Harold Koh, legal advisor to the US State Department, went before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in November of last year and declared that the US is very proud of its human rights record. He responded to recommendations the UNHRC made in its universal periodic review of the United States’ respect for human rights. Koh said in the section addressing recommendations on criminal justice, “The U.S. criminal justice system rests on the protection of individual human rights and basic principles of due process and fair and equal treatment.” Prisoners striking at the Pelican Bay supermax prison in California are demonstrating to Americans and the world the scale of fraudulence behind the above statement.
On July 1, 2011, Pelican Bay prisoners began an indefinite hunger strike to protest the conditions in the prison. Across prison-manufactured racial and geographical lines, prisoners came together behind five core demands to force the prison officials to end the use of “group punishment”; abolish a “debriefing policy and the current criteria for determining who is and who isn’t a gang member; comply with the US Commission 2006 Recommendation Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement and end conditions of isolation, make segregation a last resort, end long-term solitary confinement and grant access to adequate healthcare and sunlight; provide adequate food and stop using it as a tool to punish inmates; and expand constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
SHU stands for “Security Housing Unit.” In some prisons, the SHU is called “the hole.” The SHU is a “prison-within-a-prison.” Solitary Watch explains the SHU became more widely used after two guards were killed in the Marion, Illinois, federal prison in 1983. That led to the Marion Lockdown with prisoners being “confined to their cells without yard time, work or any kind of rehabilitative programming.”
Other prisons followed suit, and in 1989 California built the first supermax—Pelican Bay. There was a supermax boom in the 1990s, and today, 40 states and the federal government have supermax prisons holding upwards of 25,000 inmates. Tens of thousands more are held in solitary confinement in lockdown units within other prisons and jails. There’s no up-to-date nationwide count, but according to best estimates, there are at least 75,000 and perhaps more than 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day in America.
Dolores Canales, whose son has been in the SHU in Pelican Bay for ten years and is participating in the strike, explains the SHU is “like a dungeon.” It is a “cell block within a cell block.” The walls are soundproof, the floor is cement, there cells are windowless, there are a few dime-sized holes in a metal door and prisoners in the SHU are locked down nearly twenty-three hours of the day.
She says her son was recently transferred from Corcoran SHU to the Pelican Bay SHU and is “very well-known.”
“He’ll stick up to the officers, like if something is done unjustly. And the correctional officers do not like that,” Canales shares. “He’s taken some stuff in court and challenged different issues in the prison system and he doesn’t stop.”
More than a week later, the strike continues. The number of Pelican Bay prisoners striking is unknown, for various reasons, but what is known is that the prisoners’ hunger strike has inspired resistance and solidarity in other California prisons. As of Friday, July 8, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports 6,600 prisoners in at least 13 state prisons joined the hunger strike, including the Folsom, Tehachapi, Centinela, Calpatria and San Quentin state prisons.
Isaac Ontiveros of the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition reports on one hunger striker, who says, “We feel the CDCR will not make meaningful changes in policy unless this strike gets so severe that prisoners start dying. But we are in this until our demands are met.”
A prisoner in the Pelican Bay SHU has written a letter detailing why he and others are protesting conditions. He explains the resistance is being organized to protest “the denial of our human rights and equality via the use of perpetual solitary confinement.”
The Supreme Court has referred to “solitary confinement” as one of the techniques of “physical and mental torture” that have been used by governments to coerce confessions (Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 237-238 (1940)).
In regards to PBSP-SHU, Judge Thelton E. Henderson stated that “many if not most, inmates in the SHU experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation in SHU” (Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1235 (N.D. Cal. 1995)). Not surprisingly, Judge Henderson stated that “the conditions in the SHU may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate” and that sensory deprivation found in the SHU “may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience” (Madrid, 889 F. Supp. at 1267, 1280)…
… Solitary confinement, by its very nature, is harmful to human beings, including prisoners,1 especially for those of us prisoners whose isolation is perpetual based solely upon our status as an associate or member of a gang. In theory, our detention is supposedly for administrative “non-disciplinary” reasons. Yet, when I asked one of the prison staff why is it we are not afforded the same privileges as those gang affiliated inmates in a Level 4 general population (GP), I was told that “according to Sacramento,” we don’t “have shit coming” and that it is the department’s “goal of breaking” us down. Thus, our treatment is clearly punitive, discriminatory and coercive…
What is most striking in reading testimony from prisoners like Martinez or individuals working to provide prisoner support to those seeking reform in the prison is how the description of prison conditions and prisoner treatment sounds like a story from Abu Ghraib, what detainees experience at Baghram prison in Afghanistan or life for a “terror suspect” detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. It is starkly similar to the inhumane treatment and torture that the US seeks to get away with abroad, the kind of violations of human rights that a number of Americans probably believe do not happen here at home.
The prisoners have mounted a strike to call attention to the disciplinary and administrative abuse they are being subjected to where they are thrown into the SHU because they do something a guard doesn’t like or they are accused of being an active gang member. Once a prisoner is accused of being a gang member, in many instances, that prisoner ends up in the SHU, whether the information is accurate or not.
Molly Porzig, a Critical Resistance representative in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, details, “SHU assignments affect sentence lengths in two very severe ways: when you get placed in the SHU, you can’t earn “good time” credit and so that means prisoners with fixed or determinate sentence are released later than they would’ve been if they never went to the SHU.”
Additionally, “There is an unwritten rule that prevents any lifer in the SHU from being granted a parole date. So, for prisoners with a SHU commitment, that means the only way to get out of the SHU is to ‘debrief’ or die.” And, if you are a lifer that gets placed in the SHU, your sentence is automatically “converted to life without the possibility of parole, which is a different sentence than what the judge originally gave you. “
“Debriefing” or dying are two main ways that someone can get out of the SHU and “debrief” means that if you have information on people who are members of gangs you can tell the guards and if you have good intelligence you can get out of the SHU. The people you name will then likely end up in the SHU. It’s very similar to how information has been obtained through torture at Guantanamo. Detainees at Guantanamo provide the information interrogators want so they can stop being tortured; prisoners in the SHU make up stories about individuals in the prison to get out of the SHU.
USA Today’s Kevin Johnson reported in December 2006, “Although an estimated 5% of California’s inmates are housed in solitary confinement — also known as “administrative segregation” — 69% of last year’s suicides occurred in units where inmates are isolated for 23 hours a day, according to state Department of Corrections records.” About half of the suicides that year were in units where inmates are held in isolation.
So far, it is difficult to confirm whether the prisoners are facing repercussions or escalated administrative and disciplinary abuse from the prison guards. A representative with California Prison Focus reports there has been ransacking of cells and that guards have been taking away artwork and newspapers from prisoners.
Clyde Young, a revolutionary communist who has been working with organizers supporting the prisoners, expresses concern over the fact that now, ten days after the beginning of the strike, the prisoners may fall ill from the hunger strike and die.
“I’m very concerned with the situation that exists because the hunger strike began on July 1st because I heard recently that two prisoners—I heard this from a mother who has two sons in Pelican Bay, where she indicated that they’ve been put into intensive care,” Young reports. “One thing to keep in mind is that medical conditions are horrendous. Many of the prisoners don’t even want to be treated by the prison doctors.”
As with Guantanamo Bay, there exists a distinct possibility that prisoners are force-fed, which is torture in and of itself.
Young says support is gathering but not fast enough in order to force the prison officials to meet the demands that the prisoners have put forward which are entirely just and legitimate demands. Not only could prisoners be force-fed or die from hunger striking but they could die and be force-fed and prisoners’ families and the public might not know be informed about it. And this, Young suggests “puts a tremendous responsibility on us to build a movement that is so massive that they are forced to meet the demands of the prisoners.”
He concludes, “If you look at the kinds of conditions that Bradley Manning has been subjected to or prisoners at Guantanamo or conditions at Abu Ghraib that prisoners have been subjected to, these are conditions that no human should be subjected to. I don’t care where it is or what justification is given for it. No human being should be subjected to the kinds of conditions that human beings have been subjected to, which are nothing less than torture in Guantanamo,” in prisons abroad, and in prisons “right here within the borders of the US.”
“This tells you something about the character of a country that is willing to subject human beings to these kinds of conditions anywhere they are. I don’t care where they are. I don’t care what kind of crime that a person has supposedly committed. There is no reason for them to be subjected to conditions of torture.”
*Check back for more updates and coverage of the Pelican Bay prisoner hunger strike.