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 fourth in our series of their stories and those of their families.
Read the Entire Series: Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers’ Stories
Martha Esquivel, sister of Luis Esquivel. Luis is a plaintiff in the Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit challenging long-term solitary confinement.
My name is Martha Esquivel. My brother, Luis, has been in the SHU in Pelican Bay for 13 years. In that time, two of our siblings and our mother have passed away. In 2002, Mom was 73 years old and very sick. She made the long, difficult trip to visit Luis at Pelican Bay and was heartbroken to only be able to see him through a window. After that visit, Mom’s health declined even more and she was unable to travel to visit Luis. She would talk often about how much she missed him. We sent letters from doctors describing Mom’s condition and trying to get Luis moved to a prison closer to home, but we were unsuccessful. Now my father is in the same situation – he is 89 years old and in poor health, and the long trip to Pelican Bay is too difficult for him. He is also unable to speak to his son, because Luis is not allowed any phone calls.
Mom never got to see Luis again before she died in 2009. When she died, I called the prison and was allowed a ten-minute phone call with Luis. It was only the second time I’d talked to him on the phone since he’d arrived at Pelican Bay in 1999. I told him Mom had passed away, but he did not cry. We were speaking in Spanish and he told me that the guard was right in front of him and he would wait to cry until he got back to his cell because he didn’t want to give the guards something to pick on him about by crying. He told me to be strong. I couldn’t believe he was about to go back to his cell to cry all alone, and here he was telling me to be strong.
Then, in February 2006, our sister, Luz, fell ill, and our family wrote a letter to Luis preparing him for her death. He asked for a phone call, and by the time he was able to call, Luz had passed away.
In 2010, our oldest brother died in Tijuana. Jose was 15 years older than Luis and was like a father figure to him. I called the prison again and requested a phone call with Luis, but I was told I could not have one because Jose had died in Mexico. I offered to provide the phone number of the mortuary, so that the prison could call and verify that my brother had died, but it made no difference. I still don’t understand why it mattered where Jose had died, but I was not allowed a call with Luis to tell him.
Instead, I wrote him a letter. I used different colored pens to tell the story. I started with blue, which I told Luis represented God and the sky. Next was yellow, for the sun and hope. Then purple – “In other countries,” I told Luis, “they use purple to represent death, just like we use black here.” Luis wrote me back and told me that, when he reached the purple ink when reading my letter, he knew that someone had passed. And that was how he learned his brother had died.
Through all this loss, our family has been unable to have contact with Luis, unable to comfort him or be comforted by him.
Luis Esquivel: “We want an opportunity to be able to live again, have a visit with our loved ones, give them a hug, shake their hand, like a human being, not a visit through the glass window.”