Criminal InJustice† is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
A Prisoner Writes from Pelican Bay
to Victoria Law
Editors note: Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. She is the author of "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women" (PM Press 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and a co-founder of Books Through Bars - NYC. She is currently working on transforming "Don't Leave Your Friends Behind," a zine series on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a book.
In a recent piece, California Prison Hunger Strike Ends, Conditions of "Immense Torture" Continue, Victoria outlined the history of Pelican Bay, Secure Housing Unit (SHU) abuses and the series of inmate hunger strikes that recently end once again, In the following letter, a Pelican Bay inmate chronicles the on-going abuses and retaliation. (This inmate did not participate in the hunger strike due to medical reasons and hence, was not placed in Administrative Segregation or denied mail privileges.)
We hope this first-hand account will inspire you to continue to pressure Governor Brown and the CDRC to meet inmate demands.
It was good to hear from you. I'll gladly answer your questions but before I go on, I'd like to ask you: Why are you interested in all this? I'm just curious. I know you're a writer but does something else motivate you to find out all you can about this world?
Your question about the difference between Ad-Seg and the D-SHU Short Corridor (buildings #1 through #4) is this: In SHU you are allowed to have your personal property: books, TV, writing materials, canteen, photos, and things of that sort. They guys who were removed from SHU to Ad Seg were done dirty. They were taken from their cells in SHU and placed in Administrative Segregation.
To help you better understand what took place, I'll tell you how this kind of thing happens. A crew of CDCR officers will show up out-of-the-blue at a prisoner's cell. They'll tell him to strip naked and hand his clothes to them. They'll give him his boxers, socks, shoes and t-shirt and tell him to put them on. Then they will handcuff him behind his back and escort him to Ad Seg. Ad Seg is a separate building that is located not far from SHU. They put the prisoner in a van with little cages in it and drive him over to Ad Seg.
In Ad Seg you have no property when you first get there. When the guys from here in SHU arrived in Ad Seg, they went to an empty cell with nothing but the clothes they wore from their SHU cell.
The CDCR emptied out a row of cells in Ad Seg for the "so-called" leaders of the hunger strike. So, the ones who were moved to Ad Seg went from a cell with all their allowed property to a crazy world with nothing.
The CDCR did this as a retaliatory tactic. They do not like being exposed as to what is really going on here in California's SHU programs. It's something similar to The Wizard of Oz where the Wizard is behind a curtain and making things look in a monstrous way that is completely false to reality. But the CRCR turned up the air-conditioning in Ad Seg to torture the guys they put over there. They were over there freezing while the cops were snickering about it. The cops would come in asking if they had had enough, and the cops would tell the guys, "All you have to do is start eating and we'll take you out of here." As you can imagine, the guys responded with a lot of words that would be bleeped on TV.
Yes, they (the cops) would not let the guys in Ad Seg have visits and any prisoner who didn't accept his morning tray was denied a visit. A guy I know has a girlfriend who lives in Sweden. His girlfriend came all the way out here from Sweden and they wouldn't let her see the guy here in PBSP-SHU Short Corridor because he didn't eat that morning.
They also didn't allow the lawyers in support of the fight to end the torture to visit the guys here.
Us guys here in SHU are very isolated from other prisoners in GP (general population), so I can't tell you if someone had a family visit cancelled. By the way, to us in here, a FAMILY VIST refers to a special visit where a prisoner is allowed to live in a special housing unit inside of the prison with immediate family member(s). It's like a little apartment inside of a prison. Us guys in SHU only get behind-the-glass visits with no physical contact whatsoever.
The only way we hear about things in the GP is if we happen to take a bus ride somewhere, the news, or if our visitors visit others who are in GP. We are pretty much cut off from the rest of the world here.
The cops came into our living quarters here (we call them "pods") and confiscated all of the food from the cells whether we were on the strike or not. The cops raided our pods on 9/28 and 9/29 and robbed us of our food. They did it, I suppose, so that the ones who were not striking would not be able to give food to the strikers. They brought the canteen food back to us after three or four days.
They have also retaliated by putting us on lockdown a lot more than normal. The cops just yell into our pods and say, "The program is slammed!" which means no movement, no yard, and no coming out of the cages.
The earlier hunger strikes up here were nothing compared to the 2011 hunger strikes. What happened is that the 2011 hunger strikes were planned differently by the prisoners. A lot of us prisoners used the computer system (through friends and family on the outside) and we located many, many addresses of pro-prisoner organizations. Us guys in here and our families sent info to these organizations informing them of the conditions here in California SHU and how the courts were siding with the CDCR. The info we were sending was well-written and spelled out what REALLY is going on here in these SHU units. The outside organizations were eagerly contacting each other and it and it became bigger on the internet.
What really set the 2011 hunger strikes apart from the others is the threat that the prisoners were willing to starve themselves TO DEATH and not eat until some progress was made in the way we are being treated in here.
The combination of the threat of death and the internet with the outside support of citizens and pro-prisoner advocate groups AND LAWYERS TOO really helped boost the exposure to what is going on in here and it put more pressure on the CDCR to make changes.
AS for the 2002 hunger strike and the results of the final outcome, and what was accomplished by the strikers, I'm not aware of anything that truly changed for the better for us SHU indeterminate guys. The 2002 strike only lasted a few days and the morale of the prisoners involved in that strike was very low. In fact, this place kept taking and taking more from us in here.
The CDCR was tightening the screws on us in here more and more. I've been in the SHU since 1987 and boy has SHU changed since 1987. In 1987, I had a TV and radio in my cell. I had a wristwatch, boxers, t-shirts and socks from the streets, photo albums, subscriptions to magazines we can't have anymore. We had group yard and could play handball and basketball out on the yard. We could have a whole lot more. The authorities figured if they made our stay in SHU a lot rougher, a lot of guys would debrief. A lot of guys have debriefed over the years (unfortunately) and the cops are proud of torturing the weaker guys until they break.
Back to 2002. I heard the hunger strike did set new policies to where the CDCR had to reevaluate each prisoner's file and come up with more evidence than just someone's word to be able to keep you in SHU. But the CDCR always comes up with a way to slip around any new rules to be able to claim someone is a true threat to the safety and security of the CDCR if allowed to be released out of SHU. The CDCR did let a lot of SHU Indeterminates out of SHU back in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Most of the guys they let out of SHU were classified as EME associates because there were a lot of EME associate guys up here (they outnumbered all the other groups combined). And you know what? Most of those surenos (or EME associates) have not come back to SHU. I'd say over 90% of those guys did not come back to SHU. So that goes to show that the claim of the CDCR that the SHU Indeterminates are frothing at the mouth monsters who are animals and violent by nature is very untrue.
I think I will be released out of SHU sometime next year as a direct result of the hunger strike. The CDCR knows I am not a gang member and I'm here because I keep my trap shut. They have tried and tried to get me to break but I'll die before I turn into an informant for these torturers. I'm 58 and hanging in there and proud of it.
I've kept my sanity by studying and [having] a sense of humor. I'm fluent in Spanish now and I've gotten Straight A's on all the college Spanish courses. I've passed a college biology course, political science, and business management courses too. I've gotten closer to my family, I'm married to the best girl in the world, and things are looking up even though I'm in here.
People like you are the reason why we have a shot at ending this madness of torturing US citizens for not turning into snitches. What you are doing by wanting and offering to help us is GREAT, BIG and good. We all love ya for it and tip our hats to you.
As far as what you can do to help us…spread the word about us in here and what the CDCR has gotten away with until these two hunger strikes in 2011.
I've seen so much shit in here (excuse the language, but "shit" hits the point better). I've seen guys lose it mentally up here so many times. This is an insane place and it drives people nuts. It's like living in your bathroom out there for years and years and only having things taken from you. They put guys in pods that they know the person will have a bad time in. I could tell you all kinds of stories of the B.S. that has been going on in this place.
I got here in January 1990, just a couple weeks after PBSP-SHU opened, so I've got a lot of experience in this place.
This past decade, they have come up with some way-out B.S. to justify keeping me in here and they do it to everybody. If a guy doesn't debrief, his word is useless, no good, he's a liar, he's an insane killer, etc. If the same guy debriefs, he's suddenly a saint and anything that comes out of his mouth is considered 100% true and used to keep other guys in SHU. Sadly, too many guys have broken down and have said whatever the cops want them to say so they can get special privileges and favors.
Okay, I didn't plan on writing a book but I do hope I've helped you with what I've written here.
On July 1, 2011, SHU prisoners began a hunger strike with five core demands:
1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
4. Provide adequate food;
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
Keep the pressure on Governor Brown!
The California legislature is not in session right now, so please call the legislators at their district offices.
District phone numbers for the members of the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee:
Tom Ammiano: (415) 557-3013
Steve Knight: (661) 267-7636 or (760) 843-8045
Gilbert Cedillo: (323) 225-4545
Curt Hagman: (909) 627-7021
Jerry Hill: (650) 349-1900
Holly J Mitchell: (310) 342-1070
Nancy Skinner: (510) 286-1400