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Amazing Prison Strike

by Alexander Cockburn

2-hour days alone in a small concrete box
In an amazing feat of organization, about 900 prisoners in solitary confinement in the infamous California prisons of Pelican Bay and Corcoran staged a hunger strike in the first week of July. The hunger strike concerned the policy of the California Department of Corrections, whereby those designated as prison gang members are removed from the general population and isolated in Security Housing Units ("SHUs"), confined for 22 hours per day for years on end in 8x10 foot windowless cells.

SHU inmates are always shackled when they leave their cells or exercising in a "yard," which is really a larger concrete cell with no exercise equipment and no view of the outside world. Prisoners receive all meals in their cells, are not allowed to participate in training or educational activities, are not allowed contact visits and have no phone access. The severe sensory deprivation of the SHU causes many prisoners to go insane.

Given the horrific nature of indeterminate confinement in the SHU, the nature of the evidence of gang activity can be vague, well beyond the point of malevolent absurdity. The most frequent way to incriminate a prisoner with gang associations is by way of an anonymous informant's summary assertion that "Prisoner X is a gang member or associate." But other criteria the CDC uses to justify the "gang member" charge include: possession of literature or art; writing to another prisoner's family; assisting another prisoner with legal work; signing birthday or get well cards to prisoners; exercising or otherwise interacting with another prisoner.

Prisoners are not allowed to present evidence or witnesses in their defense. There is no requirement that the information be current; a parolee returned to prison for a new offense after 10 years on the outside can be thrown in the SHU as a gangster, based on information from his previous term in prison.

Confinement in the SHU is for an indeterminate period. Before 1999, the only way for a validated gang member to be released from a SHU was to get parole, die, go insane or "debrief" (become an informer for the CDC, and finger other prisoners as gang members). Since rule change 99/08, a prisoner can also be released to the general inmate population if prison investigators determine that he has been free from gang activity for six years.

The strike was organized by Steve Castillo, an inmate at Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit, who has waged a legal campaign for years on this issue, and whose suit led to the 1999 rule change. Here are some excerpts from a recent letter from Castillo explaining why he organized the hunger strike:

"A hunger strike (besides the obvious) is generally a desperate plea for help. And it is a plea that usually follows the exhaustion of all other attempts to bring about the necessary change; when there exists no adequate or speedy remedy; or, when the required change is immediately needed.

"Rarely in a lifetime do we ever witness a sane person go insane. And even more rare is it to witness such an occurrence happen more than once. It is more common for us to just see a person when they have already lost their sanity. But here, I have seen such things more times than I want to remember. I thought that seeing a prisoner get shot by staff was a frightening and chilling event, but that in no way compares to seeing a prisoner calmly playing a game of chess with pieces made out of his own feces. Or, prisoners smearing their bodies and cells with their feces. Or, watching prisoners throwing urine and feces at each other through the perforated cell doors. And worse yet, since we are cell fed, we eat our meals under these conditions.

"In sum, this place seems to lose all semblance of a prison, and instead takes on a laboratory environment for human experimentation ... "

On the CDC stipulation of no gang activity for six years as a condition of release from the SHU, Castillo has this to say: "CDC refuses to define 'gang activity,' and so, in the eyes of the CDC, everything and anything is gang activity. And, should a prisoner have no gang activity, there is an exception clause that allows them to keep us in the SHU anyway ... Thus, for the most part, the majority of us aren't going anywhere."

The SHU inmates suspended their hunger strike after California state senator Richard G. Polanco (chairman of the Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations) asked the prisoners to call off the hunger strike promising to hold hearings as soon as possible. If their grievances are not addressed, the prisoners vow to resume their hunger strike next January.

Fifteen years of 22-hour days alone in a small concrete box, after being stigmatized as a gang member for helping a fellow inmate sign a letter or because a guard has it in for you? Californians have no right to lecture any country in the world on prison conditions while these horrors persist.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor July 15, 2001 (

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