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Solitary Confinement - Part VI of “I Survived Washington Irving JHS”
FRANK REYNA’S SOLITARY CONFINEMENT - The following is part of a series of articles written by Michael Leavitt about his real life experiences at Washington Irving Junior High School in Los Angeles, California from 1974-1976. The events are true and have been documented to help Michael's family better understand the racial tensions he endured during that era.
“DAD, WHAT WAS IT REALLY LIKE FOR YOU IN JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL?”
CHAPTER 6 - RANK REYNA’S SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
It is Thanksgiving Eve 2013 and I am faced with sadness as I sit here at my computer having performed research into the internet presence of Frank Reyna. If you haven’t read any of the last five blog posts dedicated to life back in 1973-76 at East Los Angeles’ Washington Irving Junior High School. I encourage you to read those blog posts first and then ponder the deeper thoughts of this entry.
Let’s start off with the understanding that my knowledge of the ongoings within prison walls is limited to TV, movies, and 60 Minutes. In other words, I am almost totally ignorant. We were recently notified of the sentencing of a family member that is supposed to be 40 years for a man 52 years old that has a family life expectancy of just 72 years or less. The thought of our relative receiving this sentence while balancing what he was sentenced for just rips your hearts out. We struggle with how to separate the sin from the sinner. Yes, how to hate the sin, yet still love the man is tougher than it sounds, yet our responsibility to accomplish here in mortality.
Frank Reyna forced all of this to the forefront when he wrote me his letter. I actually initiated all of this in February 2011 when I wrote my first of three Washington Irving reflection articles. Frank’s letter has really halted me in my footsteps and caused me to re-evaluate all of these repressed feelings while having to deal with a whole new set of idealistic struggles; struggles regarding our penal system and the unbelievable solitary confinement issues.
Frank Reyna alluded to the fact that a friend of his had found my mention of him on the internet. This bounced around in my head for a little bit and I thought it only natural that a friend would search for information on the internet, so I thought I would do the same. Before going there I knew virtually nothing about Frank’s incarceration. Frank referenced stupid decisions he had made when he was younger and that it was gang related, but nothing more was said on his part.
PELICAN BAY - Frank Reyna’s letter to me was stamped with the “Pelican Bay State Prison” markings. I was immediately reminded of a 60 Minutes news story that I had seen in the past year regarding Pelican Bay State Prison. I do not remember what it was about, but I do remember vaguely references to solitary confinement and the fact that the worst of the worst were imprisoned there within its walls. Not knowing anybody in any State Prison the story did not have any immediate deep meaning, but now I have got to find the online link and give it a re-watch to see what it was all about.
NOTE: Here is one of the videos. This one was from September 12, 1993. Finish this blog entry and then give it a watch...
Armed with that little 60 Minutes news story memory I was left to fabricate what offenses probably imprisoned Frank. Had he been there long? Was he getting out soon? Was he one of the worst of the worst? Or were more minor convicts also imprisoned at Pelican Bay and he was one of them?... I also want to share that I gave thought to the fact that Frank Reyna’s letter to me was just an attempt to get ‘bennies’ from the prison administrators. The skeptical natural man in me wondered if his writing me was just a veiled attempt at demonstrating reform. But after re-reading Frank’s letter multiple times all I could see was a pure attempt at resolution on his part, if in fact it turned out that he had done something to harm me in the past. That only left me feeling that much more sincere in my desire to bring some sort of resolution to all of these feelings from my past.
ONLINE RESEARCH - I first typed in “Frank Reyna” into Google and everybody but the man I was looking for turned up. On the first page, however, Google shows a row of images for Frank Reyna and the yearbook photo from my article is the first displayed. That must be how my writings were discovered.
Virtually striking out due to the commonness of his name, I next opted to expand by typing in “Frank Reyna Pelican Bay” and then was floored with the pages of entries that I am still going through. To say that I am floored, torn, saddened, and angered is an understatement. Reading the entries has made me question our penal system’s method of imprisonment. Inhumane is the only word I can think of that begins to describe my initial reaction to what I have read.
WHAT IS FAIR WHEN YOU ARE IMPRISONED? Coming from a non-gang environment since fleeing the Southern California area over twenty years ago, I am relatively clueless when it comes to prisons. Is it fair to imprison somebody for life and place them inside a small cell for 22.5 hours a day and limit their visits, restrict all phone calls, and even ban their ability to have a photo taken or even have a mirror or reflective surface where they can see themselves? Now imagine that you were sent to these conditions in 1992. That is 21 years ago. I can’t imagine living in those conditions for 21 years and being able to write a coherent and non-hate filled letter to somebody from 1976.
SENTENCE – Frank Reyna was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for second degree murder.
FEELINGS - The articles that I have been reading regarding the conditions in solitary confinement surely tug at my heartstrings and I think changes should be made. And while I want to investigate further and lend my support for improvements I am also touched by the sentiments expressed by a victim’s surviving family member that stated,
“Please also take the opportunity to interview a Mother/Father/Brother/Sister/Son/Daughter from one of the inmates' victim's families. I can't help but wonder what they do at family gatherings to fill the gap where their loved-one once stood.
I feel for the families in this story; but their definition of 'ghost' is markedly different than mine. We have our busy lives, to be sure, but visitation and pictures are only two among all the rights stripped from me and my family when my Father was murdered 26 years ago.
I, also, wonder what pictures of him would look like today.
SOLITARY CONFINEMENT: MY INNER STRUGGLE - I am left to wonder why we imprison people the way that we do. If we feel strongly about making a true life sentence, then we should just have the death penalty and quickly impose the judgment. But if we are going to continue to give a life sentence instead, then we should be as humane as possible with those we imprison. I believe that most who are sentenced to life must have some sort of hope of being released early. If that is the case, then don’t we want a human being coming out the other end of the cycle? If we have them in solitary confinement for years and decades, then how can we ever believe that they will have any hopes of reforming? How can it be necessary to keep an individual in solitary confinement for decades? What does that solve? That is barbaric and should be a very rare sentence. No, that is just plain barbaric.
Think about it, how is it possible to receive the letter I did from somebody who has been through the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit for over two decades of almost zero contact. And yet, I receive a well written letter from somebody living that nightmare. How can that be? Would I have been able to pass through the same type of imprisonment and still retain my sanity and be void of anger and hatred and express friendship? I think I would fail that test miserably. I do not see any way that I can retain any hatred for Frank Reyna now. I will pray for help from above to help me release those feelings that I have suppressed for 37 years and allow those wounds to quickly heal.
INMATE HUNGER STRIKE - I read about the Pelican Bay State Prison hunger strike in 2011 from the inmates with the hope to bring attention to the inhumane conditions and the photo ban in some of the California prisons. I could not imagine going for 20 years or more without a photo being taken. I found this because Frank Reyna’s name is mentioned in many internet references because of a quote from Frank’s sister Sylvia…
Sense of identity limited
Going years without phone calls and photographs led many families to feel cut off from their husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles and sons locked in Pelican Bay. Some inmates complained to relatives of losing a sense of their own identity, even their own physical features. In addition to the photo ban, inmates at Pelican Bay do not have mirrors in their cells.
“My brother tells me that sometimes he forgets how he looks. He doesn’t remember how he looks,” said Sylvia Rogokos of Los Angeles. Her brother, Frank Reyna, 51, was sent to Pelican Bay in 1992.
SIGN THE PETITION - Signing the petition at Change.org was a no-brainer for me. I encourage each reader to read the petition and if you agree, then sign the petition. http://www.change.org/petitions/support-pelican-bay-shu-prisoners-five-core-demands-hunger-strike#
The more I delve into this issue of solitary confinement, the more frustrated I become. While I prepare to spend time with my family and enjoy Thanksgiving turkey, I am now faced with a bigger issue of how to add my voice to those screaming for prison reform as it relates to solitary confinement. Here is Frank Reyna’s description in a letter he wrote to anyone who is willing to listen…
First of all I would like to say “Thank you” to all who are committed to ending “Solitary Confinement” in the prisons in California. We all do appreciate all the hard work and sacrifices you all put in to let your voices and our voices through you be heard in California.
I know most of you have read or heard about the SHU here at Pelican Bay State Prison”. The inhumane treatment of prisoners here and throughout the prison system still goes on. I just hope more people join in the fight; the more voices there are the louder we are.
I have been in the SHU over twenty years and I have seen what effects solitary confinement can do to a man over a period of time. The lack of normal activities within the prison, no interaction, no physical contact with family members on visiting day, no visiting from family or friends on visiting days because it is to far for some people to come, being in a cell 22 ½ hours a day and everything else that has to do with being deprived of a normal life in prison can take a toll on a human being. If it wasn’t for my family, friends, the strong minded men around me and just keeping busy in my cell by doing things to keep the mind and body strong, I might be a casualty of this flawed prison system that is set on trying to keep the cells filled in solitary confinement for their own greedy needs.
Recently I went to a outside hospital for some minor surgery. The joy and excitement I had that day had nothing to do with leaving the SHU for a few hours or tasting a little freedom, because I was always reminded by the chains around my waist, wrist and ankles that I was returning to prison and back to the SHU. It had to do with stepping out of the van and onto grass, smelling the grass, trees, breathing the fresh air and the sun shining down on me was a old experience I never forgot in most of the SHU yards we do not get sun shining down on us.
If the sun does shine in the yard you are in, your area the lucky one for a couple of hours before it moves on.
There is no grass to smell in the SHU yards, only the damp wet dirty smell of concrete. There is no cool breeze or warm wind hitting your body because you are surrounded by four large walls with a screen on top. All you hear is the wind blowing on the screen above you.
The SHU kinda reminds me of a maze you know the kind where you let a guinea pig run around in and open certain doors so it can move more freely in certain areas. Once in a while you will see a bird on the top of the screen in the yard looking down at you and probably thinking to itself, “Boy I am glad I am not in your shoes”.
I was recently revalidated and received another six years in the SHU for a photo copy of a drawing that was in Low Rider Arte Magazine. The photo copy was found in my property. It was a drawing of an Aztec Warrior Woman with a shield and on the shield was a symbol that the Aztec’s used back then. The CDCR felt that the symbol that was on the shield was some kind of connection to a prison gang. The second thing they used was that my name and number was found on someone else’s property in their cell. These are the two items that they ridiculously used against me, to keep me in the SHU and put that label that they used against us when they address the public by calling us, “The worse of the worst”.
CDCR will readily employ any and all farces to violate whatever minute of freedom of expression we have left in an effort to accomplish their agenda. That agenda is to keep us entombed, powerless, voiceless and compliant for as long as possible; while they extort the highest dollar amount from tax payers to cover our security housing Placement and to fill their pockets.
The CDCR unabashedly structures every policy and regulation to benefit their paychecks and pensions. Every Assembly bill or law that is pushed into Sacramento is designed to fatten their treasure chest under the guise of “Public Safety”. The California Department Corruption and Rehabilitation “Term currently espoused is pure window dressing for the general public. Knowing this alone is one of the daily tortures on ones mind and that the public is unaware of this going on behind these walls at their cost.
Why are we sent here? The state claims that were members and associates of prison gangs. How long are we kept here? Until we die, become a snitch or parole. Some might think it makes perfect sense to isolate men with a gang mentality, but when the policy is examined it’s clearly flawed. The prisons are full of people who’ve grown up in gangs, so 90% of the prison population has a predisposition to a gang mentality.
In my opinion the policy serves no point, all it does is remove older, calmer and wiser men from the general population. The only result is the younger more excitable and less experienced men are left to run wild. Let me ask you this, how many people do you know that were wild as hell and unpredictable while in their 20s and early 30s but settled down in their 40s and 50s? Really that’s how most men are. I wonder what the world would be like if it were governed by aggressive young to middle age men. I bet it would be a far more dangerous place. Just as you would expect the California Prison System is far more violent today than when it was first implemented. I can only hope for the best for myself and the rest of the men in Solitary Confinement for now.
My main concern is the future and all the young men who will have to endure a place like this for the rest of their lives. I hope there will be a new policy that CDCR will draw up for all “Solitary Confinement” throughout California that will benefit the inmates, not their pockets. For now I will hold on to my dignity, standards and character, something no one can touch, not even CDCR.
Thank you all for your time.
P.S. It was Emiliano Zapata who said, “I prefer dying on my feet than living on my knees”.
These are sobering words from an obviously lucid man. Words that make me value my freedom that much more. Words that inspire me to want to show love to those around me that much more. Words that have inspired me to want to add my voice to stopping the insanity of long term solitary confinement incarceration as shown on the 60 Minutes video. Words that make me look at Thanksgiving Day in a whole new light.
Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah - Michael@TheHomeInspector.com - Originally written 11/25/2013
NOTE: Washington Irving Junior High School was 7th, 8th, and 9th grades during my 1974-76 tenure. I see that it is now named Washington Irving Middle School and features 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. I wish the change happened decades ago and I could have completed 9th grade at the much more impressive and friendly Eagle Rock High School.
NOTE 2: Washington Irving has changed again. The internet shows it is now called the Irving Magnet School and is painted white and vibrant blue and features grades 5th through 8th. LINK