Ten years ago, 10 prisoners in Pelican Bay’s Segregated Housing Unit (SHU) set aside their racial and political differences to work together to file a lawsuit about their conditions and to organize a hunger strike in peaceful protest.
They wanted the Pelican Bay administration and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to address grievances that kept prisoners in the SHU indefinitely, sometimes for decades.
“I was there,” said Art Ramirez, who spent over 33 years in the SHU — 24 of them at Pelican Bay. “The guards told us the only way out was to die, debrief, or parole.”
The prisoners claimed they were living in “almost total isolation” and “spend at least 22 ½ hours per day in windowless, concrete cells with perforated steel doors –.” They only left their cells to shower or exercise alone in an enclosed pen, court papers reported.
Prison officials responded that prisoners “may be assigned to the SHU if their ‘conduct endangers the safety of others or the security of the institution.’” Gang members and their associates fell into this category.
Ramirez lived within an eight-cell unit known as “the Short Corridor,” alongside Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Antonio Guillen, and Sitawa Jamaa. The four men who were part of a lawsuit and the hunger strike.
“We were all prisoners without any 115s (CDCR Rules Violations Reports),” said Ramirez. “But that didn’t matter to the officers at Pelican Bay.”
To “debrief” meant to provide information to the IGI (Institution Gang Investigators) about other prisoners’ alleged gang activity. SHU residents who failed to debrief could have their SHU status extended repeatedly. SHU conditions and isolation did often result in debriefings. But often, prisoners would debrief by making false or unfounded statements about others, it was reported. Such “confidential” allegations would then be used to target individuals and groups for prolonged SHU terms.
For SHU prisoners who refused to debrief, their refusals could be used against them later by California’s Board of Parole Hearings (BPH,) resulting in denials of parole.
Over time, the Short Corridor Collective men — as they came to be called — chose to set aside long-standing racially-based animosity and began to see themselves as part of a prisoner class with common grievances.
Collective action began with the first hunger strike July 1–July 21, 2011. The Short Corridor Collective presented the following list of grievances and demands:
- Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse
- Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria
- Comply with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s prisons and end long-term segregation
- Provide adequate and nutritious food
- Create and expand constructive programming
“That very first hunger strike was not taken seriously by a lot of prisoners,” said Ramirez. “Most of us only really lasted three to five days, so administration did not take it seriously either.”
But another hunger strike followed two months later involving all Pelican Bay prisoners. Despite restricted lines of communication, organizers were able to get other incarcerated communities within CDCR to participate.
From Pelican Bay to Corcoran to Tehachapi to Folsom and beyond, thousands of prisoners refused institutional meals in solidarity with those in Pelican Bay’s SHU.
“Still, the prison administration would not budge on taking any positive actions to remedy the conditions,” said Ramirez. “The K9s — that’s what we called officers because they acted like a pack of dogs — remained sarcastic and arrogant.”
The Pelican Bay hunger strike sparked a movement that had a lasting impact on CDCR and continues to affect prison reforms to this day.
Ashker and another SHU resident, Danny Troxell, began pro se litigation against CDCR in 2009 alleging violations of their constitutional rights, citing “cruel and unusual punishment,” “deliberate indifference” and 14th Amendment Due Process violations.
In 2012, Ashker became the named plaintiff in the landmark class-action lawsuit, Ashker v. Governor of California, which sought to represent and include prisoners at every SHU within the CDCR system.
The Short Corridor Collective used all available resources to keep the public and media outlets informed about the treatment of SHU residents.
By 2013, a system-wide hunger strike involved more than 33,000 incarcerated prisoners across California. Even some county jails detainees participated.
Starting on July 8 of that year, some prisoners repeatedly refused state-issued meals. In addition, many incarcerated workers for Prison Industries Authority (PIA) refused to work their job assignments and faced disciplinary 115s.
“This could become a very serious situation over time because it seems we have a substantial group of people who are prepared to see it to the end if they don’t get real change,” said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in a July 10 New York Times article.
The 2013 hunger strike that started in July persisted until Sept. 5, when state lawmakers like then-Assembly members Nancy Skinner and Tom Ammiano, along with Senators Loni Hancock and Tom Hayden, promised to hold public hearings about improving SHU conditions and policies.
CDCR maintained that SHU facilities are necessary to control the violence and crime associated with prison gang activity.
In October 2013, CDCR officials, civil liberties advocates, and one former SHU prisoner testified before a joint session of Assembly and Senate public safety committees.
“I wonder if there’s been any reduction in gang membership as a result of putting so many people in SHU?” Skinner asked CDCR officials, reported KPCC.
Then-CDCR Deputy Director Michael Stainer said that CDCR lacked the capacity to track real data on the overall results of SHU policies.
By then, 343 SHU prisoners had been released into the general population. Stainer did not demonstrate any negative effects of their presence on prison safety.
Ashker v. Governor was court-certified as a class action in June 2014.
Plaintiffs enlisted psychiatrist Dr. Terry Kupers to investigate the psychological consequences of spending a decade or more in Pelican Bay’s SHU.
In his extensive 2015 report, Kupers said that long-term SHU inhabitants “are severely damaged by the experience” and “those that are no longer in SHU find the quality of their lives significantly compromised.”
Kupers further said, “These negative effects of SHU confinement are relatively long-lasting if not permanent.”
On Jan. 26, 2016, the court granted final approval of a settlement that:
- Required CDCR to no longer place prisoners in SHU or administrative segregation “solely on the basis of gang validation.”
- Required that no prisoner be placed in SHU or administrative segregation “for a disciplinary term unless they are found guilty in a disciplinary hearing of a new SHU-eligible offense.”
- Required the “creation of the Restrictive Custody General Population Unit (RCGP),” where prisoners released from the SHU under the settlement agreement can be placed, if there is a “substantial threat to their personal safety.”
- Required a review of prisoners’ placement in the RCGP every 180-days to determine whether there continues to be a threat to the prisoner’s personal safety.
- Required CDCR to follow the existing administrative rules regarding how to use confidential information used against prisoners to ensure its accuracy; and
- Required CDCR to give prisoners subjected to SHU terms documents that prove they are legitimately in the SHU for valid reasons.
Court monitoring of the settlement terms continues to be extended. As recently as April 2021, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken said that due process violations by CDCR remain ongoing.