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- 09/23/11--11:00: California prison hunger strike will likely resume Monday
- 10/25/11--17:30: Exit Interview: Prison official talks hunger strike, death penalty
- 10/27/11--07:38: Connecting the Dots: top news stories for Thursday, October 27
Inmates in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison are planning on resuming their hunger strike on Monday, September 26. In July, a three-week protest started in the “short corridor” at the prison expanded to hundreds of inmates housed at institutions across the state. Now prisoners and prison officials alike are readying for a resumed strike.
Before the strike began, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began considering changes to its SHU policies–specifically, expanding the kinds of inmates that can be assigned to the restrictive, isolated unit. At present, inmates who commit crimes while in prison can be sentenced to a term in the SHU. Other inmates–an estimated 90 percent of Pelican Bay’s SHU–are there on indeterminate sentences because they’ve been pegged as members or associates of six prison gangs. For these inmates, the only way out of the SHU is to be paroled or to “debrief,” meaning telling prison officials all they know about their former gang.
The past 13 months have been difficult for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Last year, a new lethal injection facility was built in San Quentin. The state spent just over $800,000 building it in response to the allegation that it’s method of lethal injection was cruel and unusual punishment.
Fast-forward to May of 2011: The U.S. Supreme Court ruling to decrease the prison population led to the creation of a coordinated shift of prisoners to county jails, a plan called realignment, which just recently kicked into gear. The plan, in essence, is the largest prison overhaul in the department’s history.
In July and October of this year, the CDCR faced another crisis. Prisoners staged hunger strikes at Pelican Bay State Prison that spread to 13 facilities and involved over 6,000 inmates. All were protesting harsh prison conditions in the state’s highly restrictive security housing units.
In the middle of all these unfolding events was the man who oversees operations for the CDCR. Or he did, that is, until retiring just last week. Former CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan’s last day was this past Friday. He was second in command at the department, overseeing all of the facilities and institutions including 33 adult prisons in the state.
In full disclosure, Scott Kernan happens to be related to KALW’s News Director, Holly Kernan. The former undersecretary left his post after almost 30 years working in California corrections. A few days before he retired, reporter Nancy Mullane sat down with Kernan to discuss how he got interested in working with prisons.
* * *
SCOTT KERNAN: My mother was an employed for the prison so actually I lived in the ground of San Quentin before I got employed here, for probably 10 years or something like that. So, that was my upbringing was within the prison and living on the grounds of the prison, knowing the lifers and death row sentence inmates who had their sentences commuted and were running the shuttle buses up through the grounds of San Quentin.
NANCY MULLANE: What was it like to live there as a kid?
KERNAN: It's just a place to live, I mean, it's a community, you know. They have houses for employees because of the high costs here in Marin County. So it's just a place as a recruitment tool to bring staff and my mom happened to be a employed of the department so we had house on the grounds. It was much like a regular place to live, the only difference was that you had to show an ID card coming and going through the gate.
MULLANE: When you told girls, "Come on over to my house, I live in San Quentin”… I always wondered about that!
KERNAN: I think it was an incentive actually, it could might have helped me. You know having a face for radio – it was a unique thing to get people come and check out San Quentin.
MULLANE: Did people actually come?
KERNAN: Sure, you can bring guests into your residence and look at the grounds. My window overlooked the big yard of San Quentin, so it was always interesting when there would be shots fired. Back in those days it was a lot more violence at San Quentin than there is today. But every time shots would go off me and my siblings would run to the window with our binoculars to try to see if we could figure out what was going on.
MULLANE: Was it an “us versus them” system – in other words, the people who were on this side of the wall versus… Did you see yourself as, "Here we are, we are the people who live and work here," but then there's all these other people who are incarcerated there?
KERNAN: I think there's always been, and even today there's the “us versus them” mentality. I think it's changed a lot, certainly it has changed for San Quentin which is now a lower-level of facility and doesn't have near the violence. And you see it, having worked at many different locations you can almost gauge sthat culture by the amount of violence that's at that particular facility.
When I first started at San Quentin in 1983 it was a lot like that. There was a lot of violence, a lot of serious inmate/staff riots. And so the staff band together, and I think that creates that culture.
MULLANE: So, did you grow up in those teen and early impressionable 20s – what did you think about prisoners?
KERNAN: You know I spent some time… we had inmates that would do the grounds of our house, they run the shuttle that would take you all through the grounds, so I mean I literally knew some of the inmates when I grew up. I think there's a stereotype often about inmates in the general public…
MULLANE: What is that stereotype?
KERNAN: Just that they're bad people, scary, that they'll kill you before they've looked at you. Right or wrong, intelligent or not, I think there's that stigma and that was long not a stigma once you start to talk to people and listen. And in my 30 years in the department I certainly learned that to be the case. Talking to inmates and understanding their situations puts a human face to it, and you quickly loose that stigma of the criminal that I think is prevalent in the public.
* * *
Scott Kernan also represented the CDCR in negotiations with the Pelican Bay State Prison hunger strike organizers. In the second half of this interview, Kernan discusses how the CDCR responded to their demands.
* * *
KERNAN: We dealt with the Pelican Bay Prison hunger strike non-traditionally in that we didn’t take the canteen out of the inmates’ cells, so we left them with the food that they can purchase through the store. We didn’t discipline any of the inmates. We evaluated their domains and it was very public. Our house wasn’t in order. We had some problems with our policies. They had gone too far.
MULLANE: What polices had gone too far?
KERNAN: Well some of it’s conditions of confinement, and the SHU (Security Housing Unit) policy itself – you know we have about 8,000 incidents of violence in the prison system each year that have some kind of gang involvement. I mean it’s a lot of people getting hurt and stabbed. Gangs, I can’t emphatically enough say, is one of the biggest problems that the prison system faces.
We really took a sincere look at the issues that they had raised and we talked to their advocates…
MULLANE: Who’s we?
KERNAN: Me. I talked to the advocates regularly…
MULLANE: So you went to Pelican Bay?
KERNAN: I did, ultimately, go to Pelican Bay on two occasions and talk to the inmate leaders directly and admitted policies that weren’t in order. We weren’t consistent in all the SHU’s and so they were right in some of their issues. And when I say conditions of confinement, that’s one thing, but the SHU policy itself, the idea of using a validation system that places them in an indeterminate SHU environment.
MULLANE: Do you think it’s a form of torture?
KERNAN: I don’t. I really think that the type of inmates that belong in SHU, notwithstanding what I said about over-validating, I think that the people that are the head of these gangs are a tremendous threat to the staff and public and to other inmate, and need to be in an environment that’s admittedly harsh, but prevents them from communicating their wishes.
We’ve actually had three murders in the last couple weeks, but two of the murders were on SHU yards amongst Aryan brotherhoods. In all of my career I’ve seen significant violent and murders as a result of gang direction.
So what we said we would do in the first hunger strike, we said we’d made a number of changes to the conditions of confinement and it included everything from giving them calendars and watch-caps and take a photo once a year if they’re behaving…
MULLANE: Of themselves?
KERNAN: Of themselves, so they can give to the families. And other things. So we’ve implemented those changes system-wide.
The other thing was we said that we would do a comprehensive review of our SHU polices and that we would make changes…
MULLANE: Were you the one who took the secretary’s confirmation of these changes to the hunger strike leaders at Pelican Bay?
MULLANE: And what was their response?
KERNAN: Um interestingly, very positive. I went there the first time and talked to them, and put out some memorandums that outlined these changes – memorandums to the CDCR policies so that the wardens at the other places could implement it.
So I went back because they were not ending the hunger strike, I went back a second time, and I sat down with them and they said, “Hey the memo that you did doesn’t say exactly what you said you would do.”
So this is what I did, I gave them the memo and I put them back in the holding cell and said, “You guys go rewrite this memo so that you know that all the inmates will understand it, and I’ll be back in a little bit.”
MULLANE: What did you do?
KERNAN: Went to have lunch. (laughs) I went and had lunch and I knew that the risk was that they would change the memo to say that I want a swimming pool and whatever they were going to want. The risk was that they were going to take this… because again there’s this very healthy distrust that they have of me, and there’s a very healthy distrust I have of them and their motivations. But again that was the fear, so I was pleasantly surprised when I came back from lunch and they had reworked the memo and had not appreciably changed what I said. So it was just a communication barrier.
So I took the memo, typed it up, signed it, gave it to them, and we distributed it across the system and that was the end of the first hunger strike.
MULLANE: What was the reaction throughout the CDCR? Did people think, “Oh, that worked. That was good.”
KERNAN: Oh no. They did not think that. They won’t ever think that. No.
MULLANE: So you didn’t get a bunch of backslaps when you got back to Sacramento?
KERNAN: No. I think they view that – and again for a lot of good reasons – they view that kind of communication, especially with the leaders that we’re talking about, I mean these are the leaders of the prison gangs that lack real family, the Mexican mafia, Nuestra Familia, the Aryan Brotherhood – these are not nice people. So for us to recognize their status, one, and to actually engage them in communication to try and see if there’s common ground that we can move was not something that I think operations people will ever feel is necessarily the right way to go about it.
And to their criticism, the inmates quickly resumed the second hunger strike without good cause in my opinion. And I think emboldened that idea.
MULLANE: We haven’t talked about the fact that you’ve announced your resigning.
KERNAN: There’s a distinction in my world that’s very big! I’m retiring. I’ve had a long career as a correctional employee and I’m retiring at 50 years old, and 30 years in service you can retire at 90% of your salary.
MULLANE: Ninety percent, for the rest of your life?
MULLANE: So nice. But you’re 50 years old, you’ve got a whole life ahead of you!
KERNAN: I hope so. It’s taken a lot on me, though! It’s been tough. Truly, the penchant’s really the product of a very strong union that recognized the difficult, stressful environment that peace officers especially work in in the correctional system.
MULLANE: Can I ask you if you support the death sentence, death penalty?
MULLANE: Personally. You don’t know?
KERNAN: I do know, but I don’t know as undersecretary that my personal opinion… I’ve just spent the last 30 years including the last seven in a very high position within the department. And my personal belief on the death penalty is irrelevant, really.
MULLANE: What if I told you this interview wasn’t going to air until after you’ve retired?
KERNAN: I think that the death penalty and the legal costs are pretty prohibitive. I have 710 inmates on death row right now. The governor, as a result of the budget situation, made an early-on call not to build a new facility that would appropriately house the condemned inmates. And for a lot of those reasons and knowing what I know about the tough situation that San Quentin has to handle with the condemned, it’s hard for me to be real supportive at a personal level.
MULLANE: So what now?
KERNAN: That’s interesting, I really don't know at this point.
MULLANE: You don’t?
KERNAN: I think I’ll stay involved in some way. I think the current secretary is a great guy, Matthew Cate – very dedicated, smart guy that’s done a great job. But should he ever decide to move on, because it is a non-doable job, you never know…
MULLANE: Are you saying that you would like to be secretary of the CDCR?
KERNAN: No, what I’m saying is if that opportunity came up, it would be a very competitive process, but you know… if it was a possibility in the future, I sure wouldn’t rule it out. I love the department; I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve worked with great people and see what they go through on the line, and I’d love to take a shot at trying to run this undoable job sometime in the future.
But having said that, let me go decompress for a little bit and when they come after me when this airs, I’ll say, “Forget that, I’m enjoying my golf game!” So who knows.
Nancy Mullane is an independent reporter and producer based here in the Bay Area. She won the Edward R. Murrow award for her radio documentary, “Life After Murder,” which tells the story of San Quentin inmates as they serve life sentences.
For more information about the future of California prisons go to our criminal justice blog, The Informant.
Last night, demonstrators along the Embarcadero in the Occupy San Francisco movement faced off with police clad in riot gear. An organizer shouted to demonstrators, “"These are the magic words. Everybody repeat after me: I have the right to remain silent." The group shouted back: "I have the right to remain silent." She continued: "I want to see a lawyer." They responded: "I want to see a lawyer." No arrests were made...
Across the Bay, the Occupy Oakland general assembly voted for a general strike on November 2nd with a total count of 1484 “yeahs” out of 1607 votes. By 7pm last night, the fence around Frank Ogawa Plaza keeping protesters out had been torn down, with protesters chanting, “Whose park? Our park!” Police kept their distance...
Proving nothing is like a good vote, the Oakland School Board voted a little bit themselves last night – specifically, voting to close down 5 Oakland schools. This move is said to save 2 million dollars. A crowd of 500 parents, teachers, and children who were present were not happy, to say the least, when the 5-2 vote came in. One speaker made reference to Oakland Unified taking a bullet to the head, which led Oakland board members to ask if that was a threat. Goodbye Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park, and Santa Fe elementary schools...
But all is not woe in the Oakland Unified School District, because at some schools, students are provided free breakfasts in their classrooms. Well, okay there’s some woe … a lot of woe... because a main reason students are fed in school is because, otherwise, they might not be fed at all. 70 percent of public school students in Oakland now qualify for free or reduced-priced meals at school...
In another attempt at good news, let’s go to California prisons. Hundreds of California inmates locked in segregation units, such as those held for decades at Pelican Bay State Prison’s windowless Security Housing Unit, might have their big break and the opportunity to go to more comfortable prison cells. Currently, officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are planning to review the files of every prisoner.
Connecting the Dots brings the day’s news together
Last week, we ran an interview with Scott Kernan, who was until recently, second in command at the California Department of Correcitons and Rehabilitation. Kernan has been at the center of some of the biggest developments in the prison system over the past few years: he was central to the controversy over obtaining lethal injection drugs from Arizona; he was the prison official who negotiated an end to the recent hunger strikes originating in Pelican Bay State Prison; and he has a singularly unique perspective on the system in which he's spent almost his entire life. Kernan recently sat down with reporter Nancy Mullane to talk about these issues, as well as his childhood, which he spent on the grounds of San Quentin State Prison, where his mother worked. This is the full audio from that interview.