Pelican Bay and American Torture: Prisoners in Long-Term Isolation Continue Hunger Strike Despite Authorities’ Brutal Response


When it comes to America’s domestic prison system, no one in a position of authority wants to use the word “torture,” but I defy anyone whose heart is not made of stone to argue that total solitary confinement — for years and even decades — with no contact allowed with other human beings, and in cells with no natural light,  is not torture.

In July, prisoners in isolation — in Security Housing Units — in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison started a hunger strike, protesting about the conditions of their confinement, and their treatment by the authorities. The hunger strike soon spread to other prisons in California, with, at one point, 6,600 prisoners on hunger strike, and the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition issued an informative statement explaining, “Dozens of US-based and international human rights organizations have condemned Security Housing Units as having cruel, inhumane, and torturous conditions. SHU prisoners are kept in windowless, 6 by 10 foot cells, 23½ hours a day, for years at a time.”

As an insight into the scale of the problem, the hunger strikers have stated that “513 of the 1,111 prisoners held at Pelican Bay have been in solitary confinement for 10 or more years, and 78 have been held for more than 20 years without access to light or open space for prolonged periods of time.”

Nationally, the picture is deeply troubling. As Kevin Gosztola explained in July, in an article for FireDogLake, “40 states and the federal government have supermax prisons holding upwards of 25,000 inmates. Tens of thousands more are held in solitary confinement in lockdown units within other prisons and jails. There’s no up-to-date nationwide count, but according to best estimates, there are at least 75,000 and perhaps more than 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day in America.”

On September 26, prisoners at Pelican Bay resumed their hunger strike, now in its third week, after the authorities refused to modify their behaviour as promised at the end of the hunger strike in July, and, yet again, their actions have inspired inmates in other prisons to follow suit. The prisoners’ demands are the same as before, and they paint a deeply troubling picture of a vicious system of isolation, coercion ad punishment. The full list is here, but, to provide a short precis, the prisoners are demanding:

1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse. This primarily involves the use of “group punishment” to “address individual inmate’s rule violations,” which is clearly unfair and unjust.

2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria. The “debriefing policy” involves persuading prisoners to provide “information about fellow prisoners, particularly regarding gang status” (with perceived gang membership being “one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement”). It is used to secure better food, release from the SHU, and even medical treatment, and is dangerous to prisoners and their families, who face retaliation for being viewed as “snitches,” as well as being hideously imprecise, as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation “employs such criteria as tattoos, readings materials, and associations with other prisoners (which can amount to as little as greeting) to identify gang members.”

3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement. The prisoners demand that CDCR “implement the findings and recommendations of the US commission on safety and abuse in America’s prisons final 2006 report regarding CDCR SHU facilities.” Those recommendations are as follows:

  • End Conditions of Isolation. Ensure that prisoners in SHU and Ad-Seg (Administrative Segregation) have regular meaningful contact and freedom from extreme physical deprivations that are known to cause lasting harm. (pp. 52-57)
  • Make Segregation a Last Resort. Create a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities relating to having a sense of being a part of the community.
  • End Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Release inmates to general prison population who have been warehoused indefinitely in SHU for the last 10 to 40 years (and counting).
  • Provide SHU Inmates Immediate Meaningful Access to: i) adequate natural sunlight ii) quality health care and treatment, including the mandate of transferring all PBSP- SHU inmates with chronic health care problems to the New Folsom Medical SHU facility.

4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food. The prisoners demand that CDCR “cease the practice of denying adequate food” in general, although they also note that it is used “as a tool to punish SHU inmates.”

5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates. The demands include a call for more visits, a weekly phone call, “Hobby Craft Items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.,” and “correspondence courses that require proctored exams.”

Sadly, whilst it is clear that, from a human rights perspective, all of these complaints ought to be addressed — and the underlying problems should never have been allowed to exist in the first place — the depressing news is that, this time around, the prison authorities are fighting back. As the New York Times reported on October 8, in July prison officials negotiated with the prisoners, but this time around “the corrections department has cracked down, trying to isolate the strike leaders, some of whom say they no longer trust the department and are hoping to push the governor to enact reforms.”

J. Angel Martinez, one of the strike leaders at Pelican Bay, said last week, via his lawyer, “I’m ready to take this all the way. We are sick and tired of living like this and willing to die if that’s what it takes.”

Since the hunger strike resumed, as the Times put it, there have been “no negotiations between the strike leaders and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.” As part of this refusal to negotiate, George J. Giurbino, the director of the CDCR’s Division of Adult Institutions, “outlined new, more aggressive processes for dealing with mass hunger strikes” in an internal memo, in which he laid out plans “to isolate inmates participating in the strike from those in the general population,” and to punish them for their participation, and, moreover,  to prevent “prisoners identified as strike leaders” from having “contact with visitors and even lawyers. As the Times also noted, “two lawyers who had helped mediate talks were temporarily barred from state prisons last week because ‘their presence in the institution/facility presents a security threat.'”

In Times-speak, the “animosity goes both ways, suggesting no easy resolution to a situation in which inmates are protesting being kept in isolation in excess of 22 hours a day, part of an attempt to hamper gangs,” but that is rather too much of a nod to the Times‘ fabled “objectivity,” when the prisoners’ demands are for basic rights, and for an end to the brutal and hazardous system of punishments and coercion involving the identification of gang members.

Set against that, the prisoners failed to secure fundamental changes from the authorities in July, when as the Times put it, the authorities managed to bring the strike to an need by promising the prisoners that they would allowed “wall calendars” and “hobby items like drawing paper” and also promised “a comprehensive review of how inmates are placed in these isolation units.”

According to the authorities, the prisoners’ complaints have been addressed. Terry Thornton, a CDCR spokeswoman, said “the promised reforms were continuing, and “officials remained willing to negotiate,” but the hunger strike’s leaders “had not approached them with a new list of demands.” Specifically, she said, “Everything we said we were going to do, we did. We are kind of puzzled about why this action was taken again. The review takes time, but we are on track.”

Clearly, this is only one side of the story, as the prisoners do not have “a new set of demands” — as far as they are concerned, the five demands outlined above remain unaddressed. In addition, according to Anne Weills, a lawyer who recently met with four of the leaders of the hunger strike at Pelican Bay, mistrust of the CDCR “is fervent among strike leaders.”

Supporters of the prisoners have also pointed out that the department is “low-balling” the number of prisoners involved in the strike. The CDCR claims that, throughout California, 4,000 people took part in the hunger strike last week, but the prisoners argue that as many as 12,000 inmates were involved. Officials also claimed that the number had dropped to 800 by Friday last week, as the department “moved to isolate participants from the general prison population,” although this too was disputed.

Terry Thornton, the CDCR spokeswoman, told the Times that “15 inmates at Pelican Bay had been moved to an administrative housing unit because they were identified as coercing other inmates into participation.” She also claimed that “all the strike leaders at Pelican Bay were confirmed gang members, and that four of the 11 leaders had ended their strikes.”

Again, these statements were disputed. Anne Weills stated that, in contrast to the authorities’ line, other prisoners had told her that the four who gave up their hunger strike “did so because they could no longer endure conditions at the administrative housing unit where they had been moved.” Ronald Yandell, one of the strike leaders, told her, “We’re freezing. The air-conditioner is blowing. It’s like arctic air coming through, blowing at top speed. It’s torture. They’re trying to break us.”

Asked about the authorities’ tactics, Sharon Dolovich, a professor of prison law at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Times that the department’s response to the resumption of the hunger strike “reflected court cases in the last 25 years that had given officials more discretion to clamp down on inmate rights,” as the Times put it. She said, “Before, they didn’t want to seem inhumane, and now they’re in damage control mode. They’re demonstrating that they’re willing to use the full scope of legal discretion to shut it down.”

For further insight into the hunger strike, and the reasons for it, I’m cross-posting below a compelling article from SF Bay View, the “national black newspaper,” as cross-posted on New America Media, written by Alfred Sandoval, who has been held in the SHU since 1987. This is a harrowing tale of institutional abuse, whereby even prisoners who are dying have their medical treatment withheld if they refuse to be involved in “debriefing” — in other words, ratting on their fellow prisoners, even if there is no truth to their allegations.

It reminds me, I’m sad to say, of Guantánamo, where a similar policy existed under the Bush administration, and where, as you read this, 171 men are still held, many because of lies that were told about them — by themselves or their fellow prisoners, while they were subjected to torture, abuse, coercion, or, in some cases, bribery.

Dispatch From Pelican Bay: Why I Joined the Hunger Strike
By Alfred Sandoval, SF Bay View, October 10, 2011

On September 26, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California resumed their hunger strike to bring attention to what they say are inhumane conditions and to call for an end to solitary confinement in prison. The hunger strike quickly spread to at least a dozen other prisons across the state. The following first-person article was written by a hunger striker at Pelican Bay State Prison, who is currently living in solitary confinement, known as a Secure Housing Unit (SHU).

I’ve been in the SHU since July of 1987 so I’ve lived through a lot of physical as well as psychological abuses. I was originally placed in SHU at San Quentin’s Adjustment Center. The first thing I noticed as I was being escorted past the sergeant’s office was a caricature of a boar hog dressed in a correctional officer’s uniform holding a noose with a hammer hanging from it posted on the wall. So, being Mexican, I knew what time it was. Slowly, the blatant racism was pushed into the politically correct broom closet but it’s never been thrown out.

In 2003, I was returned from court to Pelican Bay and told in no uncertain terms that I would die here.

When PBSP created the control unit — known as the short corridor — in early 2006, the goal of the Office of Correctional Safety (OCS) was made perfectly clear: Debrief or die! They implemented orders to the short corridor correctional officer (C/O) staff to apply pressure to targeted prisoners, and the gang unit (Institutional Gang Investigations, or IGI) became the overseers of the control unit and began to target prisoners’ families and friends and attempt to create discord by mixing up mail, withholding and delaying personal mail and restricting visits for as little as saying hello to another prisoner. Their goal is to isolate these targeted prisoners.

I had never believed in hunger strikes, thinking that they’re counter-productive. However, when the gang unit began to work in concert with the chief medical officer — the IGI actually decides the level of medical treatment prisoners in the short corridor receive — I decided to participate in this and the next hunger strike, but here’s why:

A few years ago, a close friend — his name was Jimmy — developed cancer. The medical staff, MTAs and RNs, explained that if he’d debrief, become an informant, he would receive better medical care. Now Jimmy and I had known each other since we were teenagers running the streets of East Los Angeles getting high and living the lifestyle that ended up with both of us in prison for life.

As Jimmy’s cancer grew worse, he began chemotherapy. Jimmy mentioned to me how the IGI would “show up” at the clinic and comment that he could have contact visits with his wife before he died if he’d debrief. He refused but that’s how he found out the cancer was terminal! Jimmy loved his wife more than anything and he wouldn’t tell her everything about the head games and bullshit like waking up from surgery still under anesthesia being questioned by IGI, but I had warned him of that because it happened to me and at least three other prisoners.

After one of the surgeries, Jimmy was returned to his cell after a brief stay at the Pelican Bay prison infirmary. Those cells are completely bare except for a bed and all you can do is lay there and wait. On the second night back in his cell, he awoke to a bad pain. He said it was a little after 2 a.m. and the staples had opened along his abdomen and he was bleeding. He was holding his intestines in, calling for the C/O. The C/O came and saw the blood and said he’d call the RN on duty.

The C/O came back approximately 30 minutes later with a roll of toilet paper. Jimmy was sitting on the blood-covered cement floor holding a towel soaked in blood against his stomach. The cop tossed Jimmy the toilet paper and said the medical staff would not come until the next shift and there was nothing he could do. Jimmy held his stomach closed in pain until almost 6 a.m. when the medical finally came and they rushed him to the hospital. He asked that I keep it to myself because that was his style.

I was pissed! He had requested two hardship transfers to Corcoran because of its medical facility and he’d be able to see his wife and family more before he died. Both were denied and he was told to debrief and then he’d be transferred but he steadfastly refused. The cancer spread and the gang unit increased the head games, telling the medical staff to confiscate his shaded prescription glasses. But luckily, a Dr. Williams stepped in and told the medical staff to leave Jimmy alone as he was at end stage cancer. Jimmy chose to stop the chemotherapy and die. We’d talk through a steel door and discuss everything and nothing and plan out his funeral. He died in December of 2010 and I am proud and honored to have been his friend.

Shortly after Jimmy’s death, I was told that approximately eight of the older prisoners had been approved for transfer to the SHU medical facility at New Folsom, but the gang unit had those transfers stopped citing that those prisoners, all in their 60s and 70s, had not successfully completed the debriefing, thereby issuing a death sentence to all of these prisoners and denying adequate medical care.

I am 53 years old with incurable illnesses, Hep-C and Crohn’s disease, so I am participating in the hunger strike to expose how prisoners are being mistreated and medical treatment withheld as a coercion tactic.

The abuses, physical and psychological, the intimidations and harassments have a very well documented history here at Pelican Bay State Prison. They should speak for themselves.

Early 1990: Rumors of abuses at PBSP SHU come to light. The prison opens doors to media tour.

1995: Rumors of abuses citing C/Os extracting prisoners from their cells, stripping them naked and leaving them hogtied in the cold cells and on the cement yard overnight. Prison opens doors to media tours.

1998: C/Os accused of setting up inmates, opening cell doors in SHU.

2001: Prisoners began hunger strike to change debriefing process as it was not legal! Promises were made, Castillo case settled and reworded to be used against prisoners. Prison opens doors to media tours.

2006: California Inspector General’s Office issues memo for media release citing their investigation exposed that the PBSP internal affairs would avoid finding staff misconduct on excessive use of force and that some changes had been made but more are needed.

During this hunger strike, prisoners have been threatened with “progressive discipline,” which means the prisoners’ property will be taken out of the cells and they will only be allowed a pair of shower shoes and a pair of underwear until the administration deems the prisoner as “programming.”

The warden had a staff meeting before the last hunger strike telling staff that he would ignore the hunger strikers, which he did, violating the CDCR regulations and allowing prisoners to become ill. Grievances were returned unprocessed, so it never happened.

That is Pelican Bay State Prison. So now you know why I participate in the hunger strike.


As SF Bay View noted, in  conclusion, “Send our brother some love and light: Alfred Sandoval, D-61000, Pelican Bay State Prison, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.”

Note: Also see Support the Hunger Strikers of Pelican Bay, California, Calling for An End to Solitary Confinement as Official US Prison Policy, The California Prison Hunger Strike Opposing Solitary Confinement as Torture — and the Insulting Response of Prison Officials and Hellhole: The Most Devastating Article About Long-Term Solitary Confinement in US Prisons, and Why It Is Torture.

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, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see 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.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m digging this, Andy. This might be what my Californian friend told me about in 1992.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    That would make sense. George. Supermax isolation in the US began in the 1980s, but really took off in the 1990s. I would have problems with it even if it was just a temporary measure, but it’s almost unthinkably bad as a permanent policy, which is what it’s become, with some of its victims now suffering almost complete isolation for 20 years or more. Disgraceful. Beyond disgraceful. And reading the prisoner’s story (Alfred Sandoval’s story, which I cross-posted) was heartbreaking.

  3. Julie Tackett says...

    My friend is one of the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay who was moved to Ad Seg. Yesterday, I got a letter from Bryan written on October 1, which was day 6 of the hunger strike. I have posted more letters at my blog “My Brother’s Keeper”

    Sat 10-1-11


    First of all I send you my utmost love & respect.  Obviously I have no idea if you will even receive this and will be shocked if you actually do.  Thursday they came to my cell around 10:00 am and told me I had an interview concerning the hunger strike.  Instead, I was led out into the hallway along with 4 other prisoners from my block and escorted out of SHU over to ASU.  I was then placed into an empty cell with 2 blankets, 2 sheets, some filthy worn out ASU laundry and a fish kit (tooth powder/brush, cleanser, forms, 3 pieces of blank paper & 3 blank envelopes.)  Half of which is/was missing.  They brought over all 11 representatives, 2 of their cellies and me.

    This is blatant retaliation for our participation in a peaceful, constitutionally protected, protest.  We have now been here for 3 days completely isolated in these empty cells.  We have received no paperwork, have not gone to committee in the required 72 hour time limit, and it’s clear that all of the COs here were ordered to keep us in the dark, as they “know nothing”.  We are now on day 6 of this protest and have not been weighed or seen any medical staff.  Several men are without their glasses and one man was never issued his 12:00 o’clock medication yesterday.  So here we sit in these strip cells, isolated and punished for our demand for humane conditions.  We expected NOTHING LESS from CDCR and its policy makers.

    Julie, you know my heart and you’ve seen my will, this was a grave mistake.  These attempts to further brutalize my mind and isolate my body have only set my resolve in stone.

    Please contact my family and let them know I am alright despite the circumstances.  I will not be broken.  Also please try to ASAP [send] me some paper, 5 envelopes & stamps.  I have nothing here apart from one more blank envelope and a trust withdrawal slip to cover the postage.  I would really appreciate it.  As for my health, I am holding up fine.  My body is tired but it’s early.  Love you my friend, please try not to worry too much.

    Love always,

    (Misspoke, I was seen on day 3 by a doc, weighed 178, but none of the rest of the guys have seen anyone.)

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Julie. Very good to hear from you, and thanks for making Bryan’s letter available here. Very powerful.

  5. Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers Risk Death, Psychologist Testifies Solitary Confinement Is Torture - OpEd says...

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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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