by Geri Silva, Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS)
More than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in high security isolation units known as Security Housing Units (SHUs), where they are confined for at least 22 and a half hours a day in single or double cells, with no work or meaningful rehabilitation programs or group activities of any kind. Over 1,000 are held in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, a remote facility where most prisoners are confined alone in cells which have no windows to the outside or direct access to natural light.
SHU prisoners are isolated both within prison and from meaningful contacts with the outside world: Contact with correctional staff is kept to a minimum, and consultations with medical, mental health and other staff routinely take place behind barriers; all visits, including family and legal visits, are also non-contact, with prisoners separated from their visitors behind a glass screen.
Of those, more than 2,000 prisoners are serving “indeterminate” (indefinite) SHU terms because they have been “validated” by the prison authorities as members or associates of prison gangs. According to figures provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 2011, more than 500 prisoners serving indeterminate SHU terms had spent 10 or more years in the Pelican Bay SHU; of this number, more than 200 had spent over 15 years in the SHU and 78 more than 20 years. Many had been in the SHU since it opened in 1989, held in conditions of extreme isolation and environmental deprivation.
Consult the September 2012 Amnesty International report, “USA: The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units,” for more information.
The following letter has been sent to Gov. Jerry Brown by 15 outstanding Californians in academia, government and business:
Gov. Jerry Brown
State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814
We write you on behalf of the thousands of men and women whose bodies are now confined inside prisons across the state of California, under some of the cruelest and most torturous of constraints: Indefinite Solitary Confinement.
During the summer of 2011, men in Pelican Bay SHU units came together, united across all racial and “political barriers,” voluntarily giving up what little sustenance and comfort they had by going on two prolonged hunger strikes, making clear to all that their prolonged condition of indefinite solitary confinement had reached a point where drastic measures were absolutely necessary.
The men in the Pelican Bay short corridor, who are considered to be dangerously violent and labeled the “worst of the worst” agreed on a peaceful but personally dangerous action to demonstrate the depth of their suffering under conditions of indefinite solitary confinement. The community, but most especially their families, were immediate to take on their issues. Other prisoners in Solitary Confinement throughout the state participated and echoed the demands. Eventually, over 6,000 joined the fast in solidarity with the men in Pelican Bay SHU and in Solitary Confinement and Administrative Segregation throughout the state.
More than a year has passed since the summer 2011 hunger strikes, which were geared at the realization of five core demands. According to the Pelican Bay SHU Short Corridor recognized representatives, who have been meeting and negotiating with representatives from the CDCR, the men are still waiting for the CDCR to meet their five core demands, all of which CDCR’s top administrators admitted were reasonable at the time!
We seek to insure that the demand for an end to the cruelty of indefinite solitary confinement and the wide-spread support generated on the basis of those conditions does not die from the lack of will on the part of the CDCR. Gov. Brown, we appeal to you in unity with the Pelican Bay SHU Short Corridor prisoner representatives – Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Sitawa N. Jamaa and Antonio Guillen – to seek CDCR support to insure the following:
First, the practice of validating inmates based on assumptions and/or intelligence with no factual basis must be abolished.
We call for an end to the practice of placing prisoners in SHU based on:
- Second-hand information gathering (the word of another similarly situated prisoner who is granted favors or relief based on his/her testimony);
- Anything other than the eye-witness actions of the person under consideration for validation. All intelligence gathered which is based upon what someone else did or someone else said the suspected prisoner did, based on possession of pictures, names and addresses, or based on the individual writing certain other individuals, must be deemed “ghost intelligence,” outlaw procedure and must be immediately discarded.
People should be placed in SHU only after a finding of misconduct resulting from a disciplinary hearing which is based on facts and proven misconduct.
Second, a four year step down process is too long. Not only should SHU and Ad/Seg confinement be reserved for prisoners found guilty of committing serious rule violations, no term or step down process should be in excess of one year!
According to U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment Juan Mendez, while speaking of Solitary Confinement on Oct. 8, 2011: “Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition.” He cited scientific studies that have established that some lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation.
We sign this letter to reflect the sense of urgency that we feel. Arbitrary and indefinite solitary confinement is an absolute assault on humankind and a barbarity the likes of which cannot be tolerated. We hold the utmost respect for those prisoners who from the depths of Solitary Confinement throughout California risked their lives to be heard. We heard them and now we ask that you do the same.
Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean, UC Irvine Law School
Jackie Goldberg, Former State Assemblywoman
Tony Platt, Visiting Professor, Justice Studies, San Jose State University
Mike Davis, Professor of Creative Writing, UC Irvine
Susan Weissman, Professor of Politics, Saint Mary’s College of California
Susan Straight, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, UC Riverside, Novelist and Essayist, Columnist for KCET
Rebecca Solnit, Writer, San Francisco
Jon Weiner, Professor of History, UC Irvine; Contributing Editor, The Nation
Victor Valle, Writer and Professor of Ethnic Studies, California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo
Amie Williams, Global Girl Executive Director and Co-Founder
Ben Ehrenreich, Author
Adam Shatz, London Review of Books
Sheila Kuehl, Former California State Senator
Patricia Morton, Chair and Associate Professor, Art History Department, UC Riverside
Marilyn Katz, President, MK Communications
Geri Silva, director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS), can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.