By Claude Marks / Original to ScheerPost
California prisoner, Talib Williams, is bringing a class action lawsuit on his behalf as well as other Black incarcerated people who were targeted by a July 20, 2020 raid at Soledad, California’s Correctional Training Facility (CTF). The suit seeks a reprieve from the state-sponsored terror that is their norm. Injunctive and declaratory relief, among other remedies, are necessary to stop the violence, change CDCR policy, and compensate the prisoners for the degradation they have suffered.
The raid took place against the backdrop of nationwide Black-led uprisings that occurred after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. It was part of a white supremacist backlash against the demands for justice for Black people across the country.
On July 20, 2020, at approximately 3am, CDCR officers and investigators from CTF, other nearby prisons and headquarters including Special Services Units (“SSU”), Institutional Gang Investigator (IGI) units, and Office of Correctional Safety Gang Investigation Officers (“OCS GIO”), dressed in full riot gear with tape over their nametags, tore approximately 200 Black people at CTF from their beds. They slammed them to the ground or against their cell walls, hand cuffed and zip-tied their hands, and dragged them out of their cells. Some IGI and SSU officers placed Black incarcerated people in chokeholds and headlocks, pushed them down the stairs, punched and kicked them, and placed their knees on their victims’ necks in the same manner that George Floyd was brutally murdered. Barefoot and unmasked—wearing nothing but boxer briefs—200 Black people were forced out of their housing units and led towards the dining hall.
After being beaten and brutalized by CDCR officers, all 200 Black prisoners sat shivering on stainless steel stools in the dining hall with their hands zip tied behind their backs—unmasked, barefoot, and practically naked. The men demanded medical attention, and they demanded masks as this was in the middle of the COVID pandemic. Dozens of SSU, IGI and CDCR correctional officers stood by and ignored their cries for help. Instead, the officers screamed: “I hope you motherfuckers get COVID!” and “Black lives don’t matter!” One officer in the gun tower pointed his rifle at them while they chanted “Black lives matter!”
Talib Williams was one of the Black prisoners brutalized and detained during the raid. When Talib complained to one of the officers involved in the raid about his abuse, the officer told him, “You shouldn’t have been Black.”
None of the officers involved in the raid wore name tags, though Talib Williams recognized Officer Martinez, a known racist with multiple complaints against him for making racist comments and attempting to incite hostilities between Black and Latinx people at CTF. The warden of CTF, Craig Koenig, was also present during the raid and was observed high fiving the officers, yelling, “Good strike!”
While detainees were packed in the dining hall, zip tied and cold, for approximately six hours they were also subjected to visual cavity searches without privacy and escorted to offices where they were again forced to strip naked while officers took photographs of their bodies.
The prisoners were then interrogated about their feelings about Black Lives Matter and the prevalence of support for Black Lives Matter within the prison. Some were also interrogated about alleged associations with the Black Guerilla Family (BGF). When the men were finally released, many returned to cells that had been looted by IGI and SSU officers. In some instances, they were deprived of their property for nearly two months, including addresses of family members and friends, writing supplies, and legal paperwork.
Numerous people who were targeted in the raid contracted COVID-19, which caused COVID to soar to the highest numbers in the state, causing multiple deaths among the general population that prior to the raid had no cases of the coronavirus.
After the raid, many Black incarcerated people were then placed under suspect status or validated as being affiliated with a STG, primarily the Black Guerilla Family (BGF), using solely protected speech and associations as evidence of Security Threat Group status. Many people at CTF are approaching their Board of Parole Hearing (BPH) dates after spending decades in prison. CTF is a level II institution that historically has offered programming to people approaching release, which means most of the people locked up there have low classification scores indicative of nonviolent correctional records. Being labeled as a BGF-Security Threat Group (“STG”) member leads is perceived by the board and assessing mental health professionals as a significant risk for release. People with suspected and validated STG status are also experiencing ongoing violence and intimidation by CDCR officials, who are themselves an organized security threat group. The real STG, the correctional officers, were permitted to torture Black incarcerated people with impunity, before, during, and after the raid.
The BGF emerged in response to the systemic oppression of Black people inside prison walls. The organization’s roots are in the Black Power movement—a political and social revolution that began during the 1960s and 1970s, that emphasized self-respect, pride, and empowerment of Black people. It grew out of political education classes taught in San Quentin State Prison by cofounder George Jackson. Jackson’s goal was to raise awareness, concern, and unity among incarcerated people about systemic discrimination faced by Black people and the intense repression they experienced behind bars. The CDCR has always criminalized the BGF and their underlying politics, calling them gang members. George Jackson was murdered in San Quentin in August of 1971.
The day after the raid, Talib Williams learned that the CDCR referred to the raid as “Operation Akili,” named after a Swahili word that means intelligence. Apparently, the CDCR was attempting to gather intelligence on Black people in custody. There has been no Black gang activity at CTF for years. None of CTF’s program status reports within the last three years refer to any Black Security Threat Group (STG) activity—not even in the days leading up to the raid. Despite this, CTF attempted to justify its actions by claiming that those targeted were suspected gang members. Indeed, in the week following the July 20, 2020 raid, an estimated 50-70 prisoners received validation packets identifying them as suspects, associates or members of a STG, primarily the Black Guerilla Family (BGF). The men were notified by the institution that the raid was conducted in response to potential STG activity and made clear that the overall purpose was to determine whether they followed or supported ideology related to Black Lives Matter and to threaten them against following such beliefs.
Talib Williams has been imprisoned since he was 17 years old. Throughout nearly two decades of incarceration, he has educated himself and others on issues of systemic racism and toxic masculinity. He has authored three books while incarcerated, started a non-profit organization, become a respected Imam in the prison’s Muslim community, and facilitated a toxic masculinity workshop for incarcerated people – which was the subject of a CNN documentary entitled “The Feminist on Cellblock Y.” The prison system has attempted to silence Talib with constant cell searches, an aggressive campaign to validate him as a member of the Black Guerilla Family, retaliatory Rules Violation Reports (“RVRs”), and violent raids.
Talib noticed that the officer who escorted him to the counselor’s office held a packet that contained his picture with the word “Target” in red letters. Two plain clothed correctional officers proceeded to interrogate him about the Black Lives Matter movement. They asked him: “How do you feel about what happened to George Floyd?” After discussing his opinions on police brutality and racial bias, Talib asked the officers if the raid was a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd. One of the officers responded, “You have some tattoos on you that indicate you’re BGF.” The officers then interrogated him about his tattoos and BGF affiliation. He repeatedly told the officers that he is not a member or affiliate of the BGF.
After an hour of questioning, Talib was finally escorted back to his cell. His cell had been raided. All his paperwork, writing paper, envelopes, letters, pictures, photo albums, phone books, and books were gone. He found a “Security Squad Receipt” that said “paperwork” was the only thing the officers took from his cell.
The prison finally claimed they had source items to validate Talib as a member of BGF – BGF “symbols” (the image of George Jackson), a “direct link” to the BGF (the Confidential Reliable Informant), written materials (Blood in My Eye), and tattoos and/or body markings (Mr. Williams’s tattoos of a dragon, crescent moon and star, and quote from the Qur’an). Included in their ‘proof’ – while he was at California Men’s Colony in 2013, IGI officers raided Talib’s cell and uncovered an address book with his father’s name and CDCR identification number. At the time, he was rebuilding his relationship with his father, who had been incarcerated since his youth and was a ‘validated’ member of BGF. Unfortunately for Talib, as a Black man in custody, merely possessing his father’s name and contact information was considered by the CDCR to be evidence of gang activity.
This class action suit seeks to hold the CDCR accountable for violating the Constitution of United States. The allegations are shocking to the conscience and part and parcel of CDCR’s history of documented violence against Black incarcerated people, particularly Black people who dare to advocate for Black liberation and who expose CDCR’s gross abuses of power and dehumanization of Black lives.
In 2011, people incarcerated in CDCR institutions began statewide hunger strikes to nonviolently protest indefinite solitary confinement. The first strike drew 6,600 participants statewide, the second 12,000, and a third in 2013, 30,000 participants – the largest prison hunger strike in history.
In 2012 a suit Ashker v. Brown was filed on behalf of thousands of prisoners across the state of California who were languishing in solitary confinement in Special Housing Units (SHU). Their indefinite and prolonged confinement in torturous isolation was based not on actual misconduct. Before the Ashker suit, prisoners were routinely placed in prolonged – sometimes decades long – solitary confinement for simply being accused of gang affiliation by prison authorities.
Also in August 2012, the leaders of Black, white and Latinx groups from the Pelican Bay SHU, organized to draft the Agreement to End Hostilities (“AEH”), which condemned CDCR’s divide-and-conquer method and called for an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between racial groups. The AEH was premised on the groups’ recognition that the tactics used by the CDCR created conditions that produced and encouraged conflict and that as long as those conflicts were unresolved, it was impossible to build the unity to fight against the prison infrastructure to win human rights demands. A representative from nearly every known group signed the AEH and it successfully reduced the amount of violence occurring on prison yards by half.
California and Federal courts have also overseen other lawsuits and class actions that have exposed CDCR’s encouragement of race wars, gladiator fights, suppression of free speech, and the discriminatory targeting of Black lives. The CDCR is following common policies –to destroy the prisoner organized racial peace accords and to justify their systemic racist practices. This abuse of power involves the top leadership in the CDCR, the Office or Correctional Safety (“OCS”), correctional officers and correctional officer associations.
Unsurprisingly, the July 2020 Soledad prison raid coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement protests that are wrongly viewed by CDCR as a kill or be killed attack on law enforcement. The raid was one of many strikes carried out with the goal of inciting fear in Black incarcerated people for, as one officer told Talib Williams, “Being Black.”
This new suit seeks a reprieve from the state-sponsored terror that is their norm. Injunctive and declaratory relief, among other remedies, are necessary to stop the violence, change CDCR policy, and compensate the prisoners for the degradation they have suffered.
Claude Marks is the co-founder and co-director of the Freedom Archives and is a long time prison justice advocate.