Three “New Afrikan” prisoners in California Security Housing Units (Pelican Bay and Corcoran State Prisons) have recently written to Solitary Watch criticizing their continued isolation for being members of the Black Guerilla Family (BGF), the only black prison gang in California that will lead to placement in the SHU.
According to Mutope Duguma (legal name James Crawford) at Pelican Bay, it’s his political views “that got me placed in solitary confinement and labeled a BGF member, which I am not, but in order to place you in solitary confinement IGI/ISU/OCS have to label you a BGF if you’re a New Afrikan.”
He has been in solitary for over a decade. “My cell has a concrete slab bed, the cell is white with a concrete brick slab for TV holding. Toilet and sink connected all in one and the steel front panel door and a white painted wall in front. No trees. No animals. No sun. No life. Just prisoners isolated from the world,” he writes.
Life for men in the SHU is bleak, reports Duguma., “I get up at 5:30 AM, go to the yard when my rotation comes around for 90 minutes, then I am back in my cell for the rest of the day.”
Prisoners labeled BGF are routinely validated on the basis of their political views. In a June 2012 ruling, the California Court of Appeals found that Duguma’s political writings were wrongly used to prevent outgoing mail to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. Duguma referred to himself as a “New Afrikan Nationalist Revolutionary Man.”
A Correctional officer intercepted the letter and sent a “Stopped Mail Notification”, indicating that the letter “promotes gang activity,” and that his writings were a reference to “ideology created by the Black Guerilla Family.”
Stanford Professor James Campbell, after reading the letter, told the court that Duguma is “a serious political thinker using terms such as ‘New Afrikan’ and ‘New Afrikan Nationalist Revolutionary Man’ that were ubiquitous in Black urban life in the 1960s and 1970s…”
The court ultimately ruled that “without any evidence showing the letter to promote violence or otherwise threaten security, the confiscation violates the First Amendment” and ordered that the letter finally be sent to the Bay View.
According to accounts by men in California’s SHUs, drawings are also used to justify their continued isolation. One common image used to validate prisoners is any drawing of a dragon. For the BGF, one of their symbols is a dragon squeezing a prison guard tower.
According to J., who is held at Corcoran State Prison:
A K-9 unit was allowed into our cells and spilled some coffee on a Japanese cultural piece I’m doing for an auction to aid the Japanese Tsunami Relief Fund which depicts the Sun Goddess Amazerasu releasing a phoenix into the sky at sunrise over the Sea of Japan wearing a kimoni with imperial dragons on it and a crown featuring the Japense Imperial Crest (Dragon and Phoenix). When I filed to have IGI/ISU compensate me for the piece, after reviewing the work, it was returned to me and I was told that if I attempted to mail it out it would be confiscated because “it has dragons on the kimono and you’re B.G.F.”
I asked–“Are you saying the Japanese Imperial family is B.G.F?” The response was “If you try to mail it out we’ll take it.”
In addition, J. writes, “D. and I wrote several pieces for newsletters. These were confiscated by an I.G.I. officer and were used as “BGF gang material” as a basis to deny D.’s inactive status.”
D., also at the Corcoran SHU, writes:
Think about this. I could write as many letters as I want. And call someone as many “n’s” as I want. Call women all manner of foul things. I can even compare the President to Adolf Hitler. And it would be cool. Protected speech. But they have actually criminalized certain people, language.
I could mention the first or last name of certain Afrikans, and I would automatically be accused of gang activity. Even if the person was dead.
If they came in the cell and found an actual book marker that came from a vendor with books. And the book marker had a drawing of a dragon on it. They would say that it’s gang activity. Some of this has sunk to such a low level that it would be as comical as it sounds were it not so destructive.
D.’s reference to the potential for gang validation for saying something about a dead person is actually based on how he himself was validated. Gang validation documents sent to Solitary Watch indicate that among the pieces of evidence of gang activity in his case (which ranged from a confidential informant to his name appearing on a piece of paper in another prisoner’s cell), was a eulogy he had written for a deceased African-American prisoner who had been a BGF member.
While it cannot be definitively said that none of these men have ever been involved with the BGF, it appears from these and other instances of seemingly weak evidence of gang activity that prison officials may be overreaching in their efforts to curb legitimately disruptive gang activity.