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The Quagmire of Doing Prison Reform in California

Donald “C-Note” Hooker

The Summer of Racial Reckoning has brought an influx of individuals and organizations interested in the movement to end mass incarceration. Those living in California are discovering some former prisoners are uncomfortable with, or flat-out refuse, to work with other former prisoners.

One-third of California prisoners are jailhouse snitches. As a result, it has the largest population of prisoners in protective custody in the nation. This subset of 40,000 people, is 1% of the population of California as a whole. Government analysis have determined this to be an untrustworthy group. Interactions with this subset have determined this trait of untrustworthiness, is not a trait in some instances, but is a collective trait as a whole. As a result, governmental agencies have either prohibited transactions with this group, or restricted transactions requiring Senior Management approval.

“Jailhouse Snitch Testimony Is Backfiring in California,” VICE, 2015;

“How This Con Man’s Wild Testimony Sent Dozens to Jail, and 4 to Death Row,” NEW YORK TIMES, 2019;

“Lying prisoners: New laws crack down on jailhouse informants,” AP NEWS, 2019;

“Jailhouse Snitches,” THE MARSHALL PROJECT

“The Shadowy World of Jailhouse Informants: Explained,” THE APPEAL, 2018;

“Informing injustice: The disturbing use of jailhouse informants,” INNOCENCE PROJECT, 2019

“30 Years of Jailhouse Snitch Scandals,” PROPUBLICA, 2019

Human beings are social beings. Social cohesion has no immunity against a social pathogen, like lying. Jailhouse snitches are in essence, pathological Liars. Paid professionals like the police, prosecutors, judges, prison guards, and prison administrators, all whose job description is to detect lying, all have waved the white flag of surrender to this pathogen, i.e., the jailhouse snitch.

In the criminal justice system, police and prosecutors rely on eyewitnesses to criminal activity. In most cases, there is no quid pro quo (something for something), for the witness’s cooperation. The exception is the jailhouse snitch. Their use as witnesses had long since backfired on police and prosecutors. In the late 1990s, the California Department of Corrections created a snitch Factory, by requiring prisoners to inform on other prisoners to qualify for their newly created Sensitive Need Yard (SNY). General population prisoners, willingness to inform on other general population prisoners, was a huge success. It is what led to California’s status as home to the largest prisoner population of inmates needing protective custody (PC). But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), no longer sees the program as a success, but an abject failure. They now hold the position, these jailhouse snitches, many of whom were gang members, were lying. As a result, they now have a policy of forced integration. This policy forces jailhouse snitches to be rehoused with the very prisoners they informed on. To understand the impact of the snitch culture, is to tell the story of Bobby. Bobby is a Mexican-American with over 30 years of incarceration. Half of his confinement was spent in solitary confinement, until the courts ended long-term solitary confinement. Five years ago, he went to the parole board and is up for parole this month. As a result of this parole board hearing, he recently discovered five confidential informant Chronos have been placed in his prison file. One for every year since his last parole hearing. According to CDCR rules, prisoners must be informed in writing, when they have been informed on by other prisoners. This never happened here. He never was placed in solitary confinement as a result of being informed on, nor received a rule violation. Yet, in all likelihood, he will be denied parole because of these confidential informant Chronos.

Another factor to consider when employing jailhouse snitches into your social movement, is no matter how benign your objectives are, they still are in opposition to government policy. Officialdom will not passively watch a movement build in opposition to their official governmental policies. According to records obtained by the ACLU under a Free­dom Of Infor­ma­tion Act request, the FBI has tar­geted people involved in a ​“veg­an com­mu­ni­ty project” in Indi­anapo­lis; the Catholic Work­er move­ment and its ​“semi-commu­nis­tic ide­ol­o­gy”; Code Pink, the anti-war coali­tion, Unit­ed for Peace and Jus­tice; Green­peace; and atten­dees of the Third Nation­al Orga­niz­ing Conference on Iraq, which was held at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty in May 2005. Accord­ing to these doc­u­ments, in some cas­es, the FBI received information about those under surveillance from informers with­in the tar­get­ed groups. See, “FBI, DoD, NSA: All Spying on You” | In These Times

As the evidence shows, even vegetarians and peace-loving Grannies get spied on. A jailhouse snitch would be seen by any governmental agent as a likely candidate to approach for providing intell on your social movement. They already have a history of informing on their associates. Members to a social movement could wakeup to find that a jailhouse snitch has kept the minutes (records), of their meetings, better than the secretary or clerk assigned to do so. Such an embarrassment has a real potential to damage the organization’s social cohesion, and to discourage the entry of new volunteers.

Another factor to consider when building a social movement with jailhouse snitches, is the existential threat to themselves and to those around them. In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown personally blocked the release of one of California’s most famous jailhouse snitches, Rene Enriquez. The Governor wrote, “Enriquez is a high-profile drop out targeted by the Mexican Mafia. Mr. Enriquez’s parole poses a serious security risk to him, his family, his parole agents, and the community in which he is placed.”

Prisoners who parole as general population (GP), are keenly aware of walking in the shadow of a paroled SNY. It’s like signing a death warrant. No one knows who they told on, and to what degree someone, some gang, or other criminal organization has a bounty on their head. To date, the only articles being published are from SNYs pleading for unity with the GPs in working together to end mass incarceration. But these pleas are like the cries from a cheating Lover. Now caught, they want everything to go back to how it was before. While some can forgive a cheater, for others, it’s a deal-breaker. New California volunteers to this movement need to be very clear-eyed, about the kind of organizational values they want to associate themselves with, prior to entering this social justice space.

[C-Note has written for Prison Action News, California Prison Focus, and has been in People Magazine, Public Television-Los Angeles (KCET), and ABC-Los Angeles (KABC). He is a native of Los Angeles, poet, playwright, performing artist, award-winning visual artist, and King of Prison Hip Hop. His works have either been exhibited, recited, performed, or sold, from Alcatraz to Berlin. In 2017, Google Search listed him first in their results, as America’s, and the world’s, most prolific prisoner-artist. To learn more, visit ].

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