Brave Resistance at Pelican Bay SHU

Prison Hunger Strike against Supermax Torture

Revolutionary Worker #1176, November 24, 2002, posted at

On October 19, over 90 prisoners locked away in solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) began a hunger strike. The prisoners demanded an end to the so-called gang-based "validation," used to subject people to torture and isolation in California's four SHUs. The prisoners demanded opportunities for education and contact with other human beings. As the RW goes to press, supporters of the prisoners say that after almost four weeks the strike has been suspended. The 11 remaining prisoners who were refusing food had lost up to 30 pounds.

In June 2001, 1,000 prisoners at Pelican Bay and some of the three other SHU prisons in California went on a hunger strike for two weeks. That hunger strike was ended when authorities promised a re- evaluation of all cases of "gang validation." This latest hunger strike was in response to official delays in carrying out this promise.

Pelican Bay State Prison was opened in December 1989. Three square miles were clear-cut from dense forests on a beautiful section of the coast at the northern tip of California. Inside the perimeter of the prison, all signs of the surrounding environment have been obliterated--there is not a bug, not a blade of grass.

In the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Tehachapi and Chowchilla, a regime of scientific torture has been created. Over 1,000 prisoners are held in bathroom-size steel boxes, 8 feet by 10 feet. There are no bars or windows. Prisoners are not allowed educational materials or contact with other prisoners. California Prison Focus, a community-based organization working with and for prisoners in the SHUs, notes that, "The prisoners are denied human needs such as adequate contact with loved ones, a decent private space to live in, some say about their privileges and deprivations, some productive outlet and a chance to learn and grow."

Prisoners are kept isolated in these boxes 22-1/2 hours a day. "Exercise" consists of being in a larger box, with no exercise equipment, and no sight or sound from the surrounding environment. Prisoners see friends and family members through thick walls of glass. The only time they touch another human being is when they are handcuffed by a guard.

"The CDC knew when they developed the SHU that it would push people past the breaking point," Makini Iyapo told the RW . Makini's husband, Leonard Alexander, has been in the Pelican Bay SHU since it opened in 1989, and has continued to resist. "There are people who had psychological trouble before they went there. Sometimes they wheel them out of there in straightjackets. Imagine being in with guys who are banging their heads and screaming. It's mental torture."

A psychiatrist working with California Prison Focus who toured the SHUs and other "supermaximum" units reported observing many individuals suffering from the most severe psychoses he had seen in his 30-year career.

In 2000, conditions in "supermaximum" prisons in the U.S., including the SHUs, were condemned by the United Nations Committee on Torture. The SHU at the Valley State Prison for Women at Chowchilla, California has been the subject of international protest by Amnesty International and has been criticized by the United Nations Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. A U.S. federal judge found in a 1995 lawsuit that "many, if not most, inmates in the SHU experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation in the SHU."

"The SHUs are used," as Charles Carbone, a lawyer with California Prison Focus told the RW , "to capture those people who are able to gain any political visibility, political notoriety, or those people that are able to mobilize and radicalize other prisoners. Those individuals are a threat to the department." Once in the SHU, "they're essentially cut off from the rest of the world and other prisoners."

Some prominent political prisoners are at Pelican Bay, including Ruchell Magee, arrested after the Marin courthouse shootout that involved Jonathan Jackson, brother of George Jackson, and Hugo Pinell, another associate of George Jackson and one of the San Quentin 6. Steve Castillo, who participated in the most recent hunger strike, was sent to Pelican Bay for being a jailhouse lawyer.

The California Department of Corrections says the purpose of the SHUs is to control prison gangs. So they have created a sham system of gang "validation" to try to justify not only locking people away in the SHUs, but as a pretext for the existence of these torture chambers in the first place.

A validation is not based on anything a prisoner may have done against prison rules, but on "association" with a "gang member," or someone suspected of being a gang member.

"You can do something as simple as talking to an alleged gang member in the law library about the ordinary incidents of prison life," Charles Carbone pointed out, "nothing to do with gang activity whatsoever. You can talk about the weather. That association alone is enough to use as a source document [for a validation]."

Such source documents include things like signing a get well card or having someone's name in your address book. People are labeled as gang members for having Aztec drawings and pictures, or materials in Nahuatl, Celtic, Gaelic or Swahili.

"It's not the purpose and content of the communication," Carbone added, "it's the mere communication. If they want a completely confidential gang validation, which they do on a regular basis, they can do that. You're sitting in solitary confinement for 10 years, and you tell your captors, `Why am I here?' and they say, `We can't tell you that.' "

Activists and family members point out that there are gang members in every prison population, and there are people in the SHUs who were never even accused of gang-related activity. "It's the most arbitrary and capricious system you've ever heard of," said Carbone.

Once in the SHU, prisoners are told they have only three ways out: snitch, die, or get paroled. They also say that you can leave the SHU if you are free from gang associations for six years. But this condition is nearly impossible to fulfill. The official pressure to snitch results in desperate prisoners simply making up things about others in the SHU, leading to others being "revalidated."

The SHU is meant to create a climate of hopelessness, an atmosphere meant to break people down, and crush their will to resist.

The authorities "are bewildered by the fact that these guys have been able to stay as strong as they have," Makini Iyapo told the RW . "They're fighting for their own sanity. They're depressed, restless. The fact that they get up every day and get dressed--and they have a regimen that they do--I think it's amazing."

She talked about how the prisoners stay strong by helping each other. "Each pod has eight cells. I call it their community. Any time they go to the canteen, or they get their annual package [package from outside that Pelican Bay prisoners are allowed to receive once a year], it's always divided into eight. Regardless if it's for my husband or the Hispanic prisoner downstairs, they divide everything. If somebody's out of something, if you don't have any money on your books, they'll order something for you. I send writing supplies once a month to 17 guys. If somebody's worried about their mother, my husband will ask me, `Will you call this person?' "

Outside support, from family members and others, is crucial to combating the isolation of the prisoners, but it is difficult to maintain. Crescent City, California, where the prison is located, is a seven- hour drive from the Bay Area, and 14 hours from Los Angeles--each way. Crescent City itself is a mainly white small town, in sharp contrast to nearby Pelican Bay, which is 80% people of oppressed nationalities. Many family members cannot afford the time off, or don't have money to travel and stay in a motel.

Prison guards create an atmosphere of intimidation for visitors. "Cross communication" is against the rules, meaning that visitors cannot pass messages from one prisoner to another, so those lining up avoid even talking to other visitors. This August, a bogus charge of cross communication was used to "revalidate" Makini's husband Leonard, based on the fact that she wrote to other prisoners as part of her support work.

Makini also spoke of the emotional toll of having a loved one locked away. She has not had physical contact with Leonard since 1985. "It's been so long. You try to compensate in other areas. We do the whole hand-the-glass thing and you're thinking mentally you're so spiritually connected, but the reality is, it's been so long. I used to could sit back and go, `I remember this hug, I remember when we got married, I remember this kiss.' It's been so long that those memories are difficult to retrieve."

When people like the prisoners at Pelican Bay, who are subjected to some of the most inhumane conditions fashioned by the system, have the heart and hope to fight back in whatever way they can, it is both an inspiration and a challenge to everyone who believes that the people can create another world.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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