[Ppnews] A Hunger for Justice in Pelican Bay

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jul 27 16:12:39 EDT 2011

A Hunger for Justice in Pelican Bay

July 27, 2011
by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

Note: The following piece ran on 
Guardian’s website on Monday, July 25.

On 21 July, 
in solitary confinement at California’s notorious 
Pelican Bay State Prison began accepting the 
meals that were slipped to them through slots in 
their solid mental cell doors. For many, it was 
the first time they had eaten in three weeks. A 
group of inmates in the prison’s security housing 
unit (SHU) had resolved to protest their 
isolation using the only means available to them 
– by going on a hunger strike. The 
quickly spread to more than a third of 
California’s 33 prisons, where about 6,600 
prisoners refused at least some of their meals. 
After 21 days, with some prisoners losing as much 
as 30lb (14kg), the strike ended where it began – in the Pelican Bay SHU.

If this seems like a desperate measure by 
desperate men, it is. The widespread use and 
abuse of solitary confinement in US prisons and 
jails is one of the nation’s most pressing 
domestic human rights issues, and also perhaps 
its most ignored. In the end, the Pelican Bay 
hunger strikers won only a few token concessions 
from the California department of corrections and 
rehabilitation (CDCR) – the right to wear caps in 
cold weather, to hang wall calendars in their 
cells, and to have access to a modicum of educational programming.

But they achieved something much more important, 
as well: For a few weeks, the men of the Pelican 
Bay SHU ceased to be invisible.

Solitary confinement is a hidden world within the 
larger hidden world of the American prison 
system. At Pelican Bay, about 1,100 men languish 
in long-term or permanent isolation. In supermax 
prisons across the country, the number is at 
least 20,000, with tens of thousands more in 
solitary in “special housing units” or 
“administrative segregation” in other prisons and 
jails. Most are confined to their cells without 
yard time, work or any kind of rehabilitative 
programming. In the Pelican Bay SHU, prisoners 
spend at least 22.5 hours each day in windowless 
concrete cells, and the remaining time alone, in 
concrete exercise yards. Many have been there for 
years, and some for decades, often with no end in sight to their torment.

Solitary confinement has been denounced as 
torture or “cruel, inhumane and degrading 
treatment” by several international bodies, 
including the United Nations and the European 
Court of Human Rights. Research conducted over 
the last 30 years confirms that stretches in 
solitary produce psychopathologies that include 
panic attacks, depression, inability to 
concentrate, memory loss, aggression, 
self-mutilation and various forms of psychosis. 
But in the United States, the courts have been 
reluctant to limit its use. In the 1995 case 
v Gomez, a federal judge sharply criticised 
conditions in Pelican Bay’s SHU, writing that 
nearly round-the-clock isolation in windowless 
cells “may press the outer borders of what most 
humans can psychologically tolerate”. Yet, he 
fell short of declaring long-term solitary confinement unconstitutional.

Largely unrestrained by courts, legislatures or 
public opinion, solitary confinement has become 
routine – a punishment of first resort for all 
sorts of prison infractions. Today, a prisoner 
can be placed in solitary not only for violence, 
but for any form of “insubordination” towards 
prison officials, or for possession of contraband 
(which includes not only drugs but cell phones, 
cash or too many postage stamps). Some inmates 
are sent to solitary confinement for exhibiting 
the symptoms of untreated mental illness. Others, 
including juveniles in adult prisons, end up in 
isolation for their own “protection” because they 
are targets of prison rape. Many of the men in 
Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit are there 
because they’ve been “validated” as gang members, 
based on their tattoos or on the say-so of other 
inmates, who are rewarded for “snitching”.

In 2006, as one of its primary recommendations, 
the bipartisan 
<http://www.prisoncommission.org/>US Commission 
on Safety and Abuse in Prisons called for 
substantial reforms to the practice of solitary 
confinement. Segregation from the general prison 
population, it said, should be “a last resort”, 
and even in segregation units, isolation should 
be mitigated and terms should be short. The 
Pelican Bay hunger strikers adopted the 
commission’s recommendations into their core 
demands, along with an end to the system of gang 
“validation”, and provision of “adequate food” 
and “constructive programming” for SHU inmates. 
The demands were far from radical. Yet a 
spokesperson for the California department of 
corrections and rehabilitation insisted that the 
state was “not going to concede under these types of tactics”.

While its tangible results were few, the hunger 
strike received surprisingly widespread press 
coverage, in spite of the CDCR’s complete ban on 
media access to participating prisons and 
prisoners. And the visibility wrought by the 
hunger strike builds upon the work of a growing 
number of advocates. Earlier this year, the 
Religious Campaign Against Torture issued a 
statement calling for an end to prolonged 
solitary confinement across the nation, and urged 
people of faith to sign on. They joined the 
American Civil Liberties Union and American 
Friends Service Committee, along with several 
smaller or state-based groups, in opposing 
solitary confinement as it is practised in the United States today.

If the public at last begins to acknowledge 
long-term solitary confinement as a form of 
torture and a major human rights issue, it will 
be owing largely to the efforts of these 
activists – and to a group of prisoners who, for 
a few weeks this summer, starved themselves in 
solitude to bring their torment to light.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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