Tortured SHU prisoners speak out: The struggle continues, hunger strike resumes Sept. 26

CDCR not only refuses to meet hunger strikers’ demands but intends to condemn street gang members – in addition to alleged prison gang members – to SHU torture

by Pelican Bay State Prison SHU hunger strike representatives

For the past 10-40 years, thousands of California prisoners have been confined in California Department of Corrections Security Housing Units (CDCR SHUs) indefinitely based on status – a gang label or active gang classification, based on innocuous association activity and allegations from confidential inmate informants. They have been demonized as the worst of the worst in order to justify decades of human rights violations – including state sanctioned torture for the purpose of breaking the prisoners and coercing them into becoming known informants for the state – thereby placing such prisoners and their families in serious danger of retribution, as well as the severe permanent physical and psychological pain and suffering to these long term SHU prisoners and their families – directly related to CDCR SHU policies and practices, all of which violate U.S. constitutional and international legal principles, as summarized in the prior formal complaint and five core demands available online.

As of September 2011, these SHU prisoners continue to be subjected to CDCR’s torturous human rights violations, in spite of the July 2011 peaceful protest via hunger strike, wherein thousands of prisoners of all races and groups united in their effort to bring mainstream exposure and force an end to such barbarous policies and practices. CDCR has responded with more propaganda, lies and vague double talk promises of change – in time.

SHU prisoners are dissatisfied with CDCR’s response to their formal complaint and five core demands and therefore will continue to resist via peaceful protest indefinitely, until actual changes are implemented as summarized below.

1. The Formal Complaint and Five Core Demands

Beginning Feb. 5, 2010, dozens of PBSP-SHU prisoners and their family members and friends began sending copies of the formal complaint to numerous lawmakers, CDCR Secretary Cate, and to many organizations. CDCR’s response was, “File an inmate appeal.” In May 2011, the formal complaint, “Notice of the Hunger Strike for July 1, 2011, and Five Core Demands,” was served on CDCR Secretary Cate and Pelican Bay Warden Lewis. There was no response. Notably, these documents were all posted online in March 2011.

2. The July 1 Hunger Strike and CDCR’s Responses

The hunger strike began on July 1 at PBSP SHU and quickly spread to other prisons. At one point more than 6,600 prisoners participated at 13 prisons across the state!

On July 14, 2011, CDCR Undersecretary Kernan spoke to the inmate representatives via phone conference, promising them that the five core demands would be addressed, with positive changes occurring over time. The reps asked Kerman to put details of the changes on paper for their review.

On July 15, 2011, the reps reviewed the documents provided by Kernan and determined the documents were not satisfactory because they were very vague and did not specify any changes of substance in relation to the five core demands.

On July 20, Kernan and additional CDCR administrators met with the inmate reps in the PBSP SHU parole board hearing room. Kernan made more assurances about positive changes to SHU policies being in the works and stated he would meet with the reps again in a couple of weeks in order to provide specifics as to each of the five core demands re changes and progress made. As well as agreeing that, other than adding an extra day of visiting each week, the rest of the demands re programs and privileges were reasonable and would be granted as a show of good faith on CDCR’s part.

All 14 of the hunger strike reps then met and discussed the proposals from Kernan and then decided to temporarily suspend the hunger strike, in order to give CDCR “a couple of weeks” grace period to keep their word on the five core demands, per Kernan’s request and assurances.

On Aug. 19, Kernan and other CDCR administrators met with the reps again to follow up on the July 20 assurances re specifically addressing the five core demands in detail.

Kernan did not have anything on paper to specifically address any of the five core demands. The meeting consisted of Kernan’s words – in very vague, general terms – about CDCR staff working to come up with some type of step down program for inmates to get out of SHU, which does not require debriefing or informant status, and Warden Lewis stating SHU inmates would soon be allowed to purchase sweat suits and have the use of a handball on the yard.

The reps pointed out that Kernan’s verbal, vague presentation was not what was agreed to on July 20. Kernan responded that “a step down program will be operational by the end of this year or early next year.”

The reps asked for specific details to be provided on paper to all SHU sections so all inmates can have something tangible in their hands, and Kernan eventually agreed to begin providing this documentation within two weeks. Instead, on Sept. 2, a memo dated Aug. 25, entitled “Gang Mgt. Proposal,” was only issued to the four principle reps; this document is again extremely vague and general. It is not adequate nor acceptable!

On Aug. 23, Kernan appeared before the California Assembly Public Safety Committee to answer questions re SHU policies and practices that were exposed to the world via the hunger strike. According to the transcript of this Aug. 23 hearing, Kernan was very vague, general, non-responsive and focused on propagating CDCR’s outright lies about PBSP SHU policies and the inmates subject to the torture therein. Examples are:

a. “The courts have found PBSP SHU policies meet constitutional standards.” This is false; see, e.g., Madrid v. Gomez 889 F. Sup. 1146, at 1270, fn 217; see also, Griffin v. Gomez; Lira v. Cate, cases cited in formal complaint! And Chambers v. Florida, 309, U.S. 227, at 237-328 (1940).

b. “SHU houses 3,000 prison gang generals, who spend 24/7 engaging in gang activity which threatens prison and public safety; and we need to isolate them in harsh conditions to prevent them from ordering other inmates to kill staff on sight,” etc., etc., etc. This is also false. There are no rule violation reports or criminal charges to support this claim!

c. When asked directly by the Assembly if “debriefing places the inmate and his family in danger,” Kernan failed to respond! Notably Kernan stated that one certainty is CDCR’s plan to expand the number of prisoners subject to solitary confinement torture by applying the policies and practices currently reserved for some suspected gang affiliates to encompass all inmates categorized as party to any type of “disruptive group” ((See California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3000, “Disruptive Group-1 means any gang, other than a prison gang.”)) – e.g., the tens of thousands of street gang affiliates in CDCR prisons as well as CDCR’s intent to continue to rely on information from “debriefing” inmates to keep other inmates in SHU indefinitely!

One certainty is CDCR’s plan to expand the number of prisoners subject to solitary confinement torture by applying the policies and practices currently reserved for some suspected gang affiliates to encompass all inmates categorized as party to any type of “disruptive group” – e.g., the tens of thousands of street gang affiliates in CDCR prisons – as well as CDCR’s intent to continue to rely on information from “debriefing” inmates to keep other inmates in SHU indefinitely!

On Aug. 31, PBSP SHU staff issued four memos addressing the allowance of the following: handballs on the yard; ability to purchase sweat suits; and, with one year free of disciplinary action and committee approval, the ability to get a yearly photo taken and purchase art pens and drawing paper from the prison canteen. While said memos were being passed out, a sergeant was loudly telling staff to start writing up all prisoners for any type of reason they can think of in order to prevent prisoners from getting their newly won privileges!

3. SHU Prisoners’ Dissatisfaction with CDCR’s Response to the Formal Complaint and Five Core Demands

PBSP SHU inmates have considered all facts and circumstances summarized above and remain united in our dissatisfaction with CDCR’s lack of specific substantive action on our five core demands. Our dissatisfactions are summarized below:

A. Re Core Demands Nos. 1-3

Our problem with CDCR’s response to core demands 1, 2 and 3 is this:

No. 1. We remain in SHU indefinitely, deprived of our basic human rights – based on illegal policies and practices that amount to torture; torture of us, as well as our family members and loved ones on the outside. CDCR remains in denial and continues to propagate the lies re “worst of the worst” 3,000 gang generals, etc. – in order to dehumanize and demonize us so as to maintain the status quo and “continue to hammer us,” per Secretary Cate’s press statement earlier this year and subject us to “harsh” conditions, per Kernan’s Aug. 23 testimony. These terms, “hammer” and “harsh” conditions, are used in place of the word torture – and the fact is, CDCR’s intent is to break us down, and coerce us into becoming state informants! A violation of international treaty law, period! This is not acceptable!

These terms, “hammer” and “harsh” conditions, are used in place of the word torture – and the fact is, CDCR’s intent is to break us down, and coerce us into becoming state informants!

CDCR has failed to produce any documentation re details of how their so called “step-down” program will work, who it will apply to, exceptions, exclusions etc.; and our problem is, “step down from what?” When someone has been in SHU deprived of normal human contact, especially the lack of any physical contact with family and loved ones for 10-40 years based on a “label” without being charged and found guilty of illegal gang activity; yet CDCR is dragging it out, coming with nothing but words and vague “proposals,” which indicate we will have to remain in SHU, jumping through a bunch of CDCR’s security hoops, to advance through “steps” in spite of three to 25-plus years free of any serious rule violations!

Plus, we’re certain that CDCR administrators have no intention of ever giving most of us in PBSP short corridor any real chance for general population!

No. 2. CDCR has made clear that one certainty is their plan to substantially expand on the use of “solitary confinement” via targeting all prisoners deemed “disruptive groups” (security threat groups), which is defined as “two or more inmates who are collectively deemed to be a security threat” – e.g., all street gang affiliates, prisoners deemed political-revolutionary etc., etc., etc. (see also CCR Title 15; sec. 3000 “Disruptive Behavior”), even those participating in a peaceful hunger strike. With CDCR’s history of abuse of policies re “prison gangs” in solitary confinement, it’s clear things will get worse, not better. This new policy is a way CDCR plans to maintain their staff and funding status quo, in response to the Plata order to reduce prison population. It costs nearly double to house prisoners in solitary confinement!

CDCR has made clear that one certainty is their plan to substantially expand on the use of “solitary confinement” to all street gang affiliates, prisoners deemed political-revolutionary, even those participating in a peaceful hunger strike. With CDCR’s history of abuse of policies re “prison gangs” in solitary confinement, it’s clear things will get worse, not better.

Our position is CDCR’s “plans” to date are not acceptable and are another example of their intent to maintain and expand on “solitary confinement” and demonstrate a failure of the entire CDCR management to make positive reforms! And all long term SHU inmates should be released to general populations! ASAP!

No. 3. Also, the medical care problems re core demand No. 3 have not been resolved! All PBSP SHU inmates suffering from chronic disease and denied adequate care at PBSP due to deliberate indifference and efforts to coerce them to debrief should all be transferred to New Folsom Medical SHU while waiting to be released to general population!

B. Re Core Demand No. 4

This issue concerns our poor diet, small portions – all watered down, dirty trays, etc. and has not been fixed. In fact, it’s gotten worse since we came off the hunger strike on July 20! This lack of adequate nutritional food and vitamins causes all of us to lack energy and harms our mental and physical health – which greatly increases medical care costs! Plus our lack of sunlight and related lack of vitamin D is a problem too. We need better food and portions, clean trays and ability to purchase healthy food items and nutritional supplements ASAP!

C. Re Core Demand No. 5

There remains a problem with many of our program and privilege examples listed on demand No. 5 not being implemented – e.g., phone calls, canteen and package issues, TV and radio channels, extra visiting time. What about the ability to get photos in visiting room, wherein c/o (correctional officer) takes picture of inmate and visitors thru the glass? And the ones that have been implemented in PBSP SHU have been done in a way that it makes it real hard for most inmates to get a photo or art pens and drawing paper because the warden has stated via memos that inmates have to have one year free of disciplinary write-ups, and they must first “have to be approved by committee.” Kernan’s Aug. 29 memo to all SHU wardens does not say inmates “need to go to committee” for these!

And having to get sweat suits in yearly packages equals another 40-50 ounces of weight, which means less food items! This weight for non-food items takes a lot out of food amount; then you add all the packaging (e.g. box etc.), and we will end up with very little food items in our packages – e.g. packaging (50 ounces), tennis shoes (50 ounces), sweat pants, shirt, shorts (40 ounces), thermals (18-20 ounces) equals 158 ounces of a maximum weight of 480 ounces! An easy fix for these non-food items is that PBSP can return to their old policy of allowing us to purchase all “non-food” items through special purchases, just like we continue to be allowed to do when ordering books and periodicals. Note: The old policy was that we were allowed to order non-food items from an approved vendor once a year through Special Purchase.

In closing, to all SHU prisoners and all our outside supporters, ((“People,” what’s right is right, and we the people should not and will not compromise ours and families’ health, safety and security to let CDCR continue to violate our human and constitutional rights and U.S. international law. This is wrong, and we the people need to end these evil inhumane violations! If not now, when? The time is now!)) we wanted to let you know, as you can see from this, that this fight is far from over. And once again, hopefully for the last time, we will be risking our health and lives via a peaceful hunger strike, starting on Sept. 26, 2011, to force positive changes. None of us want to go on another hunger strike, but we are forced to by CDCR’s actions and non-actions as described herein. Thus, more than ever, we still need your support to contact the governor etc. to force CDCR to make fair and reasonable changes to their policies as indicated here. Thank you all very much!

Respectfully and in solidarity,

From all PBSP SHU hunger strike representatives

Note from Penny Schoner, who received and typed this letter

This is a letter we received Sept. 9, 2011, “Tortured SHU Prisoners Speak Out.” Sept. 8 and 9 last week, a recent law school graduate and I went on a legal visit to Pelican Bay and interviewed 15 men over two days. We were given the attached letter by two of the hunger strike representatives, showing that there is solidarity among short corridor prisoners to resume the strike on Sept. 26, because the abuse by prison staff has become so extreme. As we talked with men from other blocks, they also told us of how conditions are worsening in the SHU and that they back the five demands and are ready to strike. We interviewed all races of men.

At the end of the “Tortured SHU Prisoners Speak Out” letter it says, “From all PBSP SHU hunger strike representatives,” and from other communications we know that there are 14 of them. The letter is an analysis of the recent memos that were issued by the CDC and explains how the changes that the CDC is proposing will allow them to keep their budget intact.

What made this hunger strike a major action was that all races came together in the SHU, and then at least 6,600 prisoners over the state agreed and joined in. It really challenged the CDC on the contrived ways they divide people in order to justify high salaries by accusing them of gang associations. This is the first time, since the Panthers urged people to forget racism, that these false, destructive ways to divide prisoners have been exposed and fought against on such a broad scale.

The cruelty at many of the large prisons has increased terribly in the last two years. At Pelican Bay, it has gotten much worse this year, and the men decided to strike because they could not live in these conditions any longer.

The blog to watch is and it needs to be publicized.

The prisoners are asking that we send the “Tortured Prisoners Speak Out” letter to the Legislature, the press and any other entity to bring attention to the widespread abuse in the California state prisons. Write letters and include a copy of the letter and the five demands.

Note from Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus

This is a new declaration from the Pelican Bay prisoner representatives, announcing their intention to resume the hunger strike on Sept. 26. The stakes are even higher than they were in July, as these prisoners are more determined than ever to end the torture of long-term isolation, and I believe some will endure forcefeeding or even continue fasting to the death if necessary for their cause.

CDCR, too, has signaled that “round 2” will be different. Secretary Matthew Cate has said CDCR will “hammer” the prisoners if they hunger strike again; many if not all hunger strike participants have received write-ups documenting their participation and promising “progressive discipline” for any “reoccurrence”; participants have suffered apparent retaliation such as destructive cell searches at 4 a.m., blocking of incoming and outgoing mail, and false assault charges.

One thing this means is that California Prison Focus is going to be busier than ever in the days to come, and your involvement is very welcome! We need volunteers to read and log prisoner correspondence, to visit prisoners at Pelican Bay and perhaps other prisons, to do legal and other research, to help plan prison visits, organize events and rallies, write leaflets, arrange carpools, update our website, write reports, make copies, file stuff – you name it, we need help with it! If you have some extra time and energy (or money, also accepted!), please be in touch. You can contact me directly at

There will be upcoming trainings for volunteers handling prisoner correspondence and for legal volunteers to do prison visits. These two areas are our communications lifelines to know what is happening inside. Email me to get notifications of these trainings.

Please be in touch with CPF and/or the coalition, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. Our websites are good sources of information. For background and ongoing updates on the hunger strike issues, see For info on CPF events, volunteering, and the hunger strike, see