[Ppnews] Voices from Solitary: Letter from a Pelican Bay Hunger Striker

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jul 1 15:53:31 EDT 2011

Voices from Solitary: Letter from a Pelican Bay Hunger Striker

July 1, 2011
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

The following letter was written by John R. 
Martinez, one of the inmates in the Security 
Housing Unit at California’s Pelican Bay State 
Prison who 
a hunger strike on July 1 to protest conditions 
in solitary confinement. Written just before the 
strike commenced, the letter is  addressed to 
Governor Jerry Brown, Secretary of Corrections 
and Rehabilitation Matthew Cate, and Pelican Bay Warden G.D. Lewis.


On July 1, 2011, I and my fellow prisoners – on 
their own free will – will be commencing a hunger 
strike to protest the denial of our human rights 
and equality via the use of perpetual solitary 
confinement. The Supreme Court has referred to 
“solitary confinement” as one of the techniques 
of “physical and mental torture” that have been 
used by governments to coerce confessions 
(Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 237-238 (1940)).

In regards to PBSP-SHU, Judge Thelton E. 
Henderson stated that “many if not most, inmates 
in the SHU experience some degree of 
psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme 
social isolation and the severely restricted 
environmental stimulation in SHU” (Madrid v. 
Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1235 (N.D. Cal. 1995)). 
Not surprisingly, Judge Henderson stated that 
“the conditions in the SHU may press the outer 
bounds of what most humans can psychologically 
tolerate” and that sensory deprivation found in 
the SHU “may well hover on the edge of what is 
humanly tolerable for those with normal 
resilience” (Madrid, 889 F. Supp. at 1267, 1280). 
Four years later, a Texas federal judge reviewed 
conditions in isolation of a Texas prison that 
mirrored those of PBSP-SHU. He correctly held:

“Before the court are levels of psychological 
deprivation that violate the United States 
Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and 
unusual punishment. It has been shown that 
defendants are deliberately indifferent to a 
systemic pattern of extreme social isolation and 
reduced environmental stimulation. These 
deprivations are the cause of cruel and unusual 
pain and suffering by inmates in administrative 
” (Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855, 914-915 (S.D. Tex.1999)).

Thus solitary confinement, by its very nature, is 
harmful to human beings, including prisoners,1 
especially for those of us prisoners whose 
isolation is perpetual based solely upon our 
status as an associate or member of a gang. In 
theory, our detention is supposedly for 
administrative “non-disciplinary” reasons. Yet, 
when I asked one of the prison staff why is it we 
are not afforded the same privileges as those 
gang affiliated inmates in a Level 4 general 
population (GP), I was told that “according to 
Sacramento,” we don’t “have shit coming” and that 
it is the department’s “goal of breaking” us 
down. Thus, our treatment is clearly punitive, discriminatory and coercive.

Further proof is provided by the fact that a 
member of a disruptive group – i.e., a gang per 
CCR 3000 – who commits a violent assault on a 
non-prisoner will receive three to five years in 
the SHU as punishment and then be released back 
to the GP. Ironically, we on the other hand 
receive way harsher treatment. We are subjected 
to the same disciplinary SHU conditions. Worse 
yet, for an indeterminate term solely for who we 
are or who we know. Not for violent or disruptive behavior.

Most of us have been in isolation for over 15 and 
20 years. In most cases, for simple possession of 
a drawing, address, greeting card and/or other form of speech and association.

Unfortunately, some of my fellow prisoners are 
not here with me today. The SHU has either driven 
them to suicide,2 mental illness or becoming a 
Judas – i.e., informer – to escape these cruel 
conditions, which occurred after the findings in Madrid.

An oppressed people always have the right to rise 
up and protest discrimination, oppression and 
injustice. The Martin Luther King era reminds us 
of that. So does the Attica prisoner uprising. 
Those prisoners in Attica acted out, not because 
they were “animals,” but because they were tired 
of getting treated worse than animals. There is 
no difference with us. The only difference is 
that our protest is one of non-violence. We are a 
civilized people that simply wish to be treated 
as humans and with equality. Not subjected to 
punitive treatment year after year, which is 
imposed with a desire to injure. As Justice 
Thurgood Marshall eloquently stated:

“When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he 
does not lose his human quality, his mind does 
not become closed to ideas; his intellect does 
not cease to feed on a free and open interchange 
of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does 
not end; nor is his quest for self-realization 
concluded. If anything, the needs for identity 
and self-respect are more compelling in the 
dehumanizing prison environment 
 It is the role 
of the First Amendment 
 to protect those 
precious personal rights by which we satisfy such 
basic yearnings of the human spirit” (Procunio v. 
Martinez, 416 U.S. 326, 428 (1974)).

Wherefore, I respectfully request that our 
reasonable demands attached hereto be honored as 
soon as possible and that the bigotry and 
persecution against us for who we are come to an end once and for all.

Respectfully submitted,

John R. Martinez

“Remember those in prison as if you were their 
fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as 
if you yourselves were suffering.” – Hebrews 13:3

cc: Family, friends and supporters

1. “Empirical research on solitary and 
supermax-like confinement has consistently and 
unequivocally documented the harmful consequences 
of living in these kinds of environments. 
“Studies undertaken over four decades corroborate 
such an assertion. (Craig Haney, “Mental health 
issues in long-term solitary and ‘supermax’ 
confinement” in crime and delinquency. Vol. 49, 
No. I, January 2003, pp. 124-156). See also, 
Amnesty International, Report on Torture, Penal Coercion, 1983.

2. As Kevin Johnson reported in USA Today: 
California, which has the largest state prison 
system in the nation, saw a total of 41 suicides 
in 2006; of those suicides, 69 percent were in 
solitary confinement. (“Inmate suicides linked to 
solitary,” USA Today, Dec. 27, 2006.) Those numbers have increased since then.

John R. Martinez can be reached at J-S2893, PBSP 
SHU, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.

More information on the Pelican Bay hunger strike 
can be found at the websites of the 
Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition and 
<http://www.prisons.org/>California Prison Focus.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20110701/8bf44622/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list