Revolution #245, September 11, 2011

Hidden Behind Concrete and Barbed Wire: Hearings Expose Torture in California's SHUs

"My brother has been in Pelican Bay SHU for the last ten years. I'm here today to be the voice, not only for him, but for all of the prisoners who are suffering in the SHU and for all of the prisons in California. There are a lot of questions that I want answered. I want to know what our elected officials are going to do to change what's being done? Why is it 30 days later and still nothing has been done when the CDC agreed to part of the prisoners' demands? I want to know why my brother is tortured on a daily basis year after year. Why is he not fed correctly and why is he so pale and skinny? Why does my mom have to cry every time she goes to see him? Seeing everybody that has come out today just lights my fire, because I know that I am not alone and I can let him know that he is not alone."


Today we will inform the general public that our loved ones, our families and our friends are being severely tortured at Pelican Bay and the State hasn't done anything yet.

Dorsey Nunn, former prisoner, Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children,
and part of the negotiating team for the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers

On August 23, in Sacramento, attorneys, psychologists, religious leaders, and most of all former prisoners and their family members and loved ones testified on the savage treatment in California's Security Housing Units (SHUs). Their testimony revealed a prison system that can only be described as torture, a nightmarish system in which a prisoner can be thrown in solitary confinement for decades based on anonymous informants and rumors, a system which would be cruel and unjust if it were applied to animals and not human beings. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) also testified to defend and create public opinion for the prison system they run and its current practices, including the SHUs.

The hearings were called by State Senator Tom Ammiano and the California State Assembly Public Safety Committee in response to the 20-day hunger strike initiated by prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU on July 1, 2011. These prisoners put their lives on the line, demanding basic human rights. More than 6,500 prisoners across the state joined the strike when it was initiated.

More than 200 people rallied outside and then packed the hearing in support of the prisoners, many had driven all night from Los Angeles, San Diego and other parts of the state.

Very little of the content of these hearings was reported in the mainstream press. Earl Fears, a former prisoner at the Corcoran SHU said, "We call the SHU the 'silent killer' because you have not a voice on the outside to tell the public what goes on." It is important that this powerful testimony be heard. And spreading this testimony can be part of challenging these conditions and exposing the illegitimacy and inhumanity of a system that allows them to exist. What follows are excerpts from the testimony, interviews done by Revolution and comments made at a rally/press conference before the hearing.


"Treated worse than prisoners in any civilized nation"

"It's torture to put human beings in a 10 foot by 6 foot cell and leave them there for the rest of their lives. No human contact, no photo. Nothing for 20 or 30 years. Even a year, or less than a year is torture."

Kendra, a family member of a SHU prisoner

The SHU is designed to destroy the mind, body and soul of those who are inside. It's also designed to destroy the mind, body and soul of the families. The administrators have done a very good job of portraying our brothers inside as wild animals, as beasts. You see it on the news. They don't even refer to them as human beings—and that's what they are: human beings. They are guaranteed human rights. We must do everything we can to ensure that they get those rights."

Statement at the hearings by Richard Brown,
former Black Panther and member of the San Francisco 8

Laura Magnani from the American Friends Service Committee and author of a report exposing isolation in U.S. prisons testified that, across the U.S., 80,000 prisoners were being held in long-term isolation in 2000, a 40% increase from five years earlier. She said that most experts put the current number at 100,000 nationwide. "These are shocking statistics," Magnani said, noting that the UN Human Rights Commission has specified that prolonged solitary confinement is prohibited as a form of torture.

"Other practices associated with these units also involve torture," Magnani said, "such as violent cell extractions, three point restraints, or hogtying, and, most recently, a process called 'contraband watch' that puts prisoners in diapers leaving them in their own waste for days at a time."

Craig Haney, a professor of psychology and a nationally recognized expert on solitary confinement said Pelican Bay "exposes inmates to psychologically dangerous conditions of confinement... routinely worse than prisoners in any civilized nation anywhere else in the world are treated, under conditions that many nations and human rights organizations regard as torture." Haney quoted Judge Thelton Henderson, one of the first jurists to review conditions in Pelican Bay, who wrote that the SHU "may press against the outer limits of what humans can psychologically tolerate."

Rev. William McGarvey, a Presbyterian minister and representative of Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture, testified that solitary confinement results in "the destruction of the human spirit." He said that Native Americans and Rastafarians are often placed in solitary for refusing to cut their hair or remove dreadlocks. He also said that anti-Islamic prejudice is responsible for the ballooning solitary population in federal prisons where 60-75% in CMU's (Communication Management Units) are Muslims.

"My husband is housed in the Pelican Bay SHU and has been there since the prison first opened in 1989," Virginia told the panel. "That's 22 years, and all of those in the SHU. That should be unheard of in the United States of America but unfortunately it is not. He hasn't been allowed to get any sunlight, walk outside or get his picture taken in those 22 years. As of recent he cannot even have a wall calendar or drawing paper. Those were taken away and when asked why the answer is always for the safety and security of the prison. Our visits are only two hours long but the prison is far from anywhere, located just 20 miles from the Oregon border. We can't hold hands during visits like other inmates and their wives as our visits are behind glass."

Earl Fears, the former Corcoran SHU prisoner, described why he thought conditions in the SHU constitute torture: "We need to talk about hunger. We need to talk about things that go on behind the wall that are not known to people in society. We need to hear about things that happen that make grown men cry, a gangster cry, a con cry. ... I want to talk about what it's like to have a guard walk by your cell open the little flap and say, 'Mr. Fears, your mother died,' and then shut the flap and that's the end of the conversation. You're shut off from all society in the SHU. I can't get a phone call to my lawyer to let him know something is being done wrong in here. In the hole you don't have a phone call to call a lawyer. You don't have a phone call to call your mother, to call your brother, to call your son. You don't have that right."

Gang Validation: "At the mercy of CDCR's closed system"

The items that validated him are items that would not be uncommon for me to have in my backpack on any given day..."

A law student whose brother is in the SHU

One of the main demands of the prisoners has been an end to the process under which prisoners are sent to the SHU. This system called, "gang validation," has resulted in thousands being sent to the SHU as gang members with little or no factually supported collaboration of gang activity and with no chance of getting out except by "debriefing," meaning giving names of other supposed gang members.

Charles Carbone, an attorney who represents prisoners testified that, "The overwhelming majority of prisoners who are doing time in the SHU for gang validation have not committed a serious rules violation of any kind." Carbone said that the affiliation process is not based on "gang activity," in other words being involved in any activities by a gang which violate prison rules, but on "affiliation," mere association, and this can be—and is—defined very loosely.

Carbone said that only three pieces of "documentation" are needed to validate someone and send them to the SHU. According to Carbone one of the most widely used is the confidential informant and that there is no opportunity for someone facing validation to challenge this. Another item that can be used for gang validation can be a book that merely mentions an historical fact. Carbone said that books by or about 1960s prison leader and revolutionary George Jackson are often used to validate someone as a gang member. He also said that he had just heard that the book The Art of War by the ancient Chinese military leader Sun Tzu was also used as evidence of gang affiliation.

With this kind of "evidence" people are sent to the SHU with no review for a minimum of six years unless they debrief, go insane or die.

Here are some remarks by family members to the panel:

Denial of Health Care

A formal complaint by Pelican Bay SHU inmates laying out their reasons for starting the hunger strike documented denial of adequate medical care to SHU prisoners. According to the prisoners complaint, starting in 2006, Pelican Bay began to "systematically discontinue and deny medication, specialist care, assistive aids by telling SHU inmates, 'if you want better care get out of the SHU' and now SHU inmates are chained down to the floor of the clinic like animals if they need to see a doctor/nurse.) The psychiatric staff are complicit too, claiming that "there are no mental health issues precluding continue SHU confinement", without any personal interaction with those inmates."

The following are excerpts from the testimony at the hearing about health care in the SHUs:

These hearings clearly demonstrated, with overwhelming evidence, the inhumanity, cruelty and illegitimacy of California's prison system, and the utter justness of the prisoner's hunger strike and their demands.

Tens of thousands of prisoners around the U.S. are being held in the kind of barbarous conditions that the prisoners at Pelican Bay have so courageously rebelled against. It remains very urgent that all those who oppose injustice and oppression continue to speak out and wage a determined fight to support the prisoners and their demands and put an end to this. This battle is not over!

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond