It would be grossly negligent to assume that the “feel good” stories featured in special segments on the news – or most recently, The Kelly Clarkson Show – about Soledad State Prison are a reflection of the reality of what it means to be an incarcerated person in this city within a city, just off Highway 101.
The reality is that this prison – and CDCR as a whole – functions in anonymity with autonomy in Vatican-like fashion where those outside its domain know nothing of the many human and civil rights violations occurring daily within the walls of these gray wastelands except what the prison itself makes available through curated statements and carefully crafted press releases.
And when those who are not connected to the prison – and therefore have no vested interest in maintaining the fictitious public image the prison seeks to portray – are granted access and are in a position to convey the full story, they are allowed to film only “special events.” It is the coverage of these events, and subsequent exposure, that eclipses and distorts the reality of what it means to be incarcerated at Soledad State Prison.
It is understandable – the urge of those who want to help and who truly believe they are being helpful by writing articles, filming and reporting on incarcerated people at Soledad building tiny houses for the unhoused, or spearheading a fundraiser to pay the tuition for a young Black boy to attend a prestigious private school, and countless other pro-social activities initiated by incarcerated people here at Soledad. However, the politics of respectability (or uplift suasion) painting a positive image of incarcerated people does more harm than good, and in fact perpetuates racist ideas about prison if you’re not, in the same sentence, talking about the ugly reality of mass incarceration and all that upholds it, i.e. predatory capitalism, anti-Black racism, classism and exceptionalism.
In 1979, Audre Lorde delivered a speech at New York University titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Within this title is the idea that there exists a system that must be dismantled, but that it cannot be done by utilizing the tools designed for its maintenance. Drawing on the historic symbolism of slavery, the “master’s house” that she was referring to in her speech is the entire system of white supremacy, or what bell hooks refers to as white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy.
Lorde was speaking to a room filled predominantly with white feminists who allowed their identification as “feminist” to blind them to the fact that they were mostly white while claiming to be there to discuss “the role of difference within the lives of American women; differences of race, sexuality, class and age.” Lorde continued, explaining, “The absence of these considerations weakens any feminist discussion of the personal or political.”
It is upon this premise that this piece is founded. Failing to discuss prison in its entirety, in my opinion, weakens any discussion about systematic change. Lorde asks, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” She continued with the answer, stating, “It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”
Among the “tools” of racist patriarchy are the lenses through which we examine these various systems. In the above instance, Lorde was speaking towards a Eurocentric vision or approach amongst feminists, as it concerned white supremacy. As it concerns prison, one of the most obvious expressions of white supremacy, the prevailing approach has been a reformist approach, which is simply another shade of Eurocentrism.
The absurdity of reform becomes apparent when we realize that subsumed within the idea of reform is the belief that that which is being reformed is good at its core, that it only needs to be polished. However, we know based on countless studies and firsthand experiences that prison is actually rotten at its core.
Rooted in slavery, prison will never be divorced from anti-Black racism no matter how vehemently prison spokespeople try to convince us that it is a thing of the past. Therefore, to discuss prison without including in that discussion its harsh reality while only highlighting exceptionalism does a disservice to, and derails from its onset, any discussion of systemic change.
Showcasing exceptionalism in the prison context without telling the full story perpetuates the myth that prisons work, that prisons are a good thing, or at the very least, necessary. It also perpetuates the idea that certain people deemed unexceptional belong in prison and that incarcerated people need only apply themselves in order to reap the “benefits” of incarceration, i.e. job placement in an outdated skill, favorable rapport with officers and other prison officials who, because of that rapport, make recommendations for parole by writing “good guy” chronos (we’ll touch more on that later).
This is problematic because it assumes that those who fail to reap the above mentioned “benefits” do so by their own lack of merit. When we look at the demographics in regards to who is granted parole, for instance, we see that it is Black people who receive the highest level of denials.
Following the existing narrative, this would mean that Black people largely fail to apply themselves and therefore do not “deserve” to be granted parole. This, in turn, suggests that Black people belong in prison. However, we know this is not the case. We know that these disparities exist due to implicit as well as explicit biases on behalf of correctional officers, parole board commissioners, and other prison officials who largely view Black people as threatening, difficult and therefore undeserving.
Recently, Politico published an article about Black employees at CDCR headquarters in Sacramento sending out an open letter to Ralph Diaz, after he, as secretary of CDCR, sent out a memo to address racism in the department after the killing of George Floyd. The open letter from about 25 Black employees detailed “issues with the agency’s hiring practices, lack of support for Black employees and lack of representation.” It went on to recount “experiences of being passed over for promotions, retaliated against for speaking up about discriminatory behavior, stereotyped as ‘angry Black women,’ and described as aggressive and disrespectful in their communication style.”
In a system where the Black employees of said system face the aforementioned discrimination, is it really a surprise that incarcerated Black people are subjected to the same, and often worse, discrimination in that same system? What is sad is that we already know the answer to that question. It’s a well known fact that incarcerated Black people have an entirely different experience when it comes to the criminal legal system. However, we have been socialized to accept punishment as the only response to crime, and therefore, the systems responsible for performing that punishment are accepted as necessary, and the treatment meted out by these systems is normalized, even by people who claim to be fighting injustice.
Incarcerated people are expected to silently endure torture. Incarcerated people who speak out against injustices, because of these racist views about “criminality,” make people uncomfortable, even so-called supporters.
I have been cautioned by multiple individuals who, out of a clear understanding of how morally corrupt this system is, have warned me that my speaking out against systemic racism while being incarcerated in that system probably isn’t the wisest thing to do and that I should even wait to tell my story until I get out. It’s either that or face the probability of being denied parole for speaking the truth. My response has always been this: If people in so-called “free society” aren’t being holistic about the stories they share with the public, then it is the responsibility of people incarcerated in places like Soledad to do so.
I cannot bring myself to censor my speech about something that is so very wrong. What we are talking about is urgent as countless people continue to languish in places like this for 20, 30, 40-plus years for no other reason than the color of their skin and the way they make those in authority positions feel uncomfortable about their racism. My question is, aren’t we moving towards a system of restorative justice, where not only is the focus on repairing the harm that was done between people, but also holding systems accountable for the harm they cause? If so, we cannot pretend that injustices do not exist, or that, as slavery was depicted in films like “Gone With the Wind,” prison is this utopian microcosm of society where incarcerated people are treated with the utmost respect and given everything needed to re-enter society.
When we look beyond the statistics and into the lives of people in prison, we can clearly see that there is nothing exceptional about successful incarcerated people, Black or otherwise. Incarcerated people step into their humanity daily, and it’s not because they are exceptional or because of prison conditions. Incarcerated people step into their humanity daily in spite of prison conditions, facing racial discrimination and various other forms of dehumanizing treatment, including but definitely not limited to unhealthy living conditions and violent physical abuse.
Incarcerated people continue to reach beneath the hurt and humiliation to find the strength to carry on with daily activities, including attending self-help groups like Life C.Y.C.L.E. to read John Steinbeck novels with children from Palma High School.
These are the people sitting next to Lisa Ling with smiles on their faces while their hearts hold preventable pain and anguish. Just because their every word isn’t about the many indignities they endure doesn’t mean these indignities do not exist. Their silence should not be mistaken for solace, nor their smiles for contentment. They would simply rather suspend a harsh reality than to languish in the sorrow of their daily existence, even if only for a moment through the lens of a camera. One need only look at images of enslaved Africans next to their so-called “slavemasters” to see their historical equivalence.
Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, the Central Park 5, and the list goes on. The ramifications of being falsely accused of a crime in America can be, and often have been, deadly for Black people.
Since the horrors of the European capitalist-economic enterprise known as the Atlantic Slave Trade, Black people – primarily Black men – have been lynched, burned alive, castrated and subjected to every other form of torture imaginable, as a result of being falsely accused of a crime. On the surface, these accusations seem to be rooted in fear and ignorance, but when investigated, are proven to be rooted in nothing other than a device on behalf of the dominant capitalist, white supremacist or patriarchal culture to maintain a position of power.
Not too long ago, we witnessed an attempt at jeopardizing the life of a Black man in Central Park. Just hours before George Floyd was murdered by four Minneapolis police officers, this man, who was birdwatching, politely asked a white woman to leash her dog. Her hostile call to police came not out of fear or ignorance, but was due to a boldness provided by her knowledge of how Black men in particular are viewed now and historically in this country.
Her attempt on the life of this Black man reveals the ever-present reality of what it means to be Black in America: to live in fear of being hunted. Media outlets immediately noted that things could and likely would have been drastically different had the incident not been caught on camera. Protesters and activists throughout the world held up and continue to hold up signs asking this very question about the latest string of televised crimes against Black people, “How many weren’t caught on camera?” But what about places where there are no cameras?
As an incarcerated person, I immediately began to reflect on my present reality and what those who are incarcerated know all too well: namely that what occurs in public throughout America has been taking place in the darkness of America’s prison system since its inception. “The prison is the place where state power is perhaps more forcefully experienced and publicly legitimized without being seen,” writes Dan Berger in “Captive Nation.”
“In other words, the prison is an example of state power at its most violent extreme, as well as an example of the way that power cloaks itself in invisibility,” he writes.
The lens through which we have been allowed to look into California’s prison system is the darkest opaque. Oftentimes, it takes a major incident for light to be shone on prisons: a riot, stabbing, major contraband bust, anything to slant public opinion against the incarcerated.
But when something takes place that puts the integrity of correctional officers, and ultimately the entire system itself into question, silence abounds.
In the aftermath of the violent 3 a.m. raid on approximately 200 incarcerated Black people at Soledad State Prison on July 20 – if it wasn’t for the tireless effort of my wife, Tasha Williams, whose article in the San Francisco Bay View first alerted the world to what happened here at Soledad, as well as the tireless effort of countless wives, family members and loved ones sharing her article and the stories of their incarcerated friends and family who were brutalized, the world would, without doubt, still be in the dark about what happened to us.
Prison officials, on the other hand, waited an entire week before releasing a statement, and still it was only after and in response to receiving thousands of phone calls and emails from across the country culminating in protests in front of the prison that the spokesperson for Soledad State Prison released a statement to the public.
The statement denied the injuries, denied we were targeted because of our race, and most telling of all, that statement would not have been released had it not been for the continuous pressure from both inside and, more importantly, outside organizers against a system that thrives in silence. The prison’s silence was an attempt to “cloak itself in invisibility,” and yet their public statement was an attempt to do the same.
The following is a detailed first-hand account and contextualizing of what really happened in the early morning hours of July 20, 2020, at Soledad CTF (Correctional Training Facility), as well as the events that followed.
When I was violently snatched out of my sleep and slammed into the wall head first off the top bunk, I thought I was dreaming. I didn’t know what was going on; all I heard was yelling and felt hands grabbing my arms and legs. With a knee in my back, my hands were zip-tied and I was forcefully snatched up by my throat and dragged out of the cell.
As soon as my eyes were able to adjust enough to glance to the right, I heard my cell mate, a 55-year-old man with degenerative disc disease in his spine, a chronic shoulder injury, and who is a diabetic, crying out that they were hurting his arm. I could see what I believe were two men wearing helmets, equipped with night vision, wearing fatigues, with black marks covering their faces entirely, doing to him what had been done to me.
I was carried out of the housing unit barefoot, wearing nothing but boxer briefs, forced to walk on a filthy floor down the central corridor, towards the dining hall. Along the way I could see and hear the same thing happening in every unit we passed, officers yelling “drag him” referring to people who had already been ripped violently from their sleep.
The atmosphere was filled with fear and uncertainty. To my surprise, when we turned into the dining hall, I saw close to 200 incarcerated people looking as shocked as I was. Shocked that it was so early in the morning, and at the fact that we were raided in a way never before seen at Soledad.
Never has a group of people who haven’t been involved in any disruptive activity – and who haven’t even been arrested for committing a crime – been raided the way we were. Even when someone commits a crime, they are not raided the way we were raided.
I have been in prison going on 19 years and I have never seen or heard of a group of people having been raided the way we were. But walking out of the dark housing unit, into the brightly lit corridor, I noticed patches across officers’ chests that told me this wasn’t a normal raid.
This was an inter-agency operation, a joint team or special ops, security squad officers – SSU (Special Services Unit) and IGI (Institutional Gang Investigators) – from both Soledad CTF and neighboring Salinas Valley State Prison, as well as CDCR Sacramento, Office of Correctional Safety (OCS), and Special Services Unit Gang Intel Ops (SSU).
But even more than that, we were shocked at the fact that every single person sitting there in the dining hall was Black. Every age group from early 20s to late 70s. Nobody knew anything. Everyone was complaining about their injuries and the way we were raided.
Zip-tied, sitting on stainless steel stools, practically naked in a freezing kitchen during the worst pandemic to hit the world in over a hundred years, we soon realized something that was clearly not the concern of whoever was in charge of this operation: We were sitting next to each other without our masks. We immediately began to demand that we be provided face masks, but just like our demands for medical attention, we were ignored.
We sat there in anger, frustration, fear and, possibly more than anything else, confusion. No one could make sense of “why.” Why, after the prison’s Black population was congratulated and praised by the warden on institutional television for helping maintain a peaceful and positive program, were we being treated so inhumanely?
But the longer we sat there, a troubling picture began to emerge; people spoke to being told by masked officers, “Black lives don’t matter.” Listening to everyone’s experiences, I thought to myself, “This can’t be happening!” at which point I heard an officer tell one person who was complaining about the fact that we were crammed next to each other without masks: “I hope you motherfuckers get COVID!”
The environment was hostile; an officer was in the guntower pointing his rifle at us, which led to an uproar and chant of “Black Lives Matter,” which resulted in Black buddies being carried away. It was around this time that one brother from my building, Bernard Harris, told me my hands were purple – I was so cold that I couldn’t feel that my hands had lost circulation due to the tightness of the zip-ties.
I immediately walked over to an officer named Brown and showed him my hands and he helped another officer, who looked horrified, cut off the zip-ties and replaced them with a looser pair. This was the only relief I experienced while sitting in that dining hall and I don’t believe this could be separated from the fact that Brown was the only Black correctional officer present during our entire ordeal in that dining hall.
Brown is a regular correctional officer, not part of the Security Squad – Investigations Services Unit (ISU) and IGI – or the extraction team, which also included members of the Security Squad, as well as Sacramento’s Special Services Unit Gang Intel Ops (SSU), all of whom were either white or of an ethnicity that possesses an inroad to whiteness.
While there are cries throughout the world of “defund police” and diversify the ranks of police forces, making them more “racially inclusive,” what happened in the early morning hours of July 20, 2020, here at Soledad begs the question: How much more humanely would our Black bodies have been treated had there been more Black officers present?
When I returned to where I was seated, almost every other individual in that dining hall had to have their zip-ties cut off due to loss of circulation. We sat in that cold dining hall shivering for six hours, some of us zip-tied the entire time.
When we raised hell to use the bathroom, we were walked to the back of the kitchen to a secluded part of the prison one at a time, forced to walk barefoot in the officers spit on an already urine-covered bathroom floor. I was forced to strip naked and when I complained, I was told, “You shouldn’t have been Black.”
Every time I tried to get a glimpse of an officer’s name tag, there was none, only patches that read “CTR/SVSP” and “police.” One officer, who came over to where we were waiting to go to the bathroom, however, was recognizable as Third Watch Building Officer Martinez, a known racist with multiple complaints against him for making racist comments and attempting to incite hostilities between the Black and Latinx populations.
It still remains unclear as to why he, a regular correctional officer, was there dressed as a member of the extraction team. Had he been one of the officers who violently extracted incarcerated people (while sleeping) from their beds in the very building he’s responsible for managing five days a week? Is this why they covered their faces and wore no name tags?
But Martinez wanted to be seen. Like a sadistic predator circling back to see its victim, he couldn’t help but show his face. However, his presence raises another question: During a pandemic that has forced CDCR officers and officials to take a 10 percent pay cut due to the governor’s budget and be prohibited from working overtime, per their agreement, how is it that he was able to work overtime coming to work during non-work hours to play “Army”?
This wasn’t just my experience alone. Every other Black person in that dining hall early that morning had a similar, and some an even worse experience. One person who was victimized – Erwin Harris, T25610 – was pulled violently off his top bunk, dragged out of his cell, zip-tied and pushed down a flight of stairs. He had to be taken to medical in a wheelchair.
Another person victimized, Eric Frazier, C62189, also had to be taken to medical in a wheelchair, having been dragged violently out of his cell despite telling his captors he had a pre-existing back and hip injury. He was met with racial slurs while his seemingly lifeless body – according to one eye-witness who wishes to remain anonymous – was dragged to the corridor, when finally a wheelchair was requested.
Another person victimized, Ronald J. Smallwood, C15171, wrote, “At approximately 3:39 a.m., I was awakened by several individuals which I later found out were IGI, ISU and OCS. I was snatched out of my cell in my underwear and NOTHING else. I was then handcuffed with zip-ties and escorted to the chow hall. I sat there for five hours in zip-ties.”
Another person victimized, Derrick Porter, A88849, wrote: “On 7-20-20 at 3:30 am my cell door was pulled open while me and my cellie were asleep. We were attacked and assaulted by ISU Squad members. I was violently snatched off the top bunk by masked CDCR employees. I injured my arm, head, neck, and hip.
“Several officers jumped on my back and legs, while one put his knee on the side of my head. I was cuffed in, zip-tied and dragged out the cell. Not one ISU/OCS Task Unit officer had an identification name tag. I was put in dining hall #1 with no socks, no shoes, no shirt, and no mask.
“It was over 100 Black inmates, all zip-tied and in almost no clothes without masks. We were placed side-by-side and the wall was lined with CDCR employees who wore ISU black patches with CTF/SVSP logos and no name tags. These un-named officers were coughing and sneezing in the dining hall with us in it. SVSP staff came from a prison that has a COVID outbreak amongst staff and inmates. I was scared.”
Another person victimized, Marcelle Franklin, J65015, wrote: “At 3:30 am on 7-20-20, I was awakened by unknown individuals wearing helmets and face masks, later identified as CTF/SVSP ISU IGI and OCS. I was forcefully slammed to the ground, zip-tied, and dragged out of my cell by multiple ISU officers, then placed in dining hall #1 without a mask, in nothing but my underwear for over five hours.”
And lastly, in direct contradiction to what the warden said in an email the following day, attempting to distance himself from having knowledge of our condition, Marcus Harris, O09716, wrote: “On 7-20-20 at about 3:00 am, I was awakened by my cell door being slammed open and being physically snatched out of bed by some unknown persons. I was taken down to the Central Facility dining hall, handcuffed, with nothing on except underwear, and was made to sit on metal stools with no jacket, shoes, t-shirt, or mask for about five and a half hours.
“When I asked to see a doctor, I was told ‘No.’ After about five hours, the warden came in and started to give officers ‘high fives,’ telling them ‘Good job!’ I stood up and said, ‘How are you going to give them high fives and tell them good job for messing over a bunch of innocent Black people?’”
But it wasn’t over. We were then escorted out of the dining hall, still virtually naked, once again down the central corridor, still zip-tied, officers and free staff now clocking in to work looking at us as if we were animals. We were led one by one into what used to be the counselor’s office at the end of the west corridor, where we were interrogated by plain clothed OCS officers.
When we get near the entrance, an OCS officer asked my name and CDCR number before handing the officer escorting me a packet that had my picture. In red letters was the word “Target,” below which was a paragraph of which I was only able to read the first line, which said, “His father is Milton Hayes, a validated associate of the Black Guerilla Family.”
If you know me or have read my most recent blog post, “Crying Out From Soledad: An Open Letter to a Lawyer,” then you know that this is an issue about which I already have two pending lawsuits for retaliation, racial and religious discrimination against CDCR officers and officials for harassing me since 2011 for being in contact with my father.
They also single me out for my writing and journalism against this racist system, particularly my article in the San Francisco Bay View entitled, “Soledad prison guards refuse to wear safety masks amidst COVID-19 pandemic” for which I was raided less than a week after it was published, and more specifically my last book, “Soledad Uncensored,” the forward of which is being published as a series of articles, also in the San Francisco Bay View, entitled, “Soledad uncensored: Racism and the hyper-policing of Black bodies,” the entirety of which speaks directly against what was happening to us these early morning hours of July 20, 2020. Had my writings contributed to my being included in this roundup?
I was led to a room where two OCS officers, one white, one Black, were waiting. They told me to face the wall while they cut off my zip-ties and honestly I thought they were going to beat me, or worse. I was so nervous my mouth instantly became dry.
But, frustrated that I was once again – based on what I was able to read from the description below my picture – being harassed because of my father’s past, I asked, “What the hell is going on? This is how you guys are getting down now?! Snatching people out of bed at 3:00 in the morning?! You have been harassing me since 2011 because of my father!”
That is when the white officer asked, “Why would you say we were harassing you because of your father?”. “Because that’s what is says on the paper you just set aside,” I responded, noticing the look on his face change when the Black officer chimed in saying, “We’re not harassing you. We just want to ask you some questions about Black Lives Matter.
“How do you feel about what happened to George Floyd? I know what the one cop did was wrong and he deserves to go to jail, but all cops aren’t bad,” he said. That’s ironic, considering the fact that here we were, having this conversation about police brutality rooted in racial biases, after approximately 200 Black men were violently snatched from their beds while sleeping – by police.
The premise upon which they sought to base the conversation was disrespectful. We had the whole “a few bad apples” conversation before I got tired and asked them, “So you mean to tell me y’all did all this to ask us about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter?!” when again the Black officer said, “Honestly, you have some tattoos on you that indicate you’re BGF!”
I shot back: “I’m not BGF, like I said when I first came in. Y’all have been harassing me since 2011 for being in contact with my father who, according to you, is a validated associate of the Black Guerilla Family. To me he’s simply my father who went to prison in ‘89 and had been out of my life until my sister found him still incarcerated in 2005.
“I have every letter he’s ever written me and not one of them is criminal in nature. They are letters from a father trying to mend a broken bond with his son. And about the tattoo you guys have been harassing me about since 2011, everything about it is Islamic.” I turned around to show them my back tattoo, which is a dragon with a huge crescent moon and star in the center of it flanked by the sword and staff of the prophet Muhammed, with a verse from the Qur’an over it in Arabic script.
“What about the dragon is Islamic?” they ask. At which point I give them a detailed explanation of a hadith mentioned in S.V. Mr. Ahmed Ali’s commentary to chapter 96, verse 6-7, of the Holy Qur’an about an enemy of the prophet Muhammed attempting to harm him while he (Muhammed) was praying, but turning back in fear because he saw that the prophet Muhammed was being protected by a dragon.
After explaining my tattoos for the 20th time, as well as explaining to them how racist it is to assume that a Black person in prison with a tattoo of a dragon – or a gorilla or snake, for that matter – is a member of a prison gang that has used such symbols – I further explained my point by saying that “if I was Asian and had a dragon tattoo it wouldn’t be an issue!”
They replied, “But you’re not!” and when I asked affirmatively, “So it’s because I’m Black?” they, to my surprise said, “Yes.” After they “apologized” regarding the misunderstanding of my tattoo, saying, “We hope you can get that cleared up about your tattoo,” they told me I could go.
When I returned to my cell, still confused as to why we were kidnapped in the middle of the night just to be questioned about Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, and a prison “gang” from the ‘70s, I was shocked even further by the way they trashed the cell. Everything was thrown all over the place.
My cellmate, who had returned to the cell before me, was busy separating his remaining property from mine when I noticed that every single piece of paperwork, writing paper, envelopes, every letter, picture, photo album, phone book and book was gone. In the midst of my remaining property was a “Security Squad Receipt” that said the only thing taken was “paperwork.”
Later that morning, when everyone was let out of their cells to set up like we do every morning for “cell reading,” everyone was shocked that we weren’t on “scheduled program,” which is the normal protocol when there is a threat, especially one that necessitates a raid. The first step of a “modified program” due to a threat is for the officers to conduct a “threat assessment” by interviewing everyone in the prison one by one, voluntarily.
The fact that they weren’t conducting a threat assessment didn’t make sense. Obviously, something wasn’t right. In the process of cleaning up and preparing for breakfast, someone found paper tags presumed to be place markers used during the raid. One had the words “property team,” “tag 1, receipts” and “Charlie” printed over a watermark on the SSU seal. The other has the words, “Charlie wing” which is the unit where the tags were found, as well as the unit I’m housed in.
At the top of this particular tag, however, were words that would explain everything: “Operation Akili.” The name of this operation was a Swahili word that means “intelligence,” which comes from the Arabic word “Agli,” having the same meaning. They were on a fishing expedition, a dragnet – intelligence gathering – which explains why the only thing they took was paperwork, letters, books, pictures and phone books.
There was no threat. Not only did the name of their operation indicate that there was no threat, but the raid itself turned up no weapons, no notes referring to any type of threat or STG (Security Threat Group, the new term for “gang”) activity. The reality is, there has been no Black STG activity here at Soledad whatsoever. In fact, ask CDCR and Soledad CTF officials to release a report stating how many weapons Black incarcerated people have been found in possession of and how many STG related incidents in the last 10 years have Black incarcerated people been involved in, and I guarantee the answer will shock you.
I was able to obtain every single Program Status Report (PSR) from 2017 to 2020 and not one single report refers to a single STG activity involving the population of incarcerated Black people, not even in the days surrounding the raid. But herein lies the reason why: CDCR officials can’t wrap their heads around the fact that incarcerated Black people throughout the entire state of California aren’t involved in any STG gang activity.
As I’ve been highlighting in my writing these past couple of years, the criminal mentality of old that most people have been conditioned to associate with prison does not exist. Incarcerated people throughout California realize that the days of languishing in prison until one is useless and unable to contribute to society are over.
Even people who entered the prison system as gang members no longer glorify gang culture or the culture of violence. Not only are “self-help” groups being created by incarcerated people themselves to challenge ideas of toxic masculinity and the culture of violence, such as “success stories,” which was recognized by the California Legislature, but laws are being passed that have taken into consideration the work that we are in here doing, which gives incarcerated people hope like we’ve never had before.
And with the passing of Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 186, introduced by Assemblymember Kamlager, that “the Legislature recognizes the need for statutory changes to end extreme sentencing,” which disproportionately subjects Black people.
It says, “The Black community is disproportionately subjected to extreme sentences, representing less than 15 percent of the national population, but comprising 48.3 percent of people serving life sentences, 55 percent of people serving virtual life sentences, and 56.4 percent of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole” and that “research has shown that long sentences do not deter future crimes and that there is no reliable evidence showing that any deterrent effect is “sufficiently large to justify the cost of long prison sentences …
“In 2018, only 2.9 percent of people serving life sentences were released and only 0.3 percent of people serving third-strike were released, and … out of 988 people convicted of murder who were released from California prisons over a 20-year period, only 1 percent were arrested for new crimes. None of the 988 people were rearrested for murder and none of them went back to prison over the 20-year period examined.”
Understanding this, incarcerated people know that it is counter-productive to commit acts that justify one’s incarceration. Not only are incarcerated people politically aware of the effects of violence, but thanks to Black resistance authors such as Bell Hooks, we are aware of the effects of violence in a more holistic way to where non-violence becomes a lifestyle as well as a rock to be used against a system that bases its very existence on our disfunction. It is incarcerated people who promote non-violence that make prisons obsolete.
CDCR officials are aware of this as well. Budgets are already being cut. Prisons are being scheduled to shut down, and employees of these institutions are going to have to find new jobs. However, a certain segment of CDCR have become so accustomed to this sadistic enterprise that they cannot imagine a world without it. They will go to imperceivable lengths to ensure its continued existence.
Since they can no longer use the “violent criminal” as a justification, they have resorted to criminalizing the very existence of incarcerated people. This becomes even more troubling when racism enters into the equation. We know the effects of systemic racism in the police departments and judicial systems, but what many people aren’t aware of, by design, are the effects of systemic racism inside the prison system. Guns don’t exist in prison (except in strategically placed guntowers) so you aren’t going to have “officer involved shootings” of unarmed Black and Latinx people.
Prison is a different kind of monster; the weapon of choice in prison is and always has been “documentation.” Michael Foucault wrote in his famous “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prisons,” “It must be possible to hold the prisoner under permanent observation; every report that can be made about him must be recorded and compared.”
He continues, “No detail is unimportant, but not so much for the meaning that it conceals within it as for the hold it provides for the power that wishes to seize it.” Departments of “Corrections” aren’t concerned with the accuracy of the information about you so much as they are concerned with how they can use that information to control every aspect of your existence in order to maintain their position of dominance. Their sole concern is to create, on paper, a perpetual criminal, thereby justifying the perpetual existence of prison.
Just two days after the raid, we received our property back. Well, almost all of it. Almost everyone who was raided got a receipt notifying them of certain items not returned “pending investigation.” Guess what these items were? Books, newspapers, pictures and quotes from Black historical figures. DOCUMENTATION.
They kept my book “Soledad Uncensored,” quotes from George Jackson used for research on my book, a picture of Dr. Angela Davis and Jonathon Jackson protesting in front of Soledad in the ‘70s – also used for my book – and a letter to a journalist about COVID-19 and anti-Black racism in prison.
Angela Davis and Jonathan Jackson march to free George Jackson and the rest of the Soledad.
Their reason for keeping these items, written on the receipt, was: “The aforementioned items will be retained for further investigation into your suspected involvement with the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) Security Threat Group-1 (STG-1).” Everyone else who received a receipt had had the same exact words written on it. Items taken from them include newspaper articles about George Jackson, pictures of the San Quentin 6, and even sheets of paper with book titles written on them: “Blood in My Eye,” “The Spook Who Sat By the Door.”
This is what we’re dealing with, and it can’t be described as anything other than racist. Every facet of existence of incarcerated people is criminalized, especially if you’re Black. Everything from the books we read to our hairstyles are criminalized.
Hairstyles aren’t seen as an attempt to express our individuality in an environment whose intent is to strip us of anything unique, or that points to our being individuals in any way. Instead, our hairstyles are seen by certain elements within CDCR as expressions of “gang culture,” despite the fact that in the history of American street gangs, there has never been a single hairstyle associated with an expression as one’s affiliation. Even still, young Black men are harassed and even chased down to be given “verbal warnings” for having designs shaved into their heads.
Don’t get “caught” with a book by Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey or Malcom X, and you damn sure better not get “caught” with a book by George Jackson – all of which aren’t on any official list of prohibited books and are all allowed into the prison through order from Amazon Prime, or any other bookseller. But once an officer sees you with one, you will – if you’re Black – immediately be under investigation as a member of the Black Guerilla Family, an organization formed in the ‘70s in prison that today, in 2020, is virtually nonexistent, except in the minds of correctional officers intent on living in the past.
So what you end up with is young Black men who are afraid to study their history for fear of being labeled, while those who muster up the courage – being dedicated and committed to non-violence – seeking to understand the pitfalls of the past in order to contribute to a society they once took part in destroying, by preventing others from treading the course of violence, through knowledge, they are criminalized.
Before recent events, I thought this targeting was simply because correctional officers didn’t understand Black culture, but like the white lady in Central Park, correctional officers aren’t acting out of ignorance, but in fact are tapping into the very anti-Black racist ideas that underpin American society.
They know we are not members of the Black Guerilla Family, but they also know that, in a society so deeply connected to racist ideas concerning prison, that incarcerated Black men are seen as perpetually criminal, and thus labeling us as BGF places a stigma on us that will last throughout the duration of our incarceration, and becomes a barrier in the way of our release. These are the lengths they will go to.
Two days after we received our property, people began to receive “validation packets,” a process to becoming validated by CDCR as a member or associate of a Security Threat Group. It was only after this point that the spokesperson for Soledad CTR released his statement to the public that the people who were raided were members of a Security Threat Group. They were trying to cover their asses.
People were being labeled everything from “chief financial officer for BGF” to “BGF foot soldier.” I told a friend of mine, “Watch these fools say I have something to do with education,” when lo and behold! That same day I received my validation packet saying that I was “the Minister of Education for BGF,” but that was only the beginning.
They said the pictures of George Jackson on my Instagram page managed by my family to advertise my writings, was “BGF propaganda.” They even went so far as saying about my crescent moon and star tattoo: “It (the star) contains five outer-pointed and five inner-pointed, with each point representing one point of the 10-point party platform of the Black Panther Party (BPP), which is part of the BGF constitution.”
But if you thought it couldn’t get worse, they had the nerve to say that the Arabic verse from the Qur’an (79.14) on my back “translated into English as ‘Assaulter, attacker with alertness.’” I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The officer who wrote it was B. Barron.
He wrote: “While conducting photographs of his tattoos (on 4-27-20) specifically on Williams upper back above and below the black dragon, I discovered Arabic writing. I was unable to translate the Arabic writing, therefore, I questioned Williams on the meaning of the tattoos. Williams became defensive and stated, ‘You can figure that out. Do your job.”
Based on my training and experience, I know Williams becoming defensive about his tattoos means they are indicative of gang membership. Upon discovering the Arabic writing, I contacted the OCS, Correctional Intelligence Task Force (CITF) and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Terrorism Task Forces (CT2) to translate the Arabic writing discovered on Williams’ tattoos.
“Upon receiving the translation from OCS, the Arabic writing translated to English as ‘Assaulter, attacker with alertness’ and ‘Tajdeed.’ This Arabic writing is significant to the BGF also meaning he will conduct assaults on behalf of the BGF. The Arabic writing is also indicative to the membership of the Radical Islamic Group “Tajdeed UL-Islam (TUI).”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. “Tajdid,” which is on my lower back, is a concept in Islam that refers to returning back to the original humanistic teachings of Islam, popularly known as Surism. To associate such a term with “radicalism” is disrespectful.
They gave me 72 hours to respond to the allegations in writing, and since they were trying to validate me as a member of BGF, that’s what I focused on, saving everything else for the lawsuit. What I wrote in response to the allegations mentioned above (in part) was: “I find it strange that B. Barron only pointed out the star, attempting to link it with BGF via the Black Panther Party. When pictures were taken of my back tattoo between 2015-2019, First Lt. Officer Pearson (?) immediately recognized the crescent moon and star.
“B. Barron’s failure to recognize the crescent moon shows that he had his mind set on associating me with BGF. When I said to B. Barron, concerning the Arabic writing on my back, ‘You can figure it out. Do your job.” I said that out of frustration, having already explained my tattoos at least five times before, and not because B. Barron said, “They are indicative of gang membership.”
The Arabic writing across my back is Verse 14 of chapter 79 of the Holy Qur’an that translates into English as, “Then behold they will be upon a wide expanse.” Which is a reference to a scene on the Day of Judgment when humanity will be standing “upon a wide expanse” of earth, awaiting God’s judgment.
Whoever was responsible for the OCS Correctional Intelligence’s Task Force (CITF) needs to be re-trained. B. Barron stated that he “contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Terrorism Task Force (CT-2) to translate the Arabic writing” but only used “the translation from OCS,” which according to them “translated to English as ‘Assaulter, attacker with alertness.” According to B. Barron, “This Arabic writing is significant to the BGF also meaning he will conduct assaults on behalf of BGF.”
The reason B. Barron omitted the translation from the FBI is because they told him it was a verse from the Qur’an, and therefore didn’t fit his narrative, just like the huge crescent moon and star didn’t fit his narrative, so he omitted mentioning the moon. This is giving him the benefit of doubt.
What I believe is that B. Barron never sent a picture of my tattoo to the OCS or the FBI, but that he himself “translated” the Arabic, and therefore must be investigated for falsifying documents, because there is no way that an expert would have come up with that translation.
This is what racism looks like inside Soledad State Prison. You will be raided in the middle of the night and assaulted by officers, and when media attention is placed on the officers’ actions, those same officers will falsify documents in order to cover their asses.
And because we live in a society where incarcerated people are viewed as perpetually criminal, who knows how far into the future, and to what lengths, officers will carry these allegations. Will our families be targeted next?