On any given day 200,000 people are locked up in solitary confinement. 80% of these individuals are people of color and 60% are mentally ill.
At California’s Pelican Bay prison over 1100 of the 3400 inmates are currently in held solitary confinement in the section of the prion know as the Security Housing Units (SHUs). Over 500 of these individuals have served 10 or more years in the SHU, and 78 have been in the SHU for 20 or more years.
Each SHU is a small, eight foot by eight foot cement prison cell with no windows. Everything is gray and concrete – the bed, the walls, the the unmovable stool - except the “combination” stainless-steel sink and toilet.
Each SHU cell is one of eight in a long hallway. From inside, you can’t see anyone or any of the other cells. This is where the inmate eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard.
Pelican Bay is not the only prison in California that institutes this kind of punishment. In fact the state is now holding more inmates in solitary confinement than ever before. Today, approximately 3,238 people are detained in these units across the state. In 1995, a US court held that conditions in the Pelican Bay SHU “may press the outer bounds of what humans may psychologically tolerate”.
Protests over SHU conditions started with a three-week hunger strike at Pelican Bay in July . The protesters have called themselves “the buried class”. In the past couple of weeks nearly 12,000 prisoners at other penal institutions have joined the hunger strike, according to prison officials. Among them were prisoners from Californians incarcerated out of state in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma who joined the strike in a powerful act of solidarity.
There’s a notion with many people that the worst of the worst are put in Pelican Bay,” says Manuel La Fontaine, an organizer with All of Us or None, “but I’ve got news for people: the worst of the worst is Pelican Bay.”
Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, state in a 60-minute interview that isolation is state-sanctioned torture. “In some ways,’ said Grassian, “it feels to me ludicrous that we have these debates about capital punishment when what happens in Pelican Bay is a form of punishment that’s far more egregious.”
Striking inmates are pressing a list of five demands — an end to group punishments; an end to a “debriefing” policy that requires an inmate to identify fellow gang members in exchange for getting out of solitary confinement; an end to long-term solitary confinement; adequate and nutritious food; and greater privileges for prisoners confined to isolation indefinitely.
Pelican Bay is hundreds of miles from home for most people inside the prison, further isolating them from their families, friends and communities. That the authorities deny inmates the right to make a phone call home or send a photo of themselves to their loved ones once a year is indicative of a system that damages not just the person inside prison, but their communities as well.
Despite the worsening medical condition of the hunger strikers, Governor Jerry Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are refusing to meet their demands. Prisoners in the general population who support the strike have been transferred to solitary confinement and family visits have been cancelled.
In the face of retaliation, hunger strikers seem determined to continue on. The authorities are now responding to the strike by threatening to use forced feeding. This involves the use of mechanical restraints, shoving a the nasal gastric feeding tube up the nose, and then putting the hunger strikers in a holding cell to ensure digestion. The brutality of this policy, and knowing that it will be done repeatedly, however, has not stopped stirkers. They know they are up against it. They know that they must make changes here and now – or never.