The Braille Monitor                                                                                       October 2002

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Advocating for Willie

by Ed and Toni Eames

From the Editor: Ed and Toni Eames are leaders in the NFB of California and active members of the Fresno Chapter. For a decade they have been working hard to help a chapter member who was in prison. We have followed this story through the years, and now comes the long-delayed resolution of it:


Toni and Ed Eames
Toni and Ed Eames

One of our most steadfast local NFB members has not been able to attend a chapter meeting for the last twelve years. Not that Willie Lee Johnson didn't want to be there; he was prevented from doing so by prison bars. On August 10, 2002, when Willie arrived at the meeting, he was warmly welcomed back into the fold with a cheer by NFB of Fresno chapter members.

Willie's encounter with the criminal justice system was detailed in an earlier Monitor article (see the December 1995 issue of the Braille Monitor). However, for those unfamiliar with the case, a short summary of events will set the background for our advocacy efforts on his behalf.

Willie's stepson invited a friend from Sacramento to stay with the family. After the visit had continued for some time, Willie asked Sanders, the twenty-five-year-old guest, to leave. Sanders's challenging comment was that he liked it there, and Willie would have to make him leave. Willie, who believed Sanders was dealing drugs, went to the police for help. They responded by pointing out that, if they came into the home and found drugs, they would have to arrest all the adults, and Willie's twelve-year-old daughter would be placed in foster care. Fearing this result, Willie withdrew the police complaint.

Several weeks later another confrontation took place. Furious and frustrated, Willie went into the guest room, picked up Sanders's shotgun, loaded it, and returned to the living room to shoot out the television and other amenities in order to make the house less attractive. Johnnie, Willie's wife, tried to wrest the shotgun away from him, and it went off in the ensuing struggle, killing Sanders. At the trial the public defender never introduced evidence about the victim's past history of drug convictions or Willie's legal blindness. As a result of this ineptness, Willie was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to fifteen years to life, plus four years for using a weapon.

The incident occurred on July 1, 1990, but it was not until sentencing that Willie was able to contact us through a friend who knew where we lived. At that time Willie asked us to be his advocates on issues involving blindness discrimination. We readily agreed and have been acting in this capacity since.

Initially Willie was housed at New Folsom, a maximum-security facility. Despite having no prior criminal record, he was placed there because of his occupation as a locksmith. Willie is legally blind as a result of macular holes, But since this issue was not brought up in his defense, the custodial staff did not believe he was blind.

Our first advocacy effort was to obtain material from his Fresno ophthalmologist certifying legal blindness. Only after this evidence was produced did the authorities have Willie examined by their own medical staff. Prison doctors verified the condition and strongly recommended his transfer to a medical facility.

After Willie arrived at the California medical facility at Vacaville, he continued to face many restrictions because of his blindness. First and foremost was his inability to obtain access to the law library in order to file appeals. In addition, our effort to enroll him in the NLS Talking Book subregional library in Fresno was thwarted when prison officials would not allow him to have the tape and flexible disc player in his cell. Eventually this issue was resolved, and Willie was able to receive books from NLS, the Braille Monitor, and the Ziegler Magazine.

With Willie's blessing we filed a formal complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). To our delight DOJ sent an investigator from Washington, D.C., to check on the issues raised. In the interim Willie was in contact with and tried to advocate for many of the other blind inmates at Vacaville. When Richard Waters of the DOJ arrived, he was able to speak with more than thirty blind prisoners incarcerated at this institution and catalogued a whole list of blindness-related complaints.

Among the issues raised were the prison administration's unwillingness to provide white canes for blind prisoners, its outlawing of Braille material, and the lack of accommodation in the library. All of these issues became part of the complaint being investigated by DOJ.

Shortly after Waters's visit Willie phoned in a panic (only collect calls can be placed), because prison authorities were taking punitive actions against him and many of the other inmates interviewed. We called Waters, and he was able to stop the harassment of those blind prisoners who had come forward with their complaints.

Despite Waters's findings in the investigation, the DOJ dragged its feet on pressuring the California Department of Corrections (CDC) to implement his recommendations to eliminate discriminatory practices against blind prisoners at Vacaville and other California prisons. Unfortunately for these plaintiffs, a case was filed against the CDC in a federal court under the ADA, and the DOJ indicated it could no longer act on Willie's behalf because the federal court case took precedence over the complaint we had filed on Willie's behalf with them.

Although the federal court eventually found CDC was violating the rights of all disabled prisoners throughout the state, emphasis was placed on removing barriers for physically disabled prisoners in wheelchairs, and blind prisoners' complaints did not receive much attention. In many ways this settlement parallels the situation blind clients of state rehabilitation agencies face when there is no separate agency, sensitive to our particular needs.

On discovering that DOJ had dropped Willie's case, we contacted lawyers at the University of California at Davis Civil Rights Clinic. That organization filed a civil suit on Willie's behalf, claiming that Willie's right to privacy and the legally guaranteed right to develop his own appeal against the conviction had been violated. By not providing reasonable accommodation in the form of a closed-circuit television, the CDC forced Willie to use the services of other prisoners, thus violating his right to privacy and his ability to handle his own appeal. The case was filed in 1993 and was finally settled in 2000, when Willie was awarded a significant sum by CDC.

During the twelve years of his incarceration, Willie was housed at six different prisons. In almost every one issues of access to Braille, cassette, and flexible-disc library material were perennial problems. Braille was frequently viewed as contraband and so not permitted to come through the system. In some prisons we were able to get a reversal of this policy; in others we were able to compromise and have the material housed in the library. When this compromise was worked out, we had to make sure that Willie and other blind prisoners were located near the library to provide genuine access for them.

One policy we were never able to get changed was the ban against personal correspondence by tape cassettes. Administrators universally claimed that, since they could not easily monitor the contents of personal or correspondence cassettes, these could pose a threat to the safety of the institution. We surmised this meant that blind prisoners would be in a particularly advantageous position through the use of tape cassettes to plot prison breaks or disturbances--not highly likely in our view.

One of our most frustrating encounters was with a mail room clerk at Corcoran who insisted she had never heard of Free Matter for the Blind. Thus, when Willie tried to send material back to NLS or other sources marked Free Matter for the Blind, she refused to send them out. We had to send her copies of the regulations and assure her these were not recent innovations before this obstinate clerk would accept Willie's and other prisoners' right to send material labeled free matter.

In addition to activities we undertook for Willie as field representatives of the NFB, we also helped in a more personal way. Aside from his attorneys, we were the only ones he could contact by collect calls. We also visited him occasionally, which entailed a car ride of two to five hours.

When Willie wanted a guitar so he could resume his musical activities, we were able to find one for him. However, getting it into prison was much more difficult. We had to bring the guitar to a local music store where the owner knew Willie and have them package it under their label. To our astonishment prison officials who would not let Braille material in because of the metal in the binders and containers had no problem allowing steel guitar strings.

Every month or so we sent two books of stamps to Willie--the maximum allowed. Occasionally we received a request for a large print or Braille book. These items could not be sent by us but had to be mailed by the publisher or bookstore. About once a year we received a prison‑approved list of items, such as toothpaste, talcum powder, aftershave lotion, sunglasses, and socks, which Willie could receive from us. List in hand, we would go out on a shopping spree to K-Mart, Target, or Wal*Mart. Not only did each item have to conform to the approved list in brand and size, but the actual package had to meet the specified parameters. We quickly learned that a package exceeding the length and width requirements by less than an inch or the maximum weight by an ounce would be returned unopened. It didn't take us long to figure out that, when prison authorities gave specified dimensions, they meant them.

To a certain extent our early advocacy efforts led to Willie's release from prison. With access to prison libraries Willie was able to craft a writ of habeas corpus accepted by the California court of appeals. This court noted that the judge in Willie's case had improperly instructed the jury, and either a new trial had to take place within ninety days, or the charge would have to be dropped to voluntary manslaughter, a crime with a much lighter sentence than the one received by Willie in the second-degree murder conviction.

Initially the Fresno County district attorney said that he would retry the case to make the original conviction stick. However, it soon became evident that he was in no position to retry the case, and on July 18, 2002, Willie was released. Since he had served more than twelve years and the manslaughter charge would have carried a prison sentence of only ten years, Willie's release was not contingent on parole. He is now a free man, and our advocacy for him has ended rather abruptly. It is much nicer to welcome him to our home and at our chapter meetings than to visit him in prisons geographically dispersed throughout the state.

While incarcerated, Willie learned to advocate for himself and fellow blind prisoners. He is putting this knowledge to good use on behalf of our local chapter and a number of cross‑disability advocacy organizations he has joined. His is a strong modulated voice forged in the crucible of a legal system that finally acknowledged its mistake. We look forward to joining forces with him for the good of the NFB and the larger community. Toni and Ed Eames can be contacted at 3376 North Wishon, Fresno, California 93704-4832; phone (559) 224-0544; e‑mail <[email protected]>.

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