After years locked in a SHU, it’s still a struggle

By John Lam

Debrief, parole or die were the only ways an inmate placed in California’s supermax facilities for gang validation could come out. It has changed, thanks to a class-action lawsuit.

“I was placed in the SHU (Security Housing Unit) based on the words of a confidential informant,” said Librado Fortanel. “All they need is three items to indicate that you are involved in gang activities, and more often than not they are based on unsubstantiated claims.”

Fortanel, 46, spent eight years in the SHU, the supermax unit at Pelican Bay State Prison. “I felt that it was useless to fight against the system. No one was being heard. During my eight years in the SHU, I never heard anyone getting relief through the appeal system.”

Two prisoners, Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell, filed a lawsuit in the federal court in December of 2009, claiming conditions in the Pelican Bay SHU were unconstitutional. On June 2, 2014, the lawsuit became a class action for all the prisoners indeterminately confined in the Pelican Bay SHU.

The lawsuit “claim(s) that CDCR’s gang validation policies did not provide sufficient due process and that confinement in Pelican Bay’s SHU for 10 or more years violated the United States Constitution,” said attorney Ann Capella in a notice to the class plaintiffs.

In addition to protesting in court, three extensive peaceful hunger strike protests were led by California prisoners – the third, the largest hunger strike in world history, involving over 30,000 people and lasting 60 days, reported the California Prison Focus (CPF).

“During the three hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, people all over the world were inspired to act, outraged at the exposed realities of solitary confinement torture. The prisoners’ courageous actions prompted worldwide media and United Nations attention, legislative hearings, proposed legislation, some CDCR changes, and national and international solidarity actions,” reported CPF.

After three years of litigation and protestation, a settlement with the prison system was signed in August of 2015. The prison system agrees to review and modify its security threat group (STG) validation process and to implement a 24 month step down program for validated gang members.

The psychological impacts of solitary confinement are not subject to debate. In the SHU, prisoners are confined in solitude for 22 to 23 hours a day, with the remaining time spent, still solitarily, in an outdoor exercise pen.

“Prolonged solitary confinement amounts to a production of something like schizophrenia in the prisoner,” reported the San Francisco Bay View.

“SHU Syndrome, like PTSD, is when a person who has been isolated for an extended amount of time lacking any social interactions, so long that a person may start to see visions, hear voices or become paranoid,” said Fortanel.

“People in my pod were losing their minds. You can get the sense that it is happening to someone when they stop communicating.”

Luckily, Fortanel got out without losing his mind. But, what lies ahead after the SHU is no easy feat, beginning with adapting to the sudden freedom and human contact, which most SHU “kick-outs” had not had for years, if not decades.

“For the first couple of weeks, I only talked to people who have just gotten out of the SHU. Because we all experience the same struggle, we can relate,” said Fortanel. “But out here we have to readjust, to remain calm and accept the fact that people don’t know what we have gone through.”

In addition to the psychological challenges, most of those who have been subjected to long-term solitary confinement have developed some health deficiencies, due to poor living conditions and medical care, in addition to the complexity associated with sensory deprivation.

“I came out here pale. I was vitamin D deficient,” said Fortanel. “Right now they got me on 50,000 milligrams of vitamin D because of the years of lack of sun.”

Even something as simple as walking is a problem. “We are not used to walking. Just the other day, I pulled a muscle by walking up the stairs,” he said.

The struggles of inmates like Fortanel in adapting to the life on the mainline include some positives, such as programming opportunities not as available in the SHU.

“Despite the widely acknowledged rehabilitative benefits of education and the mission of CDCR expressed in its very name, there are few to no educational and other rehabilitative opportunities for the men in the Pelican Bay SHU,” reported CPF.

“I have been here for a couple of months, and I just signed up to get into the computer literacy and the college program here. I already have 30 units of college credits from another college. I really want to succeed when I get out of prison. I also hope to get into the Last Mile coding class before I parole,” said John Winters, 37, who has spent nine and a half years in the SHU.

Fortanel, too, has taken advantage of the programs. “I have been accepted for CTE PIA union construction. I am excited to pick up a trade and succeed, to have something going for me in society,” said Fortanel.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2016-17 budget includes $24 million to expand and enhance prisoner rehabilitative programs. Brown’s budget also includes $60 million to support and expand reentry programs and to expand rehabilitative programs to long-term offenders.

–Chung Kao

contributed to this story

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