Posted by Guest
(This is a guest blog authored by medical cannabis prisoner Stephanie Landa, who is currently serving a 41-month sentence in federal prison for growing medical cannabis. She was recently placed in solitary confinement after testing positive for medical cannabis use.)
One of the worst aspects of being in solitary confinement is you never know when it will end. Once you‘ve served out the time of your punishment, you cannot leave the “special housing unit” until the prison designates you to a prison within their system.
They don’t start this process until you finish your punishment time. After all, you could die in the hole. Or, more likely, do something stupid and earn more time in solitary, which would mean the designation process would have to be started all over. It can take up to three months as it is.
So you wait and try to be patient, dreading spending the holidays in solitary but dreading more being subjected to diesel therapy, inmate slang for long bus rides during which you are shackled for up to 24 hours at a time. Finally, the hole gets to you and you just want out, you don’t care where they send you.
And you don’t really know what’s going on outside of the cell. Mail arrives a week after it’s sent, unless it’s a holiday and then it’s even longer. Once you finish your punishment time you are allowed one fifteen minute phone call a week. The guard shoves the phone through a hole in the door at floor level. You huddle on a filthy, icy floor to use it.
Well, unbeknownst to me, a lot was going on outside my tiny cell. When I first went in, my friend Sarah founded the Landa Prison Outreach Program to see if there was anything that could be done for patients once they went inside. The idea was that I would be the test subject, we’d follow my progress through the prison system and see what could be done.
Sarah visited eighteen days the first year I was in, making the long trip from Los Angeles by car each time. She paid a lot of attention to the prison bureaucracy and would question federal prisoners closely once they came out, always looking for the most recent information about prison life.
She was the first friend to learn what had happened to me, my family contacted her right away. But unlike my friends or family, she knew exactly what I was going to be facing in solitary, federal prisoners had described it to her many times, she’d even seen footage of four inmates trying to live in 4’ X 6’ solitary confinement cells.
To say Sarah went into overdrive, is an understatement of epic proportions. She got ahold of my attorney, Allison Margolin, and when Sarah finished describing what life in the hole would be like for someone who was in severe, chronic pain, my attorney told Sarah, “Leave no stone unturned.”
This meant that if Sarah was unsuccessful in extracting me from solitary, and getting me designated back into the Dublin prison population, Allison would appeal out into open court on my behalf. This was a great kindness, there was no way I could pay Allison for her work.
Secure in the knowledge that my lawyer had her back, Sarah went to work. I could tell she was upset, phrases like: “that just tears it” and “this crosses a line” started to appear in her letters. She wouldn’t promise anything, just asked me to stay out of trouble while she started the delicate process of dealing with the Bureau of Prisons.
I began to get copies of letters she’d sent to the warden, quietly explaining that I was elderly, ill and in chronic pain. The Cc’s often took up half a page, she sent copies to all my counselors and case managers as well as anyone else who might be able to help.
Don Duncan, of Americans for Safe Access, was also on the list of people who were getting copies of these letters. He wrote to the warden on my behalf as well. As Americans for Safe Access has 35,000 members and a fairly famous legal department, his involvement in my case did not go unnoticed by the prison bureaucracy.
The letters were always polite, but they made it clear that I was not alone. Sarah was well versed in my physical and mental state. If they chose to ignore these friendly warnings…
Unbeknownst to both of us, my counselor was not really getting any of these missives, her husband had been murdered and she was on leave. But, I had been an enthusiastic participant in a number of prison programs, and had gotten along well with the counselors who managed those programs. Sarah knew all their names and copied them on all the letters.
Realizing there was no one really overseeing my designation process, several of them, notably Mr. Orla, started looking into my designation.
Mr. Orla came to me one night. He didn’t look happy. I want you to pray tonight, he said, really pray. I didn’t think it would do any good, but I prayed anyway.
The next day, the guards came and told me to “roll it up” I’d been designated! I could leave the SHU and see daylight again. But where was I going? I asked. You’re staying right here with us, they assured me.
I cannot even describe what it was like to come out of that freezing, stinking, cell, and go back into the regular prison. It seemed like I’d shot out of hell and gone straight to paradise.
I was still in jail of course, but for the first time in several months, I was warm. Everywhere I looked things were clean. I called Sarah twice that day, she was the first person I talked to after my mother and son. “I’m calling because I can!” I shouted. She knew what that meant, it meant I was out of solitary. She just cracked up, laughing and crying at the same time.
Word had apparently gotten around about me. Traditionally you’re not allowed to shop at the prison commissary except on a designated day. The prison orderly who manages the commissary made an exception so the first day I was out I loaded up on everything from clothing to tuna fish. I couldn’t even carry it all back to my bunk, fellow prisoners had to help me drag it back.
For the first time in three months my stomach was full. I could shower and change into clean clothes when ever I wished. I could call home, several times a day if I wanted to. I was warm. For the first time in a long time I saw the sun. These things I, like everyone else, had always taken for granted. But when they are taken away, you never take them for granted again.
Of course, I’m in jail, not visiting Disneyland. Because this is a higher security prison part of the drill is “controlled movement.” You can move from one area to another if you’re not on lockdown, but the doors that allow you to pass are only unlocked for ten minutes each hour.
I’m having trouble getting used to this, so I get caught places I don’t want to be. And get stuck inside when I want to go outside. I will get used to it eventually.
I am glad to see the sky after three long months, but it’s not guaranteed. We are locked down a lot. There are a great many more fights here than at the camp. The reason for this is you cannot even get into a camp unless you have a demonstrated history of non-violence, both in your crime and your behavior during incarceration.
You can also work your way into camp status by really behaving yourself in a higher security prison. This part of the jail houses people who haven’t developed the ability to behave reasonably enough to qualify for camp status.
The fights are scary and there’s a lot of them. I’ve decided it’s OK to be frightened sometimes. The overcrowding doesn’t help, there were 300 women at the camp, there are over 1,500 here.
When trouble erupts, we are locked into our cells. The cells are ten feet by six feet, and contain bunk beds, a sink, toilet, and four storage lockers. I can touch the bunk bed opposite me when I lay down. When all four of us have to stand up for count, we barely fit.
They had me working in the kitchen, beginning at 5am. It’s one of the worst jobs in the prison. I don’t know why an elderly woman with only one working arm has been assigned to the kitchen, and the orthopedic surgeon the prison had examine me, agreed.
I am now on what they call “idle” status and don’t have to work in the kitchen or anywhere else, I can just rest and nurse my arm. The surgery is too complex, the prison system has no one who could do it, but they are obviously aware of the problem and have taken what steps they can.
For instance, when I brought the doctor’s note back to the guard station, they immediately took it to the kitchen and told the supervisor I was done. Very unusual, but such a great kindness, because I could immediately cease working in the kitchen, rather than having to wait.
It was only later, when I was able to move around again, that I learned what had happened, the real story as to why I was able to remain at Dublin, instead of being shipped away.
When the staff started looking into my designation, which is done at a central office in Grand Prairie, Texas, they realized that the system was going to designate me to a remote prison. The combination of overcrowding, lack of movement over the holidays, and the fact there are few female prisons, meant I would have to go clear across the country.
They’d started a round of doctor’s appointments for me, and they had enough results to know I couldn’t make the trip. Sarah hadn’t been lying to them about my physical condition and she’d made it clear it would be unconscionable to move me. If I was injured further while experiencing diesel therapy, there would be legal consequences.
So, I think what they did was lose my paperwork, or find some other mechanism to keep me in the higher security prison at Dublin. The warden himself had assured me they’d do everything possible to keep me. I have to believe that the fact I was designated in thirty days instead of ninety, and ended up here, was the direct result of staff intervention, rather than God’s will.
The Dublin counselors and case managers did everything they could to ensure I wasn’t shipped away. When they realized how ill I was, they got me out of solitary in one third of the time it usually takes. People must sit in the SHU until they are designated, and that can take up to ninety days.
I’m now at the higher security prison across the street from my old camp. Although my movement is severely restricted, it’s a big improvement over the SHU and warmer and cleaner than the camp.
Best of all, I narrowly escaped an extreme amount of diesel therapy in the middle of winter. The reason Mr. Orla had asked me to pray was he knew the central office had designated me for Tallahassee, Florida, a full continent away from friends and family. He wasn’t sure the Dublin staff would be able to intervene in time.
So, Chanukah came a little early for me this year. I wanted to send everyone who writes to me holiday greetings, but my address book was stored with my other things when I went into solitary and they haven’t returned my property to me yet. So if you haven’t heard from me in awhile, my new address is below. Drop me a line so I know where to write to you.
Stephanie Landa 09247-800
Dublin FCI Unit A
5701 8th Street – Camp Parks
Dublin, CA 94568