A hunger strike by California prisoners centered at Pelican Bay State Prison to protest the alleged over use of “Security Housing Units” — where cells are windowless and soundproof, and in which prisoners are kept 23 hours a day — to isolate non-violent prisoners in California prisons entered its 11th day today (Monday, July 11.) As reported in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, July 9:
The protest started July 1 at the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay, a prison near the Oregon border that houses some of the state’s most hard-core offenders. The isolation units there — part of a trio of such units statewide — are reserved for prisoners considered to be extremely violent, many of them with gang ties. The units have cells that are windowless and soundproof, to limit inmate communication. Prisoners are released for about an hour a day so they can walk freely in a small area with high concrete walls.
Inmates involved in the strike have a number of complaints, including a need for better food, warmer clothes and improved educational opportunities.
As described on the website California Prison Focus, the five demands of the striking prisoners are the following:
1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).