by Denise Mewbourne
Almost two years later, the ripple effect of the 2011 hunger strike organized by the Short Corridor Collective in Pelican Bay prison continues to reverberate throughout California. In protest of solitary confinement torture in California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs), 12,000 people in prisons throughout the state participated in the hunger strike.
California currently holds 12,000 people in some form of isolation and around 4,000 in long-term solitary confinement. Around 100 people have spent 20 years or more in these hellholes, including many who are activists against prison abuses, political thinkers and jailhouse lawyers. People imprisoned in the SHU have described it as “soul-crushing,” “hellish,” a “constant challenge to keep yourself from being broken” and “a concrete tomb.”
As a result of the strike, the first legislative hearing in Sacramento occurred in August 2011, and at the grassroots level family members of those inside formed California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC) to continue the work they had done during the strike. The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) began strategizing how best to provide support well in advance of the hunger strike and continues its mission of amplifying the voices of people in the SHUs.
The strikers’ five core demands around abolishing group punishment, eliminating debriefing, ending long term solitary confinement, adequate and nutritious food, and constructive programming are still far from being met, although the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) claims to be implementing new policies on how people are sentenced to the SHU as well as how they can exit.
The hearing in Sacramento on Feb. 25, 2013, provided an opportunity for legislators in the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee to hear representatives of CDCR present their new policies and weigh the truth of their claims. The occasion also featured a report back from the Office of the Inspector General about onsite inspections conducted at Pelican Bay, as well as a panel of advocates.
Chaired by Tom Ammiano, the committee had a chance to question the panelists, and at the end there was a scant 20 minutes for public input. Attendance of grassroots activists, including family members and formerly incarcerated people, was organized by California United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). The CURB coalition focuses on reducing the number of people in prison as well as the number of prisons throughout California.
Beginning with a rally held on the capitol steps, it was an emotional day for many, especially for family members of those suffering in the SHUs and prison survivors. The voices of those in the SHU were powerfully present, both in stories told by family members as well as statements they had sent for the occasion.
The opening of the letter Gilbert Pacheco read from his brother Daniel in Corcoran Prison summed up the solidarity of the day: “Allow me to expend my utmost respects along with my utmost gratitude and appreciation to all of you who are out here supporting this struggle and allowing mine along with thousands of other voices to be heard! Gracias/Thank you.”
Family members from all over California spoke about loved ones who were being unjustly held for 10, 15, even 25 years or more in solitary confinement, how they were entrapped into solitary and the conditions they face. Marilyn Austin-Smith of All of Us or None, an organization working for human rights of formerly incarcerated people, read a statement from Hugo Pinell, surviving and resisting solitary confinement for 42 years.
Daletha Hayden from Victorville, Calif., spoke about her son who has been in SHU in Tehachapi for four years. He has missed 12 years of his 15-year-old son’s life, having not been able to see or touch him since he was 3. She said, “This is painful, and it tears families apart. We have to fight so our loved ones can be treated as well as animals! My son needs medical treatment, and SHU officials refuse for him to have it.”
Karen Mejia’s fiancé has been in SHU for six years. She stated that to her knowledge, the CDCR never got input from anyone imprisoned in the SHUs regarding their new policies. She went on to say that “if they followed their own policies, the SHU would be half empty, and they don’t want that because of their salaries and budget.”
Recently, they subjected her fiancé to particularly humiliating treatment. After she visited him, they punished him for being “sexually disorderly” with her. She said, “They painted his cell yellow and forced him to wear a yellow suit, which they do for sex offenders. In general population, he could have been killed for that.”
Looking at the hypocrisy in the U.S. around torture and human rights, Dolores Canales from CFASC angrily noted that in a recent case, “All it took was a federal order to stop chimpanzees from being held in solitary confinement. It has been determined it’s detrimental to their mental and physical health, because they are social animals and have a need to see, hear and touch each other. Aren’t humans also social beings?!”
Luis “Bato” Talamantez, one of the San Quentin 6, said, “Sending your love to the people inside and helping them to stay connected and spiritually alive is the most important thing you can do with your life right now.”
The rally ended on a positive note with Luis “Bato” Talamantez, one of the San Quentin 6, saying, “Sending your love to the people inside and helping them to stay connected and spiritually alive is the most important thing you can do with your life right now.”
The crowd then filed into the hearing room, which filled up quickly, so around 40 people viewed it in an overflow area. For the next three hours, a few of the legislators, the human rights-focused panelists and the public in attendance did their best to sort through the obfuscations, omissions, misrepresentations and outright lies told by the CDCR and colleagues.
The lies from CDCR
One mistaken idea the hearing quickly cleared up was that any real oversight might come from the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board (CROB) in the Office of the Inspector General.
Speaking from CROB was Renee Hansen, who became executive director of the board in 2011, after 20 years of working for CDCR. Perhaps that explains the board’s less than thorough attempt at a real investigation of conditions in the SHUs and the glowing report she gave. When asked by Ammiano if they had conducted any surprise visits, she replied they had not.
One of the myths the CDCR uses to justify SHUs is that they house the “worst of the worst,” and this hearing was no exception. Michael Stainer, CDCR deputy director of facility operations, testified: “The offenders in the SHU are 3 percent of the entire population. They have an inability to be integrated because of violence, and are affiliates of dangerous prison gangs. It’s necessary to isolate them to protect the other 97 percent.”
But Canales said: “My son is in there, and he has certificates in paralegal studies and civil litigation. At Corcoran he was Men’s Advisory Council representative, when one person from each ethnic group gets voted in by their peers, and others go to them for help with prison issues.” And it’s not just her son who doesn’t fit the “ultra-violent” profile. “A lot of the guys in there have all kinds of education and are helping others with legal work. Many of them have been using their time to educate themselves.”
Hansen testified they found no evidence of retaliation for the hunger strike. Yet Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights lawyer who testified on the panel, said, “Make no mistake about it: Participating in a hunger strike can get you in the SHU.”
Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell asked, “How can participation in an act of peaceful civil disobedience like a hunger strike be construed as gang activity?” Ominously, Kelly Harrington, associate director of high security transitional programming (STP) for CDCR, said, “Hunger strikes can be viewed as violating institutional security.”
Marilyn McMahon with California Prison Focus reports letters from people in SHUs about food quality going down and portion sizes shrinking, especially after the administration heard of the potential resumption this summer of the hunger strike. “I suspect,” she said, “they may be trying to get them very hungry before the strike, so they will have less desire to do it.”
In another bold mockery, CDCR claimed their new policies include substantial changes in the process of “gang validations,” the categorizing of people as “gang members or associates,” resulting in SHU placement for indeterminate sentences. In the past, the validation process has been based on points given for tattoos, possession of books or articles the CDCR deems gang-related, having your name on a roster, and/or the confidential evidence of a “debriefer,” another desperate soul who has identified you as a gang member to get out of the SHU himself. Three points is enough to send you to the SHU. According to many reports from SHUs around the state, it often happens that people get sent to there for things that are purely associational and in complete lack of any actual criminal behavior.
In point of fact, items given points toward validated gang status are often related to cultural identity and/or political beliefs. Some examples are books by George Jackson or Malcolm X, Black Panther Party books or articles, materials about Black August commemorations, the Mexican flag, the eagle of the United Farm Workers, articles on Black liberation, political cartoons critical of the prisons, Kwanzaa cards and Puerto Rican flags, just to name a few.
The CDCR gave a list of their own officials when asked who was doing the gang classifications, and Ammiano noted they were all internal to CDCR, with no independent verification. Family members at the rally spoke of many unfair instances of gang validation points given to their family members. Irene Huerta’s husband was validated for a “gang memo” that was never found!
Carbone confirmed in his testimony that there was no real change in the source items given points, that still only one of your point items even needs to be recent and the other two can be 20 years old, and that “the new program actually expands rather than restricts who can be validated, by the addition of two categories. Initially we just had gang ‘members’ and ‘associates,’ but now we also have ‘suspects’ and ‘to be monitored.’” He went on to say “only the CDCR could call expansion reform.”
Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights lawyer who testified on the panel, said, “Make no mistake about it: Participating in a hunger strike can get you in the SHU.”
As Pacheco says from Corcoran Prison: “This validation process is not about evidence gathering that contains facts. It’s hearsay, corruption and punishment to the point of execution. It’s close to impossible to beat these false accusations on appeal. They know how to block every avenue. In other words, there is no pretense that rights are respected. Shackled and chained we remain.”
The centerpiece of the CDCRs deceptive “reform” is the “Step Down Program,” in theory a phased program for people to get out of the SHU. The program would take four years to complete, although they said it could potentially be done in three. It involves journaling, self-reflection and, in years three and four, small group therapies.
In a statement issued for the event by the NARN (New Afrikan Revolutionary Nation) Collective Think Tank or NCTT at Corcoran SHU, the writers roundly condemned the program, saying that CDCR “has, in true Orwellian fashion, introduced a mandatory behavior modification and brainwashing process in the proposed step down program.” Abdul Shakur, who is at Pelican Bay and has been in solitary confinement for 30 years, calls it the “equivalent to scripting the demise of our humanity” in his article “Sensory Deprivation: An Unnatural Death.”
At the hearing, Laura Magnani from the Friends Service Committee strongly agreed. Magnani pointed out that only in the third and fourth year does very limited social interaction start to happen, that having contact with one’s family continuing to be seen as a privilege instead of a right is fundamentally wrong and that the curricula itself is “blame and shame” based, an approach proven to be damaging. To add insult to injury, she said that what you write in the notebooks can be used against you.
Marie Levin with the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition spoke about her brother Sitawa N. Jamaa at Pelican Bay, a New Afrikan Short Corridor Collective representative and a political thinker. He told her his concerns about the step down program: “The workbooks are demeaning and inappropriate. No one with a gang label will be reviewed for two years of the program, and no phone calls for two more years is far too long.” He’s concerned about CDCR evaluative power over journals, fearing they won’t allow progression if they don’t like the answers, or that they will accuse people of insincerity.
Sundiata Tate, one of the San Quentin 6 and a member of All of Us or None, said: “In terms of CDC, it seems like they’re trying to put a cover on what they’re actually doing. If you take someone who’s been in the SHU for years or even decades and say they have to go into a step down program that will take four years, that’s really just adding cruelty to cruelty. It’s actually more torture.”
Continue Reading @ SF BayView
- California Assembly Reviews Solitary Confinement Policies As Prisoners Threaten New Hunger Strike (solitarywatch.com)
- New anti-solitary confinement petition to CA Gov. Brown (indybay.org)
- The “Vicious Cycles” Created by Solitary Confinement (moorbey.wordpress.com)
- Guarding the Fortresses: How Prison Policies Limit Media Access to Solitary Confinement (solitarywatch.com)