[Ppnews] Hunger Strike in the Supermax: Pelican Bay Prisoners

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jun 30 19:43:52 EDT 2011

Hunger Strike in the Supermax: Pelican Bay 
Prisoners Protest Conditions in Solitary Confinement

June 30, 2011
by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence 
Day, inmates in solitary confinement at 
California’s Pelican Bay State Prison are 
standing up for their rights in the only way they 
can–by going on hunger strike. The prisoners, who 
are being held in long-term and often permanent 
isolation, have sworn to refuse food until 
conditions are improved in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU).

Built in 1989, 
Bay is the nation’s first purpose-built supermax 
prison, and remains one of its most notorious. 
Constructed to house 2,280 of California’s “most 
serious criminal offenders,” Pelican Bay 
holds more than 3,400. About a third of them live 
in the X-shaped cluster of buildings known as the 
SHU, which CDCR 
as “a modern design for inmates who are difficult 
management cases, prison gang members, and violent maximum security inmates.”

Sullivan, one of the rare reporters to be granted 
entry to Pelican Bay, described the SHU in a 2006 report:

Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, 
the unmovable stool. Everything except the 
combination stainless-steel sink and toilet. You 
can’t move more than eight feet in one 
The cell is one of eight in a long 
hallway. From inside, you can’t see anyone or any 
of the other cells. This is where the inmate 
eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. 
He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard

Although all the inmates are in isolation, 
there’s lots of noise: Keys rattle. Toilets 
flush. Inmates shout to each other from one cell 
to the next. Twice a day, officers push plastic 
food trays through the small portals in the metal doors

Those doors are solid metal, with little 
nickel-sized holes punched throughout. One inmate 
known as Wino is standing on just behind the door 
of his cell. It’s difficult to make eye contact, 
because you can only see one eye at a time. “The 
only contact that you have with individuals is 
what they call a pinky shake,” he says, sticking 
his pinky through one of the little holes in the 
door. That’s the only personal contact Wino has had in six years.

When conditions at Pelican Bay were challenged in 
a 1995 lawsuit 
v. Gomez), the judge in the case found that life 
in the SHU “may press the outer borders of what 
most humans can psychologically tolerate,” while 
placing mentally ill or psychologically 
vulnerable people in such conditions “is the 
equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place 
with little air to breathe.” Yet since that time, 
the number of inmates in the SHU has grown, and 
their sentences have lengthened from months to 
years to decades. Hugo Pinell, a former associate 
of George Jackson who is considered by some a 
political prisoner, has been in Pelican Bay’s SHU for more than 30 years.

Many residents of the SHU have been sent there on 
questionable grounds and have little hope of ever 
leaving. A majority of the men in solitary 
confinement in California are there because they 
have been 
as gang members, and given indeterminate 
sentences in the SHU. According to 
Weinstein, a physician and prisoners’ rights 
advocate, the “single way offered to earn their 
way out of SHU is to tell departmental gang 
investigators everything they know about gang 
membership and activities including describing 
crimes they have committed. The [CDCR] calls it 
debriefing. The prisoners call it “snitch, parole 
or die.” The only ways out are to snitch, finish 
the prison term or die. The protection against 
self-incrimination is collapsed in the service of anti-gang investigation.”

In April, prisoners in several corridors of the 
SHU announced their intention, on July 1, to 
”begin an indefinite hunger strike in order to 
draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, 25 
years of torture via CDCR’s arbitrary, illegal, 
and progressively more punitive policies and 
practices.” In a notice authored by inmates Todd 
Ashker and Danny Troxell ”on behalf of themselves 
and similarly situated participants,” the group 
of prisoners–which supporters say cuts across 
racial lines–issued 
“core demands.” The demands are remarkable for 
having been penned by a group of prisoners whose 
communications with one another and with the 
outside world are severely limited. They are also far from radical.

The hunger strikers are asking for “individual 
accountability” to replace ”group punishments,” 
and for an end to the system of “debriefing.” 
According to the prisoners, “Debriefing produces 
false information (wrongly landing other 
prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can 
endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.”

In outlining their desired changes to conditions 
in the SHU, the strikers turned to the 
recommendations of the US Commission on Safety 
and Abuse in Prisons, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon 
commission which issued a 2006 report on 
conditions of confinement in U.S. prisons and 
jails. Among its primary findings, the commission 
recommended that prisons ”make segregation a last 
resort,” “end conditions of isolation” within 
segregation units, and avoid long-term solitary confinement.

Beyond this, the strikers want the CDCR to 
“provide adequate food,” and “provide 
constructive programming and  privileges for 
indefinite SHU status inmates.” Among the modest 
privileges the prisoners want are one phone call 
per week, longer visiting hours, exercise 
equipment, art supplies, wall calendars, and more TV channels.

Nevertheless, the California Department of 
Corrections and Rehabilitation seems already to 
have dug in its heel when it comes to responding 
to the hunger strikers. “It’s appropriate for the 
CDCR to review the demands, but they’re not going 
to concede under these types of tactics,” CDCR 
spokesperson Terry Thornton told 
Watch. “It remains yet to be seen whether they’re 
actually going to initiate a true hunger strike,” 
she said; if they do, the prison will monitor 
their health, but “if an inmate decides he’s not 
going to eat, we can’t force him to eat.”

In preparation for the start of the strike on 
July 1, 
Prison Focus and other members of the 
Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition have hosted a 
rally and 
conference in the Bay Area and issued an 
petition. Among the groups expressing support of 
the strikers’ demands is the 
Law Office, known for mounting the lawsuit that 
resulted in the recent 
Court decision mandating a reduction of California’s prison population.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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