Prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) are isolated for at least 22.5 hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, any kind of programming, adequate food and, often, medical care. Nearly 750 of these men have been held under these conditions for more than a decade, dozens for over 20 years. This treatment has inflicted profound psychological suffering and caused or exacerbated debilitating physical ailments.
Ostensibly, these men are in the SHU because they associate with gang members and isolating them is necessary to prevent gang activity and racially-motivated violence. But in the summer and fall of 2011, these men, joined by other SHU prisoners throughout California, showed this claim to be the lie that it is. Organizing across racial lines, more than 6,000 SHU prisoners went on hunger strike for several weeks to protest their conditions. That’s right – men who have been isolated for over a decade and deprived of basic human rights because they are allegedly connected to racially divided gangs worked together to demand basic rights and constitutional protections for themselves and one another. Now they have resumed their hunger strike, demanding that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation meet their demands.
Gabriel Reyes, a plaintiff in the Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit, is challenging long-term solitary confinement.
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For the past 16 years, I have spent at least 22.5 hours of every day completely isolated within a tiny, windowless cell in the Security Housing Unit at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City (Del Norte County).
Eighteen years ago, I committed the crime that brought me here: burgling an unoccupied dwelling. Under the state’s “three strikes” law, I was sentenced to between 25 years and life in prison. From that time, I have been forced into solitary confinement for alleged “gang affiliation.” I have made desperate and repeated appeals to rid myself of that label, to free myself from this prison within a prison, but to no avail.
The circumstances of my case are not unique. In fact, about a third of Pelican Bay’s 3,400 prisoners are in solitary confinement; more than 500 have been there for 10 years, including 78 who have been here for more than 20 years, according to a 2011 report by National Public Radio. Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort – for years on end. It is a living tomb. I eat alone and exercise alone in a small, dank, cement enclosure known as the “dog-pen.” I am not allowed telephone calls, nor can my family visit me very often; the prison is hundreds of miles from the nearest city. I have not been allowed physical contact with any of my loved ones since 1995. I have developed severe insomnia, I suffer frequent headaches, and I feel helpless and hopeless. In short, I am being psychologically tortured.
Claimed reforms or opportunities to be transferred out of the SHU are tokens at best.
Our other option to improve our lot is “debriefing,” which means informing on prisoner activities. The guards use this tactic as leverage in exchange for medical care, food, amenities and even, theoretically, removal from the SHU. Debrief sessions are held in complete secrecy. When another prisoner is the subject of a debrief, he is not informed of the content, so he is punished with no means to challenge the accusations.
I have two disciplinary citations on my record. The first arose because I donated artwork to a nonprofit organization. The other is because I participated in a statewide hunger strike to protest conditions in the SHU. The strike was thought to be a success, with more than 6,000 inmates going without food for several weeks and ending with the promise of serious reforms from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In spite of the promises, the CDCR does not plan to institute any meaningful reforms.
Now fellow SHU inmates and I have joined together with the Center for Constitutional Rights in a federal lawsuit that challenges this treatment as unconstitutional. I understand I broke the law, and I have lost liberties because of that. But no one, no matter what they’ve done, should be denied fundamental human rights, especially when that denial comes in the form of such torture. Our Constitution protects everyone living under it; fundamental rights must not be left at the prison door.
A version of this piece ran in the May 31, 2012, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “The crime of punishment at Pelican Bay State Prison.”