On July 21, 2011 inmates within the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison ended their hunger strike to protest several “cruel and unusual” conditions within the unit.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issued a press release vaguely stating their intention to create “some educational opportunities,” but did not address the central issue of long-term isolation in the prison’s SHU. In the aftermath of the hunger strike, Pelican Bay prisoners are still subject to the inhumane treatment and living conditions of solitary confinement.
Given this, it is critically important that we describe the conditions for prisoners living in the SHU, including the criteria upon which prisoners are transferred to the unit, how long they are kept in the unit, and how long-term isolation in the unit negatively impacts the prisoners. In a larger sense, we must also determine what the conditions at Pelican Bay say about the nature of the entire American criminal justice system.
The SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison – like all SHUs – was theoretically created to manage and separate the most violent and disruptive prisoners from others incarcerated in the general prison population.
In practice however, the Secured Housing Unit at Pelican Bay is nothing short of a high-tech torture chamber. Inmates live in a 8 by 10 foot cell made of concrete. There are no windows, which prohibit prisoners from exposure to sunlight. Instead, their cells contain annoying fluorescent lights that are never turned off. Prisoners have no contact with other people. In conventional prisons, solitary confinement, often called “The Hole,” is a designated place used to punish dangerous inmates for specified lengths of time.
The entire Secured Housing Unit at Pelican Bay is an environment of solitary confinement. Instead of eating in a cafeteria with other inmates, they receive their meals twice a day through slots in the metal door of their cells. Inmates shower alone – sometimes shackled
– and are not permitted to enjoy their five hours per week of exercise in a communal yard. Instead these prisoners exercise alone, within small, enclosed spaces connected to their cells and remotely opened and closed by a guard. And lest we forget, all inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU spend a minimum of 22-23 hours confined to their cell every day.
The psychological environment maintained in the SHU is no less grueling than its physical counterpart. With virtually no access to books, games, music, education, art or entertainment of any kind, the idle time confronting these inmates is unbearable and psychologically tormenting.
Bonnie Kerness, a leading prison reform activist with the American Friends Services Committee notes, “SHUs often exercise torture without using physical violence. Cell lights that stay on all day, lack of meaningful activities, lack of contact with other people, the screeching sound of metal doors, not knowing when you will eat, exercise or take a shower…..all of these are forms of psychological torture and have to be understood as such.”
According to the prison activist organization Solitary Watch, such torture existed within the California prison long before the recent hunger strike. As far back as 1993, more than 3,000 inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU filed a class action suit alleging that the institution routinely violated their human rights.
Dr. Stuart Grassian has noted that the prolonged solitary confinement of inmates at Pelican Bay led prisoners to develop psychiatric disorders whose symptoms included “hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and impulse control problems.”
Given the grave physical and psychological risks confronting SHU inmates, the Prison administrators at Pelican Bay should use extreme discretion in deciding what prisoners are transferred to the unit. Shockingly, this is not the case. Prisoners suffering with untreated mental illnesses – often challenged in their ability to control their impulses or respond to guards’ demands – are placed in the unit. Inmates deemed political activists can be sent to the Secured Housing Unit for decades. Former Black Panther sympathizer Hugo Pinell has been kept in solitary confinement for 40 years, 21 of them spent at Pelican Bay. Though his disciplinary record has been clean for more than 20 years, he has not been removed from solitary confinement and there is no evidence suggesting he ever will.
Many Pelican Bay prisoners are transferred to the isolated unit for being deemed gang members, a designation that earns them indefinite time. This practice is particularly disturbing, given that a prisoner can earn the gang member label simply on the word of another inmate. This determination is made without any serious investigation to confirm the allegation or to discern the extent of the prisoner’s supposed gang activity. Writing for Prison News, Dr. Corey Weinstein asserts that up to 50% of the men in the Pelican Bay SHU were sent there because of their alleged gang membership or presumed gang activity. Moreover, prison officials routinely conduct a process called “Debriefing.” In return for a promise to be released from SHU, prisoners are badgered to provide information about gang activity and membership. According to Dr. Weinstein, this is the only way a suspected gang member in SHU can be transferred from isolation.
Taking all of this evidence into account, the prisoners’ demands were sensible and just: an end to the practice of “debriefing,” access to educational opportunities, programs and supplies, adequate and nutritious food, and the elimination of solitary confinement. We must note that their last demand, is supported by the findings of the 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. In part, the Commission suggested that prison officials “Make segregation a last resort and a more productive form of confinement,” and “Ensure that segregated prisoners have regular and meaningful human contact.”
Unfortunately, the horrific prison conditions at Pelican Bay are not unique to California. The control units and Super Max prisons here in New York State – while more varied than many in California’s system – are no less inhumane. The Correctional Association of New York published a 2003 report entitled “Lockdown New York: Disciplinary Confinement in New York State Prisons.” This report, based on 49 visits to 26 control units, found inmates in such units were confined in their cells for 23-24 hours every day. Inmates found to be uncooperative often have their diet restricted to a one-pound loaf of bread and raw cabbage. Anywhere from 25% to 50% of such prisoners have documented mental health issues, but most do not receive proper treatment due to limited staff and facilities in such prisons. Many of these prisoners have their calling, shower, and exercise privileges severely curtailed, and most live with virtually no access to sunlight or human contact.
The Pelican Bay prisoners’ choice to participate in a hunger strike was significant. Stripped of most possessions, rights, and privileges, these prisoners chose a non-violent tactic that relied on nothing external, only themselves. By depriving themselves of food they demonstrated the seriousness of their cause and their willingness to sacrifice for it (Some inmates lost as much as 25 pounds and began experiencing fainting and irregular heartbeats). In this act of self-deprivation, these prisoners symbolically dramatized how the criminal justice system in California and throughout this nation continues to deprive incarcerated people of basic rights and humane treatment. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation still has refused to meet any of the demands.
In April of 1988, the United States signed the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This was an international agreement between 77 countries. The hunger strike conducted by the prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison shined a light on the contradiction between American foreign and domestic policies. Despite the United States’ international commitment to eliminate torture, millions of our own incarcerated citizens experience levels of cruelty and barbarism we would quickly denounce were it done to our pets.
Abused and neglected inmates may be locked away from us,but we must not lock their welfare out of our collective conscience. Certainly people must be held accountable for their crimes. But as the Correctional Association of NY reminds us, we must “strive to make the administration of justice in New York State and throughout the country more fair, efficient and humane.” The hunger strike has ended. But our efforts to advocate for the Pelican Bay prisoners – and those like them around the country – must continue.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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