Revolution Online, September 15, 2011

Behind Concrete and Barbed Wire (Part 2):

Testimony of Torture in California SHUs

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.

Very little of the content of these hearings—or of the conditions these prisoners face—has been reported in the mainstream press. In issue #245, Revolution ran excerpts from the testimony presented at the hearings (see "Hidden Behind Concrete and Barbed Wire: Hearings Expose Torture in California's SHUs":

This week Revolution continues with more excerpts from the testimony.

They do have dignity

Delores: “I have a son that has been in the SHU 10 years. One thing that I want to touch on is what Scott Kernan [the prison official who spoke at the hearing] said, that the reason that they are in the SHU is because they are the generals, that they are the ones who are responsible for guard and inmate stabbings. If that is their way of thinking then why did they just conduct a hunger strike, willing to risk their own lives, to suffer on a daily basis in a non-violent demonstration that spread across California prisons involving thousands and thousands of men crossing all racial lines? It's because they are human beings. They do have dignity and they want to be heard.”

Ten minutes to tell him his mother died

Marta: “I have a brother in the SHU. I am afraid to say his name here for fear of what CDC can do to him. My mother died 2 years ago. He was 14 years in Pelican Bay and they only gave us 10 minutes to tell him that our mother was dead. One of the five demands is a phone call. I haven’t been able to talk to my brother since my mom died.”

Sent to the SHU for working out

Lisa: “I have two brothers that are in the SHU at Pelican Bay… One received one point [toward being validated as a gang associate] for working out with someone who is a gang member. But that other person was housed in the same unit. How can they house my brother in the same unit with other gang members and then turn around and punish them for doing day-to-day activities?”

Debrief or die

Marilyn McMahon with California Prison Focus: “Some SHU prisoners can be dying of cancer, they come back from major surgery and they’re given no pain relievers greater than ibuprofen; Medical staff have said to prisoners in the SHU ‘if you want better medical care, get out of the SHU… One prisoner during hunger strike had a very serious heart problem, he was rushed to an outside hospital. When he regained consciousness he was surrounded by guards trying to get him to debrief [name other prisoners as part of a gang]... He was almost dying and all they cared about was getting him to debrief. Another prisoner has end stage liver disease…he was told he had 6 months to live. … He requested a phone call. Now, in SHU they don’t get phone calls. So he made a special request: let me talk to my family once before I die. The request was granted. On the day the phone call was set up for, the guard came to his cell, held a piece of paper up and it said “DEBRIEF.” He refused, and he didn’t get that phone call.”

Women in the SHUs

Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee in SF: “Over 240 in isolation are women. They face particular hardship because of special needs, and extreme lack of privacy. When male COs have 24 hour access to women’s most intimate functions, this creates an extreme form of oppression, and often trauma, made all the more acute because many women prisoners have a history of abuse at the hands of men. Isolation on the one hand, also lack of privacy: even in their isolation they cannot escape the cameras, and slots in cell doors, seeing every move.”

The ones who stand up for themselves and others

Ron Ahnen with California Prison Focus: “We get dozens of letters every week, hundreds every month that complain about these types of things. …If you listen to story after story after story, and I read dozens of letters a month and I can’t believe this is going on. One prisoner said they put him into a cell next to a gang member…now I’m six years in isolation. The system is totally being abused, but there is a reason: the guys getting false validations are the ones who stand up for themselves, the ones who stand up for other prisoners and who put in those 602s [complaints] and the ones that help sue the systems. Those are the guys who are falsely validated so they can control the systems for themselves.”

Sent to the SHU for a drawing

Urszula: My loved one just got validated this April. The three points [pieces of information from prison guards used to identify a prisoner as a “gang associate” and send them to the SHU]: one, literature; two, cultural drawing and, third point, an informant that did not himself want to be in the SHU. I don’t want him to be in the SHU thirty plus years.

Free Hugo Pinell!

Willie Tate, one of the San Quentin 6, prisoners who were put on trial following the assassination of prison leader and Black Panther Party member George Jackson: “Hugo Pinell is the only surviving member of San Quentin 6 still in prison. Every one of us got out, except for him. Why they keeping him in the SHU, locked up since 1969; our trial ended in 1976. Hugo was convicted of assault. He’s still in there and he’s in the SHU of all places. He hasn’t had a write-up for over 30 years. He’s 66 years old, why are they holding him? We became political while inside. We changed our life. We dedicated ourselves to serving the people. Hugo Pinell deserves to have a real chance at freedom and deserves to be taken out of the SHU. That’s no way to force a man to live his life. That’s inhumane. Free Hugo Pinell!

Denied visits for five years

Meredith: My son has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay. I haven’t seen in 5 years. I’ve tried. They come up with strange reasons why I don’t qualify for a visit… What is happening in our country and in this state is so beyond belief that the public needs to understand that this is really happening.

No visit since 1989

Carol Travis, Chair of MT Diablo Peace and Justice Center in Walnut Creek: “I had the privilege to go to Pelican Bay last week to interview 7 prisoners in SHU. The emotional experience was profound and surprising to me. These individuals were incredible people who taught me a lot about humanity, suffering and dignity. These people don’t often see people’s faces. One of the people I visited had not had a visit since 1989, an elegant graceful, warm human being … They want to have a picture taken once a year and sent to either a friend or relative. Many of their families have not seen what they look like in decades...”

Cell extraction

G2 Sadiki: I am a former SHU prisoner spent 4 years in SHU, in 1970s… I’ve experienced extraction from the cell, where you have 6-7 guards lined up behind 6” Plexiglas shield, rush you and beat you down. These men don’t have an opportunity to speak for themselves, these men have been dehumanized… apologize …I know these things first hand. A lot of men in SHU now, they have consistently been in SHU for over 30 years… Unless you have courage to really look at them and talk to them, don’t say they are prison gang members.

In the SHU for 25 years

Harriet: “My brother-in-law has been in SHU for 25 years…If he is a gang member or was a gang member, what can he do in the SHU? He’s 65 years old. What could he possibly be continuing to do in gang activity when locked up 24 hours a day? How can he possibly still be a gang member, people that were in the gang, or alleged to be, these people are gone…Because he won’t debrief, what chance does he have to get out? His Mother is dead, his children are grown, what can he do to just be a part of his family?”

Cultural Annihilation

Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children: “With the hunger strike looming, I visited Pelican Bay for first time. …Two people told me that day, ‘I miss talking to black people.’ What it would be to be annihilated culturally?....One guy complained he only spoke to one other black person legally in 20 years; other times when he made an attempt he was given disciplinary report.”

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