After Hunger Strikes, Solitary Confinement Reforms Come to California’s Prisons——and Leave Thousands Behind

A corridor in the Pelican Bay SHU, where the hunger strikes began. (Photo: Michael Montgomery/KQED)

A corridor in the Pelican Bay SHU, where the hunger strikes began. (Photo: Michael Montgomery/KQED)

Four years ago today, approximately 6,600 people in California prisons launched a hunger strike in protest of long-term solitary confinement. The protest would be the first of three large-scale actions by state prisoners to bring awareness to the issue of long-term solitary confinement.

At the epicenter was Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, home of the state’s oldest and most notorious Security House Unit (SHU), where people deemed the “worst of the worst” spend 22½ hours a day in small, windowless cells, some for decades.

At the heart of the hunger strike were the so-called Five Core Demands:

  • End group punishment & administrative abuse
  • Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang criteria
  • Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement
  • Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food
  • Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates

The hunger strike lasted nearly three weeks, ending on July 21, 2011. It generated national attention, and on August 23rd the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee held a hearing on the practice of long-term segregation.

While state lawmakers and corrections officials signaled some interest in reviewing and revising procedures, little concrete progress was made. Two more hunger strikes would follow, one in September of 2011 and another in July 2013, the latter involving the participation of 30,000 people throughout California’s prison system.

The system has seen some change since the first hunger strike. Where once there were close to 11,000 individuals in some form of isolated confinement, today there are about 8,000. But that number still leaves California with more isolated prisoners than almost any other prison system in the nation, and for advocates of abolishing solitary confinement, much work remains to be done.

The Effects of Isolation

It has been known for decades that conditions in California’s SHUs have the potential cause significant harm to individuals placed in them.

Just four years after it opened, Pelican Bay was the subject of investigation as part of the Madrid v. Gomez, a class action lawsuit by Pelican Bay inmates alleging widespread abuses. Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist, conducted interviews with many in the Pelican Bay SHU. Based on these interactions, Dr. Grassian suggested that individuals in the SHU for prolonged periods of time “indicate high rates of anxiety, nervousness, obsessive ruminations, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations.”

In 2006, the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons issued a report blasting the prolonged use of solitary confinement. The commission determined that segregation was used too often, for lengthy periods of time, often on people with serious mental health problems, and called for limits on the use of the practice.

“We don’t have solitary confinement,” CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton told Solitary Watch. “We segregate. Inmates are segregated from inmates for specific reasons: they may be administratively placed there or they may be placed there if they killed their cellmate for example.” The semantics of the practice aside, it is the case that those in the SHU are deliberately kept apart from others.

Ashker v. Brown

One of the major developments since July 1, 2011, is the class action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of those who have spent decades in the SHU at Pelican Bay.

[Read More…]

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