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California Prisoners Seek End to Long-Term Segregation, Oppressive SHU Conditions

There are many forms of political and social protest. They can be purely for the sake of being disruptive or they can aim for resolution of a particular issue. Of course, even when they seek the latter they invariably involve some degree of the former.

A review of hunger strikes staged by up to 12,000 California prisoners in 2011 and early 2012 reveals that they were well-intentioned, peacefully orchestrated and achieved positive results. That is not to say that thousands of participants did not suffer, nor that the hunger strikers achieved all the goals they sought to attain. Regardless, the protests demonstrated that prisoners can make their voices heard and accomplish much-needed reforms.


The first hunger strike originated deep inside one of California’s toughest pens, Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP). More than just a maximum-security facility, PBSP is a remote lockup near the Oregon border that is the designated repository for prisoners the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) considers to be the worst troublemakers. This mostly includes gang members, whom the CDCR wants to isolate to prevent their promoting further gang activity while incarcerated.

But the CDCR has included within its designation of “gang members” and “associates” many prisoners who have been so identified by the slimmest of evidence, often including “confidential” snitch information from other prisoners. This has led, in some cases, to prisoners with no gang connections whatsoever being “validated” as gang members by the CDCR and placed in long-term segregation. [See: PLN, May 2010, p.24].

It was such prisoners, in desperation after lengthy stints in solitary confinement – 513 prisoners at PBSP have been isolated in their small cells for more than a decade, and of those 78 have been segregated 20 years or more – who be-came the core protest group for the hunger strike.

Those tagged with the “gang member” label, rightly or wrongly, are usually subjected to the harshest of conditions. They are assigned to “indeterminate SHU” (Security Housing Unit) status, which means solitary confinement in a windowless, concrete cell with an attached dog-run for an hour of exercise once per day. “Indeterminate” means essentially forever, unless SHU prisoners either complete their sentence or are paroled, demonstrate gang non-affiliation for six continuous years, or “debrief.”

More than 50% of the prisoners held in SHU status are serving indeterminate terms due to alleged gang membership or association. Their way out of the SHU is to “debrief” – that is, to tell CDCR gang investigators everything they know about gang activities, including crimes they have committed. The debriefing process, which sometimes spans a year, requires that prisoners formally disavow their gang affiliation.

This practice is known as “snitch, parole or die,” as those are the only ways out of the SHU. In fact, the conditions at PBSP (and three other CDCR maximum-security prisons with SHUs) are so miserable that prisoners are waiting in line to debrief. Part of the problem is that when they do, and become eligible for less punitive housing, they must be placed in “sensitive needs yards” (SNYs) to protect them from other gang members.
Consequently there is a chronic (and growing) lack of SNY space, which creates a waiting list for SHU prisoners who have debriefed. Meanwhile, those prisoners remain in segregation where they continue to endure oppressive SHU conditions. Around 4,000 California prisoners are held in SHUs.

The First Hunger Strike

The core group of prisoners who initiated the first hunger strike compiled a list of five demands to submit to CDCR officials. Those demands were: 1) end group punishment and administrative abuse; 2) abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria; 3) comply with the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding ending long-term solitary confinement; 4) provide adequate and nutritious food; and 5) expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for prisoners held in indefinite SHU status.

The initial hunger strike began on July 1, 2011, when some 6,600 prisoners at facilities across the state began refusing to eat state-issued meals. One week later about 1,700 prisoners were continuing to refuse at least some meals. By July 14, CDCR officials claimed that the number of hunger strikers had dropped to 676.

On July 15, 2011, leaders of the Pelican Bay hunger strike unanimously rejected a proposal from the CDCR to end the protest. In response to the prisoners’ five reasonable demands, the CDCR distributed a vaguely worded document stating that it would “effect a comprehensive assessment of its existing policy and procedure” regarding prisoners held in SHUs. The document gave no indication whether any changes would be made.

On July 17, a state prison medical official disputed claims from advocacy groups related to health issues involving hunger strikers at PBSP and other facilities, which alleged that some fasting prisoners at Pelican Bay were suffering from renal failure and dangerously low blood sugar levels, and were unable to retain water.

“We have none of the issues that are being alleged,” said Nancy Kincaid, spokesperson for California Prison Health Care Services. “Prisons that have fasting inmates have had their medical staff increased; nurses are making rounds three to four times a day, and when inmates are refusing medical treatment they are being visually checked from outside the cells,” she added. “No inmates have been taken to a hospital for treatment because of fasting, but one inmate was taken to a prison clinic to be rehydrated.”

As of July 18, 2011, the CDCR and the Federal Receiver’s office, which monitors health care in California’s prison system, said 338 prisoners were still refusing food. This included prisoners at Calipatria, California Correctional Institution, Corcoran and PBSP.
CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate announced on July 21, 2011 that Pelican Bay prisoners had ended their hunger strike. Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, who acted as a mediator between the CDCR and the hunger strikers, said he spoke with prisoners who confirmed the news. The strike ended on July 20, 2011 after prisoners better understood the CDCR’s plans to review and change some of the policies related to SHU housing and gang management.

On July 22, hunger strike leaders Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, George Franco and Louis Powell issued a public statement about the conclusion of the protest.

“We ended the hunger strike the evening of July 20, 2011, on the basis of CDCR’s top level administrators’ interactions with our team of mediators, as well as with us directly, wherein they agreed to accede to a few small requests immediately, as a tangible good faith gesture in support of their assurance that all of our other issues will receive real attention, with meaningful changes being implemented over time. They made it clear: such changes would not happen overnight, nor would they be made in response to a hunger strike going on.... On July 20, 2011, several top CDCR administrators sat across the table from us and made assurances that they are in the process of making meaningful changes right now, and will make affecting change a priority in the future, while providing regular updates and engaging in additional dialogue.”

By July 24, Ashker had announced a performance timetable, giving the CDCR 2-3 weeks from the end of the protest to develop substantive changes in response to the five core demands. If prison officials did not follow through, prisoners at Pelican Bay indicated they would resume the hunger strike.

CDCR Considers Changes

As of July 19, 2011 the CDCR had started to reveal suggested policy changes, which still were being worked out but were in line with proposals highlighted in an internal study completed in 2007 by a panel of experts appointed by the CDCR. The panel’s recommendations included:

1) Moving to a conduct-based model that punishes prisoners for tangible offenses, rather than for mere affiliation with a gang;

2) Ending the practice of indefinite detention of alleged gang members and associates in SHUs;

3) Ending the practice of automatically sending validated gang members and associates to SHUs;

4) Creating a “step-down” program inside the SHUs to encourage positive behavior by offering incentives to prisoners, such as special programs; and

5) Ending the distinction between prison gangs and other threat groups to give the CDCR more flexibility in determining prisoner placement in SHUs.

“I’m not talking about another study,” said CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan. “I’m talking about making some changes that make the process much more in tune and in line with national best practices. And that’s what [Secretary Cate] is going to do.”

Kernan conceded there were “holes” in the department’s gang management policies and use of the SHUs. He also said the State was wrong to deny certain personal items to SHU prisoners. “I think it’s a sign of strength that the department looked at that [SHU policy] and was able to admit their mistakes and that we’re moving forward,” he stated. “We weren’t consistent in all the SHU’s and so [the prisoners] were right in some of their issues.”

Kernan scheduled to meet with strike leaders at PBSP and with Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, where Kernan said he would inform prisoners about the department’s long-term goals and extended timetable.

On August 23, 2011, Kernan testified before the California State Assembly’s Public Safety Committee. To the hunger strikers, it appeared that rather than subjecting their SHU policies to an honest review, prison officials were apparently planning to expand the CDCR’s segregation regime to include all prisoners categorized as being part of a “disruptive group” – a code word that includes gangs. Convinced that this meant the CDCR had no intention of providing a meaningful response to their five core demands, the SHU prisoners planned to resume the hunger strike.

However, an internal CDCR memo dated August 25, 2011 outlined key elements of the proposed policy overhaul, including changes in how prisoners are validated as gang members and associates; changes in the criteria used to determine how prisoners are assigned to an SHU; and the creation of a “step-down” program that would allow prisoners to transfer to general population housing without having to debrief.

Additionally, CDCR officials agreed to allow personal items for SHU prisoners that were previously banned, including sweats, wall calendars and art supplies, and indicated that the new policy guidelines governing SHUs would be ready for review within a month. Kernan said the department had kept its word and would continue the policy makeover even if prisoners began a new hunger strike.

Hunger Strike Renewed

On September 26, 2011, SHU prisoners at Pelican Bay and the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) at Calipatria State Prison resumed their hunger strike, as conditions had not improved and reforms were not evident. The Federal Receiver’s office reported two days later that nearly 12,000 prisoners were refusing meals, including 3,000 California prisoners held in privately-operated contract facilities in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

In-state prisoners were involved in the strike at PBSP, Calipatria, Centinela, Corcoran, Ironwood State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison, North Kern State Prison and Salinas Valley State Prison. Additionally, prisoners at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Pleasant Valley State Prison, San Quentin and the West Valley Detention Center in San Bernardino County took part in the protest. “This is the largest prisoner strike of any kind in recent U.S. history,” said Ron Ahnen of California Prison Focus.

Jay Donahue, a spokesman for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, said prisoners participating in the renewed protest were subjected to retaliation by CDCR staff, who withheld water and vitamins. Guards reportedly raided prisoners’ cells and issued disciplinary write-ups to hunger strikers. Reports from prisoners indicated that many were collapsing in their cells, but guards were doing nothing when alerted.

Other forms of retaliation included PBSP prisoners not being allowed to receive visits from their families. “Their visits for the weekend were not allowed, and they’ve been told that they won’t be at all until the strike ends,” Donahue stated.

Such retaliation was condoned at the highest levels of the CDCR. “If they still want to be on a hunger strike then there will be some consequences to that, because you can’t shut down prison operations with no consequences,” Secretary Cate said on September 27.

On September 29, 2011, the CDCR banned two attorneys representing the hunger strikers in mediation discussions – Carol Strickman with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Marilyn McMahon, director of California Prison Focus – from visiting CDCR facilities, citing security concerns.

After 17 days, the second hunger strike was waning. The number of prisoners involved had dropped to under 600 and there were only four hunger strikers left at PBSP, according to CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton. At its height the second protest involved 4,250 prisoners, Thornton said, disputing the Federal Receiver’s much higher estimate.

The CDCR declared the second strike over on October 13, 2011 after the department “agreed to continue on its same course” to pursue the reforms it had agreed to at the conclusion of the first hunger strike. CDCR officials reported that all prisoners had resumed eating by October 16, 2011.

“This is the first time the prisoners had heard that kind of review was in the works,” noted Strickman. “That new information, I believe, convinced them to end the hunger strike.”
CDCR Outlines Reforms

On October 13, 2011, Kernan released a memo after meeting with mediators representing the hunger strikers, outlining changes that would be made in the CDCR’s SHU program. Kernan then announced his retirement after 30 years with the CDCR. The mediators were Strickman, McMahon, Laura Magnani with the American Friends Service Committee, and Ron Ahnen with California Prison Focus.

Although the memo was short on details, it specified that Kernan had presented a draft of SHU policy revisions to CDCR Secretary Cate. Kernan showed the mediators a 30-35 page revision that was in progress. He hoped that a final draft would be ready for review in another month, followed by approximately a one-year regulatory amendment process, including a public comment period. However, the new policies could be applied before then.

The process took longer than expected. The CDCR released new proposed policies for SHU placement and gang validation on March 9, 2012, but the policy changes were criticized by both prisoners and their advocates. Under the new policies, accused gang members can still be segregated for lengthy periods of time, SHU conditions remain largely the same and other changes are mere window-dressing – such as modifying the terminology for gang membership and expanding the number of prisoners subject to gang validation while adding a ten-point scale system.

“Overall this proposal shows that the CDCR is resisting both change and accountability,” said Dorsey Nunn, with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “They are using what could be a chance to actually reduce or eliminate the SHU altogether to create more opportunities to issue SHU sentences.”

The proposed new policies do include a step-down procedure whereby prisoners can be released from SHU status (though the process still takes four years); also, gang members would not have to renounce their gang membership and, importantly, there would be case-by-case reviews for current SHU prisoners. “Those who no longer meet the criteria would be released from the SHU,” according to the memo signed by Kernan.

The proposed policy changes were disseminated to various stakeholders for review, including legislators, prisoners’ advocates and the CCPOA – the union representing California prison guards. But not to the SHU prisoners directly affected by the policies. “The biggest issue with the stakeholder review is that the most important stakeholders, the prisoners who have been validated and are currently in administrative segregation or the SHU, are not included,” noted Jerry Elster, an organizer with All of Us or None.
Inspector General Reports

On October 17, 2011, California’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) weighed in with a nine-page report submitted to the Senate Rules Committee. After describing the five core demands of the hunger strikers, the OIG listed the short-term actions that the CDCR agreed it would take in response to the protest.

Those actions included authorization for SHU prisoners to receive watch caps, wall calendars, sweat pants and some art supplies; annual photographs for disciplinary-free prisoners, with one photo to be provided to prisoners’ families each year; the use of a CDCR ombudsman to monitor and audit food services; and installation of certain exercise equipment in SHU yards.

The agreement also included “mid-term” fixes related to core demands 1, 2, and 3, such as a comprehensive review of SHU policies with respect to increased earnable privileges and a redefined gang validation process.

The OIG reviewed the CDCR’s promises, and found that all short-term actions had been accomplished or were in substantial progress (though there was a delay in installing the exercise equipment). As for food preparation, the OIG found it “satisfactory” – food trays were of the appropriate temperature, portion and cleanliness. Further, an education component was added in which 12 SHU prisoners were enrolled in Coastline Community College correspondence courses, with proctoring provided for exams.

The OIG then investigated factors related to the second hunger strike. The prisoners asked for a program similar to the Maximum-B custody program at San Quentin prison in the 1980s, but this was considered infeasible due to the history of assaults and lockdowns in the Max-B population at the time. Instead, both sides agreed to form a Warden’s Advisory Group (WAG) to review gang management procedures and make proposed changes.

In response to claims of retaliation by CDCR staff against hunger strikers, the OIG reviewed all disciplinary reports issued during the relevant period and compared them with other periods. While the review showed an increase in gang-related write-ups during the hunger strike, equivalent to a “crackdown,” the OIG found no inordinate targeting in the cases it examined. Of course many types of retaliation did not involve formal disciplinary write-ups, though the OIG apparently did not take other retaliatory acts into account.

Summarizing, the OIG found that the CDCR had made a good faith effort to provide the promised short-term actions; that disciplinary write-ups were more numerous during the strike, but there was no evidence of illegitimate charges; that food service was in compliance with applicable standards; that the WAG was working well; that hunger strike policies prior to July 2011 were “inconsistent at best throughout the department”; and that changes had been made to improve medical services and other procedures during hunger strikes.

Prisoner Deaths and More Strikes

One troubling, unresolved issue involves three prisoners who participated in the protest, who reportedly killed themselves just before or shortly after the second hunger strike.
Advocates for the prisoners contend their deaths were due to inadequate care as a retaliatory act by CDCR employees; they allege that guards did not respond to “man down” emergency calls from other prisoners who were aware of the suicide attempts.

“It is completely despicable that prison officials would willfully allow someone to take their own life,” stated Dorsey Nunn. “These guys were calling for help, their fellow prisoners were calling for help, and guards literally stood by and watched it happen.”

Two of the three prisoners, Johnny Owens Vick and Alex Machado, were housed at Pelican Bay. Vick died on September 22, 2011 while Machado died on October 24. The third, Hozel Alanzo Blanchard, was housed in the ASU at Cali-patria State Prison when he died on November 9, 2011. The CDCR classified the three deaths as suicides and claimed that none of the prisoners were involved in the protests, which was disputed by prisoner advocates.

“It is a testament to the dire conditions under which prisoners live in solitary confinement that three people would commit suicide...,” said Laura Magnani, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee. “It also points to the severe toll that the hunger strike has taken on these men, despite some apparent victories.”

Although not widely reported, another hunger strike began at Corcoran State Prison on December 19, 2011, when three prisoners in the facility’s ASU, Pyung Hwa Ryoo, Juan Jaimes and William E. Brown, announced they were striking in protest of continued oppressive conditions. They issued a petition with 11 demands that included timely medical care, the provision of educational and rehabilitative programs, and that prisoners not face further punishment after completion of their SHU terms.

In the latter regard the petition stated, “Inmates are being placed in the ASU after the completion of their SHU terms supposedly ‘pending transfer.’ These inmates are then stuck here for four, five months, in many instances even longer, before finally being transferred to general population. This practice of illegally placing inmates in ASU upon the completion of their SHU terms for long periods of time without proper procedure and with excessive delays on their transfers is resulting in unjustified punishment for these inmates.”

By December 28, 2011, almost 60 ASU prisoners at Corcoran were refusing state-issued meals; that number dropped over the next few days, and by December 31 the hunger strike had ended. CDCR officials reportedly said some of the prisoners’ demands would be met. However, after several weeks there had been only partial changes at the ASU, and 32 prisoners resumed their hunger strike on January 27, 2012. All except one prisoner ended the strike by February 9, 2012, according to CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton.

Corcoran ASU prisoner Christian Alexander Gomez, 27, was participating in the renewed hunger strike at the time of his death on February 2, 2012. According to Nancy Kincaid with California Prison Health Care Services, he was “medically monitored for hunger strike activity and had been on strike for four days” when he died. She added that “the preliminary autopsy report does not indicate hunger strike activity contributed to his death.”


The hunger strikes forced California prison officials to make changes they otherwise would not have undertaken. The CDCR admitted that its SHU policies were in need of review and modification, and is now pursuing regulatory amendments to accomplish that goal. There is finally hope for prisoners held in indeterminate SHU status – particularly those who participate in rehabilitative programs and choose not to engage in gang activity.

These reforms occurred due to the unity among prisoners who took part in the protests, public awareness of the extreme plight of SHU prisoners as a result of the hunger strikes, and strong support from outside organizations. Nor is the fight over. California prisoners and their advocates continue to call for improvements, and on March 20, 2012 they petitioned the United Nations to take action against the CDCR’s practice of holding thousands of prisoners in long-term segregation, which they equated to torture.

Based on the CDCR’s proposed changes, the days of the “snitch, parole or die” policy, and some (but certainly not all) of the oppressive SHU conditions, now seem to be numbered. However, the substantive changes agreed to by prison officials will involve a lengthy process before they are implemented.

“We are not going to be pushed by the inmates or their advocates to change policy of this magnitude and get people killed,” said CDCR Undersecretary Kernan. “We’re going to do it slow and methodical and make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

While that may be the “right thing,” it is exasperating for prisoners who have already spent years – or even decades – in segregation. “The prisoners are making very reasonable and legitimate demands regarding basic human rights,” noted Strickman. “For those of us on the outside, the slow pace of reform is frustrating. For those people enduring barbarous conditions, the lack of meaningful improvement is unbearable.”

Sources:, Mercury News, SF Weekly,,,,,, New York Times,, California Prison Focus,, CNN, Los Angeles Times

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