From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters
Crescent City, Calif.—Four years ago Pelican Bay Security Housing Units (SHU) prisoners staged their first hunger strike, awakening a nationwide movement against the pervasive use of long-term solitary confinement. Today there are legal challenges to what is internationally recognized as state-sanctioned torture: from several lawsuits in California courts to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy inviting a challenge to solitary confinement as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
During a visit in early August, Pelican Bay SHU prisoners made clear to us that while they are hopeful about possible changes through a new court settlement, the inhuman and torturous SHU conditions have gotten much worse. The guards staged a job action over court-ordered “wellness checks.” The intention of the checks is to prevent suicides. But the checks every half hour are making it impossible for anyone to get any sleep as guards move through each SHU pod for 10-20 minutes in a clamorous rampage. “With no sleep,” said one SHU prisoner, “this place is like a time bomb…Everybody in here is like a zombie and not talking…I use my 45-minute yard time to take a rest.”
Every aspect of life in the SHU has deteriorated because of the guards’ action: breakfast that used to come at 6:30 AM now starts at 8:00 AM, late and cold; showers are late and shower areas aren’t properly cleaned; time in the yard has been drastically cut as well as access to the canteen; mail and packages arrive late if at all; guards have brought the transport of prisoners for legal or medical appointments to a snail’s pace. The guards did, however, find time for a dramatic increase in confiscating prisoner property not properly stickered. They are supposed to be stickered by the guards themselves.
Here is one prisoner’s take on the guards’ transforming what was intended as a humane legal requirement totally into its opposite: “If you’re in a place where they have to check on you 48 times a day, that in itself shows that the SHU is no place to be. This place is a torture dungeon that needs to be shut down…Checks are supposed to be about caring for us but real care is not happening. This is retribution.”
The guards may be counting on stopping the “wellness checks” by causing a total breakdown of order. Prisoners, though afraid some will break under the pressure, now have a lot of hope. They also have a lot of discipline thanks to the impact of their unprecedented show of solidarity through the peaceful hunger strikes. As another SHU prisoner put it: “The hunger strike humanized prisoners. My family and others got a whole new outlook on the criminal justice system. Many young people make bad choices and California throws them away. People aren’t born with the tools to be good parents and make good decisions. Does that mean you don’t value those people and put them in SHU for 30 years? We got time to think. The Agreement to End Hostilities gave us power. When prisoners come together as people, we are much stronger.”