New, Important Developments in Battle to Stop Torture in California and U.S. Prisons

April 3, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution received the following contribution from a reader who has been in involved in building support for the prisoner hunger strikes in California against the inhumane torture conditions of solitary confinement:


Prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) Security Housing Unit (SHU) who were catalytic in the 2011 hunger strikes to stop long-term solitary confinement have announced they plan a new hunger strike (and work stoppage) in July 2013.

According to letters from the prisoners, PBSP prisoners plan to set a deadline for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR)—that if their demands are not met they will go on a hunger strike, starting July 08, 2013. These prisoners at Pelican Bay are encouraging all prisoners in the U.S. to take part. According to the PBSP prisoners, this is being envisioned as an historic moment and juncture where all prisoners in the U.S. can put forward their own demands to end prison abuse and torture.

These PBSP prisoners are about to draw a line in the sand and set a deadline for CDCR to adhere to their promise to change their torture policies—promises which formed the basis for the 2011 hunger strikes to be "temporarily suspended."

In addition, on March 14, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken denied a motion by the State of California to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) against long-term solitary confinement in the California prison system, specifically Pelican Bay State Prison. This lawsuit argues that California's long-term segregation and isolation of "gang validated" prisoners in Security Housing Units constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" and is also in violation of prisoners' due process rights.

It is significant that Judge Wilken's legal decision, in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, rejected the State of California's efforts to have the legal suit dismissed based on supposed positive "reforms" the State of California claims to have formulated and begun to implement in the aftermath of the 2011 CA prisoner hunger strikes.

The CCR lawsuit, known as Ruiz v. Brown, is a federal class action lawsuit challenging the inhumane unconstitutional conditions under which thousands of prisoners in super maximum prisons live. Pelican Bay is known as one of the harshest "super maximum" prisons in the country, and is one of four Security Housing Units operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

The 2011 California Prisoner Hunger Strike's Reverberating Effects

Solitary confinement is a form of torture. International human rights organizations and bodies have condemned it, and the devastating psychological and physical effects have been well documented by medical and psychological experts. Yet consider this: today, tens of thousands of individuals are detained inside cramped, concrete, windowless cells in near total isolation for between 22 and 24 hours a day in U.S. prisons, with no human contact, no chance to feel the sun, to see the moon and stars, or to breathe fresh air.

Prolonged solitary confinement is a tool of repression. In Pelican Bay State Prison alone, more than 500 SHU prisoners have been isolated under these devastating conditions for over 10 years; more than 200 for over 15 years, and 78 have been isolated in the SHU for more than 20 years. In California alone, at least 11,730 people are housed in some form of isolation, over 3,000 in high security isolation SHU units. Yet solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is now widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage to human beings and is analyzed under international law as torture. And as Ruiz v Brown points out, placement in the SHU is not part of an individual's court ordered sentence. It's an administrative act on the part of the prison authorities—simply based on a prisoner's alleged association with a prison gang. And the only way out of SHU isolation is to "debrief"—to inform on other prisoners (become a state informant)… after being tortured for weeks, months, years, and sometimes decades.

SHU prisoners at Pelican Bay initiated two hunger strikes in 2011. They developed "5 Core Demands" that zeroed in on the demands to abolish the "debriefing" process and to end conditions of isolation and long-term solitary confinement. The "5 Core Demands" also included demands to end group punishment, provide adequate and nutritious food and to expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU prisoners.

On July 1, 2011, prisoners in "PBSP-SHU D-Facility Corridor Isolation Unit" began an indefinite hunger strike. 6,600 prisoners joined, from many California prisons, and that hunger strike action lasted 20 days. Then, for 18 days in September/October 2011, 12,000 prisoners from throughout the California prison system participated in the hunger strike to stop torture in the SHUs and the "gang validation" process that lands prisoners in the SHU.

This "gang validation" process means prisoners are put in isolation cells long term, even forever, based on so-called "gang-activity intelligence" that comes in innumerable and limitless forms—for tattoos, poetry booklets, artwork (including popular symbols used in Latino Culture, such as a Huelga bird, the symbol of the United Farm Workers), hand signs or using such words a tío or hermano (Spanish for uncle and brother), possession of Machiavelli's The Prince, notebooks that contain writings on such things as rebel slave Nat Turner or Malcolm X or Black Panther George Jackson, revolutionary and radical literature including newspapers that expose solitary confinement and write about prisoner rights, anonymous snitching (debriefing) etc.—versus being found guilty of actually committing violations that according to prison rules send you to special security housing. And the decision about who gets put in the SHU indefinitely often comes down to a single individual's decision, the Institutional Gang Investigator at the prison. There is no due process, which is the legal requirement that the state, and in this case the prison, must respect the legal rights that are owed to a person, including prisoners.

These 2011 hunger strikes were extraordinary developments in recent U.S. history. Not since the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971, after the murder of George Jackson at San Quentin Prison, had the U.S. seen a prison hunger strike this long and widespread. Major U.S. media and liberal imperialist ruling class forces began to pay attention and to even speak out against long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons during the hunger strike.

The 2011 hunger strike shined a spotlight on how the U.S. systematically tortures thousands of prisoners and ruling class forces and the liberal imperialist media have tried to do damage control: to provide an illusory road and an outlet for people's justified outrage, and in the case of the liberal imperialist media for that venue to act as a place where struggle amongst the bourgeoisie is being battled out. It should not be forgotten that these forces had been effectively silent about this torture for years and decades, and even during the 2011 hunger strikes significantly underreported the story given its unprecedented character and objective significance.

The New York Times printed Op-Ed articles during the 2011 hunger strikes, and has continued to publish editorials and articles since, about the abuse, inhumanity, and effects of solitary confinement. On March 23 this year, for example, the New York Times printed an article describing how 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities in the U.S., and that most of the immigrants isolated are targets of retaliation by guards. The New York Times article describes that "the United States has come under sharp criticism at home and abroad for relying on solitary confinement in its prisons more than any other democratic nation in the world." Here is revealed serious concern about the contradiction bound up with the "appearance and essence" of this country: the so-called appearance—the "democratic" U.S.A—essentially and systematically torturing tens of thousands of prisoners (at least 80,000 across the U.S).

In essence the U.S.A is a dictatorship, and this can be seen when you examine up close the mass incarceration and prison torture regime this system has put into place. The state and system this ruling class leads, directs, and rules over society with, has a monopoly of political power, concentrated as a monopoly of "legitimate" armed force and violence—violence and force this ruling class uses, with a vengeance. Now, institutions of the U.S.'s so-called "legitimate" use of force and violence—its sprawling prison system and super-max high-tech torture chambers—are threatened with being "de-legitimized"—if not fully, in some real and essential ways—in the eyes of certain sections of this society, and internationally, and the California prisoner hunger strikers and their courageous actions have contributed to that.

Not only major media, such as the Los Angeles Times, which has written in the past year about the escalating problem of suicides in prisons, especially of prisoners in segregation units, but the "first-ever" U.S. Congressional Hearings on Solitary Confinement were held in 2012. These Senate Sub-Committee Hearings (led by Democrat Dick Durbin) were in June 2012, underscoring how the hunger strike "got the attention of" and "stung" the bourgeoisie in this country and a certain section of this ruling class could not continue to push torture under the rug but instead brought forward an outlet to promote the illusion that a section of the ruling powers cared about this torture and that they could be relied upon to change this outrageous reality. Such ruling class forces cannot be relied upon to change this situation. Instead, mass and massive societal-wide resistance and struggle must be the leading edge, taking the reality of this torture to ever broader sections of society, with an objective of "re-polarizing" the social terrain so that millions and tens of millions change their views and come to stand with, and act to support, the just demands of the prisoners.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (a Rapporteur is a person who compiles and presents reports to a governing body) is currently working on complaints from California as per the protocols of his office, conducting an investigation, talking to California authorities, in response to charges of torture and cruel and degrading and inhumane treatment. He has a mandate to publish findings. Nevertheless, at a UN Prisoners Rights meeting in Buenos Aires in late 2012 the U.S. continued to defend its use of long-term solitary confinement and rejected every proposal to limit solitary confinement (to 15-30 days) and to ban it for juveniles, pregnant women, and those with mental illness.

Also, during this period since the 2011 hunger strikes, numerous progressive human rights, legal, faith-based, and political organizations have kept the pressure on and carried out intense work to expose and stop long-term solitary confinement, as have many families with loved ones in the segregation units (SHUs and Administrative Segregation). For example, the ACLU and National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) have launched and seriously persisted in campaigns to end solitary confinement. In late September 2012, Amnesty International released "The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California's Security Housing Units" based on exclusive access they gained to PBSP and other prisons with SHUs after the hunger strike. This is a major report and part of an overall Amnesty International campaign. This report was accompanied by significant national and international publicity. Progressive media, one outstanding example is Shane Bauer's Mother Jones article in the November/December 2012 issue (a rather extraordinary account "Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons"), have also entered the fray and Shane Bauer's investigative report in particular should be read by many more people.

An Important Juncture Approaches

In the face of mounting, if still beginning, national exposure of their isolation cells, in October 2011 PBSP and CDCR officials agreed to change their long term segregation policies and the Pelican Bay prisoners "temporarily suspended" their hunger strike.

In March 2012 the CDCR brought forward a version of their policy changes and "reforms" for the SHU and "gang validation"—the key issues at hand. However, this "Security Threat Group Prevention, Identification and Management Strategy" (STG) policy blueprint not only did not end prolonged solitary confinement… it expands the use of SHU isolation to include numerous "gangs" (who previously had not been target of SHU placement) and targets politically radical and revolutionary forces and individuals!

In response to numerous counter-proposals by the PBSP "Short Corridor Collective" to the CDCR and "Open Letters" to California Governor Brown to this "STG" paper, the most recent version of this CDCR STG paper not only hardens the CDCR position, but the CDCR has begun to "modify operations" on a "pilot basis"—in other words the CDCR has begun to implement this new STG paper and are "reviving gang validation." This flies in the face of agreements made between PBSP and CDCR officials and PBSP prisoner representatives who "temporarily suspended" their hunger strike based on these agreements!

Significantly, in August 2012, 15 PBSP SHU prisoners—including the "Short Corridor Collective" and a representative body of 12 other SHU prisoners who had participated in the hunger strike, wrote, signed and released an "Agreement to End Hostilities" among racial groups, to start October 10. 2012. This "Agreement to End Hostilities" was mutually agreed upon on behalf of all racial groups in the PBSP-SHU Corridor. It reads, in part "…If we really want to bring about substantive meaningful changes to the CDCR system in a manner beneficial to all solid individuals, who have never been broken by CDCR's torture tactics intended to coerce one to become a state informant via debriefing, now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time, and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups…." (See Full Agreement Below.) This agreement is of major import in its own right, it needs to spread throughout society, and it is also a precursor to the new calls for a hunger strike, to start July 8, 2013, if the CDCR does not live up to the agreement it made with the prisoners when they "temporarily suspended" their 2011 hunger strike.

An original "Formal Complaint" filed pro se by two PBSP SHU prisoners (pro se means advocating on one's own behalf before a court rather than being represented by a lawyer) led into the California prisoner hunger strike in 2011. It is this "Formal Complaint" that has effectively been taken over and amended by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in May 2012. This is the class action lawsuit Ruiz v. Brown that was ruled on in Federal District Court in California on March 14, 2013. The CDCR's "pilot program" of "reform" continues to allow for prisoners to be confined in extreme isolation for decades, and even expands their plans for SHU torture, yet this is what the CDCR advanced and cited as grounds for dismissing the case! Again, it is noteworthy that Judge Wilken denied the CDCR's motion to dismiss this lawsuit on these grounds.

It must be said: these truly heroic acts of resistance by these prisoners have occurred under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and if PBSP prisoners choose to—if they are forced to—initiate another hunger strike because of both the duplicitous acts of PBSP authorities and CDCR and State of California officials, and because of continued, and even intensified, repressive state torture and state violence targeting these prisoners and others similar situated, the responsibility for these prisoners' very lives and health, and the blame if anything happens to them, must be placed squarely at the feet of these state authorities.

Torture is unequivocally unacceptable, no matter what labels are put on these prisoners, and the prisoners' demands are just, reasonable, and as urgent as ever. Now, more than ever, we have a moral responsibility to act in a way that corresponds with the justness of these prisoners' demands and in a way commensurate with what is truly at stake. A determined and bold movement of resistance to demand an end to torture in the SHUs must grow up and rise to new heights. In this next period ever greater numbers of people and much broader sections of society need to support these prisoners and do everything in our power to see this battle all the way through, to demand this system STOP torturing these prisoners and honor their core demands. If waging such implacable struggle takes you to a place that challenges your cherished beliefs about the way the U.S. is "supposed" to be (but in fact is not), don't turn back but get into the actual problem and solution even more deeply... and don't turn back. Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution.


For information on the lawsuit Ruiz v. Brown and a Solitary Confinement Fact Sheet go to the Center for Constitutional Rights:

The "Agreement to End Hostilities" from the Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit Short Corridor Hunger Strike Representatives can be found at:

Mother Jones's magazine feature of Shane Bauer's "No Way Out—A Special Report on Solitary Confinement from Former Hostage Shane Bauer" which includes not only Bauer's "Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons" but a video and a guided tour of a seven-by-eleven foot space where prisoners spend 23 hours a day, can be found at:


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