The California Prison Hunger Strike Opposing Solitary Confinement as Torture — and the Insulting Response of Prison Officials


On Thursday July 21, as the widespread hunger strike in California’s prisons — primarily aimed at highlighting the abusive conditions in which prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHUs) — reached the three-week mark, Matthew Cate, the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), issued a deeply cynical press release announcing that inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, where the strike began on July 1, had ended their hunger strike.

Claiming that the strike “was ordered by prison gang leaders, individuals responsible for terrible crimes against Californians,” and adding that hunger strikes “are a dangerous and ineffective way for prisoners to attempt to negotiate,” Cate claimed that inmates at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit “stopped the strike on July 20 after they better understood CDCR’s plans, developed since January, to review and change some policies regarding SHU housing and gang management,” which “include providing cold-weather caps, wall calendars and some educational opportunities for SHU inmates.”

Reducing a widespread hunger strike against torture to a misunderstanding, remedied by granting prisoners a few trinkets, was deeply insulting, and the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition immediately responded, stating that the CDCR had “prematurely announced that the hunger strike is over,” and pointing out that “the prisoner-approved mediation team (which the hunger strike leaders have insisted participate in any negotiations) was not involved in this so-called resolution around the strike, and the CDCR has not fully announced what was agreed upon.” The Coalition added, pointedly, “Clearly the CDCR is more interested in improving their Public Relations image than addressing real issues of torture.”

The Coalition added:

Support for the hunger strike is at a crucial tipping point. One thing is absolutely clear: the five core demands have not been met. Long-term solitary confinement is still being used as torture. Supporters everywhere must amplify the prisoners voices even more fiercely than before. The goal of supporting the hunger strike was not to make sure prisoners continue to starve, rather to support the prisoners in winning their demands to change conditions of imprisonment. This struggle is not over.

As the Los Angeles Times explained, the CDCR’s statement was certainly misleading, as, just hours after Cate’s announcement, “California corrections officials acknowledged more than 500 inmates continue to refuse meals at three other state prisons.” Prison spokeswoman Terry Thornton explained, “More than 400 inmates remain on hunger strike at the California State Prison in Corcoran, more than 100 at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi and about 29 at Calipatria State Prison.”

Thornton explained that about 110 inmates had “continuously refused state issued food” from July 1 to 21, and that, earlier this week, 17 inmates who “had begun to show early symptoms of starvation” were moved from Pelican Bay to Corcoran, ostensibly because there were adequate medical resources to treat them there — although, to my mind, moving them might also have been an effective way to break their strike.

Responding to the news of the strike ending at Pelican Bay, Dorsey Nunn, a mediator between the CDCR and the striking prisoners, told the Times-Standard newspaper that “he spoke with Pelican Bay State Prison inmates over the phone Thursday who confirmed” that they had ended their strike. ”The choices they were confronted with were torture or death,” he said. “Those really aren’t choices. I think they chose to live to fight for justice another day.”

Jessica Whatcott, a volunteer with the Arcata advocacy group Bar None, focused on the ongoing need for reform of the SHU regime, in which inmates are kept in “small soundproof, windowless cells” for 22 and a half hours a day, and their only contact with the outside world is “when they are allowed, alone, out into a small enclosed yard.” As Whatcott explained, ”I think these basic conditions amount to torture. It deprives them of all human contact and sunlight.” Criticizing the “debriefing” process, whereby inmates are only released back to the general population after providing information about the gang membership of fellow inmates (which can lead to their deaths), she said, ”In other areas of prisons, if you serve good time or follow all the rules, you can move into areas with more privileges. There is no opportunity for that in the SHU. You only leave through snitching or dying.”

Whatever the exact truth about the strike, and its supposed end, in Pelican Bay at least, it would be disappointing if it were to disappear immediately from public consciousness, as it has raised hugely important questions about how prisoners are treated, and has helped to expose the ruinous effects of long-term solitary confinement — the widespread domestic torture program at the heart of American life.

The hunger strike has barely been mentioned nationally, sadly (although the New York Times noticed it), but there has been good coverage within California. In an editorial on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times was clearly unwilling to allow itself to be hoodwinked by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, noting that “[c]onditions in California prisons are so bad that a panel of federal judges ruled that they violate the US Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”

In seeking to understand whether the CDCR was right to to claim that isolation is necessary “to discourage membership in prison gangs, to obtain information on gang activity and to prevent ‘shot-calling’ — the passing of orders from gang leaders to members in other prisons or out on the streets,” and whether the hunger strike was “being organized by gang leaders, and some strikers who would rather not participate [were] being coerced,” or whether prisoner advocates are right to denounce prolonged isolation as something that “leads to mental illness and is tantamount to torture,” the editors stated, pointedly:

So who’s right? We might have a better handle on that if prison officials weren’t refusing requests by the Times to interview striking inmates. Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told Times staff writer Jack Dolan that media weren’t being allowed into Pelican Bay “due to security and safety issues.” We’d be more inclined to believe that, and not that prison officials were trying to avoid adverse publicity, if California’s prisons didn’t have such an extraordinary history of shoddy medical care and inhumane conditions. As it is, we think the public has a right to firsthand accounts of what goes on behind the barbed wire.

Isolating inmates might indeed be appropriate to prevent shot-calling; then again, that problem would probably be better solved by stopping the widespread smuggling of cellphones into state prisons. Isolation might also be good for temporary punishment, but it’s not clear that such treatment is temporary. Hidalgo says one way to obtain release from the Special Housing Unit is to refrain from gang activity for six years — a remarkably long time to keep someone in solitary confinement simply for being a gang member.

But we’d rather not second-guess corrections procedures. It’s hard to assess the rightness or wrongness of the hunger strikers without access to them, and until officials provide it, they’re doing a disservice not just to inmates but to the people of California.

In conclusion, for now, I’m cross-posting a perceptive article about some of the other, unseen problems with the solitary confinement regime, as explained by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway of Solitary Watch, who are experts in the field.

Who Are the Hunger Strikers? How Prisoners Land in Pelican Bay’s SHU
By Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, Solitary Watch, July 18, 2011

Sympathy for the prisoners on hunger strike in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prisons is limited by the widely held impression that these men (and indeed, most supermax prisoners) are the “worst of the worst.” According to conventional wisdom, in order to land in the most secure units in the prison system, these men must have committed terrible crimes in the first place, and then compounded them by committing further violent acts while in prison. How else could they end up in long-term solitary confinement, locked up 22 1/2 hours a day in 8 x 10 cells for years or even decades?

In fact, as we’ve written many times before, solitary confinement is now a disciplinary measure of first resort, rather than last resort, in most state prison systems. Any prisoner, regardless of his original crime, can end up in solitary. And he can be placed there for a wide variety of reasons–some of them quite heinous, and some of them fairly innocuous. In a post on the new Firedoglake blog “The Dissenter,” anti-torture activist Jeff Kaye investigates the criteria under which California’s prisoners can be placed in the SHU:

According to the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3315, there are 23 “serious rule violations” that can send an inmate to an SHU for a determinate time. These include “acquisition or exchange of personal or state property amounting to more than $50 … tattooing or possession of tattoo paraphenalia … possession of $5 or more without authorization [and] refusal to work or participate in a program as assigned,” among others. Certainly violence or “mass disruptive conduct” is included in these codes, but so are “acts of disobedience or disrespect” or the perceived “threat to commit” a disruption or breach of security, including the “threat” to “possess a controlled substance.”

Beyond this, prisoners can end up in the SHU for doing nothing at all, provided they are “validated” as gang members. Gang validation can be done on the basis of a tattoo or a stray comment. Most often it depends upon information extracted from other prisoners. According to an article by Dr. Corey Weinstein in Prison Legal News:

More than 50% of the men in SHU are assigned indeterminate terms there because of alleged gang membership or activity. The only program that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) offers to them is to debrief. The single way offered to earn their way out of SHU is to tell departmental gang investigators everything they know about gang membership and activities including describing crimes they have committed. The Department calls it debriefing. The prisoners call it “snitch, parole or die.” The only ways out are to snitch, finish the prison term or die. The protection against self-incrimination is collapsed in the service of anti-gang investigation.

CDCR asserts that the lockdown and snitch policy are required for the safety and security of the institution. Having legitimate penalogical purpose, the SHU program is deemed worth any harm done to the prisoners. California prisons continue to have a high rate of assaultive incidents among prisoners and from prisoners to staff. There is no proof or even any study that demonstrates that these measures are effective anti-gang measures. They appear to be no more useful than previous brutalities …

Despite SHU confinement without end to attempt to control gangs, prison gangs thrive in California’s prisons. The gang leadership predictably uses the snitch sessions to falsely target their rivals, or just recruit new members. Just as we have seen in US anti-terror investigations, information derived from coercion is often unreliable.

In his post, Jeff Kaye writes that “the ‘debriefing’ process is set up by statute (PDF). It is a long-term process, whereby the prisoner ‘volunteers’ to ‘debrief,’ i.e., to snitch upon other prisoners and identify them as ‘gang’ members.” Prisoners debrief under conditions of coercion, “segregated in their own unit for many months, often more than a year. If they fail to finish the ‘debriefing’ process, they lose whatever credits towards good behavior and release they may have accumulated during the debriefing process.”

To demonstrate how the debriefing process works, Kaye provides a compelling example from a recent case in the California Court of Appeals, in which a prisoner’s “refusal to engage in the debriefing process supposedly proved he was a gang member, and worthy of administrative segregation” in the SHU. The court’s conclusions confirm, as Kaye describes it, that “if you don’t participate in their snitch program, you must, by the logic of the prison authorities, be an active gang member. Review of possible ‘inactive gang status’ takes place ‘after six years’ of solitary confinement, assuming the prison authorities determine you to have been ‘inactive’ during this time. But meanwhile, there’s a long ‘list’ of debriefing or debriefed prisoners, any of whom, after many, many months of interrogation by prison officials, may have fingered you as gang member.”

It is through this process that inmates are trapped indefinitely in solitary confinement –- which is why the hunger strikers have included, among their core demands, that the CDCR “eliminate group punishment” and instead ”practice individual accountability” in relegating prisoners to the SHU, and that it ”abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.”

Even if the prisoners’ demands were met, and CDCR looked only at “individual accountability” in assigning SHU terms, inmates could not expect anything like due process. As Charles Pillar has reported in the Sacramento Bee, California’s prisons “use the officers who guard and manage inmates to pass judgment over alleged rule violations.” In other words, when it comes to disciplinary proceedings, prison officials simultaneously serve as police, prosecutor, judge, and jury, and inmates can be placed in solitary — or even have their prison terms extended — based on the say-so of a guard. Pillar’s investigations found “a pattern … that suggests widespread suppression of inmates’ rights to contest allegations by guards or pursue claims of mistreatment. Current and retired officers, prisoners and parolees allege that correctional officers and their superiors routinely file bogus or misleading reports, destroy or falsify documentation of abuses, and intimidate colleagues or inmates who push back.”

Against this backdrop, it’s easier to understand the desperate measures being taken by the hunger strikers in California’s SHUs -– especially those who have been in solitary confinement for decades, with little hope of ever getting out. As Todd Ashker, one of the Pelican Bay strike organizers, put it: “We believe our only option of ever trying to make some kind of positive change here is through this peaceful hunger strike. And there is a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death if necessary.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

20 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, very important point you make in the above comments. It has been established that solitary confinement is a type of psychological torture. So, this needs to be established as a norm throughout the world. The prisoners have every right to complain. We should all support their hunger strike. I think the authorities are afraid of losing control and had hoped to save money on fewer prison staff by reclassifying prisoners. What an inhumane way to make more profits.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Willy. Somehow it would be entirely appropriate for the disgusting, clinically callous times in which we live if subjecting prisoners to the torture of prolonged solitary confinement was a money-saving measure as well as a form of torture that is justified administratively. What a disgrace!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. Shared.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Chris. Good to hear from you.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m digging this now, Andy. The connections between prolonged solitary confinement and torture are clear to me.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. Yes, the enormity of the problem in the States is truly horrific. I’m glad that the Pelican Bay hunger strike has given me an opportunity to spend a few days focusing on it.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I never heard of SHUs before ten minutes ago. To me, it seems like a way of getting a prisoner into a Supermax, without really saying so. That’s sloppy, but you’ll get the point. Internally, the conditions seem quite similar: in both cases, psychological torture, as Willy has said. Specifically, sensory desensitisation resulting in demotivation and loss of sense of freedom.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, George. Well, the rot set in with the false justification for Supermax prisons in the first place, I suppose, as a line was crossed which enabled decision-makers and the public to somehow claim that it was acceptable to hold prisoners in solitary as a deliberate policy rather than just for specific punishment. That should never have happened, but it did, in 1983, and supermaxes and solitary then became more and more popular. It helps to explain why, by the time of Guantanamo and the “War on Terror,” so many people were unmoved by what, by any objective measure, ought to have been horrific and barbaric. It was because they had become used to a horrific and barbaric policy, and had even become used to justifying it and even endorsing it.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger ‎wrote:

    1983 would fit the time I first heard a modern justification for torture, in the summer of 1982. It was an op ed written by my closest mate in graduate school, Mike Levin. I think it was in Newsweek. I was in NZ and an irritated student showed it to me. I broke off all contact with Mike at once. I don’t know if his piece was influential, but he went on to write “Why Race Matters,” a pseudo-scientific work aimed at demonstrating white supremacy. I think this weird package renewed my interest in torture. The 2002 or 3 rendition revelations “helped” maintain it.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Spencer Falastine-Spratley wrote:

    Shared. Thx Andy.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Spenser, and thanks again, George. I think, with hindsight, Watergate and the end of Vietnam was a low point for America’s political “crazies,” and the 80s spelled their return. So while Reagan caught the culmination of the post-WWII reforming zeal that led to the ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture in 1987, on most other fronts the move was back towards endless war and cruelty — of which the supermax prisons were just a part. See also Afghanistan, the horrors in Central and South America, and, by the time the Berlin Wall fell, we had Cheney in the Pentagon, no peace dividend, and soon after the Project for the New American Century and the first invasion of Iraq.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    while solitary confinement is an easily-recognized form of psychological abuse, I also have to enquire.

    Considering the rampant sexual assaults in prisons & the general US societal propensity to snicker & consider prison rape or coercion ‘part of the punishment’, I have to wonder how many people might prefer to be isolated from abuses.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s depressing though, Allison, that the choice is only between rape or losing your mind in solitary. The key, of course, is that the system itself is thoroughly broken, and that’s why all the options are dreadful. Sadly, however, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in trying to remedy a problem that is only creating more and more misery and dysfunction.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Zeke Smith wrote:

    I think prisoner against prisoner violence, sexual abuse, racism, etc. is in part implemented by prison authorities as a terror and torture tactic against the prison population, to control it and enforce the system at large. It does not have to be done that way, and society at large does not have to be that way.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Fran Foley Lawrence wrote:


  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zeke and Fran. Good to hear from you.
    And Zeke, yes, that’s an accurate analysis, and as you say, the sad truth is that “It does not have to be done that way, and society at large does not have to be that way.”

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Steven Woods wrote:

    Polunsky unit TX is a lot alike, but far filthier and has its water shut off. Inmates are only allowed to have 2 cups of water every 4 hours with no AC in the texas heat. it’s infested with bugs and the cells flood every time it rains .I wish they participated in solidarity 🙁

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Pamela Judd wrote:

    what poor qualities, 2 cups water a disgrace, water should be there for them 24 hours a day

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that information, Steven. That is indeed a depressing state of affairs, and it would be wonderful if prisoners throughout the entire country were to follow the example of Pelican Bay and the California prisons.

  20. Solitary Confinement as Torture: Some US Prisons Recognize the Problem, as California Inmates Ask the UN to Act « Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle says...

    […] in which they are held, I was pleased to find the time to wrote about it (which I did here, here and here — and again in October, here and here), as it had long been apparent to me that the […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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