there, and there’s barely any left in the city.”

Wilson explained the cuts by saying that when Medi-Cal stopped paying for the care — essentially “raising the bar” for what it took to keep someone in a psychiatric inpatient bed — the county slashed the number of beds because it “simply wasn’t profitable” to keep them open.

Asked to respond to this claim, SFDPH spokesperson Eileen Shields told the Guardian that only Barbara Garcia, the agency director, was in a position to respond. But Garcia was out of town and unavailable for comment.

According to the POC’s Dr. Cameron Quanbeck, it costs $250 per day to house inmates in jail, compared with $1,700 per day for hospital care. In March, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi testified before the Mental Health Board that the jail system had become the “default” place for people with mental illness, identifying more than 70,000 contacts with Jail Psychiatric Services in 2012 alone.



According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 16 percent of inmates have a severe mental illness, making jails and prisons the largest de facto psychiatric treatment facilities. The National Sheriff’s Association has come out in support of AOT laws in all 50 states.

Pasquini says her son could have benefited from AOT, and she believes that “AOT should be a mandated MHSA program in every county to prevent tragedy and intervene with the criminalization of mental illness.”

Since his initial diagnosis of schizo-affective disorder at 16, Pasquini’s 31-year-old son has had more than 70 emergency contacts with law enforcement and/or ambulance personnel, most of them resulting in 5150 holds.

He is now a patient at NSH, where “he wants to die every day, and I don’t blame him,” continued Pasquini. “It’s a reality for him. His illness has progressed, because every time you have a ‘break,’ you get a little worse. He’s the perfect candidate for Laura’s Law.”


“Refeeding” is prison authorities’ new word for force-feeding

The practice of force-feeding inmates has a branding problem.

The issue first came to light after a U.S. District Judge last week granted the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, or CDRC, the ability to feed inmates who are hunger striking even if they signed “Do Not Resuscitate” waivers, commonly known as DNR’s. The order called any DNR granted during the beginning of the hunger strike 50 days ago as invalid.

As the negotiations wind on, it’s looking more inevitable that the hunger strike holdouts will soon be near death. But when the prisons start force-feeding inmates, a whole new problem will arise: image.

The CDRC have given all the concessions they’re willing to give, they said, and if an inmate dies while fasting they’d become a martyr. At some point, the prisons may have to feed the inmates via liquid in an IV, or even via tubes.

The tubes are inserted through the nose and directly into their stomachs, and conjure images of alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. 

In a video made by musician Mos Def, aka Yasiin Bey, Bey allowed himself to be force fed to bring attention to Guantanamo’s detainees. Bey is strapped to a chair, and a clear plastic tube is inserted through his nose as he screams, writhes, and begs for it to stop.

“The tube went in and the first part of it is not that bad, but then you get this burning,” he said in the video. “It starts to be like really unbearable, like something is reaching into the back of my brain…. I really couldn’t take it.”

For Mos Def, the feeding was brief. For inmates, the process can take two hours.

To address that issue the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has taken to calling force feeding “refeeding,” which is term that already has a definition: feeding someone who has recently ended a fast. It has medical significance because a whole host of ailments can occur when someone who is ending a fast is fed the wrong foods, or fed too quickly. They can even die. 

But now the CDCR has used the word “refeeding” to mean feeding inmates who have already signed DNRs and are fed to prevent death. The word was in every major news report on the court’s recent decision, from Democracy Now to Al Jazeera.

“Refeeding” is the new force-feeding. 

Joyce Hayhoe, legislative director of California Correctional Health Care Services, wanted to make it clear that no one has been force-fed yet, and that refeeding was not force feeding.

“What I would like to say is we’re not force-feeding anybody,” she told the Guardian. “When doctors do not have a valid DNR, in the absence of any other information, when we have an inmate we cannot communicate with, we’re going to save their lives.”

But the sticking point in her statement is the word “valid,” advocates say. What is a valid DNR? The health care providers allege that some inmates began the hunger strike because of intimidation by senior gang members in the jails. Hayhoe said one inmate hid food so his fellow hunger strikers would not know, and that “implied something” to her.

There were 12,000 inmates who started the hunger strike on July 8, according to counts by the prisons themselves. Of those, it’s entirely conceivable that a few were coerced, said Dr. Ronald Ahnen, a politics professor at Saint Mary’s College focusing on prison reform.

“Is it possible some prisoners were coerced,” due to the sheer number of inmates involved, he said in an interview. But, “if you read the call from the hunger strike forward, and you heard from the reps in Pelican Bay (Prison), they have always stated emphatically and clearly that the hunger strike is voluntary. They have said no one should continue with the hunger strike longer than they were willing or able to do.”

Now the number of inmates in the hunger strike is down to 92, according to the CDRC. Of those, 41 have been on a hunger strike continuously since it began on July 8.

Hayhoe said there are only a handful of strikers with DNRs left, but would not reveal specific numbers. 

Ahnen, who is affiliated with the hunger strikers as a reform advocate but did not speak as their spokesperson, said that though those numbers have dwindled, they’re still significant.

“What amazes me is, 41 people who have been without food for 50 days. I think the major media is missing the importance of that,” he said. “When you think of the Irish hunger strike that we all think of from 1980, that’s 23 individuals who all died. We now have 42, risking their lives to have humane conditions in their confinement. Its very, very historic.”

Lost in the debate over food are the actual reasons for striking. The inmates have five core issues which you can see at their website here, but mostly they revolve around quality of life in Segregated Housing Units, commonly referred to as the SHU. The prisoners say it is solitary confinement, and they can be thrown in there easily by being told they have affiliations with gangs.

“I’ve had prisoners tell me their investigators say they can use any evidence and implicate anyone (as a gang member),” Ahnen said.

And the inmates have little recourse once they’ve been labeled a gang member and thrown in the SHU. Toshio Meronek covered this for Bay Guardian last month (“Hungry for Reform,” 7/3/13), saying it would take nearly 20 years to conduct reviews of the over 10,000 inmates presently held in solitary confinement in California.

In a statement circulated shortly after the CDCR’s on Thursday, State Senator Mark Leno wrote, “I have concerns that this review process is moving too slowly and I would like to see it accelerated.”

The hunger strike is one of the inmate’s last tools to reform that system. Now, in a cell that strips away most all human freedoms, “refeeding” may take away an inmate’s choice to die.

The federal judge’s decision to strip away that right reverberated across the world. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, issued a statement saying “it is not acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike.”

Hayhoe, from the prison’s health services, said there is some wiggle room in having your request to not be resuscitated honored.

“If a person has signed a DNR during the hunger strike, the best thing they can do is start having discussions with his primary care physician and expressing their need,” she said. The inmates have been sustained on Gatorade and vitamins, she said, and are not yet at the point of needing resuscitation.

Ahnen also clarified that the violent method of force-feeding may not be used. Another way to do it, he said, is to feed patients through an IV should they lapse into unconsciousness.

“This is a more likely scenario,” he said, but it is still force-feeding. Hayhoe said she would contact a doctor to see when each method would be used, but did not have the information immediately available.

These inmates are close to dehydration, close to organ failure, and close to death for their principles, Ahnen said, and now their political stand won’t be honored. They’ll be force-fed, no matter what terminology is used to describe it.

“Make no mistake about it, if a prisoner is being fed against their will, this is force feeding,” he said.

And with the flip of a word, the inmates have lost their right to die.

To learn see future actions on the hunger strike, visit .

Prison hunger strike enters month two

As a hunger strike staged across California prisons enters its second month, inmates and their advocates are mourning the loss of Billy “Guero” Sells, a Corcoran State Prison inmate who committed suicide on July 22 after 14 days of fasting.

Advocates with the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition counts Sells as the first casualty of the mass protest. Donna Willmott, a member of the coalition’s media committee, told the Bay Guardian that “people who knew him  believe that [suicide] was very uncharacteristic of him. As a coalition, we’re not saying, ‘no he didn’t commit suicide,’” Willmott added, “but we still think that the CDCR is responsible for what happened to him.”

State Assembly Member Tom Ammiano noted in an Aug. 1 statement that “although the death of a prisoner who had participated in the hunger strike has been ruled a suicide, I can’t be comforted by the knowledge that conditions in taxpayer funded institutions have led to unusual rates of suicide instead of reasonable rates of rehabilitation.”

Ammiano said he “remain[s] concerned about the hundreds of prisoners still participating in a hunger strike to protest conditions. These are not minor prisoner complaints; they are violations of international standards that have drawn worldwide attention. To keep anyone in severe isolation for indefinite amounts
of time does not meet norms of human rights that civilized countries accept.”

On August 8, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released a tally of 349 inmates in seven prisons who had skipped the last nine consecutive state-issued meals, including 193 who hadn’t eaten at all since the strike began on July 8.

Strike leaders at Pelican Bay State Prison have demanded reforms surrounding solitary confinement. They have asked the CDCR to address the unreliable method by which inmates are flagged for segregated housing, conditions in confinement, indeterminate and long sentences, and the lack of clear and fair guidelines on how inmates can work towards being released back into the prison’s general population.

Activists have organized a number of recent events to demonstrate support for the inmates. Demonstrators picketed outside of San Quentin State Prison recently. On Aug. 5, seven protesters were arrested after locking themselves to the front doors of the Elihu M. Harris State Building in Oakland.

The loss of Sells spurred a renewed sense of urgency amongst prisoners’ rights advocates. Danny Murillo, a formerly-incarcerated student at UC Berkeley, told the rallying crowd in Oakland that “as time progresses, we do need to put pressure, because we’ve already seen one of our brothers fall.”

Sanyika Bryant, a Civic Engagement Organizer at Causa Justa, added that “when people are going to go on a hunger strike, that’s really a last stand. The conditions are just so bad that you have to take your life on the line to stand up.” He added, “this is for real life and death.”

District 11 Supervisor John Avalos participated in a day of action on July 31 by forgoing meals. “I’m fasting today in solidarity,” he told the Guardian on that day, and went on to describe long-term solitary confinement as “completely inhumane. You take away so much liberty. You shouldn’t take away their humanity. People should have the ability for self-actualization.”

So far, a team of mediators has made little progress in reaching an agreement with state prison officials that could put an end to the strike. In the meantime, California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) says it’s adhering to a care guide crafted by CDCR, outlining the protocol for dealing with inmates who reach the point of starvation.

Care providers are required to conduct body-mass index (BMI) determinations, and after 14 days of striking, fasting prisoners receive informational notifications from CDCR staff, informing them of their options if they reach a critical medical condition. Some inmates have reported not receiving BMI determinations, and being subjected to increased isolation or excessive heat or air conditioning, to the point of severe discomfort.

Ron Ahnen, Associate Professor of Politics at St. Mary’s College and President of the human rights non-profit California Prison Focus, expressed concern about “the coming tsunami of people collapsing and having serious medical issues. Especially all at the same time.”

Inmates have the right to refuse medical treatment, explained Joyce Hayhoe, Director of Legislation and Communications for CCHCS. “We cannot force them to eat or take measures to force them to eat without a court order. We do have inmates that fill out advance directives. If, for some reason, an inmate lost consciousness and there was not an advance directive, doctors would take whatever steps were necessary to preserve their life.” This could include feeding tubes, she said.

Melissa Guillen, who is 22, said her father Antonio Guillen is a strike organizer who has spent a decade in solitary at Pelican Bay. She’d heard from his counselor that “he’s doing okay. That he’s strong. He’s not planning on stopping anytime soon. But, you know, they’re getting weak.” She added, “We know he’s strong. I hope he gets what he wants out of this.”