From: SF Bay View
August 29, 2013
by Antonio Guillen, Pelican Bay SHU Short Corridor Collective
I’ve been asked several times how it was possible that rivals from different racial and/or regional groups were able to see past differences and come together to form the Human Rights Movement. The Human Rights Movement is a concerted effort to end long term solitary confinement and make better the living conditions in all SHU and Ad Seg housing facilities across the state of California and the nation as a whole!
Prominently displayed at recent hunger strike support rallies, such as this one outside Corcoran State Prison on July 13, are photos of Antonio Guillen, one of the four main representatives among the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective and the author of this statement. – Photo: Malaika Kambon
I will try my best to explain how it was possible for me to get past old attitudes and mindsets in hopes of reaching a better tomorrow. I do understand that others, pushing right alongside of me, may have experienced it differently and cut their own path to reach this point in their lives, but this is how I was able to get there.
Now, before I share my venture I would like to take a moment to say that this Human Rights Movement has always been meant to be something positive, inspiring and groundbreaking for the betterment of all people on both sides of the wall. I did not expect such heated opposition – aside from CDCR – or the level of personal attacks on prisoner representatives and our outside support systems.
Our efforts and motivations have been demeaned, criticized and outrageously misconstrued. But, as I learned long ago, “If the powerful cannot meet you on the merits of your claims, then they will have no other option than to attack you on your person.”
When I came to prison I was young and brought with me the attitudes and mindsets that were shaped and hardened by the years of gangbanging in the streets of San Jose and the several years spent in the California Youth Authority. Much like a blacksmith will pound his hammer repeatedly against an anvil to mold and shape a piece of iron into an object of symbol and strength, so too were my beliefs.
Once in the yard, in prison, I soon realized that life here at its core was no different from any other hostile environment I had experienced. And to survive I relied on the tenet I found to be true and have yet to fail me: Keep quiet, identify the danger and stand up when challenged.
Most of the traditional groups were separated by invisible boundaries that acted as territorial borders. Although there were those who maintained lines of communication between the groups for diplomatic reasons, there was no real and constructive interaction between the groups.
When I arrived to Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) and then the Security Housing Unit (SHU), those same invisible boundaries between the groups existed, albeit in a different way due to the design of the Ad Seg and SHU facilities, but existed nonetheless. In fact, to some extent they appeared to be more prominent because of the anger, frustration and despair that modern day dungeons tend to induce within the human psyche.
Much like any other torture chamber, Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) SHU was designed to break the mind and spirit of those it had captured. The powers that be, which include the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), wanted nothing more than a docile and submissive creature to be pushed around and manipulated.
And unfortunately in most cases it did exactly that, causing a multitude to suffer new emotional and physical damages – the mentally ill to have their conditions exacerbated. And of course, let’s not forget those who were COERCED into taking part in the infamous debriefing program.
Much like any other torture chamber, Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) SHU was designed to break the mind and spirit of those it had captured.
In an effort to achieve the intended purposes of PBSP SHU, which is to create an environment that discourages a man’s ability and/or desire to socialize with other human beings, the powers that be took the following steps:
A) Modeled the design of PBSP SHU on out-of-state SHUs that divided each housing unit into six pods of eight men each;
B) Implemented local operations procedures that prohibit a prisoner from stopping at another prisoner’s cell to converse or pass items from one cell to the next (PBSP O.P.);
C) Utilized a CDCR regulation to prohibit a prisoner from conversing with another prisoner in a different pod (CCR Title 15, Section 3005 Conduct, Subsection (b) Obeying Orders);
D) Utilized practices used to maintain single cell occupation in order to reduce the head count per each pod, thus limiting the number of persons one has access to converse with, and;
E) Intentionally assigned rival prisoners from different races and/or regional groups to a pod. The idea being, if a pod were populated with those who didn’t socialize with each other to begin with, then this would further serve the intended purpose of discouraging their ability and/or desire to socialize.
Now let me be clear, when I speak on men’s ability and/or desire to socialize with other human beings, I am not referring to common tier courtesies such as letting your neighbor know whether or not you’re attending yard that day – just in case you pass on yard and his time slot gets pushed up. But rather I’m referring to one’s ability and/or desire to engage in deep, meaningful and stimulating conversation about similar interests – family, politics, sports, religion etc. – the sharing and debating of thoughts and ideas, and offering moral support in times of personal loss or tragedy. All of the things that make human beings, human beings.
In the beginning this approach worked surprisingly well, and to this day, many if not all of these policies and practices remain intact and in full effect. What the powers that be failed to realize, however, is that the mind and spirit of the human being can often times prove to be stronger and more resilient than concrete and steel. Several years after my arrival to PBSP SHU, I noticed that the attitudes and mindsets of many men who have long been a part of everyday life started to shift, including mine, in a monumental way!
Being enclosed in such a small environment – a pod of eight cells – where at any given time a man only has maybe seven other people in his immediate surroundings for many years, one cannot help but to get to know his neighbors. Whether this is motivated by survival instinct or because he is familiar with the next man from a different prison or if it is just basic human nature to reach out to another human being, I cannot say for sure. Maybe it’s a combination of all or something entirely different.
I’m referring to one’s ability and/or desire to engage in deep, meaningful and stimulating conversation about similar interests – family, politics, sports, religion etc. – the sharing and debating of thoughts and ideas, and offering moral support in times of personal loss or tragedy. All of the things that make human beings, human beings.
All I know is that, in spite of CDCR policy or procedure, people, regardless of their race, ideologies or regional background, gradually started to socialize with one another.
At first it seemed to start off with common tier courtesies, then to casual conversations which lead to more in depth discussions about a variety of topics. This allowed each of us to gain a better understanding of the next man – who he was, the things he cared about or believed in and his way of thinking. At least for me, I soon realized that many of these men were no different from who I am. We shared the same interests and things of importance, and some of us even thought along the same lines.
As time went by, we soon started to share reading materials – books, magazines, newspapers etc. – and providing legal assistance – filing prisoner grievances and court litigation. And for those men who didn’t have the means to purchase items from the prison commissary – writing materials, personal hygiene, food, beverages – the rest of the pod would get together and help out when we could.
This aid would also extend to yearly packages, and often men asked their families to send a package to someone in need. And, when we were able to several years ago, if one was fortunate enough to purchase a new appliance – TV or radio – he would often donate his old appliance to someone who didn’t have one.
Of course this didn’t work for everyone – there being some who are naturally reclusive and tend to keep to themselves and others whose suffering has affected them differently, possibly more severely than the rest of us, and have, by choice or otherwise, withdrawn from reality. But for those of us who were able and willing, we gradually came together in much the same way as a growing community would. We formed strong connections and understandings and looked out for each other.
Now this is not to say that everything has been sunshine and roses since then. There are still many negative forces that we routinely contend with – namely, those that have led to the evolution of these hunger strikes. It was, however, the courage and determination of the men who chose to stand up to the CDCR and challenge the torturous intent for PBSP SHU on all fronts – but specifically in the area of men’s ability and/or desire to socialize – that ultimately forged strong and respectful relationships between men of different races and regional backgrounds that in turn allowed many of us to come together and bring this Human Rights Movement!
I hope this has shed some light on the question at hand. But, more importantly, I hope that I was able to clearly communicate my thoughts and experience. Power to the people!
Antonio Guillen is one of four main hunger strike volunteer prisoner representatives. Send our brother some love and light: Antonio Guillen, P-81948, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532. This statement was written on Aug. 26, 2013, Day 50 of the hunger strike.
Event: Emergency Press Conference – Challenging Jeffrey Beard’s Disinformation and Lies – Stop Solitary Confinement Torture in CA Prisons – Support 5 Demands of Hunger Strikers
Date: Wednesday, August 7, 10 AM
Location: LA Times Building
Address: 202 W. 1st. Los Angeles
Contact: 213-840-5348 (Keith James)
This was sent in as one of the comments to the shameless op-ed that Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the CDCR, wrote for the LA Times on the 30th day of the California prisoner hunger strike:
Jeffrey Beard, in an op-ed piece in the LA Times, August 6th, 2013:
“There are SHUs at four prisons in California. At three of them — in Tehachapi, Corcoran and Folsom — there are outdoor-facing windows in the cells that allow for direct sunlight. At Pelican Bay, all SHU cells have skylights. In all of the facilities, inmates in the SHU have radios and color TVs with access to channels such as ESPN. They have weekly access to a law library and daily exercise time. Many have cellmates; they can earn degrees; they can send and receive letters; and their family and friends can visit them every weekend. SHU inmates receive the same meals and portions as general population inmates. This is not “solitary confinement,” in that prisoners can have visitors and, in many cases, interaction with other inmates.”
Dear Dr Beard,
I just want to note in response to your op-ed piece in the LA Times that of course there is no direct sunlight through a window. A person will not receive vital vitamin D through a window. Have you seen the concrete box that is called the “yard” in Pelican Bay State Prison SHU? How would you feel if your loved one or yourself had that as your outdoor experience for a year? For 5 years? 10plus years? For 25 years?
The radio’s and very small tv’s were bought by the families and friends of the inmates. Everyone knows that, even though it is their property, it is an incentive that you can apparently take away as a dictator. In the area where Pelican Bay SHU is, there are not many radio/TV stations at all.
Law Library has been denied some men in Corcoran-SHU for weeks. It is also treated as an incentive, but you of all people must know that the law should be accessible for all people, especially those you hold imprisoned.
There is no daily exercise. Sometimes the prisoners in Corcoran SHU cannot go out to their “dog cages”(that is their yard, Dr Beard!) because of “maintenance” (when finished, the yard is still closed for a few days after) or because staff does not give yard. If you were a prisoner and you knew your meager rights were taken from you, what would you do, Dr Beard?
Visits are always behind glass. How would you feel, what would your emotional state of mind be, if you could never touch / be in physical vicinity of your loved ones? You think that touching a fellow inmate replaces this? Bumping into your fellow inmate because you share a tiny cell the size of your parking lot, will be enough to claim they can have some kind of inter-human contact? When guards put shackles on you, do you think that counts as human contact? You as a psychologist should know better.
Did you know, Dr Beard, that visits to the people held in the SHU are only one hour per week? If you live far away and cannot come every week, it is 2 hours for once.
Did you know, Dr Beard, that often your visiting booths are fully booked and that the visitor have to wait another week to see their loved one? Or go back to their country and come back another year? Because the visitor was denied to book a visit, because your employees had to clear them on arrival so that they had no time to make the appointments 2 weeks in advance? Do you call that visits?
About degrees: how do prisoners pay for college money, Dr Beard? How can they study without a computer? That you suddenly, just before the hunger strike started, changed the rules and are now willing to let SHU prisoners have typewriters (hopelessly backward, but anyway), is not helping a lot when prisoners want to study. What about building educational classrooms and having SHU prisoners go to school there? That would be really meaningful. Now you are just hoping to convince people who do not know about what it is like inside, that it is not that bad.
You also say: “they can send and receive letters”, why is it that Corcoran SHU keeps letters behind for weeks before sending them out? Why is it that prisoners in the SHU receive letters that were written weeks ago? Why don’t you have Jpay.com installed so that people can send a mail to our loved ones in prison, and that these are printed and handed to them? Just like in so many other states? In Ohio they even have the opportunity to send their handwritten or typed letter back via Jpay. I am not saying this will solve the issue of being in a concrete box for years, if not decades, but you say that it is all not that bad, and I resist that. Because it is extremely bad. Also in comparison to other places in your country.
How do you think prisoners can write letters if they have no jobs to earn money to pay for stamps? They can get indignant envelopes maybe, but they will gather debts and these are only one per week maybe. Do you think that is enough to keep in contact in a meaningful way with family and friends?
You want prisoners to be forgotten. You want them all to be shown as evil, no good for anything, right? You want some to get extra punishment that no court has given them, because that shows how tough it is inside California’s prisons. But what about rehabilitating? The people inside the SHU’s are also under the CDCR, and they also need to be rehabilitated. Do you really think that informing on others is morally right? You are not a pastor, or a reverend, but you do claim “correcting” and “rehabilitating” in the title of your organization.
Do you really think that criminal gangs will stop existing when you lock up conscious prisoners who are intelligent and who want the best for the community? Like all the conscious New Afrikan prisoners, calling them members of the “Black Guerilla Family”? Criminalizing political ideas? Is that your way of correcting?
Do you think they will bow down to your employees and your policy? And I do not even mention the people inside who have an innocence claim…
So what about SHU time for people who did a violent act, who could be held separately for a while until they too are calm and more redeemed?
So you believe that the hunger strike was organized by criminal gangsters? You should be relieved they show restraint and organize this peaceful protest at which 30,000 participated on day 1, instead of calling for violence. That is something we have not heard from your lips, Dr Beard.
And also, your employees give “115” tickets out to those participating, saying this is seen as a “gang activity”! Dr Beard, do all the people outside joining on fasts for a day, are they also part of this “gang”? Those who wrote about the hunger strike, those who participated in support rallies, wrote cards of encouragement, tweeted and facebooked about it?
Think about it, Dr Beard, if this were a “Hollywood movie”, who would be the heroes? Surely not the people who retaliate against peaceful protesters? Employees who do not follow up the instructions on what to do medically when a hunger strike starts? How can your organization, a professional, state-paid organization, even accept retaliation? Who is the only real gang, Dr Beard? Who is fighting a war and setting up people against each other? Dividing and conquering as a strategy is a losing game, Dr Beard. This Human Rights Defense Action of the Collective Hunger Strike is a show of unity between all different people of all different races.
Dr Beard: SHU is a punishment that (if given at all) should only be given for a short period of time to people who have used violence (not including mentally ill people who should not be held in a prison setting). Not for people who have for years on end not been able to go back to general population because they refuse to snitch. Listen to the demands of the prisoners! Your policies are killing people!
Finally: Dr Beard, people who are being kept in your SHU’s are never allowed to make one phonecall.
After the 2011 hunger strikes, they were allowed to have one photo a year made. They were allowed one food package a year. Are you really going to make them, their families and friends, and the rest of society, suffer so that you can say that you are tough on crime and that you will not be told by the dying prisoners in your prison torture camps and by many people outside in their support, what you should have changed long ago?
Shame on you, Beard! If you do not negotiate now, may you be forced to resign!
24 Hours for the 5 Demands!
Starts 5PM Tuesday July 30th to stand with the California prison hunger strikers against torture
Make a highly visible and non-violent action in solidarity anytime 5pm July 30th – 5pm July 31st.
Let the world and politicians know you support the California prison hunger striker’s Five Core Demands against torturous treatment.
Post your events to the Upcoming Events Calendar.
Don’t forget Facebook and Twitter (tweet #CAHungerstrike #PBHungerstrike and follow @CAHungerStrike)!
Afterward, send in your photos and stories of solidarity action to inspire others! Outreach materials are available online.
Join a solidarity fast wherever you are to show your support.
Hunger striking prisoners are enduring retaliation on top of starvation! You can help stop their suffering now.
California Governor Jerry Brown is ignoring their demands! He must be forced to account for his inaction.
CA Department of Corrections is hiding their inhumane treatment from the press and public. They must be stopped and held up to the Five Core Demands.