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California's S.H.U.s.

by Joseph Aragon
April 29, 2010

My name is Joseph Aragon a.k.a. Tlaoyotl and I am a California SHU inmate. I am a validated prison gang member and have been since 1994. California leads the nation in legalized and publicly condoned torture and isolation of its prison inmates. It hosts not one, but three segregated housing units-Corcoran State Prison—SHU, Tehatchipi Max State-SHU and Pelican Bay Prison-Supermax SHU. They hold thousands of inmates in mindless limbo on indeterminate segregation status. I’ve spent many years in administrative segregation units throughout the state including the SHU’s of Pelican Bay and Corcoran State Prison where I currently reside.

The madness continues for once a prisoner is branded as a gang member, it’s a done deal. Don’t misunderstand me…I don’t claim innocence or pretend that I didn’t do things that brought me to the S.H.U. I was, in fact, a member of a brutal prison gang and prior to my indeterminate S.H.U. I had a position of authority and status within that infrastructure. I did things that brought about my validation as I was involved in a criminal conspiracy against other inmates and society in general. I deserved to be segregated. However in 1997, I defected from the organization and renounced my gang association and withdrew from all gang activity. Yet here I sit 13 years later, still in segregation, although CDCR knows that I am a drop-out. I am designated as an inactive member of a prison gang I belonged to by the very bureaucracy that holds me on indeterminate status citing “continued association with a criminal conspiracy against other inmates,” even though I am ostracized by the very gang the administration claims that I continue to associate with. Because of my decision to defect I have actually become an enemy of the prison gang. Yet this administration claims that I am involved in an on-going criminal conspiracy, even though they have documents support my defection and that I am on a “hit list.” From my perspective, I see an endless maze of bureaucracy bent on keeping prisoners within these S.H.U. units. They gotta keep the beds filled so they don’t risk having to close the S.H.U. units.

I have been trying to get out of my validation for many years without success. It’s a slow and frustrating process with twists and turns and roadblocks. I am 52 years old and continue to the suffer punitive isolation I was first introduced to at 35 within the walls of California’s S.H.U. units. Furthermore, CDCR just passed a new law in January (1-25-10) SBX-18 that takes all good time credit earning ability from validated gang members, but no one else in the S.H.U. This is total discrimination of an entire class without due process and adds from months to years to the lengths of sentences. Additionally, CDCR has adopted a new policy for giving indeterminate S.H.U. sentences to inmates by deeming them as “program failures” (usually, 3 successive rules violation reports of the same offense) and then slamming them in the S.H.U. this is in response to the mass drop-outs from all of California’s prison gangs---gotta fill them beds! Otherwise, CDCR cannot justify all the money spent on staffing.

But let’s talk about the S.H.U’s where prisoner’s rights are close to non-existent and services provided to prisoners under the Constitution and CDCR’s own regulations are at a bare minimum if at all. Many are the days that we go without a shower or without yard or exercise. 24 hour periods locked in a cell, more often than not for consecutive days. The administration will use any little excuse they can to keep us locked in our cells. We lose showers, yard and medical on a regular basis.

I spent the better part of 2008 and part of 2009 in a cell without any glass in a 2 foot by 4 foot window frame. I had to use the blanket I was issued as a window covering. I slept with all my clothes on a bare mattress so I could have two sheets to cover myself with. I also lived with huge cockroaches and mice and had to secure my food items by hanging them in a t-shirt from the ceiling vent to keep bugs and rodents out. I’ve had to drink water with toxic levels of arsenic and selenium well above federal standards. If this is not torture, I don’t know what is.

I have seen many fall victim to isolation and sensory deprivation of the S.H.U. environment. The indifference is mind boggling. The prevailing attitude by co’s is that “we’re garbage and so what if you don’t get treated humanely, who cares?” I actually heard a guard say, “we used to be able to beat the crap out of them, but they cried to the courts, so now we get in trouble if we touch them.” That attitude is prevalent within the CDCR system of justice. I survive by keeping my mind outside of the madness and focusing on me, through my studies (both Christian and secular), focusing on my outside contacts including family, friends and professional associations and focusing on my health and fitness. I feel I have come through somewhat unscathed. But not completely. I think once I hit the streets some deep-seated issues will eventually come into focus that I will have to deal with. The good thing is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have an outdate of 1-9-2012 and a probable S.H.U. release date of 1-30-2011. Although I am not holding my breath on that one, I have had too many false hopes to even go there.

Due to Federal Court litigation, in the Steven Castillo lawsuit, CDCR adopted a policy that requires them to consider an inmate for release from the S.H.U. after 6 years of inactive gang status. At the time of my D.R. B. (Departmental Review Board), I had 12 years as an inactive gang member, and was validated as such. I had 10 points which makes me a low level one custody inmate. I had not had a rule violation report since 1994 (the one that initially put me in the S.H.U.), yet I was denied release based on the fact that the Director felt I still had undue influence with the prison gangs I was formerly part of. In other words, in spite of the Castillo settlement, the hearing was a sham. However they do release active gang members after six years of inactivity. They do so because they know that active gang members will go out to the mainline and resume gang activity, thus supplying more bodies for validation. It’s a known fact that almost all active gang members released come back and bring new bodies with them. When I went to D.R.B. there 17 active gang members released and the three drop-outs denied. A drop-out by definition is not going to resume gang activity, so there is no reason to release him. Instead, he is left with the choice of staying in the S.H.U. or going to the debriefing program so that they can squeeze out every ounce of information they can. That process is a nightmare in itself. California prison officials perpetuate torture through on-going and never-ending solitary confinement approach to corrections. We need to stop the madness. Thank you.

In solidarity,

Joseph Aragon
P.O. Box 3476 4A3L47R
Corcoran, CA 93212

Joseph has given permission to use his name and contact information. Some of his poetry can be found at http://www.realcostofprisons.org/writing/

This statement was typed by Lois Ahrens, May 4, 2010.

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