Suicide In Solitary: The Death of Alex Machado

Alexis Machado  was my late 3d cousin,I found out many years after he was declared dead ,from a friend on Twitter So that’s a part of his “latino” story”

You have no idea how sorry I am.

In October 1990, only months after being transferred to Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), Todd Ashker was shot in the right wrist by a prison guard. “This nearly severed my hand from my wrist and caused severe damage to hand, wrist and forearm,” he recounted. Ashker stated that he was denied medical care, including pain management, and was told by medical staff, “If you want better care, get out of SHU. It’s your choice.” Only after he won a court injunction in February 2010 was he given an arm brace and physical therapy. [Letter from Todd Ashker, November 13, 2011.] Ashker’s experience is the norm rather than the exception. “Prisoners with medical concerns are routinely told by prison officials that if they want better medical care for their conditions or illnesses, or improved pain management, the way to obtain adequate care is to debrief,” states a federal lawsuit filed by Ashker and other SHU prisoners.

On July 1, 2011, Ashker and thousands of other prisoners went on hunger strike to protest such draconian conditions. As reported in Truthout last year, for three weeks, at least 1,035 of the 1,111 inmates locked in the SHU refused food. In the SHU, which comprises half of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, prisoners are locked into their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Over 500 people have been confined in the SHU for over a decade, over 200 for more than 15 years and 78 for over 20 years. The only way that a person can be released from the SHU is to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Even those who are eligible for parole have been informed that they will not be granted parole so long as they are in the SHU. “They are told they can debrief or die,” stated Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which recently filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of the SHU prisoners. [Press conference by phone, May 31, 2012.]

The Pelican Bay hunger strike spread to 13 other state prisons and, at its height, involved at least 6,600 people incarcerated throughout California.

“We have decided to put our fate in our own hands. Some of us have already suffered a slow, agonizing death in which the state has shown no compassion toward these dying prisoners.” Mutope DuGuma, one of the hunger strike representatives, wrote in the original announcement for the hunger strike. “No one wants to die. Yet under this current system of what amounts to immense torture, what choice do we have? If one is to die, it will be on our own terms.”

The hunger strikers at Pelican Bay issued five core demands:

Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
Comply with the recommendations of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
Provide adequate food;
Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

In September, when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) failed to address these demands, prisoners resumed their hunger strike. The strike spread to 12 prisons inside California as well as to prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma that housed California prisoners. On October 13, prisoners at Pelican Bay ended their nearly three-week hunger strike after the CDCR guaranteed a comprehensive review of every prisoner in California whose SHU sentence is related to gang validation under new criteria. Two days later, hunger strikers at Calipatria State Prison stopped their strike to allow time to regain their strength.

Hunger strikers were issued write-ups for “leading a riot or strike or causing others to commit acts of force and violence,” stated a hunger strike representative. [Letter from Paul Redd, December 29, 2011.] The CDCR threatened to refer these cases to the local district attorney for outside prosecution; if found guilty, the hunger strikers would receive additional sentences. Ultimately, however, the charges were dropped.

In the following months, three hunger strike participants committed suicide: Johnny Owens Vick and Alex Machado were both confined in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit; Hozel Alanzo Blanchard was confined in the Calipatria Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU). Many of the hunger strikers blame the agonizing conditions in the SHU and ASU for the men’s deaths: “Obviously these men could not stand it anymore and preferred to die by their own hand rather than be subject to another minute of torture,” declared Todd Ashker. [Letter from Todd Ashker, December 26, 2011.]

In late December 2011, prisoners at California’s Corcoran State Prison’s ASU launched a hunger strike. They issued 11 demands, including adequate access to the law library and legal assistance and an end to the practice of holding prisoners in ASU after they have served their sentences in the unit. Prison staff transferred those who were identified as hunger strike leaders to the psychiatric ward and issued all participants violation notices for “participation in mass disturbances.” In February 2012, 27-year-old Christian Gomez died a week after joining the hunger strike.

In March 2012, the CDCR released its plan around SHU classification. The plan proposed identifying prisoners as part of Security Threat Groups (STGs) and placing them in SHU. It did not specify alternatives to debriefing for release from the SHU; instead, it offered a vague four-year plan.

Pelican Bay hunger strikers rejected the proposal: “The tools are still in place to keep us in the SHU indefinitely and, in some cases, they are planning on expanding this abuse by making it even more inclusive of a broader class of people with no end in sight,” explained hunger striker Lorenzo Benton. [Letter from Lorenzo Benton, June 5, 2012.] By designating people as part of STGs, the proposal expands the number of people who can be placed in the SHU. The proposal also continues the CDCR’s current policy of keeping alleged gang members in SHU indefinitely and does not respond to hunger strikers’ first three demands. Furthermore, noted Benton, “there does not exist any physical structural changes within our environment. We are still housed in an isolated environment for a prolonged period of time with hardly any meaningful contact.” [Letter from Lorenzo Benton, March 27, 2012.] Benton conceded that “a few creature comforts were bestowed upon us to pacify the masses, but our struggle is not about making prison more comfortable. It’s about being treated humanely and with the hope of a positive future.” [Letter from Lorenzo Benton, June 5, 2012.]

The hunger strikers issued their own counterproposal entitled the Modern-Management Control Unit (MMCU). Modeled after the Max-B management control unit programs in the 1970s and 1980s, the MMCU calls for the end of relying solely on confidential informants for SHU placement and using activities such as group petitions, birthday cards etc. as evidence of gang affiliations. In addition, it outlines a three-phase process for SHU release without requiring debriefing.

Hunger striker Mutope DuGuma stated that, at a follow-up meeting with hunger strikers and the mediation team, the CDCR representative “indicated that they’re going ahead with their proposal regardless of our counterproposal.” [Mutope DuGuma, May 28, 2012.] Instead, the CDCR has placed its proposal into the state’s revised budget.

However, DuGuma and others have not lost hope. “We are still going strong,” he stated. “We are working constantly, prisoners and the mediation team. Our five core demands have not been implemented [and] we all signed on to fight till they are.” [Letter from Mutope DuGuma, May 28, 2012.]

On March 20th, 400 prisoners in California’s SHUs and ASUs petitioned the United Nations to intervene on behalf of the more than 4,000 prisoners similarly situated. The petition can be downloaded from here. Five months earlier, in October 2011, shortly after the hunger strikes ended, Juan Mendez, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, presented a written report on solitary confinement in the US to the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee. He stated that solitary confinement “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles. Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, supermax, the hole, secure housing unit … whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion (of information) technique.” He called for a ban on any type of solitary confinement exceeding 15 days.

On May 31, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of those who have spent between ten and 28 years in Pelican Bay’s SHU, including the hunger strikers. The suit, Ruiz v. Brown, names ten plaintiffs and seeks to establish two classes of prisoners entitled to relief. The larger class consists of all prisoners serving indefinite SHU terms based on gang validation. The suit argues that their rights to due process are violated by this review process. The current review process consists of three steps: First, the prisoner is urged to debrief. Second, a mental health staff member asks, “Do you have a history of mental illness? Do you want to hurt yourself or others?” Third, the classification committee “reviews” the paperwork in the prisoner’s file. However, unless the prisoner is willing to debrief, the review allows no possibility of release from the SHU even though many have had no serious rule violations during their confinement.

The subclass consists of over 500 prisoners who have been or who will be confined to the SHU for ten years or longer. The suit argues that their prolonged SHU confinement violates their Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, including:

the cumulative effect of prolonged solitary confinement, notably psychological pain and suffering as well as “significant risk of future debilitating and permanent mental illness and physical harm”
the denial of good-time credits and parole
the deprivation of quality medical care

The plaintiffs seek a court injunction ordering the governor and the CDCR to present a plan within thirty days of the court order which:

Provides for the release from the SHU of those confined for more than ten years
Changes SHU conditions so that prisoners are no longer subject to isolation, sensory deprivation, lack of social and physical human contact and environmental deprivation
Meaningful review of the continued need for SHU confinement of all prisoners in the SHU both currently and in the future

Nunn noted that, although the suit is limited to the SHU at Pelican Bay, any court ruling would affect the conditions and increasingly routine use of solitary confinement in other prisons. [Press conference by phone, May 31, 2012.]

The actions of both prisoners and outside allies have led to widespread attention to the issue of solitary confinement. Prisoner hunger strikes protesting extreme conditions have also erupted in Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

On June 19, 2012, the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. In his opening statements, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin read descriptions of Pelican Bay’s SHU as an example of the extreme inhumanity of solitary confinement.

So, what next? “So it’s now all about ramping up support for a new round of peaceful responsive actions,” wrote Ashker in a recent letter. [Asher, June, 10, 2012.]

Supporters are doing just that: To commemorate the strike’s one-year anniversary, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a Bay Area coalition of family, friends and supporters of the hunger strikers, will be organizing a Month of Education, including building a replica of a SHU cell to be used at outreach events, organizing educational events (and urging those in other states to do the same), continuing legal visits and setting up a pen pal network to connect California prisoners with outside supporters. SOURCE

 

Alexis “Alex” Machado was a prisoner at Pelican Bay State Prison’s isolation units for nearly two years when he took his own life on October 24, 2011.

According to the autopsy report, Machado was last seen alive at approximately 12:15 AM “as he was examined and then cleared by medical staff for a complaint of heart palpitations.” Thirty minutes later, at 12:45 AM, an officer found Machado and reported that “….Machado [was] hanging inside his cell…” He was seen “sitting on the floor with a sheet tied to his neck and the sheet tied to the top bunk.”

Concluded the autopsy: “The decedent died as a result of asphyxiation due to strangulation by hanging.” Toxicology reports were negative.

As institutional records and letters from Machado in the year leading up to his death show, he had been suffering severe psychological problems in response to his prolonged isolation. Once a jailhouse lawyer whose writings were both clearly and intelligently composed, his mental state would decline at Pelican Bay.

Machado had been incarcerated since 1999 on a robbery charge and a related shooting. He was sentenced to an 80-to-life prison term. Described as an intelligent and thoughtful man with a warm smile by his sister, Cynthia, he generally experienced no problems in his initial 11 years of incarceration. For most of his time, he was held at Kern Valley State Prison.

Things began to change in late 2007, when a race riot took place. “The prison said he was the one who started the riot,” according to Cynthia, “when he really had nothing to do with it.”

His involvement in the riot would result in his being placed in Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) in December 2007. Though he was never officially found guilty for the riot, prison gang investigators would begin to build a case for his validation as a gang member. In December 2008, he was placed in the ASU again for “manufacturing a weapon”; in January 2009, a confidential informant was officially cited by prison officials as evidence of his gang activity.

He was finally validated as a gang associate, in large part due to the confidential informant, on February 4th, 2010.  In his appeal of the validation, he argued that the source items used in his validation were insufficient, saying that “these allegations are not true and I initiated nothing.”

He further charged in his appeal that his validation as a gang member was in retaliation of his acquittal in the racial riot case.

He was sent to Pelican Bay to serve an indeterminate SHU sentence on February 17th, 2010 from the Kern Valley ASU.

Being screened into Pelican Bay, he reported no psychological problems.

Soon after arriving, however, he reported in letters that he was consistently harassed by the guards. In a letter dated March 10th, 2010, he wrote that “when I first got here an officer told me that he was being pressured to make a bogus psychologist referral on me…I guess they want to make it look like I am going crazy.” He reported that guards took him to debrief in an attempt to make him look like an informant. Further, he was told that a green light (hit order) had been placed on him; a claim that he didn’t believe.

An ASU classification document indicates that he received some mental health services in May 2010, and previously in October 2009.

A mental health chronos indicates his first significant problem at Pelican Bay surfaced on January 24, 2011 with a mental health referral from a correctional officer for paranoia.” Also beginning in January, he was noted to have decreased the number of showers he took, from a regular of three a week to only once or twice a week.

He received a 115 (rules violation report) on March 1, 2011 for  ”willfully resisting” officers after “fishing line” for communication with other inmates was found and he refused to “cuff up.” He told the health care worker who saw him after his extraction with pepper spray that “I want you to put down that they are denying my legal mail.”

On May 31st, a mental health referral reported that he “stated he is being watched, listened to, cell has bugs and cameras. He also stated he hears knocking on all his cell walls.”

Things would decline significantly in June. On June 5th, a mental health record reports that he was depressed, anxious, poor hygiene/grooming, hallucinations, paranoia and delusion. He reported that is presenting complaints were listed as “hearing voices, can’t sleep anxiety a ttacks, someone/something controlling thoughts, hasn’t cleaned cell in three days.”

Days later he would receive another referral for anxiety and reporting increased heart rate and breathing. On June 12th, he was placed in a crisis room for threatening to kill himself.

The following is from a Counseling Chrono dated June 21, 2011:

On Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 1440 hours I was summoned to the cell of Inmate Machado…by Registered Nurse…Upon looking in the cell window, I observed a noose hanging from the air duct. I observed the No-Tear Mattress lying on the cell floor torn apart. I ordered Machado to submit to handcuffs, to which he complied. After handcuffing Machado I placed him in holding cell #136 so Dr. N could speak with him. I returned to cell 188 and observed feces smeared on the right wall. It appears Machado had torn off the outer layer of the mattress, fashioned a noose from it, and tied the noose to the vent…

Just days after the incident, he was issued a notice that he would be placed in Pelican Bay’s Administrative Segregation Unit:

You were endorsed by the CSR on 02/04/10 to serve an indeterminate SHU term, due to your validation as an Associate of the …prison gang…On 06/22/11, your Mental Health Level of Care (LOC) was elevated to Correctional Clinical Case Management (CCCMS), PBSP-SHU Exclusionary; therefore, your placement in PBSP-SHU is no longer appropriate. Due to the above, on 06/22/11, a decision was made to place you in the PBSP Administrative Segregation Unit. Single celled due to prison gang validation.

By June 30th, he was deemed to have “active psychotic symptoms” but had a low risk of suicide.

On July 6th, he threw his breakfast through his food port and refused breakfast the next day. On the date of the incident a referral indicated ”inappropriate behaviors”, “hallucinating” and “poor impulse control.” The referral notes that he believed “electromagnetic pulses are interfering with his thoughts.”

A mental health document says later that “[he] is believed to be in a desperate situation with an equal amount of anxiety. During ICC in Ad Seg, he refused the debriefing process; hence his situation appears to be deteriorating possibly leading to [his] current state of mind.”

In June and July, he was variously diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder and Brief Psychotic Disorder. According to his sister, though he was officially granted a vegetarian diet for religious reasons, he would primarily subsist on an unhealthy cheese-only diet due to his being allergic to peanuts, the other primary component of a prison vegetarian food tray. This is believed by his sister to have been one of the factors that contributed to the already physically and mentally stressful environment.

Machado’s sister noticed her once coherent and seemingly adjusted brother decline in his time at Pelican Bay. “I noticed he started writing strange things, about seeing things,” she says. Around this time, she and her mother called Pelican Bay after receiving a despondent letter from Alex. “I’m afraid for my sons life,” Machado’s mother told one of his mental health counselors.

Though CDCR has previously gone on the record to say that he was not a participant in the hunger strikes, the Machado family believes that he in fact did participate in the strikes. He reportedly mentioned the strike many times in letters sent to his family.

In late July or early August, he sent a letter to his sister claiming that he saw “someone I know and I saw another in pieces and demons…I don’t know the significance of it…I hope it was a hallucination.” He wrote that was taken to the infirmary for leg pains, where he further wrote:

I was handcuffed in a cell and was being watched by two officers I never seen before…I was handcuffed for what seemed like an eternity. I felt like I was in that room handcuffed for days but it was only an hour…the shooting in my case flashed in my mind and they suggested I died that day in the shooting and that I was now in ‘purgatory’ or in ‘Dantes Inferno.’ I felt trapped. I thought I was condemned to be handcuffed in that cell forever. They made me believe I was killed in real life. I thought I was caught in another realm. I saw insects in the cell and demons. It was way out I don’t know what happened…

Also written while at Pelican Bay, Machado reflected on his decade long incarceration, writing ”I wish my life was different and that we could all be out there together…I don’t know what to do. I’m stuck and I have been away from home for a long time now.”

In the final months of his life, he would continue to spend over 22 hours a day in a small cell. His letters came less and less frequently. During his time at Pelican Bay, he told his family not to make the over 700-mile trip to visit him. He didn’t want them to see him in chains.

Though his letters in the two months leading to his death were increasingly distorted, he did have some glimmer of hope. He had secured a lawyer who was in the process of challenging his original criminal conviction.

His sister describes his plight this way,

“It takes one inmate informant to report you falsely. Then you are in solitary confinement. When you want to fight to get out it is impossible because of all the torture that goes on in there physically and mentally.”

After years of isolation, paranoia, and gradual deterioration, he took his life.

“He was a loving brother, son, and uncle…raised by a single mother and got lost in the system,” says Cynthia. “He wanted to be treated fair.”

Secrecy Surrounds Inmate Suicides in California State Prisons

California prisoner advocate groups have raised alarm about a string of suicides in California state prisons committed by inmates who participated in hunger strikes this year to demand an end to inhumane conditions.

In recent months Alex Machado and Johnny Owens Vick, who were both housed in Pelican Bay’s notorious solitary confinement Security Housing Unit, and Hozel Alanzo Blanchard, who was incarcerated at Calipatria State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit, all committed suicide. Prisoner advocates say all three participated in a statewide hunger strike this summer to protest, among other things, prison discipline policies intended to identify prison gang members which punish innocent, unaffiliated inmates with decades of confinement to segregated units.

“It is a testament to the dire conditions under which prisoners live in solitary confinement that three people would commit suicide in the last month,” Laura Magnani, the regional director of the American Friends Service Committee said in a statement. “It also points to the severe toll that the hunger strike has taken on these men, despite some apparent victories.”

Details about inmates’ deaths are hard to come by, and what little is known is in dispute because prison officials refuse to be forthcoming about the circumstances of the suicides, prisoner advocates say.

“As far as we understand, these three people were involved in the hunger strike, and as far as we understand, these three people are dead now,” said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesperson for the Prison Solidarity Hunger Strike Coalition, a network of organizations that advocates for prisoners’ rights.

“The how and the why is a hard thing to say more about, and it’s become more and more devastating when there is such a lack of clear information from the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation].”

The fight for basic updates and information from the California Department of Corrections is nothing new for prisoner advocates and their loved ones. During the latest round of prisoner hunger strikes, prison officials disciplined those who participated in the strike by limiting inmates’ access to family members and advocates. Even in the wake of a series of suicides, distraught family members are being given very little information about what exactly happened with their loved ones.

Family members were informed of their loved ones’ deaths via automated recordings left on their voicemails, Ontiveros said, and those who have tried to reach out to the CDCR for more information have been rebuffed.

The CDCR did not respond to repeated requests for comment, though their spokesperson Terry Thornton disputed the prisoner advocates’ story in an interview with SF Weekly. According to Thornton none of the three inmates participated in the hunger strikes, and one of the three men died before the second round of the hunger strike began in September.

“It is troubling that this group, which professes to care about inmates, would fabricate information, label it ‘news,’ and discredit the men and women who work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” Thornton told the SF Weekly. “Their claim that CDCR is withholding information is outlandish and irresponsible.”

Last Thursday, however, the CDCR boldly announced a fourth suicide. Brandon Wilson, sentenced to death for brutally stabbing a child in 1999, hanged himself in his San Quentin State Prison cell last Thursday. Source

 

 

3 thoughts on “Suicide In Solitary: The Death of Alex Machado

  1. Pingback: On Anniversary of Hunger Strike Pelican Bay Prisoners in Solitary Confinement See No Change, Request Intervention of CA Governor | Center for Constitutional Rights | My Blog Inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com

  2. Pingback: Chess vs. checkerz | Moorbey'z Blog

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