By Catherine Campbell
This summer, prisoners in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) came together and began a hunger strike that at its peak spread throughout the California prison system to include 6,600 prisoners at 13 prisons. In defiance of the conventional assumptions about their gang rancor, the prisoners organized themselves without disagreement to make modest requests of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to change the circumstances of their incarceration.
The hunger strike, which ended after lengthy mediation on Aug. 26, was remarkable in many ways, but it did not end the harsh solitary isolation of thousands of prisoners. Some minor concessions were made and the CDCR agreed to review the tortuous procedures that lead to SHU confinement.
Pelican Bay was built following the bulldozing of 275 acres of lush, green second- or third-generation forest near the Oregon border in 1989. Pelican Bay is now loosely called “the Bay” by those who speak of it often. Pelican Bay was the second prison in California to have an SHU to house gang members and disciplinary problem inmates. The Bay SHU at any given time holds approximately 1,500 men in solitary confinement.
While the official rationale of SHU housing is to isolate the “worst of the worst”—gangsters and troublemakers—in high-security settings, the history of California SHUs is that they were created to isolate and protect prison staff. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were a series of assaults on guards, including several killings, and these events—which were accompanied by harsh violence on prisoners—preceded the expansion of the prison guards’ union power and the construction of the SHUs.
Because the creation of the SHUs was a ruse for appeasement of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, or the guards’ union, they have always rung a note of reactionary hysteria and pretense. However, they continue to be justified as gang-busting and disciplinary institutions.
Gang members are identified using “validation” procedures that include the inmate’s family locale, his ethnicity, his mail, his tattoos, his crime buddies and other such means, some reliable, some not. Once an inmate is validated as a prison gang member, he can be locked up in the SHU for decades, or until his prison term ends. Many SHU prisoners are convicted of relatively minor crimes; others are in prison for life.
The sole way for a validated gang member to escape the SHU is to “debrief”—he must give specific information about his fellow gang members and his own criminal behavior. If he does this in a way that is believed by prison administrators, he may eventually be moved into a form of protective housing where he will have access to other inmates, contact visits and other amenities that go with being de-clawed out of the gang life.
This grinding process of high-intensity incarceration, intimidation, extraction of information and reward is otherwise known as torture.
It was called torture at Guantanamo. It was called torture at Abu Ghraib. Only in the last six months has it finally been called torture at Pelican Bay. On Aug. 1, 2011, the New York Times editorialized: “Americans should be disgusted and outraged that prolonged solitary confinement, sometimes for months or even years, has become a routine form of prison management. It is inflicting unnecessary, indecent and inhumane suffering on tens of thousands of prisoners.”
Laura Magnini, the interim regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, was one of the mediators between the hunger strikers at the Bay and CDCR officials. She is the author of two books on prison conditions and is a 40-year advocate of prison reform. She was contacted by the 11 prisoners who formed the coalition for the hunger strike, which came together months before the inmates stopped eating. The prisoners had drawn up a list of modest demands.
They wanted individual accountability and the end of group punishment, a request that ironically echoes Republican values. They asked that the debriefing process end and that prisoners be given alternative avenues to release from solitary confinement. They wanted compliance with human rights dietary standards and they wanted constructive educational programs.
While the hunger strike went on, the mediators negotiated with CDCR officials. Ultimately, there were minor concessions—an inmate could have a personal family photo on the wall of his cell, for example—but the larger issues were left to CDCR review and analysis over the following year.
The hunger strike lasted 21 days. It ended when several of the men began to have serious and potentially permanent health problems. Magnini considers the hunger strike successful. “It was the largest hunger strike in world history,” she says.
As important, it was a nonviolent and cooperative effort, defying the myths about the inherent violence and evil of people who have been convicted of crimes. The strike brought a new media focus on the wrongs of the American prison system. A coalition of prison reform activists formed, including people active in gang injunction opposition.
“Spreading the impact,” continued Magnini, “there have been legislative hearings and the CDCR is continuing to work with mediators to make changes.”
The CDCR Web site indicates new policies will be reviewed and some changes may be made in the coming months. “I’m not talking about having another study,” said Scott Kernan, undersecretary at the CDCR. “I’m talking about having some substantive changes.”
If this is true and the tortuous context in which SHU prisoners live is changed for the better, the hunger strikers will have achieved something monumental. Years of protests by human rights advocates and millions spent on litigation have not achieved what the collective effort of prisoners all over the state brought about.
Postscript: The Security Housing Inmates at Pelican Bay announced on Sept. 13 that they would resume their hunger strike on Sept. 26 because they are dissatisfied with the CDCR responses to their requests.
Catherine Campbell is a semi-retired civil rights attorney.