Transcript: Azadeh Zohrabi’s remarks on solitary confinement in California at UC Hastings on March 19, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by Azadeh Zohrabi, a Soro Justice Fellow, on solitary confinement in California. The panel discussion was held at UC Hastings College of the Law on March 19, 2013.

The hunger strikes started in 2011 – July 1, 2011 – in response to all these conditions that you’re hearing of and in response to the gang validation procedures.

One thing I wanted to clarify…is that there are two ways that you can get sent to SHU.

One is for disciplinary violation, which is they actually catch you violating some kind of rule. And you get a full hearing. You get to call witnesses. You get to present evidence. And if you get found guilty of that violation, then you get sent to the SHU or some other kind of isolation for a set period of time. According to their regulations, the most you can get in isolation that way is 5 years and that is if you get found guilty of killing another correctional officer.

The other way, which is what we’re talking about right now, is indeterminate SHU, which is you have no set time of when you get out – that’s if you’re labeled as a prison gang member. That means you’re not actually engaged in any gang activity. They just find evidence…often books and literature or just having someone’s name in your cell. Once you get labeled as a gang member, then you get sent to solitary confinement for an indefinite term, and this is how people are spending decades in solitary confinement.

So the hunger strike originated with some of these people that are spending decades in solitary confinement, people that see this as torture.

And they issued demands to the Department of Corrections and to the Governor, I think, in February of 2011. There was 5 demands. They’re all listed back there on the flyers that we have. I hope you look at them because they still haven’t been met.

One of the demands was to end the administrative abuse that leads to so many people spending indeterminate terms in solitary confinement.

Another demand was to comply with the 2006 commission that came up with some recommendations on solitary confinement, specifically to end long-term and indefinite solitary confinement.

Another demand was to end the debriefing process. One of the ways that you can get out of the SHU if you’re validated as a prison gang member is to debrief, which means that you go to the gang investigators and you say that you’re ready to renounce the gang and you tell them everything you know about the gang – structure, about who’s in the gang, about any activities. The problem is if you’re not actually a gang member – you’re just validated because you have books and stuff – you can’t successfully debrief. You can try and make up a bunch of lies and those lies will be used – will be turned into confidential memorandums and used to validate other prisoners. So a lot of people just on principle don’t engage in this process because they don’t want to put – subject somebody else to torture just to be able to get themselves out. Also, clearly you put yourself at risk if you do inform on other prisoners to get yourself out; you put your family at risk. So one of the demands was to end the debriefing process.

Another demand was to provide adequate and nutritious food. At Pelican Bay, they only get fed twice a day. Once in the morning – breakfast and lunch. Once in the afternoon around 4 p.m. I think. The food is never enough. They’re often hungry still. Another way that people can get food is through quarterly packages that their families order for them or through canteen. In general population, they get 4 packages a year; in the SHU, they only get 1. They also get less money to spend at the canteen than prisoners in general population do. So even if they can afford to have better food or more food, a lot of them don’t have access to it just because of the prison policies. So one was access to better food.

And the last demand was just for better programming. For access to sweats and beanies because they were freezing cold. For access to calendars on their walls because they weren’t allowed to have calendars. For them to be able to have photos of themselves taken once a year. A lot of them have been in there for years and have never been able to send a photo back to their families. So smaller demands in relations to like the conditions and the programming and the access to education – those all fall under the fifth demand.

And pretty much all they got out of the first hunger strike was the sweats and the beanies and the calendars and the photos, I believe.

So the demands haven’t been met even though a couple of times we’ve met with the Department of Corrections and they said that the demands were reasonable; they said they were going to look into meeting them. And when they did that, the prisoners called off the hunger strike after 3 weeks. So in the end of July, the hunger strike was suspended to give the Department of Corrections time to show that they’re making a good faith effort to meet their demands.

In October, the prisoners felt like the Department of Corrections wasn’t making progress the way they promised to so they initiated another hunger strike or they resumed their hunger strike. And this time they were joined by over 12,000 prisoners both in California and outside California. That hunger strike lasted about 3 weeks. After 3 weeks, the Department of Corrections signed a document saying that they were going to make some changes, that they were going to improve some things.

Later in 2012, we began seeing drafts of a policy – of their proposed policy to change the gang validation practices, which is something that they said that they would change. And later in October of 2012, they rolled out a pilot program, which is their 2-year trial run of the new policies…

The new proposed policies as they’re written out are a lot worse than the actual policies that were in place before.

The policies before as they were written required the Department of Corrections to go through 2 processes. One, to identify someone as a member of a prison gang. And two, in order to send them to the SHU, they had to find that that person was engaged in some sort of activity.

The way we found the policy was actually being applied was that people were just being sent based on the identification as a gang member without making a finding that they were engaged in actual gang activity. So now, instead of addressing that problem in their new policy, what they’ve done is they’ve change the policy to create a rules violation for being in possession of these materials. So now, that’s considered a behavior, whereas before there was no rule that you couldn’t have a book about the Black Panther Party.

Now, there’s a rule that’s written and it’s very vague in the sense of if you’re in possession of gang-related contrabands – it could be materials, photographs, drawings – anything that’s pretty much open for the gang investigators to define, then that can be seen as behavior that you’ll be written up for. And if you have two of those, which since they need 3 pieces of evidence to validate you just in your validation evidence alone – you could come up with 2 of those – then you’ll be sent to the SHU indefinitely.

The CDCR is saying this is a brand new, completely different, huge change, behavior-based program. Our position is that that’s a lie.

The prisoners also see right through it. They completely rejected the proposal. They submitted a counter-proposal for the Department of Corrections to look at and make some suggestions that they feel are better and are more reasonable, and the Department of Corrections hasn’t even acknowledged their counter-proposal yet.

So, again, we think the new policy is worse than the old one. They’re planning on – we had a meeting with the Department of Corrections on Friday and they were saying since this is a 2-year pilot, they have 2 years to decide whether they want to make it into actual regulations on it. And at the meeting on Friday, it seemed like they were saying that they’re going to try to make it policy even before the 2 years is up, possibly at the end of this year…


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