Prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) are isolated for at least twenty-two and a half 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.
Here is the eighth in our series of their stories and those of their families.
Jeffrey Franklin, plaintiff in the Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit challenging long-term solitary confinement
My name is Jeffrey Franklin. I am from Los Angeles, California, and I have been in prison for over 30 years. I have spent the last 24 of those years in the SHU.
I originally ended up in the SHU for violating a prison rule against having “material that can be made into or used as a weapon” in my possession. I was given a 15-month SHU term as punishment. However, after my SHU term expired, I was designated to be kept in the SHU indefinitely because prison guards found my name in another prisoner’s possession – even though this is not a rule infraction. Thus, I have been unable to see, hold, touch, walk with, and interact with other prisoners, friends, or family for over 20 years for something I could not have been sent to the SHU for in the first place. In 2006, I was denied inactive status even though I was not placed in the SHU for having been active in a gang to begin with. Yet, seven years later, I am still in the SHU.
I have had 24 years of good behavior, without any write-ups. I feel I deserve a less restrictive living situation. And I should be closer to my family. I have five grandchildren whom I have never seen, and a 36-year-old daughter whom I have not seen since 1982, when she was 6 years old.
It is very difficult to live day to day in the SHU. Sometimes people simply snap, suddenly and unpredictably. In fact, one of the worst challenges I have faced is witnessing so many other SHU prisoners lose their minds. It is hard to describe the horrors of insanity, the incessant screaming and noises and incoherent speech. Thousands of prisoners are kept in sensory deprivation units for years, until they are mentally ill, or sometimes until they commit suicide because they can no longer cope with the loneliness, the sounds of people losing their minds or harassment from prison guards. Holding on to your own rationality becomes a major challenge.
Being in the SHU is designed to break you, to make you submit, but it is not clear to what. The only ways to get out alive is to inform on other prisoners – even if you have no information to provide, even if you risk violence by doing so, even if doing so puts your family in danger. Prison officials will also withhold adequate medical or mental health care unless you debrief. This is coercion and wickedness, pure and simple.