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Two Years After Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, What’s Changed for People Inside the Prison?

After mass hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, California prisoners continue to organize and protest solitary confinement.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Two years have passed since people confined in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison initiated a 60-day hunger strike to protest the conditions associated with the prison’s “security housing unit,” or SHU.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to claim that “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California’s prisons and the SHU is not ‘solitary confinement,'” but people inside the Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit say they remain locked in for at least 23 hours per day.

Meanwhile, in June 2015, the CDCR released proposed new regulations around its use of the security housing unit and administrative segregation – regulations that may, in part, curb participation in future strikes and other prison protests.

“What would it be like to have one’s bodily contact with others reduced to the fastening and unfastening of restraints?”

Among the proposed changes is a new subsection increasing the penalty for active participation in acts like a mass hunger strike. Noting that disturbances have “become an increasingly serious problem, often resulting in the serious injury of others,” the new regulations increase security housing unit sentences: Active participation in a disturbance, strike or riot, which currently carries two to six months in the security housing unit, will increase to three to nine months. (The penalty for leading a disturbance, strike or riot remains six to 18 months.)

The regulations are currently going through the required public comment period in which any member of the public, incarcerated or otherwise, can submit written comments. A public hearing is scheduled for August 7, 2015.

Do California’s Prisons Have Solitary Confinement?

Author Todd Ashker, who was locked in the security housing unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison, disagrees with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s assertion that its prisons do not have solitary confinement.

In a 13-page typed statement, Ashker describes how, along with over 1,000 other people, he is locked for 25 years of his life into 11-by-seven-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day. The security housing unit cells have no windows and their doors face a wall so that those inside cannot see each other through the door slot. Any time they are taken out of their cells – for a shower, a visit or an hour of recreation in an exercise cage – they are handcuffed and ankle chained.

“The reality is that collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force that can positively change this entire corrupt system.”

“What would it be like to have one’s bodily contact with others reduced to the fastening and unfastening of restraints, punctuated with the most intimate probing of the surface and depths of one’s body?” Ashker writes in his statement titled “Moving Forward With Our Fight to End Solitary Confinement.” “Not to be able to speak to anyone except through intercom or by yelling through a slot in the door? To be kept in solitude and yet exposed to constant surveillance and to the echoing noise of other prisoners?”

For those who break prison rules, the security housing unit is temporary (up to 60 months). Those labeled as part of a “security threat group,” however, have no fixed end date. Until recently, accusations leading to security housing unit placement relied on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence, such as tattoos, books or associations. Hundreds have been confined within the security housing unit for more than a decade. Until recently, one of the few ways to be released from the security housing unit was to “debrief” (provide information incriminating others, who are then placed in the security housing unit for an indeterminate sentence). The other ways? Be paroled or die.

It was in response to these conditions that Ashker and 30,000 other people imprisoned throughout California launched a hunger strike demanding an end to security housing unit practices on July 8, 2013. That was not the first time they had staged a hunger strike to change prison policy. In 2011, security housing unit prisoners held two mass hunger strikes, each lasting three weeks, with five demands:

1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;

2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;

3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;

4. Provide adequate food;

5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite security housing unit inmates.

The strikes spread throughout several prisons and, at their height, involved nearly 12,000 people. The strikes also galvanized outside actions: Family members who had resigned themselves to their loved ones’ isolation began connecting and organizing together; advocates began connecting with those resisting inside the security housing unit. The strikes also made headlines, bringing solitary confinement – particularly California’s security housing unit – into the national spotlight. CDCR made several concessions, granting incarcerated people the ability to own a typewriter, limited access to college courses and the ability to send a yearly photo to loved ones. But, according to those inside, four years after the initial strike, their five core demands remain unmet and they remain locked in for at least 23 hours a day.

California’s “Step Down” Program

In May 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed Ashker v. Brown, a federal lawsuit on behalf of people who have spent 10 or more years in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit. The suit alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and that the absence of meaningful review for security housing unit placement violates the right to due process. In June 2014, a federal judge certified it as a class-action suit with two classes, one encompassing anyone who has spent 10 years or more in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit and the other, a due process class, consisting of those assigned to an indeterminate security housing unit term as a result of “gang validation” (being labeled as gang members).

That same year, CDCR unveiled two major changes to its security housing unit policies, changes which, CDCR deputy press secretary Terry Thornton told Truthout, had been in the works since 2007. In October 2012, CDCR changed criteria for security housing unit placement from gang affiliates to those who are identified as part of “security threat groups” (STGs) and have demonstrated behavior that is gang-related. In other words, Thornton explained, “We’re not even asking them to drop out of their gang as long as they don’t participate in gang behavior.” The new policy also prohibits security housing unit placement based solely on information by confidential informants: “Unsubstantiated confidential source information from a single source will not establish a foundation for confirming the existence of STG-related behavior.”

“The CDCR does not consider the SHU ‘solitary confinement.'”

The second change was CDCR’s new Step Down program for people serving indefinite security housing unit sentences for gang affiliation. Each person is reviewed by the Departmental Review Board (DRB) and assigned to one of five steps. To progress to the next step, he must participate in specified activities such as journaling. If he refuses, he will be returned to the previous step. Of 65 cases reviewed, the Office of the Inspector General found that 31 people (48 percent) progressed to the next step, 27 remained on their current step and seven regressed. Of those who did not progress, 27 had refused to participate in the program and three had refused to do the journaling requirement. Those placed in step five are transferred to other prisons where they are allowed into general population under close monitoring from gang investigators.

Thornton has noted that, under the Step Down program, those in the security housing unit are no longer required to debrief or drop out of their gang. But debriefing has not been eliminated: A validated STG affiliate can still choose to debrief; that person would then be moved to a transitional housing unit.

Although they had resumed eating, those inside the security housing unit were not passively awaiting release either via the lawsuit or the Step Down program. In a statement entitled “Agreement to End Hostilities,” they called for an end to the interracial fighting that had plagued California’s prisons for decades. “We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit,” declared the 16 men from within their security housing unit cells. “Because the reality is that collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force that can positively change this entire corrupt system.”

The following year, security housing unit prisoners decided to strike again. On July 8, 2013, more than 30,000 people incarcerated throughout California refused meals, launching the nation’s largest prison hunger strike. The strike lasted 60 days, ending after California legislators Loni Hancock and Tom Ammiano promised to hold hearings around the issues raised by the hunger strikers.

Family Members Continue to Press for Change

As of June 12, 2015, CDCR had conducted 1,274 case-by-case reviews of those validated as STG affiliates and housed in security housing unit or administrative segregation (Ad Seg), which is normally used to isolate people who pose an immediate safety threat. Of those, 321 were placed in various phases of the Step Down program while 910 have been released directly to step five, where they can be around other people, participate in vocational programming and hug their families. But, observed Ashker, “None of the cells stay empty for more than a day or two. They’ve filled most of them with men from the SHUs at Tehachapi and Corcoran.”

Mutope DuGuma, who authored the original call to hunger strike, reported that people newly validated as part of security threat groups are also filling the emptied beds. “The sad part [is] these youngsters are the same age we were when we came in,” noted DuGuma, now age 48 and in his 14th year in the security housing unit. For newcomers – and their families – support networks now exist to help them navigate the confusing – and sometimes frightening – change, networks that only emerged because of the hunger strikes.

Being moved from one security housing unit to another does not exclude participation in the lawsuit against CDCR. In March 2015, a federal judge ruled that those who had spent 10 or more years in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit but have since been transferred to the security housing unit in Tehachapi under the Step Down program can file a supplemental complaint about their continued treatment. As of April 2015, over 800 people remained in the due process class and approximately 130 are in the Eighth Amendment class. The trial date is set for December 7, 2015.

“You can change the wording all you want, but the situation hasn’t changed. We want the situation changed.”

In the meantime, the people inside – and their family members outside – continue pressing for change. Dolores Canales’ son Johnny has been in the security housing unit for 14 years. In 2011, when he announced his intention to join the hunger strike, Canales began organizing, joining with other family members to not only support their loved ones but to fight for systemic change. Out of these connections came California Families Against Solitary Confinement, a group pushing for an end to the security housing unit. Now when a person first enters the security housing unit, Canales told Truthout, “The men will let the newcomers know who their family members should contact.” They also pass along the phone numbers of the newcomers’ families to Canales and others so they can reach out.

California Families Against Solitary Confinement is organizing a bus for family members in southern California to Pelican Bay, which is 13 miles from the Oregon border. Half of the riders will be going to Pelican Bay for the very first time. The other half have been making the trek for years, if not decades. In addition to alleviating costs and fears, Canales hopes that the bus ride enables families to connect with one another so that they can carpool and share hotel rooms for future visits.

Daletha Hayden will be one of the new family members. Her son Ian has spent nearly six years in the security housing unit at the state prison in Tehachapi. But, in April 2015, prison staff told him that the units at Tehachapi, in the southern part of California, were needed for people in steps three and four. Ian was transferred to Corcoran, 104 miles northwest. Only weeks later, on June 1, 2015, he was moved over 500 miles further north – this time to Pelican Bay, where he was placed in Ad Seg. But Ad Seg is also used to house security housing unit overflow; as of April 2015, of the 156 people in Ad Seg, 76 were awaiting beds in the security housing unit, which held 1,147 people. Like those in the security housing unit, people in Ad Seg spend 23 hours a day in their cells. While in Ad Seg, however, Ian is not allowed to have his belongings, including his photographs, art supplies or books.

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa has gone in the opposite direction. In May 2014, he was assigned to step three. Two months later, in July, he was transferred to Tehachapi. “He describes Pelican Bay as being ‘the penthouse’ and Tehachapi as being ‘the dungeon,'” his sister Marie Levin told Truthout. Upon his arrival, he was issued clothing that was not only too small, but also dirty. Because people are issued clothing only once a week, he had to wait another week for a set that fit. Jamaa has also told his sister that men are given paper cups instead of mugs, are allowed to shower every three days and still cannot participate in group activities. In response, they are now refusing to fill out the journals or participate in any of the other activities required by the Step Down program.

For those in step five, the specter of the security housing unit continues to haunt them. Luis Esquivel had been in the security housing unit for 17 years before being assigned to step five and transferred to Corcoran in February 2015. There, he was able to call his sister Martha, who was attending a conference with her daughter Maribel Herrera and other members of California Families Against Solitary Confinement. That was how the family learned that he was no longer in isolation. “She couldn’t believe that he called, that he’s not in the SHU,” Herrera told Truthout. Shortly after, Esquivel was transferred to Calipatria, a two-hour drive from his family in San Diego. In April, Herrera and her husband had their first contact visit with him. “I gave him a huge hug,” recalled Herrera, who last hugged her uncle as a toddler. But, she added, her uncle, unused to eating in front of other people after 17 years in the security housing unit, barely touched the small bag of peanuts they bought him from the vending machine.

Her uncle has not forgotten about those he left behind. Although he has access to a wider variety of food, a microwave, contact visits, yard time twice a week and weekly phone calls with his sister, he knows that others do not – and that they remain locked in their cells 23 hours a day. “He thinks, ‘How can I enjoy this when they’re still in there?'” Herrera said.

“Solitary confinement should never be used for any human being – or any animal. We’re never going to accept it.”

Three people have been paroled while in the Step Down program. But for Lorenzo Benton, spending 25 years in the security housing unit continues to be a barrier to freedom. Benton was placed in step five and transferred to Ironwood State Prison, where he joined various programs, including a vocational masonry program. But when he appeared before the parole board, he recounted, “The board felt that I continued to demonstrate criminal-minded thinking because I refused to debrief. The board had the audacity to tell me that, because I refuse to debrief, it appears that I was trying to retire from the gang with honor.” The board also held his previous rules violations reports against him, including one issued in 2013 for his participation in the hunger strike. “I had not received a 115 since 2007 (disobeying a direct order) and prior to that, 1997 (contraband: possession of staples),” he explained. He was given a five-year denial, meaning that Benton, who has been in prison since 1977, will not be eligible for consideration until 2020. Still, he does not regret his actions. “Initially, I was not a strong believer in the success of a hunger strike,” he wrote in May 2015, months after his parole denial. “I mistakenly felt we did not have the mass/organized support that would be needed to force change on the system of solitary confinement, but I am glad to have been proven wrong on this.”

In an email to Truthout, Terry Thornton, CDCR’s deputy press secretary, noted, “The Step Down Program and the regulations about Security Threat Groups will not be affected by the new regulations.” In a follow-up call with Truthout, she reiterated, “The CDCR does not consider the SHU ‘solitary confinement.'”

At present, over 1,000 people are confined to Pelican Bay’s security housing unit. But both those inside and family members outside remain hopeful. Noting CDCR’s assertion about solitary confinement, Canales told Truthout, “You can change the wording all you want, but the situation hasn’t changed. What we want is not the words changed. We want the situation changed.” But, she added, “More progress has been made in the last three years than in the past 30 years. This wouldn’t have happened if the men hadn’t starved themselves.”

Even family members whose loved ones are no longer in the security housing unit remain committed to organizing. Herrera and her mother continue to speak out and organize. Both participated in the Chicano-Mexicano Prison Project’s annual conference on prisoners and colonialism, Herrera as the conference’s emcee and her mother as a speaker about the security housing unit. “Although he [my uncle] came out of the SHU, a lot of people are still in there,” said Herrera. “Solitary confinement should never be used for any human being – or any animal. We’re never going to accept it. Even if my uncle gets out of prison, he’ll be right there speaking alongside us.”

“We’ve already demonstrated the power we have when united and collectively fighting for the benefit of all who are similarly situated; it’s time for CDCr [sic] to see and respect us as human beings, and end long-term SHU,” Ashker wrote. “It will be a start towards meaningful reform of the entire system.”

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