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 sixth in our series of their stories and those of their families.
Paul Redd, plaintiff in the Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit challenging long-term solitary confinement
In 1980, [I] was part of a major lawsuit to improve prison conditions. I rallied to get other prisoners involved so Folsom Prison could be added to the lawsuit. I helped to bring blacks and Mexicans together to talk, ending years of racial violence. I attempted to help black correctional officers form a black union. I provided legal assistance to all races, challenging everything from their convictions and sentences to losses of good time, lack of medical care and other matters. For that, I am called the worst of the worst.
When we arrived here, late, on the prison bus, pulling through the many prison gates, a guard stepped aboard to give us his speech: “This is your new home, Pelican Bay State Prison. Look to your right, left and behind you. See them trees in the hills? This will be the last time you’ll see a tree. Look at the ground. See the dirt? This will be the last time you see dirt of this earth.”
We walked into this building, which looks like an underground bunker but is aboveground. There are no windows to look out. There are no trees or grass anywhere in sight. There is no dirt from the earth to feel, no sun or moon to watch, no stars in the sky to count. We see no birds flying above. Only their sounds let us know they’re near. The little things in the outside world we once took for granted are now against prison rules – in here they’re called contraband.