[Pnews] Pelican Bay Hunger Strike One Year Later: The Movement Against Solitary Confinement Grows

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sat Jul 12 13:33:35 EDT 2014

  Pelican Bay Hunger Strike One Year Later: The Movement Against
  Solitary Confinement Grows

Posted: 07/11/2014 12:45 pm EDT Updated: 07/11/2014 1:59 pm EDT

/By Alexis Agathocleous and Rachel Meeropol, senior attorneys at the 
Center for Constitutional Rights/

When Todd Ashker 
was transferred to the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California's 
Pelican Bay State Prison in 1990, he was told he would remain there 
until he was paroled, died, or debriefed -- i.e. informed on other 
prisoners, a practice that often begins with staff asking a prisoner 
whether he would like to contact his family and warn them they may be in 
danger. Upon finding himself one of so many California prisoners 
subjected to solitary confinement in a cramped, windowless cell, without 
access to phone calls, educational opportunities, or physical contact 
with anyone but guards, and learning that no one ever got parole from 
the SHU, Ashker filed administrative requests to be returned to the 
general prisoner population. When these requests were rejected, and 
after decades of feeling like he was "silently screaming" all day, every 
day, Ashker, and another SHU prisoner, Danny Troxell 
filed a lawsuit on their own behalves challenging their conditions and 
isolation. But lawsuits take years as well. One year ago this week, 
after being trapped in the SHU for 23 years, suffering chronic physical 
pain, severe anxiety, and many of the other symptoms proven to result 
from prolonged solitary confinement, Todd Ashker joined thousands of 
prisoners across California on a hunger strike to protest the living 
death of prolonged solitary confinement.

Last year's strike was the longest and largest in the growing, 
prisoner-led movement to abolish this form of prolonged solitary 
confinement. The third for Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, the strike lasted 
60 days and, at its peak, involved 30,000 prisoners statewide. It drove 
home the desperation of men who have been isolated for more than a 
decade, often for multiple decades. And it worked, sparking legislative 
hearings and efforts at reform in California. Pelican Bay prisoners in 
solitary confinement are now allowed more visits with loved ones (though 
Pelican Bay is so remote that it is difficult for many family members to 
make the trip); are permitted to have both televisions and radios; and 
may have their own underwear, a cup, and a bowl. That these seemingly 
miniscule improvements are so important to the prisoners only 
underscores the extent of the inhumane conditions inside the SHU.

More fundamental, the strike prompted the Department of Corrections to 
begin reviewing all prisoners in indeterminate solitary confinement in 
California. With many more reviews to go, nearly 400 prisoners have 
qualified for release into general population and 152 have already been 
moved, giving lie to California's frequent refrain that those men 
subjected to the cruelty of solitary were the worst of the worst, who 
could not be released without endangering the prison population. These 
accomplishments would not have happened without the prisoners' 
solidarity and organizing.

The problem of long-term solitary confinement is far from fixed -- the 
cells that have been emptied as men are returned to general population 
have been filled by others newly transferred into the SHU. The prisoners 
need our support to finish the job.

In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and co-counsel took 
on Ashker's lawsuit, adding eight other prisoner plaintiffs 
<http://ccrjustice.org/pelican-bay-prison-hunger-strikers> because Todd 
Ashker's constant, silent scream is not unique. Researchers have 
demonstrated that prolonged solitary confinement causes a persistent and 
heightened state of anxiety and nervousness, as well as headaches, 
insomnia, chronic fatigue, nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of 
impending nervous breakdowns. Obsessions, confused thought processes, 
oversensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, social withdrawal, 
hallucinations, violent fantasies, emotional flatness, moodswings, 
chronic depression, feelings of overall deterioration, and suicidal 
ideation have also been documented. These symptoms have been reported by 
individuals placed in solitary confinement for just a few days or 
months, and only become more pronounced when, like the plaintiffs in our 
case, a person is held in solitary confinement for many years without 
any meaningful hope of release. A leading psychological expert who has 
interviewed Pelican Bay prisoners over time observed they experience a 
form of "social death" as their isolation continues.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has concluded that as 
little as fifteen days in solitary confinement can constitute torture or 
other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and that 
prolonged solitary confinement results in irreversible, harmful 
psychological effects. In light of his findings and emerging consensus 
about the cruelty and grave harm associated with long-term solitary 
confinement, we are asking the court to abolish the practice and find 
that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth 
Amendment. It is our position that the type of prolonged solitary 
confinement which exists in California cannot be imposed on any 
individual, no matter what the reason.

Now, for the first time in decades, through the combined efforts of 
prisoners, attorneys, and a coalition 
<http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/> of grassroots 
organizations and community members committed to amplifying the voices 
of the prisoners at Pelican Bay and other California prisons, there is 
hope for an end to long-term solitary confinement. Just last month, a 
federal judge granted class action status in the Center for 
Constitutional Rights case, allowing all Pelican Bay SHU prisoners who 
have been in solitary confinement for over 10 years and all prisoners 
serving indefinite SHU terms to be parties to the case -- totaling in 
the hundreds. Some of these men have languished in isolation for 40 
years. The torture of long-term solitary confinement may finally end.

/Ashker v. Brown <http://ccrjustice.org/pelican-bay> is a class action 
civil rights lawsuit challenging policies and conditions at the Pelican 
Bay SHU. Plaintiffs are represented by the Center for Constitutional 
Rights along with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California 
Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Weil Gotshal & Manges, and the Law Offices 
of Charles Carbone./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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