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Pelican Bay Conditions Suit Filed

The Pelican Bay Information Project (PBIP) is an independent citizens' group that has formed in response to the complaints of prisoners. The group is composed of prison visitors, writers, ex-prisoners, lawyers and human rights advocates. Since Pelican Bay's 1250 cell Security Housing Unit (SHU) opened in 1989, prisoner rights advocates have been deluged with information documenting the systematic abuses at "the Bay." In October of 1991 a team of project lawyers and investigators interviewed 54 prisoners at Pelican Bay. That on-site visit and their continuing correspondence with SHU prisoners provides PBIP with the knowledge it needs for its efforts to inform Californians about the harsh realities of life in the SHU.

Lawyers for prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in California recently filed a class action civil rights complaints against the California Department of Corrections (CDC), according to the PBIP. The primary allegations are as follows:

1. Cruel and unusual conditions of confinement in SHU. 22.5 hours per day are spent in a small, bare walled, windowless cell. 90 minutes of exercise are allowed in a bare enclosure called " the dog run" with no toilet facilities. To use the dog run the prisoners must consent to a strip search. There is no contact with any other human beings, including CDC staff. Doors are opened by remote control. Orders come over a loud speaker. Meals are eaten in the cell.

2. "Snitch, Parole or-Die." Prisoners are told they will live the rest of their terms under these conditions unless they "debrief" by naming other prisoners who have committed crimes or who are members of gangs. Thus the infliction of the pain of isolation is combined with the degradation of interrogation in a unique form of institutional torture.

3. Grossly inadequate medical and psychiatric care. The delay in access to a doctor resulted in one man's near fatal rupture of the appendix requiring emergency surgery. Obvious severe psychiatric problems are often dealt with punitively, for example, by chaining prisoners to the toilet rather than offering needed psychiatric help.

4. Use of excessive and brutal force by guards. One prisoner named in the law suit was forcibly removed from his cell by a group of guards who shot him with a pellet gun and a Taser stun weapon and then beat him mercilessly during and after being restrained in chains. The prisoner was later proven correct in his assertion that he was required to leave his cell at that time.

5. Inadequate access to the law library, including a degrading strip search of prisoners and arbitrary rules interfering with meaningful legal research.

The lawsuit outlines what only can be called Human Rights violations. Conduct by guards such as beating after restraint, hog tying, verbal abuse, punitive cell extractions, mail tampering, and setting up fights constitute a continuous "guard riot" against prisoners. Men subjected to these abuses and held in long-term isolation with no communal activities, no work, no education, no arts and crafts, no religious services, and far from family and friends will almost certainly be permanently damaged socially and psychologically.

Yet almost all SHU prisoners will return to our communities. For most, they will leave the isolation and brutality of the SHU, be brought to the prison gate and sent home with a few hundred dollars in their pocket. The CDC has set up SHU prisoners to fail on release by degrading needed social skills, damaging them psychologically, and denying them opportunities for rehabilitation. Poor and minority communities are forced to cope with their sons and daughters returning injured from the CDC wars.

The Madriv v. Gomez lawsuit should provide a clearer look at the reality at the Bay. "No matter what the ultimate outcome of this lawsuit against the CDC," says the PBIP, "the citizens of California need the vital information necessary to understand the purposes and consequences of Pelican Bay SHU." The PBIP believes that fully informed Californians will find the SHU unacceptable and close it down. The CDC has consistently misinformed the citizenry about the purpose and operations at Pelican Bay SHU, says the PBIP.

For more information write to:

Pelican Bay Information Project
c/o Prisoner Agenda
2489 Mission Street #28
San Francisco, CA 94110

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Related legal case

Madrid v. Gomez