by Penny Schoner
The men who were isolated in the torturous Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) for decades decided in 2011 to go on Hunger Strike after they had exhausted all other internal remedies to win release from solitary confinement and return to general population.
On May 30, 2012, 12 leading plaintiffs in the Pelican Bay SHU and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a class action lawsuit titled Ashker v. Governor of California, the settlement of which is still under court supervision today.
The Five Core Demands they issued before embarking on the first Hunger Strike on July 1, 2011, explain why indefinite – that is, endless – solitary confinement is such intolerable torture that they were willing to starve themselves, even to death, to end it for themselves and other prisoners lined up by prison officials to take their place.
First Core Demand: Individual Accountability
This is in response to Pelican Bay State Prison’s application of group punishment as a means to address individual inmates’ rule violations. This includes the administration’s abusive, pretextual use of safety and concern to justify what are unnecessary punitive acts. This policy has been applied in the context of justifying indefinite SHU status and progressively restricting our programming and privileges.
This also refers to the gladiator fights on exercise yards that were shown to have been arranged by guards that sporadically continue today. In the 1980s, Corcoran videos of guards shooting people fighting on the yards resulted in lawsuits being filed and the guards being exposed as the perpetrators. Massive publicity about these cases led to CDCr curtailing these practices, But on a lower scale, the fights continued to happen.
In recent years, after the Hunger Strikes successfully led to the Legislature passing better laws defending the rights and treatment of prisoners, CDCr has seen fit to develop Non-Designated Yards involving busloads of men being transferred from one prison to another and dumped into populated yards, in order to “integrate the prison population,” according to prison officials.
As the NDPF yard insertions became more numerous, reports were published about men on the buses and in the waiting yards being told that fights might break out when the buses were unloaded, resulting in actual fights. Lawsuits were filed again due to these actions of yard dumping. NDPF is still an active procedure done by CDCr.
Second Core Demand: Abolish Debriefing Policy and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Activity Judgments
Currently, the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) is continuing to require debriefing (often referred to as “snitching,” forcing a prisoner to tell all he knows about gang activity among other prisoners) during hearings in order for men to qualify for release into parole. Prison staff still use the validation system, employing criteria such as tattoos, reading materials and associations with other prisoners as evidence of gang activity, and this process continues to be arbitrary, inaccurate and racist.
Third Core Demand: Comply with the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, the 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement
See the article by Center for Constitutional Rights, issued April 9, 2021, “Federal Court Rules Ongoing Constitutional Violations in California Prisons Warrant Continued Monitoring,” which summarizes how CDCR is not complying with the terms of the Ashker v Governor settlement agreement.
The April 9, 2021, court order by Judge Claudia Wilken can be found by searching for Case 4:09-cv-05796-CW, Docket 1440, filed April 9, 2021.
The order addresses each of the issues that the settlement agreement covers in 56 pages, discussing what needs to be done to comply with the federal oversight.
Fourth Core Demand: Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food
CDCR is still not supplying food that meets healthy standards for men, many of whom have suffered decades of solitary confinement.
Fifth Core Demand: Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Prisoners
This demand is unevenly met on most levels, currently. The denial of adequate access to education and parole preparation requirements is a major fault of CDCr.
Formation of the Prisoner Human Rights Movement
The Prisoner Human Rights Movement was created in 2011 by the men inside the SHUs in order to explain to the California Legislature and to the public why the people incarcerated there had a right to strike against the assignment of decades of solitary confinement by staff using arbitrary methods in their annual Committee Reviews at Pelican Bay and the SHUs across California.
This resulted in a lot of publicity which helped pressure the Departmental Review Board (DRB) at CDCr headquarters in Sacramento to investigate case by case and ultimately release approximately 1,800 men from the SHUs at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Salinas Valley and Tehachapi out of the torturous, life threatening conditions back into general population.
As they were released, CDCr developed the Step-Down Program – an insulting, degrading process – which contradicted reason to the point that it was pushed aside when many prisoners refused to participate in it.
In 2017, CDCr developed the RCGP (Restricted Custody General Population) housing at Pelican Bay, which today houses about 140 men that CDCr considers either too dangerous or to be under threat of personal injury if released to general population.
“While it’s true that we still do have a long way to go to allow our achievements to inspire our future dreams, we came together and rocked this entire nation.”
In recent years, the California Legislature has passed many new laws to overhaul the way that the CDCr and the Board of Parole Hearings conduct business as usual.
By 2012, prisoner rights groups and non-profits had sprung into action. The PHSS coalition was comprised of more than 30 groups working with attorneys and legislators to overhaul the laws regarding incarceration of women, children and men.
Between 2011 and the present year, the California prison population has dropped from approximately 220,000 people inside, to fewer than 95,000 today; and the work in the California Legislature is far from finished to give people the chance to be assigned appropriate punishment and required rehabilitation to fit their crimes.
Although the men who were in the SHUs in California were transferred and dispersed throughout the 30-plus prisons in the state, today five prisoner representatives and their attorneys continue to present issues for reform and for releasing people long overdue for release, via phone conferencing with CDCr representatives, to push for the points in the well-written Five Core Demands.
Editor’s note: Just before print, we received this beautiful and encouraging letter forwarded by PARC (Prisoner Advocacy Resource Center), who received the letter from efforts by PLEJ (Power, Love, Education, Justice for Liberation) and PHSS (Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity) to recruit prisoners to write updates for the upcoming 10-year anniversary of the first Hunger Strike in July 2011:
“To all those inside and out, humbly, I thank you for being a minute component in this justice and prison reform machine. From the point of where we stood back in 2011 to where we stand today, I see that our sacrifices didn’t go in vain.
“While it’s true that we still do have a long way to go to allow our achievements to inspire our future dreams, we came together and rocked this entire nation. I think we initiated this movement and the movement that we’re seeing today as a continuing ripple effect from what we started.
“Please continue the fight with us from what has already been successfully gained! You’d have to be blind if you claim our efforts as futile!
“David Stroud, PLEJ for Liberation”
Send our brother some love and light: David Stroud, E11760, P.O. Box 7500, A-8-108, Crescent City, CA 95532.