California Prison Officials Forced to Stop Some of Their Crimes:
The Struggle to END the Torture of The Pelican Bay SHU Continues

September 14, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


September 1, 2015. California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and Governor Jerry Brown have agreed to a far-reaching settlement in a class action lawsuit filed against them on behalf of all of the men now imprisoned in the nightmare of long-term solitary confinement and sensory deprivation in the SHU—the Security Housing Unit—at Pelican Bay State Prison. The suit, Ashker v. Brown, was based on the 8th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment and the denial of due process.

The two major terms brought about by the settlement are: 1) Prison officials can no longer send prisoners to long term isolation in the SHU based solely on their alleged gang affiliation, but only based on specific serious rules violations; and 2) Prisoners "validated" as affiliated with a prison gang can no longer be confined to the SHU indefinitely, as they were before.

These changes are expected to significantly reduce the number of prisoners being tortured in the SHU; and they will put an outside limit of 10 consecutive years on the length of time a prisoner can be forced to endure what's been described as being "buried alive." But as significant and dramatic as these developments are, CDCR will not stop using long term isolation as a systematic tool to control and crush the life out of thousands of prisoners at Pelican Bay and the three other state prisons that use the SHU. It cannot be forgotten: Tens of thousands of prisoners throughout this country are still being tortured in solitary confinement!

First filed by two prisoners in 2009, the lawsuit was taken up and amended as a class action suit by attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in 2012. This was after the first of three courageous hunger strikes launched by the prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU, which drew widespread attention to the torture of solitary confinement. 30,000 prisoners throughout the California prison system took part in the third hunger strike in 2013 and they were joined in solidarity by prisoners in other states, and by some prisoners in other countries. These prisoners risked their health and their lives in a struggle to end the "Living Death" of long-term isolation in the SHUs in Pelican Bay; Corcoran State Prison; Tehachapi; and in prisons throughout the country. Their struggle has increased the awareness of people in this country and internationally of the utter depravity and inhumanity of what is being done to tens of thousands of human beings inside the prisons of this self-proclaimed "greatest of all countries." It has drawn forward condemnation here and internationally. And it has been a decisive factor in reaching this settlement.

Solitary Confinement IS Torture

This country has over 2.2 million prisoners—one quarter of all the prisoners in the whole world. This system of mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted Black and Latino youth and an estimated 80,000 of these prisoners are forced to endure solitary confinement in the prisons, jails, and detention facilities in this country. The greatest number, under conditions almost too cruel to describe, are entombed in California. This is all part of a whole program of slow genocide targeting huge sections of Black and Latino people for whom this system has no future and needs to control.

Imagine spending years locked 22 ½–24 hours a day in a concrete box the size of a parking space, 8 feet high, with a toilet, sink, and only concrete slabs for a bed, a stool, and a desk. Imagine years in this vault with no windows; no sun; only a steel door with a slot to push food through, and to handcuff you when you are taken out of this tomb for "exercise" in the "dog run"—your "recreational yard" only slightly larger than your cell, with concrete walls so high you never see the sun.

Imagine a life of near-total solitude, with no group involvement, no one to talk to, not even a normal human conversation with another prisoner. Guards have punished prisoners for trying to just speak to another prisoner passing by. Imagine never experiencing the touch of a loved one, or anyone, other than a guard.

Imagine years without a single phone call except in an emergency, such as a death in the family. One of the plaintiffs in the suit was denied a phone call when his stepfather died, because he had had a phone call several months earlier when his biological father died. If your family is able to make the trip to the Pelican Bay SHU in Crescent City near the Oregon border, 800 miles from L.A., you cannot touch them, or see them, except through thick Plexiglas; and you can speak to them only through a telephone. Still, you will be strip-searched before and after your "visit."

Prison and government officials in this country are fully aware of the well documented, devastating psychological and physical effects of prolonged solitary confinement. They also know that there is an international consensus that the type of prolonged solitary confinement practiced in California at Pelican Bay and the other Maximum Security Prisons violates international human rights norms and civilized standards of humanity and human dignity. The United Nations Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has concluded that even 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes a human rights violation.

The psychological and physical effects of prolonged solitary confinement are well documented. Anxiety and nervousness, headaches, insomnia, lethargy or chronic fatigue, nightmares, and fear of nervous breakdowns. Also, confused thought processes, an oversensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, social withdrawal, hallucinations, violent fantasies, emotional flatness, mood swings, and chronic depression. Half of the suicides in California's prisons are by prisoners in the SHUs. Yet none of this has prevented government officials in California and throughout the country from developing and implementing these sadistic practices for decades.

Prison authorities to this day have never admitted that what they are doing to these prisoners is torture. This chilling comment by a spokesperson at Corcoran State Prison about the prisoners being subjected to this torture speaks volumes about the depravity of those who daily oversee this system, and who are praised by those in the seats of power in America: "These are the inmates who have proven they cannot play well with others."

Dramatic Changes in the Arbitrary Use of Torture

Prior to this settlement, prisoners could be and were "validated" as "gang associates" merely for possessing a "banned" book; a certain tattoo; an indigenous symbol; or even a poem the authorities claimed was associated with gang membership; or being fingered by another prisoner. Once validated—even if the prisoner had committed no serious rule violation—he was "sentenced" without even a hearing to years of solitary confinement in the SHU. As a result, half of the more than 1,100 prisoners in the SHU at Pelican Bay are there solely because they are believed to be associated with a prison gang.

Those prisoners sent to the SHU solely based on their alleged status as a gang affiliate were kept there indefinitely, with a review for possible release to the general population only once every six years, and with similar flimsy evidence enough to keep them in isolation for another six years. This meant solitary confinement could last for years—even decades—with only one way for these inmates to get out—by "debriefing", which means giving prison officials the names of other gang affiliates to put on their list. Many prisoners refuse to do this because they see it as snitching. And prison authorities know full well that "debriefing" can mean mortal danger not just to the prisoner, but to their family on the outside, making it a very risky act. But the torturers running Pelican Bay and elsewhere in California turned reality upside down by claiming the prisoners themselves were the cause of living in the hell of solitary confinement by choosing not to debrief.

To get a sense of the magnitude of CDCR's crimes: of the 10 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, six have spent over 20 years in solitary confinement, and one over 30 years. CDCR reported there were 1,106 prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU in 2011, and almost half (513) had been there more than 10 years; 222 had been there over 15 years, and 78 over 20 years. According to the prisoners' complaint, no other state in the country so consistently retains this many prisoners in solitary confinement for such lengthy periods of time.

This settlement is expected to significantly reduce the total number of prisoners being destroyed by long-term solitary confinement in California's SHUs. CDCR is required to review within the next year the cases of all of those prisoners already in the SHU indefinitely based solely on being validated. Every prisoner who has not had a serious, "SHU-eligible" violation within the past 2 years is to be released to the general population in prison.

According to the New York Times, there were 2,858 prisoners in solitary confinement across California as of September 1.  The number of prisoners in solitary confinement began to be reduced when the CDCR, with the start of the hunger strikes, began implementing certain changes that have been incorporated in the settlement. The secretary of the CDCR, Jeffrey Beard, estimates that now the number could fall by as many as 1,800 inmates. [NYT, 9/1/15]

But some of those prisoners who will be released from the SHU because of this settlement will be subjected to the same cruel, punishing conditions for as long as two years as they go through a process of getting out.

Those prisoners who have completed a years-long sentence in the SHU for a serious rule violation will still face another two years in a mandatory four part Step Down Program before they can return to the general population. During this time, according to "Attachment A" of the settlement, prisoners will remain in the SHU, in conditions barely different than before. How different? Prisoners in the SHU are denied all phone calls except for an emergency. For the first six months, in Step 1, they will be allowed to have one phone call every three months. They will be allowed one personal package, be able to get slightly more from the canteen, and for the first time can have one photograph. But they still are allowed "yard access" for only 10 hours a week. In Step 2, these same changes that will be increased. It is not until Steps 3 & 4 that they will begin access to things like GED programs, and some interaction with other prisoners.

This settlement is very detailed, and there are many "exceptions" to this overall picture. For instance, one 'crime' that can still put prisoners in the SHU for a year—and was used against them following their recent protests—is taking part in a hunger strike. And there will be no change in the unwritten rule that no prisoner in the SHU is eligible for parole.

Indeterminate solitary confinement—which has for most prisoners meant a lifetime—is all but ended in California. And prisoners must have committed a serious rule violation to be condemned to the SHU. But the basic, horrific operation of California's SHUs remains intact. In other words, Pelican Bay is STILL a Torture Chamber.

What Has Made These Changes Necessary for the Rulers of This Country?

First, the decision by those in power in California to accept this settlement has been the product of the determined, heroic struggle—against what seemed all but impossible odds—by the prisoners themselves. The prisoners wrote in their statement on the settlement:

"California's agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action. This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters."

Their struggle awakened the conscience of decent people in this country and around the world who learned of it. Very prominent figures spoke out in support of their demands. Editorial boards at the major newspapers gave a certain amount of backing. All this added to the questioning going on in this country about the way it's ruled, and began to interfere with, and expose, the claim to the "moral high ground" that the U.S. imperialists have used to justify their international political and military aggression. Millions of people around the world learned of the utterly inhuman crimes being carried out in U.S. prisons—undermining the system's legitimacy. And this has become a big problem for the U.S. rulers, who go around bragging how this is the "freest country in the world," and criticizing rival countries for human rights violations.

U.S. imperialism faces an intensifying, complex international political, as well as military rivalry, which includes challenges to its right to proclaim that its interests represent the interests of the world. Having this exposure spread around the world—just one of the horrific parts of the system that has used mass incarceration, police terror, and the rest of the workings of this system to condemn Black people, as well as Latinos and other oppressed peoples—only adds to their difficulties.

This settlement comes at a time when the powers-that-be see the need to maneuver and make certain changes in their systematic, inhuman treatment of tens of thousands of human beings to try to repair the image of U.S. imperialism.

The prisoners' statement on the settlement continues:

"Our movement rests on a foundation of unity: our Agreement to End Hostilities. It is our hope that this groundbreaking agreement to end the violence between the various ethnic groups in California prisons will inspire not only state prisoners, but also jail detainees, county prisoners and our communities on the street, to oppose ethnic and racial violence. From this foundation, the prisoners' human rights movement is awakening the conscience of the nation to recognize that we are fellow human beings."

The Agreement to End Hostilities from the prisoners in Pelican Bay, published on August 12, 2012, scares the hell out of this ruling class—as it calls forward those on the bottom of this society. Those in power have counted on, and fueled, antagonism which pits different groups of people against each other in the prisons and in the ghettos and barrios, instead of against the system responsible for these conditions, and all of the other horrors that are haunting this planet.

The system has been forced to end some of the most horrendous ways it tortures prisoners in solitary confinement. We have seen the power of resistance from behind the prison walls with the heroic hunger strikes waged by the prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU. And there is great potential here—to build off and push forward with even more determination in the fight that must continue to END solitary confinement.



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