For the third time in less than two years, California prisoners in at least four facilities have resorted to a hunger strike to protest what they claim to be the tortuous conditions of extreme isolation, according to a lawsuit fi led on behalf of 10 Pelican Bay prisoners.
According to prison officials the isolated conditions and restricted movement are necessary to keep the alleged “worst of the worst” from endangering staff and other inmates. “They should allow their lawsuit to take its course and not be protesting,” prisons spokeswoman Terry Thornton told the Los Angeles Times
The hunger strike that began July 8 with approximately 30,000 participants has declined to hundreds, according to department numbers.
Prison authorities confirmed, “All of the 14 strike leaders were signatories of protest-related documents.” Some of their legal papers have been confiscated and they were moved to an undisclosed location, a civil rights lawyer said in the Los Angeles Times report. A letter encouraging an end to all racial hostilities in California prisons and jails was in the confiscated documents.
“Most inmates don’t want trouble,” writes Wilbert Rideau in a New York Times Op-Ed item. “But sometimes they have to speak out.”
Rideau is a prison journalist who spent 44 years in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. Twenty-five years of Rideau’s incarceration at Angola was as editor-in-chief of the Angolite, a prison magazine.
Rideau opines, “As a practical matter, this is easy to resolve: institute mechanisms for authorities to meet regularly with inmates to discuss their problems without fear of reprisal. But this goes against entrenched attitudes, and too many officials see it as a surrender of their authority.”
The Pelican Bay Secured Housing Unit contains 1,056 cells.
The lawsuit claims prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU have “extremely limited recreational and cultural opportunities.” The complaint further allege prisoners’ “near total lack of contact with family and loved ones, an absolute denial of work opportunities, limited access to personal property, and extraordinary levels of surveillance and control” is cruel and unusual punishment.
The lawsuit points out that Pelican Bay is a “355-mile drive from San Francisco and a 728- mile drive from Los Angels, where many of the prisoners’ families live.”
In 2011, on average, Pelican Bay held 1,106 people in its SHU.
“About half (513) had been in the SHU for more than 10 years. Of those people, 222 had been incarcerated in the SHU for 15 or more years, and 78 had been there for more than 20 years. Of the remaining people, 544 had been in the SHU for fi ve to 10 years, and the rest, 54, were there for five years or less,” according to official prison numbers.
“Prisoners never leave the Pelican Bay SHU except under rare circumstances for medical purposes or a court appearance,” the lawsuit claims.
Prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU cannot have “social telephone calls absent an emergency,” the lawsuit claims. Visits from family members are two two-hour visits on weekends. No physical contact is allowed. Visits are in a cubicle, over a telephone, behind plexiglass. Prisoners are strip-searched before and after each visit that is monitored, recorded, and reviewed by gang investigators, according to the lawsuit.
San Quentin condemned prisoners joined the hunger strike, however their demands were to ask the warden to:
• Implement a “behavior based program”
• Stop using secret and anonymous inmate informants to decide gang affiliation
• End unfair practices used to determine inmate privileges
• End group punishments Create a professional search method when prisoners leave the recreational yard
• Better access to the law library
• Better access to personal property
• Better rewards for long-term good behavior
• Better medical care
• Better access to mail
Hunger strikers at High Desert State Prison delivered a hand– written letter to prison authorities with a list asking for “cleaner facilities, better food, and more access to the prison library,” reported the Los Angeles Times. Offi cials report additional hunger strikers at Centinela, Calipatria, and Lancaster state prisons.
Prisoners in Washington state joined the strike by refusing to work beginning July 8, saying their “aim is two-fold: to show support for the hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and to join California prisoners in protesting long-term solitary confinement and other human rights abuses in U.S. prisons, reports Free Us All Coalition.
The Step Down Program offers a new way out of the SHU. It is a four-step program, which takes a minimum of three or four years. The first 2-3 years are spent in solitary confinement.
Prisoners are required to demonstrate “progress” by filling out workbooks showing changed attitudes. Whether a prisoner progresses to the next step is a discretionary decision by prison administrators. As a result, release from the SHU is still left to the interpretation of prisoner conduct by prison administrators, according to Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.
Prolonged solitary confinement causes a “persistent and heightened state of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, insomnia, lethargy or chronic tiredness, nightmares, heart palpitations, a fear of impending nervous breakdowns,” according to research by Center for Constitutional Rights.
“Other documented effects include obsessive ruminations, confused thought processes, oversensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, social withdrawal, hallucination, violent fantasies, emotional flatness, mood swings, chronic depression feelings of overall deterioration, as well as suicidal ideation.”