California legislators ignore hunger strikers’ voices

March 19, 2014

From the new March-April 2014 issue of News & Letters:

California legislators ignore hunger strikers’ voices

Sacramento, Calif.–At the Legislative Hearings on Feb. 11, experts presented their analyses, which showed that even the very small changes California Department of Corrections (CDC) said they were implementing, in fact they are not. No policies are being changed to address the problems brought out by prisoners and their families. We learned that in 2012 CDC validated 3,200 new people as gang members and put them in the Security Housing Unit (SHU).

Validation is supposed to be based on new behavior. Yet not filling out the workbook to their liking is considered a “behavior problem.” The workbook is a journal in which you are supposed to document how you are making amends for your gang activities. Those who had never been in a gang have nothing to say about it. And this can be used to keep them in the SHU.

Art by Billy Sell, one of the hunger strikers at Corcoran State Prison, who died during the 2013 hunger strike. See

Art by Billy Sell, one of the hunger strikers at Corcoran State Prison, who died during the 2013 hunger strike. See

One family member was taking the legislators to task, saying that the promises of reform the legislators vow to make now, they made 10 years ago. Nothing changed. Things got worse. I spoke about my brother, Sitawa Jamaa, who spent 33 years in prison, 30 of them in solitary, for a crime he did not commit! He has been in solitary for 30 years! Three decades!!! THREE DECADES!!! Do you hear me? Are you listening? Three decades!!! And then I walked away. It was intense.

When the kids spoke, everyone was moved. A 15-year-old was in solitary confinement in juvie for participating in a fight, which she did not start. Once in solitary, her period started early because of the stress. She bled for three days without being given any sanitary materials, nor a cell with a bathroom. She thought, “Nobody loves me, nobody likes me, nobody cares anything about me.” She was in there with these thoughts for several days before she was allowed to take a shower. It was awful for her.

Family members getting involved are what will make a difference. There will be even more of us next time.

–Marie Levin


Feb. 11, 2014

We are prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have all lived for over 15 years locked 23 hours a day in small windowless cells, without ever being able to hug or touch our families, without ever seeing birds, trees or the outside world, with no programs or chance for parole. California keeps us in these torturous conditions not because of any violence we have committed, but because it believes we are affiliated with a gang, often based on artwork or photos we possess, tattoos we have, literature we read, who we talk to or anonymous informants’ statements that we have no way of challenging. We are put in Pelican Bay not for any specific term of months or years for misconduct we have committed, but indefinitely, which in practice means forever–unless we become informants.

Last summer we went on hunger strike–we were willing to starve ourselves to death rather than continue to endure these dehumanizing conditions forever. We ended the strike because several compassionate legislators promised to call the hearings that are taking place today. Yet today the legislators will hear from psychologists, lawyers, other experts, corrections officials, but not from us–who have the most experience with the conditions we face–because California prison officials (CDCR) refuse to let us testify, even remotely via video or audio, which they could easily do.

So this is our banned testimony: CDCR claims to have now instituted a reform program. It is a sham, just like the so-called reform they instituted a decade ago after a court settlement which resulted in no real change. This new reform effort still maintains the basic conditions at Pelican Bay, and will continue to keep prisoners in isolation for vague accusations of gang affiliation.

California is still unwilling to move to a real behavior based system where prisoners are given determinate terms in solitary after due process at which they are found guilty of some serious misconduct, such as assault, murder, rape or drug dealing. Instead, these new policies widen the net of prisoners who can be labeled gang affiliates and isolated.

Moreover, even those prisoners who need to be isolated from the general population because of the violence they have committed while in prison ought to be treated humanely. There is no reason California can’t run very high security prisons that allow prisoners held in segregation to have contact visits with family, phone calls to family and friends, educational and rehabilitation programs, more out-of-cell time, cells with windows, recreational yards that allow for small groups to recreate together and see the outside world: in short, segregation from the general population, but not torture or dehumanization.

We have written petitions and letters to the governor, filed a class action federal lawsuit and gone on hunger strikes seeking real reform, not the bogus reform California officials now propose. It’s time for California to do the right thing. It’s time for the legislature to enact meaningful reforms.

–Pelican Bay Short Corridor Human Rights Movement
Todd Ashker, C-58191, SHU D4-121
Arturo Castellanos, C-17275, SHU D1-121
Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671, SHU D1-117
Antonio Guillen, P-81948, SHU D2-106
Write to any of them at Pelican Bay State Prison, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532

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