Support the Hunger Strikers of Pelican Bay, California, Calling for An End to Solitary Confinement as Official US Prison Policy

By Andy Worthington  

On July 5, I received a press release from the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition in Oakland, California. Under the heading, “Prisoners Across at Least 6 California Prisons Join Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers: Strike Could Involve Thousands of Prisoners,” it read:

More than 100 hours into an indefinite hunger strike started at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit, prisoners in at least 6 state prisons have joined in, with participation potentially growing into the thousands. Hunger strikers at Pelican Bay and other prisoners participating are protesting the conditions in the Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU).

Dozens of US-based and international human rights organizations have condemned Security Housing Units as having cruel, inhumane, and torturous conditions. SHU prisoners are kept in windowless, 6 by 10 foot cells, 23½ hours a day, for years at a time. The CDCR operates four Security Housing Units in its system at Corcoran, California Correctional Institution (CCI), Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) as well as Pelican Bay. As of Tuesday morning [July 5], advocates had confirmed hunger strike participants at Corcoran and CCI, as well as Folsom, Centinela, and Calipatria State Prisons.

I paid it attention, but didn’t have time to follow up. Then, on July 17, my very good friend Debra Sweet of The World Can’t Wait also sent me a message, asking me to examine the cause of the hunger strikers, and to see if I saw similarities between America’s domestic prisons and the hunger strikers of Pelican Bay and the prisoners at Guantánamo, my chosen field of expertise for the last five years.

Debra wrote:

This is the most significant act of prisoner resistance in 40 years, since the Attica Uprising. By the prison authorities’ own figures, the hunger strike, which began on July 1, has involved 6,600 prisoners at 13 prisons. As of today, many prisoners are continuing the hunger strike at Pelican Bay and other prisons.  The hunger strike comes in response to conditions in the Security Housing Units (SHU) of extreme isolation, brutality, deprivation — conditions so severe they violate the US Constitution and international laws on torture. Very significantly, the strike has brought together Black and Latino prisoners who are normally set against each other. They are asserting their own humanity and challenging others to reclaim their humanity by standing with them.

In a statement from Corcoran State Prison, inmates wrote:

Our indefinite isolation here is both inhumane and illegal and the proponents of the prison industrial complex are hoping that their campaign to dehumanize us has succeeded to the degree that you don’t care and will allow the torture to continue in your name. It is our belief that they have woefully underestimated the decency, principles and humanity of the people. Join us in opposing this injustice without end. Thank you for your time and support.

In the hope of voicing my own indignation, I’m happy to publicize the cause of these  prisoners, and to call for them to be treated as human beings, and, above all, not to be imprisoned in solitary confinement. Last December, I was a signatory to a statement calling for an end to solitary confinement around the world, whose signatories also included Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg, former prisoners Paddy Hill and Gerry Conlon (wrongly convicted over IRA bombings in England), former Beirut hostage Terry Waite, lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and barrister Michael Mansfield QC.

In the last five years, as I have written about the crimes perpetrated at Guantánamo by the Bush administration – and now by the Obama administration — the effects of the experimental conditions in that bleakly iconic experimental prison have troubled me throughout, and have driven my work. I want Guantánamo, and all it stands for, to be closed, never to be revisited, and I want those who authorized it, and the torture there and in other secret prisons, to be held accountable.

My concerns about Guantánamo have, I suppose, focused more on the ruinous effects on the mental health of prisoners when they are held in open-ended arbitrary detention than on isolation as such, although that has definitely played a part, and it was central to the torture program designed to “break” the prisoners. However, the similarities between Guantánamo and the US domestic prison system are undeniable, as both were conceived and are maintained by administrations that have a horrendous disregard for the human rights of prisoners, and an apparent thirst for vengeance, In addition, the violence of successive administrations, and of lawmakers in Congress and also of the judiciary, is reflected in the opinions of the people who vote for hardline lawmakers and apparently support brutalizing, cruel and inhumane prisons, in which isolation has become a key element of a system that can, without exaggeration, be described as one that involves torture.

Providing further information about the California hunger strike, Kevin Gosztola wrote on FireDogLake, in an article entitled, “Pelican Bay Prison Hunger Strike Shines Light on True Character of US Prison System,” that:

[P]risoners came together behind five core demands to force the prison officials to end the use of “group punishment”; abolish a “debriefing policy and the current criteria for determining who is and who isn’t a gang member [which involves tying the provision of decent treatment to snitching on gang members and thereby riskking death]; comply with the US Commission 2006 Recommendation Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement and end conditions of isolation, make segregation a last resort, end long-term solitary confinement and grant access to adequate healthcare and sunlight; provide adequate food and stop using it as a tool to punish inmates; and expand constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. [See the prisoners' full demands here].

SHU stands for “Security Housing Unit.” In some prisons, the SHU is called “the hole.” The SHU is a “prison-within-a-prison.” Solitary Watch explains the SHU became more widely used after two guards were killed in the Marion, Illinois, federal prison in 1983. That led to the Marion Lockdown with prisoners being “confined to their cells without yard time, work or any kind of rehabilitative programming.”

Other prisons followed suit, and in 1989 California built the first supermax — Pelican Bay. There was a supermax boom in the 1990s, and today, 40 states and the federal government have supermax prisons holding upwards of 25,000 inmates. Tens of thousands more are held in solitary confinement in lockdown units within other prisons and jails. There’s no up-to-date nationwide count, but according to best estimates, there are at least 75,000 and perhaps more than 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day in America.

I don’t mean just to preach to the converted, and my apologies if you have already come across the article below, but as the final aspect for now of my attempt to raise awareness of the plight of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers, and those elsewhere in California and throughout the US, who are protesting in the only way that otherwise powerless and abused prisoners have left to them — through their own bodies — I’m cross-posting an op-ed from the New York Times on Sunday, written by Colin Dayan, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, and the author of The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, which mirrors many of my own thoughts.

Barbarous Confinement
By Colin Dayan, New York Times, July 17, 2011

More than 1,700 prisoners in California, many of whom are in maximum isolation units, have gone on a hunger strike. The protest began with inmates in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison. How they have managed to communicate with each other is anyone’s guess — but their protest is everyone’s concern. Many of these prisoners have been sent to virtually total isolation and enforced idleness for no crime, not even for alleged infractions of prison regulations. Their isolation, which can last for decades, is often not explicitly disciplinary, and therefore not subject to court oversight. Their treatment is simply a matter of administrative convenience.

Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an occasional tool of discipline into a widespread form of preventive detention. The Supreme Court, over the last two decades, has whittled steadily away at the rights of inmates, surrendering to prison administrators virtually all control over what is done to those held in “administrative segregation.” Since it is not defined as punishment for a crime, it does not fall under “cruel and unusual punishment,” the reasoning goes.

As early as 1995, a federal judge, Thelton E. Henderson, conceded that so-called “supermax” confinement “may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” though he ruled that it remained acceptable for most inmates. But a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, Stuart Grassian, had found that the environment was “strikingly toxic,” resulting in hallucinations, paranoia and delusions. In a “60 Minutes” interview, he went so far as to call it “far more egregious” than the death penalty.

Officials at Pelican Bay, in Northern California, claim that those incarcerated in the Security Housing Unit are “the worst of the worst.” Yet often it is the most vulnerable, especially the mentally ill, not the most violent, who end up in indefinite isolation. Placement is haphazard and arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived as troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional officers and, most of all, alleged gang members. Often, the decisions are not based on evidence. And before the inmates are released from the barbarity of 22-hour-a-day isolation into normal prison conditions (themselves shameful) they are often expected to “debrief,” or spill the beans on other gang members.

The moral queasiness that we must feel about this method of extracting information from those in our clutches has all but disappeared these days, thanks to the national shame of “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantánamo. Those in isolation can get out by naming names, but if they do so they will likely be killed when returned to a normal facility. To “debrief” is to be targeted for death by gang members, so the prisoners are moved to “protective custody” — that is, another form of solitary confinement.

Hunger strikes are the only weapon these prisoners have left. Legal avenues are closed. Communication with the outside world, even with family members, is so restricted as to be meaningless. Possessions — paper and pencil, reading matter, photos of family members, even hand-drawn pictures — are removed. (They could contain coded messages between gang members, we are told, or their loss may persuade the inmates to snitch when every other deprivation has failed.)

The poverty of our criminological theorizing is reflected in the official response to the hunger strike. Now refusing to eat is regarded as a threat, too. Authorities are considering force-feeding. It is likely it will be carried out — as it has been, and possibly still continues to be — at Guantánamo (in possible violation of international law) and in an evil caricature of medical care.

In the summer of 1996, I visited two “special management units” at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. A warden boasted that one of the units was the model for Pelican Bay. He led me down the corridors on impeccably clean floors. There was no paint on the concrete walls. Although the corridors had skylights, the cells had no windows. Nothing inside could be moved or removed. The cells contained only a poured concrete bed, a stainless steel mirror, a sink and a toilet. Inmates had no human contact, except when handcuffed or chained to leave their cells or during the often brutal cell extractions. A small place for exercise, called the “dog pen,” with cement floors and walls, so high they could see nothing but the sky, provided the only access to fresh air.

Later, an inmate wrote to me, confessing to a shame made palpable and real: “If they only touch you when you’re at the end of a chain, then they can’t see you as anything but a dog. Now I can’t see my face in the mirror. I’ve lost my skin. I can’t feel my mind.”

Do we find our ethics by forcing prisoners to live in what Judge Henderson described as the setting of “senseless suffering” and “wretched misery”? Maybe our reaction to hunger strikes should involve some self-reflection. Not allowing inmates to choose death as an escape from a murderous fate or as a protest against continued degradation depends, as we will see when doctors come to make their judgment calls, on the skilled manipulation of techniques that are indistinguishable from torture. Maybe one way to react to prisoners whose only reaction to bestial treatment is to starve themselves to death might be to do the unthinkable — to treat them like human beings.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. This article was originally posted on his website.