California prisoners launch new hunger strike to protest solitary confinement


by Sal Rodriguez

July 8, 2013 – Hundreds of people held in California prisons are expected to launch their third large-scale hunger strike in two years today. The current strike, announced by leaders at Pelican Bay State Prison on Feb. 14, is seen as a resumption of the large-scale strikes in June and September 2011, when thousands of prisoners across the state stopped eating for days or weeks in order to press for the five demands laid out by the strike organizers.

Pelican Bay SHU cell by Adam Tanner, ReutersThe five demands are an end to group punishment, reform of the current process by which individuals are deemed prison gang members, an end to long-term solitary confinement, adequate and nutritious food, and constructive programming. At the heart of the strike is California’s unique practice of indefinitely housing suspected gang affiliates in Security Housing Units (SHUs), primarily in solitary confinement until they “debrief” – or “snitch” – on fellow gang members.

The prior hunger strikes prompted two California Assembly hearings on the issue of segregation in California’s prisons, a tepid reform of gang validation procedures blasted by SHU prisoners, and a federal lawsuit challenging the gang validation process and mounting an Eighth Amendment challenge against long-term solitary confinement. A CDCR attempt to get the lawsuit dismissed was denied in March, and the Los Angeles Times has since reported that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has asked to join the lawsuit in defense of the SHUs.

The epicenter of the strike is the SHU at PBSP in Crescent City, California, a super-maximum security facility opened in 1989 for the purpose of dealing with “difficult-management cases, prison gang members, and violent maximum-security inmates.” Over 1,000 people are presently held in the SHU at PBSP, and 2,000 additional SHU inmates are held at Corcoran State Prison and Tehachapi State Prison, and many more are held in Administrative Segregation Units (ASU) across the state pending openings in SHU facilities.

At the heart of the strike is California’s unique practice of indefinitely housing suspected gang affiliates in Security Housing Units (SHUs), primarily in solitary confinement until they “debrief” – or “snitch” – on fellow gang members.

In the small, windowless concrete cells designed to limit communication, most in the SHU are held in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. As of 2011, California had held over 500 in the SHU for over five years and 78 for more than 20 years. Increasingly, due to overcrowding, many in the SHU now have cellmates, forced to share a cell designed for only one person.

“Like all oppressed people, prisoners confined to these torture units must not only contend with seeking ways to resist the unrelenting, daily assaults on their psyche and humanity, but must also contend with the prospect of people who have never been subjected to the inexorable psychological and physical degradation of being confined to a bathroom with two bunks crammed into it for 23-24 hours a day, every day, trying to define our reality,” writes a group of men held in the SHU at Corcoran State Prison, validated Black Guerilla Family members who have banded together to form the New Afrikan Revolutionary Nation Collective Think Tank (NCTT).

The members of NCTT, including Michael Dorrough and J. Heshima Denham, who have corresponded with Solitary Watch, have spent over a decade in the SHU – largely in solitary confinement, until recently – and participated in the 2011 hunger strikes. California prison officials have used their political writings as evidence of Black Guerilla Family gang involvement, justifying continued confinement in the SHU.

The BGF was founded as a Black nationalist Marxist-oriented prison organization by prisoner organizer and author George Jackson in the 1960s. California prison officials see it as a gang and have a practice of using political writings as evidence of gang activity. Both Dorrough and Denham insist that they are “New Afrikan” political thinkers, not BGF members.

The strikers have argued that only violent acts and repeated rule violations should justify confinement in the SHU, not merely accusations of gang involvement.

The majority of individuals in the SHU are there for being deemed (“validated”) members of one of the following prison gangs: Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Low Riders, Black Guerilla Family, Northern Structure, Nuestra Familia, Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate. The leaders of the hunger strike are said to be high ranking members of the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family, Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia.

The strikers have argued that only violent acts and repeated rule violations should justify confinement in the SHU, not merely accusations of gang involvement. While many states segregate gang members from the general population, California is unique in its policy of indefinite segregation in solitary confinement for gang affiliation.

Ahead of the strike, prison guards have allegedly engaged in sleep deprivation tactics against inmates at Pelican Bay, with “welfare checks” being conducted every 30 minutes, waking up prisoners, according to Isaac Ontiveros and Azedeh Zohrabi of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. There are no reports that the prior welfare check system ever involved intentionally waking up those in the SHU unnecessarily. The policy, which can be read here, includes the statement that “there is no need to awaken” inmates if “staff can see that the inmates are breathing and not actively involved in self-injurious or life-threatening behavior.”

As was reported throughout the prior two strikes, Pelican Bay strike leader Todd Ashker has told Solitary Watch that his mail has been disrupted. “They’ve been trashing my mail the last four months,” he writes. Denham and Dorrough at Corcoran have reportedly had their cell shaken down in March, with paperwork taken from them.

Solitary Watch endeavors to provide updates about the hunger strike as information comes in. Individuals with information are encouraged to contact the writer at

This story originally appeared on Solitary Watch.

How you can help

Join the July 13 Rally at Corcoran:

Sign the Pledge of Resistance and become part of the Emergency Response Network:

Sign the petition to Gov. Brown:

Contact Gov. Brown by email, at, phone, (916) 445-2841, or fax, (916) 558-3160.

Contact your legislator via



  1. Please support the California prisoners on hunger strike in the solitary confinement units. They have been living in tortuous and inhumane conditions and it must be stopped.

  2. Who cares about a bunch of criminals and gang members who are starving themselves. LET THEM starve and die. Good riddance.

    • Really? I think you might want to re-evaluate that statement. Those people you are condemning are the same people who have high enough standards to actually ATTACK and STOP those sick freaks who enjoy raping and hurting women, or heaven forbid, a CHILD. Those same people you are egging on to go ahead and die are the same people who would GLADLY and JOYFULLY defend you yourself in a HEARTBEAT if you should be victimized. Those people you are supportive in killing are the one's who do what the police sometimes can't. They get JUSTICE in certain situations where the law stops the police. Granted, victimizing people just because you can is NOT ok, but to condemn an an entire population based on a pre-conceived notion of what you think is real is a serious error in judgement on your part maam. People make mistakes, they have to learn and grow. Some repeat several times til they get it right. Others get doomed to never escape the loop. But those men in the SHU? THOSE MEN DO NOT DESERVE TO BE TREATED LIKE THAT! MANY of them sit there day by day for eternity slowly loosing their minds, and memory by memory forget anything ever existed except that box they are in. How would you like to be placed in a box and just forgotten? Slowly forgetting your mother, father, sisters, brothers, and children? Not knowing what they looked like or one day if it was all fake and never happened? Not a pleasant feeling maam. Just saying, try looking at it from a different perspective.

Leave a Reply