A prisoner described by fellow inmates and others as one of the most influential people at the state prison in Florence has entered his tenth week of a hunger strike, vowing that he's ready to die unless officials transfer him to a less harsh area.
Chuck Shepherd, a 39-year-old Sikh convert serving a life sentence for murder-related crimes, said he will remain on his hunger strike until he is transferred out of the Special Management Unit, one of the prison's worst pens. Shepherd--who has been convicted of five other crimes since the age of 17, including manslaughter--was moved to the unit after he allegedly was involved in the stabbing of another inmate and after he dumped a bleach solution on fellow cellmates who'd "insulted his religion."
"I will not eat until they take me out of there," he told New Times in a telephone interview two weeks ago. In a taped conversation he recorded last week, Shepherd said, "There has to be some changes. Every time one of us speak up, try to create a better atmosphere, a better ideal other than criminality, we get locked down by the administration."
Shepherd, who reportedly has lost 30 pounds from his strapping 200-pound frame, has said that if he's transferred to the area where most other prisoners are held, he would use his influence to start programs to stop young inmates from joining the vicious prison gangs. Shepherd accuses prison officials of doing nothing about the gang problem inside the walls.
Prison officials deny that charge but are well aware of Shepherd's influence. Even Jim McFadden, deputy warden in charge of the special management unit, described him as a "tough customer" who is "not a gangster." Although McFadden confirms that Shepherd has not eaten for "quite a while," he said that there is no need to hospitalize him or force-feed him intravenously and that medical staffers check him regularly. Officials said they think other inmates were sneaking him food--at least initially.
"At this point in time, he's not in any serious trouble at all," McFadden said, adding that he has no plans to transfer Shepherd. If he did transfer Shepherd, the warden said, "I'd have 60 other inmates fasting."
But sources inside the prison said that Shepherd is in dire condition and that he will continue his fast until he dies, if he isn't treated or transferred soon. In the sixth year of his life sentence for driving a getaway car after an armed robbery and murder, Shepherd has earned his reputation by reportedly standing up to the roughest prisoners.
Said one knowledgeable inmate: "He doesn't mess with anybody and doesn't take crap from even the toughest gang members." For a man with such a violent past, he has brought to his side some prison advocates who think he became devoted to nonviolence after he became a Sikh two years ago. "He is the most mature, sincere and disciplined student I've ever come across," said Mere Piare Singh, the Sikh religious adviser for the Arizona prison system for the past 11 years. Singh acknowledged that "80 to 90 percent" of the prisoners who claim to have converted to the Sikh way of life "are doing it . . . to manipulate the system." (One example: Prisoners who convert to the Eastern religion can get vegetarian meals, which are considered superior to regular prison food.) Singh, however, said Shepherd is a true Sikh, adding, "I'd match his integrity to anybody's I've ever met."
Singh said Shepherd is one of the few people who could influence new prisoners. "As one convict to another," Singh said, "he could take some of these 18-year-olds who often come out as cold-blooded killers and could create an effective correctional program" to treat them.
Even prison officials have admitted that Shepherd has strong influence.
"I used to talk to Chuck about ideas and philosophy and found him very interesting . . . very genuine about certain things," Warden McFadden said. "But I also found that Chuck Shepherd has a very dark side that is still there and very dangerous."
Shepherd has contended that prison officials don't crack down on gangs because gangs help keep inmates in line. "Officials allow the gangs to run drugs, extort, do whatever, as long as they keep the peace," said one outside advocate who requested anonymity. Asked whether the prison uses the gangs to keep the peace, McFadden replied, "I categorically deny that."
In interviews and on tapes, Shepherd has contended that officials unfairly transferred him to the especially grim Special Management Unit. He was accused of participating in a knife fight in which an inmate was stabbed; Shepherd explained that he was only trying to stop a gang-related hit and then got blamed for it.
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Even in the midst of his hunger strike, however, Shepherd chuckled as he recalled the other incident that landed him in his present cell. In that incident, which he doesn't deny, he dumped a mixture of bleach and water on other inmates who, he said, "made fun of his religion." Shepherd vowed during the telephone interview that he would resist being force-fed.
What if they give you IVs? "I'll rip them out."
What if they tie your hands up? "Where there's a will, there's a way. An IV will only sustain me for so long."
What if they feed you through a stomach tube? "I think I can deal with that one. Sikhs have real good control of their body."
One inmate who said he doubted that the prison medical staff is keeping a close watch on Shepherd's condition predicted a bad ending: "He's the kind of guy that will stick to it till the end.