The American criminal justice system operates upon a very simple principle: Any person who commits a crime is to serve a sentence, and once they serve that sentence, they have paid their dues to society. However, our criminal justice system does not always adhere to this philosophy. The United States has a system of involuntary civil confinement facilities, a detestable system designed to incarcerate people even after they have served their prison sentences, and Coalinga State Hospital is one of the biggest perpetrators of this atrocity. Coalinga is one of the country’s largest shadow prisons, housing an appalling 941 citizens under the dehumanizing “sexually violent predator” (SVP) label. Six months prior to release, those “who [have been] convicted of a legislatively defined set of sex offenses” are seen by the “DSH [Department of State Hospital] or independent evaluators,” according to their website. If two evaluators say that they meet a certain set of criteria — and DSH can send multiple evaluators until they get the answer they want to hear, if one or more decline to certify that the person meets commitment criteria — the state initiates legal proceedings to determine whether or not they will be subjected to indefinite post-sentence civil confinement. These facilities operate outside the scope of the traditional criminal justice system, and for that reason, many people refer to them as “shadow prisons.” Many people in these shadow prisons feel that they were incorrectly evaluated, and some even claim to be innocent of the crimes of which they were initially convicted.
Enter James Hydrick, a sixty-one-year-old formerly renowned martial artist currently incarcerated inside Coalinga State Hospital, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing last month. In 1989, California convicted Hydrick of inappropriately touching six boys. He was subsequently sentenced to seventeen years in prison. But California didn’t release Hydrick when he completed his sentence. Instead, they alleged that Hydrick “has a diagnosed mental disorder that makes the person a danger to the health and safety of others in that it is likely that he or she will engage in sexually violent criminal behavior.” After a “civil” trial with few due process protections — featuring a couple of “expert” witnesses on the government’s payroll — Hydrick was sent to California’s shadow prison in Coalinga, where he remains to this day. However, Hydrick still maintains that he is not in any way ill.
“Sure do,” Hydrick answered when asked if he believes he should be a free man. “When I went to trial in San Luis in 2013, I got a hung jury 11-1 in my favor, and then another jury 10-2 — my favor. But they still tried me again. One of the things they were upset about is the fact that they wanted me to admit to my crimes, and I told [the judge] ‘No I didn’t commit the crimes.’” Hydrick said, referencing his civil confinement hearing.
Hydrick has been in California’s ‘not-a-prison’ prison since completing his seventeen-year prison sentence back in 1998. After a decade and a half of surviving in this Kafkaesque carceral system of preventative detention, he has a wealth of first-hand knowledge regarding what it’s like to be locked up for what you might do in the future. I interviewed Hydrick regarding a multitude of topics; his background, civil commitment, Coalinga, and Covid-19 in a carceral setting.
Hydrick is on record as having a very rough, abusive childhood — a history of trauma all too common amongst his fellow shadow prisoners at Coalinga— so Hydrick took up martial arts at an early age as a way of defending himself from the harm he was subjected to. Hydrick’s martial arts prowess would take him all over the world, even leading to a few TV appearances, and he went on to own martial arts dojos across the globe. Later in life, Hydrick would become a military contractor, doing work for the U.S. government in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Shortly after his return to the United States, Hydrick was convicted of engaging in lewd and lascivious acts with children and sentenced to seventeen years in prison. Six months prior to his release, the state evaluated Hydrick and diagnosed him with a “pedophilic disorder” and “antisocial personality disorder.” The state sent him to Atascadero State Hospital upon the completion of his prison sentence (the location of the California’s shadow prison at that time), and he would later be relocated to Coalinga State Hospital. However, in my interactions with Hydrick, he was anything but antisocial. The former TV personality was very talkative during our conversations and displayed an extreme passion for martial arts, a shared passion that we were able to discuss at length.
I asked Hydrick to open up about his experience in California’s so-called “sex offender civil commitment” scheme and the environment at Coalinga, and he began to detail the shadow prison’s lack of regulation and empathy:
“I’m treated like a prisoner. When I go out to medical appointments I am handcuffed, put in leg irons, and transported by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [California’s prison system]… You see, these staff members, they treat you like they treat you in prison. They look at you like they look at you in prison, like you are a worthless piece of crap. You don’t deserve nothing. You don’t get nothing. We can’t even have a piece of tape here. We can’t even have our own razor. Back in prison, they sold razors at the canteen.” Hydrick detailed to me how the facility deprives them of basic liberties which those in the traditional model of involuntary psychiatric commitment are supposed to be entitled to, such as wearing their own clothing and having a phone.
Conceptually, proponents of these facilities claim they are intended to be non-punitive carceral settings purely for mental health treatment. However, Hydrick’s testimony directly refutes this notion, describing instead what sounds like serving a second, indefinite prison sentence for a crime he has already been incarcerated for. This is the reality for all shadow prisoners, and it directly violates the constitution’s protection against double jeopardy. These facilities work in tandem with the sex registry and parole to limit the rights of those labeled “sex offenders,” thereby making them second class citizens.
The situation inside Coalinga was egregious enough on its own before the pandemic. Covid-19 has added a whole new layer of complexity, injustice, and mismanagement to the facility. The facility confines people to their “pods” (a space shared by a group of shadow prisons) most of the day — and social distancing is hardly possible in such a crowded carceral facility. “We’re dying in here,” Hydrick told me, alluding to the obscenely high positive case count of 442. “[People] are being cremated and disposed of without their family’s knowledge.” According to Hydrick, Covid-19 is traveling so fast through the facility due to “floaters,” staff members who come from working in contaminated pods and spread the virus throughout the facility.
Corey Hoch, another shadow prisoner incarcerated within Coalinga who I had the chance to speak with, further elaborated on the Covid-19 conditions inside the facility. I asked him about his thoughts on the outbreak. “I know they are trying with what they have, but they are failing,” Hough told me. Hough then began to detail how the facility pointlessly tries to enforce social distancing, “They attempted to set up a tape line on the ground that separates us during lunch when we line up to get our trays for lunch or any of our meal trays, and you can’t really go by it because you’ve got 50 people on the unit and there’s no space to socially distance like that. So it’s just not happening.”
It is evident that there is a pressing need to decarcerate these facilities, not only due to the injustices they perpetrate against citizens who have already paid their dues to society and the blatant deprivation of liberty, but also because of the dire situation Covid-19 presents for carceral settings. Amidst the pandemic, other carceral facilities, primarily prisons, have made an effort to decarcerate. These civil confinement facilities should be no different, especially since these men have served every day of their prison sentences and deserve to be free. Among the 442 confirmed positive cases in Coalinga, there have been 23 deaths, all of which might have been avoided through decarceration. “Whatever crime a man has committed to go to prison, he has paid his dues for that crime,” Hydrick told me at the end of our conversation, “[Post-sentence ‘civil’ confinement schemes] should be illegal. [It] serve[s] no purpose other than to continue your incarceration.”
Sources: Matt Fountain and Patrick S Pemberton,. “Ex-TV ‘Psychic’ Convicted of Sex Offenses to Stay Hospitalized,” The Tribune (April 28, 2014).