Imagine a concrete room no more than eight by ten feet. It has no windows, only a perforated steel door facing a solid concrete wall. Fluorescent lights stay on 24 hours a day.
Now imagine being locked in that room.
This is the reality for 1,111 people locked in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The SHU comprises half of the prison. It is explicitly designed to keep prisoners in long-term solitary confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. Men are locked into their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door. They are allowed five hours a week of exercise in a cement yard the length of three cells with a roof only partially open to the sky.
Prison administrators place men in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term because they have been accused of being prison gang members, often by confidential informants and highly dubious evidence. Prisoners who have been “validated” as gang members are released from the SHU into the general prison population only if they “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefs and his family on the outside. In addition, prisoners are often falsely identified as gang members by others who debrief in order to escape the SHU. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member to be sent to the SHU: jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU. Mutope DuGoya is one of those men: he states that, in 2001, despite his work with Code 4, the prison’s Scared Straight program and his record of remaining free of violations for six years, he was placed in SHU on the word of a confidential informant. (Letter from DuGoya, dated September 21, 2011.) Another prisoner, who has been in SHU for 21 years, writes, “Because I am here with people who the CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] have labeled as being gang-involved, the CDCR uses that to confirm that I am involved with a gang.” (Letter from person in Pelican Bay SHU, dated September 26, 2011.)
These atrocities are not limited to Pelican Bay. California holds nearly 4,000 people in SHUs and nearly 14,500 in other forms of segregation within its prison system. Over 240 of these people are women, who are often guarded and watched by male staff, even when they are undressing, showering or on the toilet. Transgender and transsexual prisoners are often likely to be placed in isolation.
Pelican Bay State Prison opened in December 1989. Almost immediately, prisoners began filing complaints about abusive conditions.
In 1993, over 3,500 prisoners signed onto Madrid v. Gomez, a class-action lawsuit that charged prison officials with abuse and violation of their human rights. In 1995, the federal court issued injunctions aimed at eliminating excessive force, improving health care and removing prisoners with mental illness from the Security Housing Unit. Although he stated that conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” the presiding judge stopped short of declaring the physical structure of long-term solitary confinement unconstitutional.
In 1994, Steven Castillo, who charges that prison administrators placed him in SHU in retaliation for his hunger strikes and numerous lawsuits against CDCR, filed Castillo v. Alamedia. Seven years later, in 2001, Castillo and approximately 1,000 other prisoners at Pelican Bay and a second California prison launched a six-day hunger strike, protesting the prison’s gang policy. The strike was suspended after California State Sen. Richard Polanco intervened and vowed to help broker a resolution. Although Polanco’s office convened several meetings between corrections officials and prisoners over the next year, no changes resulted. In 2002, Castillo and 60 prisoners at Pelican Bay again launched a hunger strike. The strike lasted three weeks, but no changes in CDCR’s debriefing policy occurred.
In 2004, ten years after Castillo v. Alamedia was filed, a settlement agreement was reached that, ostensibly, would reshape the debriefing policy governing release from SHU. However, the substantial changes promised never happened and, seven years later, conditions in SHU remain fundamentally unchanged.
In 2010, prisoners at Pelican Bay drafted and sent a Formal Complaint about conditions to lawmakers, prison and CDCR officials and then-Governor Schwarzenegger. “CDCR’s response was ‘file a grievance if you haven’t already,'” recalled Todd Ashker, a co-author of the Complaint. “Then we were locked down, even more, in our cells from July 2010 to February/March 2011.” During that time, the prisoners agreed that “something had to be done … It was agreed, a peaceful protest via hunger strike was our best option, the goal being to expose the illegal policies and practices to the mainstream media (and thereby masses of people) and, with outside support, pressure/force meaningful changes!” (Letter from Todd Ashker, dated September 25, 2011.)
On July 1, 2011, SHU prisoners began a hunger strike with five core demands:
- Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
- Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
- Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
- Provide adequate food;
- Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
“No one wants to die,” stated hunger-striker DuGoya. “Yet under this current system of what amounts to immense torture, what choice do we have? If one is to die, it will be on our own terms.”
Over the course of the three-week hunger strike, at least 1,035 of the SHU’s 1,111 inmates refused food. The strike spread to 13 other state prisons and involved at least 6,600 people incarcerated throughout California.
Outside prison walls, family members, advocates and concerned community members took action to draw attention to the hunger strike. In Oakland, supporters held a weekly vigil on Thursday evenings. On July 9, supporters organized demonstrations in cities throughout the US and Canada. On July 18, 200 family members, lawyers and outside supporters from across California converged upon CDCR headquarters in Sacramento, delivered a petition of over 7,500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers and then marched to Governor Brown’s office to demand answers. That same day, supporters in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York City and Philadelphia also held solidarity rallies.
On July 14, two weeks into the strike, CDCR Undersecretary of Operations Scott Kernan spoke to representatives of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers. He promised that their demands would be addressed and that the CDCR would enact positive changes over time.
On July 20, Kernan and other CDCR administrators again met with hunger strike representatives. Again, Kernan made assurances about positive changes to SHU and stated that he would provide specifics about their demands in a couple of weeks. The hunger strike representatives met and discussed Kernan’s proposals. They decided to temporarily suspend the hunger strike to allow CDCR a grace period to fulfill their promises.
The next month, on August 19, prisoner representatives met with Kernan and other administrators. Kernan had no specific plans regarding the hunger strikers’ core demands, but, as the prisoner representatives noted, offered only “very vague, general terms, about CDCR staff working to come up with some type of step down program for inmates to get out of SHU, which does not require debriefing-informant status.” The representatives asked that specific details be provided on paper to all SHU sections. Kernan agreed to begin providing documentation within two weeks.
Sparked by the hunger strike, its ensuing publicity and community pressure on legislators, the California Assembly’s Public Safety Commission held a hearing on SHU conditions on August 23. Former SHU prisoners, family members, attorneys, advocates and psychiatrists testified about the need for substantial changes to SHU policies and practices. CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan, who was a negotiator with the hunger strike representatives, also testified.
On August 31, SHU staff issued memos stating that prisoners would be allowed to have handballs on the yard and the ability to purchase sweatsuits. If they remained free of disciplinary violations for one year and gained committee approval, they would be allowed to have a yearly photo taken and to purchase art pens and drawing paper from the prison canteen. None of the core demands were addressed.
In addition, many strike participants were issued a disciplinary memo stating, “Your behavior and actions were out of compliance with the Director’s Rules and this documentation is intended to record your actions and advise that progressive discipline will be taken in the future for any reoccurrence of this type of behavior.”
Prison officials have retaliated against the hunger strikers in other ways. According to Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, “Prisoners are receiving serious disciplinary write-ups, usually reserved for serious rules violations, for things like talking in the library or not walking fast enough. It’s clear that prison officials are trying to intimidate these men and to make them ineligible for any privileges or changes that may be forced by the strike.”
On September 2, a memo entitled Gang Management Proposal (dated August 25) was issued to the four principal representatives of the hunger strike. Hunger striker Antonio Guillen wrote that the proposal is, “by far the most punitive and restrictive program I have ever seen. It is way worse than what we have in place now and that’s saying something because the current program is, in part, what prompted the hunger strike.” It also widens the criteria from “‘traditional prison gangs’ ” to “anyone they consider to be problematic.” (Statement from Guillen that came with a letter dated September 27, 2011.) Kernan himself alluded to this during his testimony on August 23: “We believe that the current process, which targets six prison gangs, needs to be modified and what we really need to do is identify security threat groups … our policies target just the prison gangs today and we’re not capturing the inmates that perhaps should be segregated from our population.”
Despite these threats, prisoners throughout California resumed their hunger strike on September 26. By the third day, nearly 12,000 were participating. The strike spread not only to 12 prisons inside California, but also to prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma that are housing California prisoners.
In response, the CDCR classified the strike as an organized disturbance and transferred hunger strikers form the SHU to Administrative Segregation, where they lose access to all of their personal possessions and are denied access to their mail (including legal mail). According to recent interviews with the men, they have only a jumpsuit, a mattress and a thin blanket. The transfer could also negatively affect parole decisions. The retaliation has caused the number of hunger strikers to drop. In addition, hunger strikers at other prisons report that the CDCR has been undercounting the number of participants, refusing to mark men as hunger strikers if they drink liquids or touch the food tray.
Prison officials have also retaliated against outside supporters: Carol Strickman and Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus, had been involved in extensive discussions with corrections officials, including Kernan and leaders of the strike. On September 29, the Department of Corrections placed them under investigation, alleging that they “violated the laws and policies governing the safe operations of institutions within the CDCR.” Both attorneys are banned from all California prisons until the investigation is concluded. Attorneys who were able to visit reported that the CDCR has the air conditioning on high in 50-degree weather.
On October 13, prisoners at Pelican Bay ended their nearly-three week hunger strike after the CDCR guaranteed a comprehensive review of every prisoner in California whose SHU sentence is related to gang validation under new criteria. Two days later, hunger strikers at Calipatria State Prison stopped their strike to allow time to regain their strength.
“This is something the prisoners have been asking for and it is the first significant step we’ve seen from the CDCR to address the hunger strikers’ demands,” says Carol Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, “But as you know, the proof is in the pudding. We’ll see if the CDCR keeps its word regarding this new process.”