Pelican Bay solitary confinement inmates threaten to resume hunger strike in July

Typical Security Housing Unit (SHU) cell. SOURCE: Amnesty International

Inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison are threatening to resume their hunger strike on July 8th unless California prison officials meet their demands to improve conditions in the Secure Housing Units [SHU], end indeterminate solitary confinement, and reform the gang validation process.

In 2011, more than 6,500 inmates in 9 state prisons participated in hunger strikes to call attention to the “arbitrary, indefinite placement of…inmates into punitive SHU units” where advocates say the conditions and treatments of inmates amounted to “psychological and physical torture for purposes of coercion and punishment” for their alleged involvement or “association” with prison gangs.

Read more: Roundup: Testimonies on California’s solitary confinement policies, Secure Housing Unit (SHU) step-down program & revised gang validation criteria

The SHU inmates submitted 5 core demands to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) seeking to:
(1) abolish the debriefing process requiring inmates to “snitch” on other gang members in order to leave the SHU and reform the gang validation process;
(2) impose individual accountability for rules violations instead of group punishment and create another avenue for SHU inmates to earn their way out of indefinite solitary confinement;
(3) comply with the 2006 U.S. Commission recommendations to end long-term solitary confinement, which prison rights advocates contend amounts to torture;
(4) provide adequate food to inmates and cease the use of “withholding food as a tool to punish SHU inmates”;
(5) and expand educational programming to inmates serving indeterminate SHU terms and allow them to buy or receive art supplies, toiletry items, and stationary.

The first hunger strike lasted from July 1 – July 20, 2011; the second hunger strike was held from Sept. 26 – Oct. 13, 2011 and ended after state prison officials agreed to address the prisoners’ concerns and improve conditions and expand inmate privileges in the SHU.

Since then, the CDCR has taken steps to address the prisoners’ demands. The CDCR’s efforts include launching a two-year pilot step-down program to enable SHU inmates to earn their way out of solitary confinement in 4 years instead of debriefing, reviewing case files of gang associates serving in the SHU and releasing them back to the prison’s general population if appropriate, and revising the gang validation program using the new “Security Threat Group” classification system, which CDCR officials claim would provide “enhanced due process” for inmates.

In addition, the department has begun to offer education opportunities for all SHU inmates, with more than 1,100 inmates enrolled in college or GED courses as of late February. CDCR has also expanded so-called “privileges” to SHU inmates, including allowing prisoners who don’t have disciplinary problems to take an annual photograph and installing exercise equipments in yards.

A review by the Office of Inspector General has found that CDCR has made “good faith efforts” to “address the inmates’ primary concerns regarding SHU policies and validation processes” and to “provide privileges promised at the July hunger strike.”

However, inmates and prison rights advocates have expressed frustration at the slow pace of addressing the tough conditions in the SHU, particularly with the food services, and criticized the revised gang validation criteria and step-down program as an expansion of prison officials’ powers to detain inmates indefinitely in the SHU without independent oversight.

“We have kept our word, while patiently waiting for the CDCR to keep theirs. However, at this point, it is clear to us that the CDCR has no intention of implementing the substantive policy changes that were agreed to 15 or 16 months ago,” according to a recent letter written by 4 Pelican Bay SHU inmates addressed to Gov. Jerry Brown and CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard. “We remain 100% fully committed to resuming our indefinite protest…to the point of our starvation resulting in serious permanent injury and/or death.” The letter was signed by Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), Antonio Guillen.

“Based on their highly touted “Security Threat Group” proposals and the much hyped “STG Pilot Program”, the CDCR has clearly demonstrated their bad faith, because their alleged changes to the policies/practices at issue are a sham,” the prisoners wrote. “At this point, the CDCR’s willingness to implement meaningful changes to the current policies/practices at issue lacks credibility. Thus, the CDCR’s empty promise to effect such changes is not acceptable.”

More than 2,400 inmates in California are serving indeterminate SHU terms, according to Renee Hansen, Executive Director of the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board. Hundreds have been held in solitary confinement for 10 to 40 years. According to prisoner rights attorney Charles Carbone, 248 inmates at Pelican Bay have been held in isolation for 5 to 10 years; 218 inmates have been in solitary confinement for 10 to 20 years; and more than 100 inmates have stayed in the SHU for more than 20 years.

Irene Huerta’s husband, Gabriel, has been held in solitary confinement since 1986. He described the torture of isolation in a letter, which was read aloud at Assembly Committee hearing on Feb. 25, 2013. In the letter Huerta stated, “It’s like being locked in the trunk of a car with just enough weather stripping removed so you can breath and with enough food and water stuffed in every inside so that you can physically survive. You’re soon going to realize what it actually means when it said that we’re social beings.”

 

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