Reforming Solitary Confinement at Pelican Bay Prison

Nearly 4,000 inmates in the Security Housing Units in California’s prisons endure harrowing conditions of extreme isolation for years and even decades in concrete, soundproof cells measuring only six feet by eight feet, leaving only to exercise for about an hour a day in windowless “dog runs.”

by Eric Moon


“Corrections,” the name used for the prison system, is a field of politics in which changes have, historically, come slowly. Activists for prison abolition and reform soon learn the need to keep on keeping on. After all their days and years and decades of perseverance, a recent Tuesday in August will shine far down the long corridor of that struggle.

Activists in California demonstrated in solidarity with Pelican Bay’s hunger strikers.

Inspired by a three-week hunger strike started at the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, and quickly supported by more than 6000 prisoners in a dozen additional prisons, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, convened a public hearing for oversight of the California Department of Corrections Security Housing Units (SHU).

The Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition supporting the strikers welcomed the Sacramento hearing and worked with Assembly staffers to schedule witnesses: former SHU prisoners, their families, criminology researchers and activists.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was represented by Undersecretary for Operations Scott Kernan.

"We say no to torture from Pelican Bay to Guantanamo Bay."

The three-hour hearing by the State legislature commenced with two panels of SHU critics, followed by Kernan, and closed with a long queue of “public comment” from family members and activists. On the first panel, Rev. Will McGarvey spoke for the Bay Area Religious Coalition Against Torture, drawing comparisons between California SHUs and prison abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Readers who derived their images of solitary confinement from films like “Cool Hand Luke” or “Shawshank Redemption” — where an exceptional inmate screws up and is brutally isolated, for a limited time,  to “get his head straight” — have a lot to learn about modern use and abuse of solitary. Modern-day Department of Corrections doles out solitary confinement on an industrial scale, in a movie more like some horror flick: people check in, but nobody ever checks out.

Nearly 4,000 inmates in the SHUs in California’s prisons endure harrowing conditions of extreme isolation in soundproof cells measuring only six feet by eight feet, leaving only to exercise for about an hour a day in windowless “dog runs.” Ninety percent of SHU inmates are confined in these concrete tombs, not because of any misbehavior in prison, but because of a one-time administrative decision labeling them “affiliated” with one of six large gangs.

And they stay there. Once so labeled, they leave the SHU cells only by dying, by paroling, or by snitching (i.e., providing information about alleged gang ties).

And they stay there even longer. At Pelican Bay State Prison, 435 inmates have been locked down in the SHU for more than a decade, and 78 have been in for more than two decades.

In the second panel of witnesses, Laura Magnani, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, followed up Rev. McGarvey’s critique, quoting the United Nations convention against torture (to which the U.S. is a signatory): Torture is “any state-sanctioned action by which severe pain or suffering, mental or physical, is intentionally inflicted for obtaining information, punishment, intimidation, discrimination…. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a war or threat of war or political emergency … may be invoked as a reason for torture.”

When his turn came, Undersecretary Kernan, who had met with hunger strike representatives before they suspended their strike on July 21, seemed decidedly defensive: “I’m not talking about having another study,” Kernan said at a legislative hearing. “I’m talking about having some substantive changes. And I’m talking months, not years.”

The exceptional excuse that CDCR officials like to cite is their federally instigated and funded war on gangs, a war proven so disastrous as to invite comparison with the federal “war on drugs.”  Kernan volunteered that yes, there probably was more gang activity today than in 1989, when Pelican Bay State Prison opened.

Contrary to the UN convention, the CDCR assumption seems to be that having once labeled someone a gang member, there is pretty much nothing the state can’t do to him. It is time for California voters and taxpayers to decide whether we share that assumption.

Concertina razor-wire surrounds a watchtower at Pelican Bay State Prison.

As we monitor CDCR’s “substantive changes” over the next “months, not years,” we need to see fundamental, not superficial concessions. The following reforms are vitally needed.

(1) A bill enabling press access to any SHU prisoner, not just those picked to agree with CDCR officials. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as the old adage goes.

(2) Regulations providing due process rights to prisoners before gang labeling. This decision is currently made by a single CDCR staffer.

(3) Regulations limiting the length of time any prisoner can be consigned to solitary, before getting a chance to demonstrate changed attitudes and actions.

(4) Procedures whereby someone can be transferred out of the SHU that will not require snitching on others.

(5) No retaliation by the CDCR against prisoners who did engage in the nonviolent action of going on a hunger strike. Already, the CDCR has issued disciplinary notices to hundreds of participants, saying their involvement in the hunger strike constituted a “disturbance.”

Readers are urged to contact their legislators asking that no such retaliation be allowed, and that implementation of the changes is the best way to assure justice in the face of these harsh conditions.

Eric Moon is the Healing Justice program coordinator of the AFSC

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