Human Rights Hunger Strike Continues in CA Prisons
On July 18, 2011, nearly 200 advocates and family members of California prisoners held a demonstration at CDCR headquarters in Sacramento to draw attention to the ongoing Hunger Strike. Afterwards they marched to Governor Jerry Brown’s office to deliver almost 8,000 signatures that support the Hunger Strike. The unified action is centered around five core demands:
1. End Group Punishment and Administrative Abuse
2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria
3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement
4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food
5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates
Over the next couple of weeks I will offer a series of posts providing further insight into each demand. As a law student and advocate, I have studied and written about the CDCR, the SHU, and the policies that govern many of the transfers to the SHU.
I have also experienced the SHU on a more personal level. While I have not spent a day of my life in the custody of the CDCR, over the years I have spent countless days there, as a visitor going to see loved ones. I have gone through hundreds of humiliating searches by the prison guards, I’ve spent thousands of hours in the visiting rooms of several of California’s prisons including the notorious Corcoran SHU, I’ve been denied entry dozens of times after driving all night to get to remote prisons; I’ve witnessed beatings, and I’ve seen how families are abused and torn apart by CDCR policies
In this first post, I will provide an overview of the Security Housing Units in California prisons. In subsequent articles, I will begin to explore other aspects of how and why people are assigned to the SHU. I welcome thoughtful dialogue and hope our readers find the posts useful for understanding the current hunger strike for human rights and why the five core demands are so crucial.
Life in the SHU
Life in the SHU is significantly different from life in general population. Inmates housed in the SHU are locked in their small windowless cells for at least 22 1?2 hours a day. Food is served to them through slots in their cell doors. The only daily opportunities to leave their cells is to shower a few times a week and to exercise in small concrete cages. Additionally, inmates are strip-searched, shackled at the waist and ankles and escorted by two corrections officers any time they leave their cells. They are not allowed to participate in any classes, work program, training or meetings.
At best, the reputation of California’s SHU’s “is one of stark sterility and unremitting monotony. Inmates can spend years without ever seeing any aspect of the outside world except for a small patch of sky.” At worst, California’s SHU’s have been known to be the sites of severe physical and mental abuse where there has been “a pattern of correctional officers using excessive force against inmates” Four of California's prisons (Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Tehachapi and Valley State Prison for Women) operate SHU units, while a handful more use Administrative Segregation Units, which are very similar, if not worse since they were not designed for long term isolation. According to the CDCR’s most recent report, there are currently 3,238 people housed in the SHU units. Some of them have been in the SHU for over 20 years.
Placement in the SHU is an administrative move that is completely within the discretion of prison staff and administration- not the courts. The placement can be for a set period of time or indeterminately if it’s based on alleged gang affiliation. People in SHU’s have very little access to their families and loved ones. They are not allowed phone calls, mail is often withheld, returned or “lost” and visiting is allowed only for one hour behind double layered plexi-glass on Saturdays and Sundays. Additionally, the largest SHU’s, Corcoran and Pelican Bay, are hundreds of miles from the communities that most people in the SHU are originally from, making it difficult for family members to travel to the prisons for visiting.
Madrid v. Gomez
Allegations of torturous conditions at Pelican Bay and Corcoran are nothing new. In fact, in 1995, Federal District Court Judge Thelton Henderson issued a ruling in Madrid v. Gomez, agreeing with prisoners that they had been subject to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. The court also appointed a Special Master to oversee the changes to policy and practice and ensure that progress was being made. A few days later, Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, appeared on 60 Minutes and commented, “in some ways it feels to me ludicrous that we have these debates about capital punishment when what happens in Pelican Bay’s Special Management Unit is a form of punishment that’s far more egregious.”
Grassian’s research has found that extreme isolation is “strikingly toxic” and that it actually causes a specific psychiatric syndrome, “SHU Syndrome” which results in hallucinations, paranoia and delusions among other serious psychosis-like symptoms.
2011 Hunger Strike for Human Rights
In March 2011, Judge Henderson ended the Madrid case, believing that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could maintain the changes without court supervision. Just months later, thousands of people in prisons all over California are refusing to eat in order to raise awareness about the torture they are being subjected to and to change the conditions. The demands are focused on health, human rights and the extreme abuse of authority and discretion by prison staff without any meaningful investigation or accountability. As of this writing, almost three weeks after the hunger strike started, CDCR has met with a mediation group representing the strikers, but has refused to meet with or negotiate with the strikers.
Check out the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity page for more updates on the Hunger Strike and planned actions. You can also click here to easily call your State Senator to demand they convene on behalf of the prisoners.
Colin Dayan, The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. p. 85.
Terry Kupers, Prison Masculinities, 193.
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