Living with love in a cage
Karen Modjeski sits in her bus seat looking out the window. The sun is setting, giving the atmosphere outside a golden color. Her long earrings sway to the convulsions of the bus.
Many of the people she rides with, activists from Los Angeles, are sleeping. They had traveled to Corcoran State Prison to march and rally in support of inmates who are protesting California’s use of long-term solitary confinement.
But for Modjeski, her protest was also a demonstration of love.
“My husband has been in solitary for over 10 years,” she says. “He is completely by himself for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Six days ago, on July 8, some 30,000 prisoners across the state began a hunger strike and work stoppage protest. Modjeski’s husband, who is held at Pelican Bay State Prison, is one of them.
The prisoners have many appeals for reform, but there are five main demands.
They are asking for an end to long-term solitary confinement, an elimination of group punishments, adequate food, an expansion of some privileges and an end to the policy of “debriefing,” a process of informing on other prisoners.
In late 2012, prison officials attempted some reforms after a previous hunger strike. Prisoners were granted small amenities, such as pull-up bars or combined TV/radios, but their core demands were not met.
Modjeski says on a good day her husband is let outside in the yard for an hour to an hour and a half. But for anyone in solitary confinement, the yard is just another isolated cage. Though he is outside, the concrete walls surrounding him are so high he never gets direct sunlight.
Modjeski is white, her husband Hispanic. The lack of sun, she says, has made his skin as pale as hers.
Modjeski’s husband exercises three hours a day. It’s a routine, she says, to help keep his mind in shape more than his body. Since being in isolation, his memory, at 38 years of age, has begun to fail him. He still remembers things from childhood well enough. It’s the little things, however, that are beginning to slip away, like how to spell simple words.
When he writes a letter to her, Modjeski’s husband will cross off words he can’t remember to spell instead of erasing them. He does this, she says, so they can keep track of his deterioration.
Alone and endlessly pondering his thoughts as if caught inside an intellectual loop, Modjeski says her husband tends to over think things as a result. Minor things, she says, have a way of becoming significant and worrisome to him, which only adds to his already stressful situation.
“More than anything, the mental torture for him is probably what’s gotten to him the most,” she says.
Modjeski says her husband is in good health. Many prisoners in solitary confinement, however, report suffering from frequent illnesses. She sends her husband $50 a month so he may buy food from the canteen to offset, what she calls, the “toddler portions” that are served to him.
But there are other concerns for his physical health beyond a lack of food or illness. Modjeski says she has seen her husband with black eyes and cuts.
“He won’t tell me what happened for, I’m sure, many reasons,” she says, “He doesn’t want me to worry and he’s not going to say it to me on the phone that they are recording our conversation with. But, he is in a cell all by himself. How could he possibly be injured by anyone other than a corrections officer?”
More than any other reason, this is why Modjeski marched this July day, in a temperature of 101 degrees for nearly three miles. It was to say, I love you.
Technically, Modjeski is engaged to get married, but she speaks of her fiance as her husband. It’s a distinction of legality, not of heart.
They plan to get married next year, but when the groom is in solitary confinement, planning can be a challenge. Their biggest hope is to be able to touch one another on their wedding day, as opposed to exchanging vows between prison glass.
Modjeski attended high school with some of her husband’s family. Through them, she connected with him on Facebook. Cupid struck quickly and, after six months of writing each other, she began visiting him.
Modjeski lives in San Diego, which is about a 14-hour drive to Pelican Bay State Prison. She visits her husband every three to four weeks.
Her two daughters, ages 12 and 15, and her 20 year-old step-son, joined her for the march and rally. They are seated nearby. Her two daughters keep a watchful eye on their mother while she is being interviewed.
Modjeski, 40, wears a T-shirt that reads, “Stop the Torture.” She speaks with a gentle cadence that sometimes borders on grief-stricken.
She has paid a heavy price for having a relationship with an inmate, but as she once explained to her father, “You don’t choose who you fall in love with.”
The conservative, upper middle-class family that raised her doesn’t support her loving a man behind bars.
“My father has basically disowned me because of this relationship,” she says.
Modjeski considers such attitudes, whether from her father or from an anonymous Internet post that says prisoners should have no rights, to be based on ignorance. People don’t understand, she says, the realities of prison inmates or the prison system, much less the socio-economic factors that put many people behind bars.
She’s aware of her white privilege, recognizing the criminal justice system’s penchant for locking up poor minorities. She observed first hand her father paying good money to get his brother cleared of charges related to selling cocaine, so she knows how important money is in keeping Lady Justice blind.
But for all her empathy and compassion, Modjeski doesn’t come off as deluded either. She is not fighting her husband’s incarceration. She is protesting the fact he has been in a tiny, windowless room for over 10 years.
“I’m not saying my husband is innocent. I know what he has done,” she says. “And he would never say he is innocent. He had admitted to the things he’s done, and he has said, ‘I should be punished.’”
That is, except for his last crime.
Modjeski’s husband landed in prison with the help of California’s Three Strikes Law, which maximized the sentencing on his third crime. He is serving 73 years to life for allegedly shooting at police officers and leading them on a 12-hour chase. Modjeski says he didn’t shoot at the cops.
“He always admitted to everything he did, but he wasn’t going to plead guilty to something he didn’t do,” she says.
Once in prison, Modjeski’s husband was placed in a Security Housing Unit because a weapon was found in his cell. (A Security Housing Unit, or SHU, is the prison system’s term for solitary confinement, though sometimes prisoners in the SHU do have cellmates.)
Modjeski’s husband said the weapon belonged to his cellmate; his cellmate said it belonged to him. Prison authorities believed the cellmate.
That confinement, one in which he had a cellmate, was supposed to be short-term. But a physical altercation with his cellmate got him a longer detention in the SHU.
The final blow came when prison officials “validated” Modjeski’s husband as a member of the Mexican mafia, which was based on another inmate’s testimony. Now, with gang affiliation alleged, he would stay in solitary confinement for as long as prison authorities deemed necessary.
When Modjeski’s husband was up for his six-year review, prison authorities re-validated him based on some Aztec art they found in his cell several years ago, which was determined gang-related. Other evidence came from another prisoner in solitary confinement who debriefed so he could be released from the SHU.
Alleged gang affiliation, which prison officials believe they can determine via the possession of certain artwork, tattoos and through confidential informants, is a common reason why prisoners are placed in solitary confinement.
One of the criticisms of the debriefing process is that prisoners have no way of contesting the hearsay evidence brought against them. Another criticism is that inmates who debrief may say anything just to get out of solitary confinement.
“They never provide the inmate proof,” says Modjeski. “The gang investigation unit can make up that stuff. We don’t know whether it is true or not. And debriefers, they are going to give up whatever they want to give up, because they want to get out of there.”
“How is that fair? That is a violation of due process,” she adds. “This is punishment on top of punishment. It’s not constitutional. They do have rights. They are human beings; they have basic human rights.”
The bus carrying Modjeski stops at Cesar Chavez Park in Cororan, next to Mark Twain Elementary School. It’s a quiet residential neighborhood. Few people are seen outside. The air is dry, the sun assaulting. The shift from the air-conditioned bus is unsettling and many quickly apply gobs of sunscreen to their skin.
Across the street in the park are hundreds of other activists from around the state who are preparing to march and rally at the prison.
Gilbert Pacheco, whose brother has been in the SHU at Corcoran prison for the past three years, welcomes everyone to the park. Pacheco, who lives in Bakersville, comes every Sunday to Corcoran to visit his brother for an hour.
“I really appreciate all you guys coming out here. It’s a beautiful thing,” says Pacheco. “We are all here for the same reason, to support these men. So, hold those posters high, take all those pictures and send all those pictures in to them. They need the support.”
Pacheco said that after being in prison for six years, prison authorities determined his brother a member of the Mexican mafia and placed him in solitary confinement.
“His spirits seem to be high,” says Pacheco about his brother. “Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming for him being in there everyday. It’s hard for him not to be able to hug us and his nieces and nephews.”
Pacheco’s brother, who is currently striking with the other prisoners, participated in the 2011 hunger strike that protested conditions in the SHU. Pacheco says his brother, along with many others, were punished for their participation in the last hunger strike with longer stays in solitary confinement.
“He stood up for an injustice and got reprimanded for it,” he says.
Los Angeles’ Aztec dancers, a cultural staple at many of LA’s protests, were also there to perform their dances and call for justice. As their bare feet pound on the park’s brown grass, sweat pours from underneath their feathered headdresses and onto their foreheads. Their energy is subdued by the heat, but they maintain their rhythm.
A medical team, set up by nurses and volunteers, warn of heat exhaustion and urge everyone to stay hydrated.
When it comes time to leave, some take busses and cars to a rallying point outside the prison. Others, an unfortunate, yet brave lot, attempt to march nearly three miles to the prison. Modjeski is one of the marchers.
“Together we stand for the five demands,” the protesters chant.
But, as the march progresses, the chants become angrier. A militant group of activists begin to direct their frustration at law enforcement in general.
“No justice, no peace; fuck the police,” becomes a new chant.
Modjeski begins to distance herself from the group at that point. She wishes they would not dilute the issue and remain focused on ending solitary confinement.
“The police, today, I thought were very respectful,” she says afterward. “I don’t think any of them were rude to us. They were doing their job.”
“We do need police,” she adds with exasperation.
Breaking all stereotypes on how prison inmates behave, the prisoners themselves are endeavoring to find a solution to their problems with non-violence. In this instance, Modjeski holds the prisoners up as a model of good behavior.
“The guys are doing a peaceful protest and we should be carrying that through,” she says.
As the protesters leave the park and get closer to the prison, the more desolate the landscape becomes. The City of Corcoran, a town the local Chamber of Commerce promotes as a great place to live and raise a family, ceases to exist. In its place is a public relations nightmare.
The road to the prison is surrounded by dusty, gray fields that seem incapable of supporting life. As a last slap in the face, a nearby water treatment plant blasts the demonstrators with the aroma of human waste. And the prison, with its cyclone fence, dying pine trees and grass-less fields offers no photo-op either.
But no matter how difficult the march may be, or how ugly its surroundings, the protesters remind themselves that their experience is nothing compared to the hardships of the prisoners they support.
“I broke down once on the walk today because I started thinking, I’m over here complaining about this walk and they’re starving,” says Modjeski.
After a day in 101-degree heat, the bus’ air-conditioning doesn’t seem cool enough. While others are sleeping, many sit numb from activity. Occasionally the smell of sweat floats through the air.
Modjeski is still wearing her sunglasses as she looks out the window. The bounty of the San Joaquin Valley, with its many farm fields, orchards and vineyards, is behind her. Ahead is Los Angeles.
She is worried about her husband. The last time she visited him, he told her not to worry, that he knew what he was doing. Some have vowed to strike to the death, but Modjeski’s husband doesn’t want to die. He wants to be with her most of all, he told her.
Modjeski says that gives her some solace, but hunger strikes are nothing to take lightly.
Just eight hours without food, the body’s metabolism slows. The heart slows too. The hunger striker begins to feel chills as the body produces less heat, and hunger pangs begin to grow teeth.
By about 40 days into a hunger strike, there is no more fat left in the body. In its stead, muscle tissue is consumed. The skin gets dry, limbs lack coordination and speech is slurred. Vomiting and difficulty swallowing follows. They may bleed internally.
Beyond that, coma and death.
Modjeski says she is trying to stay busy, to help keep her mind off of what her husband might be going through.
“I pray everyday that this will be over quickly, that [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] will come to their senses,” she says. “Just meet these five core demands. They are not difficult, and they’re not unreasonable.”
As night falls and the bus gets closer to Los Angeles, Modjeski is talking to her children. There is laughter and there is love, an otherwise normal family.
She will continue her advocacy to end solitary confinement, though she has promised her husband that it will not consume her life. Nor does she want this campaign to rob her children of their childhood. But it is her love for her husband, her caged love, that pushes her forward despite the darkness and void in her life.
“I’m not going to leave him because of where he is at,” she says. “It makes it harder, but these guys need to be loved too, and they need to be able to give love so they stay human.”
1. June 9, 2013: Third California prison hunger strike impending unless demands met
2. March 18, 2012: UN help sought over treatment of state prisoners
3. Feb. 12, 2012: Organizing continues over mistreatment of inmates
4. July 24, 2011: Prison hunger strike may be ending, but core issues far from over