Imprisonment Should Not Be Revenge

B. Cayenne Bird is a volunteer director of United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect. Web site:

We’re all responsible for ignoring the inhumane conditions that amount to nothing less than torture in California’s prisons.

Our group of 4,600 doctors, nurses, teachers, college professors and social workers receives hundreds of pleas weekly from the families of inmates asking for help. Here are three:

* James Diesso, a mentally ill inmate in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, was put in a double cell with another mentally ill person. Both inmates had violent histories of acting out their mental illnesses. Now, Jeffrey Ford, Diesso’s cellmate, is dead. Diesso is on trial for murder. Who takes the responsibility for careless double-celling practices when there are 18,500 mentally ill people housed with others throughout the system?


* Charles Wesley, an inmate serving time at Chino for auto theft, now has permanent nerve damage because of medical neglect. He asked officials and staff of the prison’s medical clinic for help 61 times and was denied it until it was too late. Seven months later, he had back surgery, which found seriously herniated discs. He was made to work for less than 20 cents an hour while suffering excruciating pain. Wesley will be released from prison soon, permanently disabled.

* James Rookwood, a 33-year-old inmate serving an 11-month sentence for parole violation, is now sitting in a 5-by-7-foot cell in Vacaville in a wheelchair. He suffered a stroke, which has paralyzed 80% of his right side. He was denied access to a doctor or physical therapy and will be released from prison permanently disabled and much sicker, mentally and physically, than before he went in.

Reports of medical neglect, rape, murder, psychological torture and intimidation by guards comparable to that in a Third World country are well-documented in our files. If the inmates speak to the press, there is retribution in the form of lost visits or worse.

The Department of Health Services has asked for money to handle the constant conveyor belt of thousands of inmates being sent to prison by the courts. Gov. Gray Davis has refused. Instead, millions of taxpayer dollars are paid out in medical lawsuits. Where’s the “correction” part of Corrections?

Cells were built for one person, yet the inmates are jammed together because of overcrowding. To get a taste of living in a cell, go into your 8-by-10-foot bathroom for a month. Take a mentally ill person with you. Some prisons have been on lockdown, in which inmates are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, for a year or more.

It puts great stress on inmates when their “cellies” are mentally ill, so great that they must sleep with one eye open and be afraid for their lives at all times. There is little if any education, rehabilitation or counseling.

At Mule Creek, the so-called model prison in Ione, prisoners in the dormitory live under a heavy cloud of second-hand smoke. And treatment for cancer is virtually nonexistent for prisoners, except for a brand-new oncology arrangement just beginning at Vacaville. The wait for medical care is six weeks at most state prisons. If an inmate is allowed to see a dentist, there is an eight-month wait.

Is this inhumane treatment of prisoners really lowering crime? If statistics were to be believed, there’s more evidence to support alternatives such as rehabilitation, community service and after-school supervision of youth.

Somebody needs to sit down and think this crime thing through because the current system is causing more crime than it is preventing. The right thing to do is to release nonviolent prisoners--70% of California’s total prison population; institute alternative sentencing for the mentally ill and drug addicts; and send dying prisoners home on compassionate release. Otherwise, all we get is revenge against wrongdoers that results in them going home to their communities sicker.