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California Prisoners Unite in Hunger Strike to Protest SHU

Official with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) devised a plan in 2006 that aimed to chop the head off of prison gangs. What CDCR did not consider was that the gang leaders it indefinitely isolated on the Short Corridor of the Special Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) would band together to stage hunger strike protests that would garner international media attention.

 “We realized we had to take responsibility for change, and that they couldn’t do anything against a peaceful protest,” said prisoner Todd Ashker, a CDCR validated leader of the Aryan Brotherhood. That realization amongst the select group of men housed on the Short Corridor has led to three hunger strikes that rocked CDCR and put a spot light upon the torture SHU imposes.

Along with Ashker, CDCR placed Arturo Castellanos, a leader for the Florencia-13 street gang and a Mexican mafia member; Ronnie Dewberry, a leader of the Black Guerilla family; and Antonio Guillen, an upper-echelon member with the Nuestra Familia, who allegedly controls its street gangs, on the Short Corridor.

 “They came up with this list,” said Dewberry. “They isolated us. They wanted to destroy us worse than others.” The list came from PBSP’s Institution Gang Investigations (IGI) unit. It put the leaders on the Short Corridor for close monitoring, and it desegregated other prisoners by distributing races and gang affiliations into each pod.

 “Instead of digging heels in with each other, people became sociable,” said Dewberry. “That’s the one thing we had in common: none of us committed a crime to be placed in the SHU.” Out of that, the Collective was born.

After the Collective united on the Short corridor, they had to do the unimaginable and unite their members to the cause. Their first act was to declare a truce among the races in California prisons.

Inspiration was drawn from the story of Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army member who died in 1981 at the Maze prison after a 66 day hunger strike protesting conditions in British prisons. He and nine others died of starvation from hunger strikes, but they drew the world’s attention to their cause and fanned life into the fight against British rule in Northern Ireland.

 “We’ve been in these courts fighting and haven’t received justice in the court system,” said Dewberry. “Let’s do something that’s going to tell Sacramento that what they’ve been doing to us is illegal and inhumane. We came to the conclusion that it can’t be something to cause harm to prisoners or staff- I’m talking about physically.”

A Default Management Tool

California has over 4,000 prisoners confined to SHU at PBSP, Tehachapi, Corcoran, and Folsom. The SHU citadel is PBSP. “It’s the prison of all prisons,” says Danny Murillo, who served time there for armed robbery. “A legend among inmates.”

At PBSP, more than 500 men have been held in solitary for more than 10 years, and more than 78 have been in solitary for over 20 years. On average, CDCR prisoners spend 6.8 years on SHU once placed there.

Being placed on SHU should be reserved for those who commit crimes of physically harm other prisoners or guards. CDCR, however, makes it much easier to be placed in isolation for an indefinite term.

Its policies identify people as members or associates of a prison gang through a validation process. The IGI must find three sources of evidence to indicate association or membership, and there are 1500 ways to do so. They include confidential information, tattoos, drawings, photographs, books, letters from family and friends, legal material, newsletters and magazines, and verbal or written communication with other prisoners.

 “The validation process is part of a racist and oppressive system that criminalizes the culture, the ethnic and political identity of those targeted for validation,” said Murillo. “Having spent 7 years from a 15 year prison sentence under solitary confinement in Ad-Seg and the SHU, I have witnessed numerous individuals, primarily Latino and black inmates, being targeted because they hold in their possession drawings of Aztec, Mayan, or other indigenous cultures, or for having books by Malcolm X or George Jackson.”

CDCR contends that the use of SHU is an important law enforcement tool. “Restricting the gangs’ communication has limited their ability to engage in organized activity and has saved lives both inside and outside prison walls,” said Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of CDCR.

The policies that have resulted in 25,000 to 80,000 prisoners nationwide to be housed in solitary confinement view things differently. “It has become a default management tool rather than a tool of last resort,” says Laura Downton of the National Religious Campaign against Torture.

Protesting Torture

 “Torture must be defined by the effects it has on its victims,” writes J. Heshima Denham, a prisoner on SHU at Corcoran State Prison. “And no one who has been confined to these indefinite torture units for any length of time, either single or double celled has escaped the psychological and physical devastation of that torture unit.

Known as “The Hole,” SHU cells are 7.6 ft. by 11.6 ft. They have no windows. Food is served through a slot in the Plexiglas covered cell door. Each day, the men are allowed to exercise in a “dog run” alone for 90 minutes. Phone calls and contact visits are prohibited, as is inter action with other humans. The main form of communication for SHU prisoners is via yelling through pipes, vents, or the passing of kites. They are allowed “personal property: books, TV, writing materials, canteen, photos, and things of that sort,” writes an SHU prisoner who request anonymity.

The monotonous conditions and routine can bring even the sanest to the brink of insanity. “In 1970, I counted the 358 rivets that held my steel cell together, over and over,” writes Walter Rideau, who spent 12 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana prisons. “Every time the walls seemed to be closing in on me, I counted them again to give my mind something to fasten on to.”

Hallucinations, paranoia, self-mutilation, and suicide are well-documented effects from long term solitary confinement. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture says solitary confinement periods should last no longer than 15 days.

The United States stands alone in tis use of long term solitary confinement. In Britain, such confinement can last no longer than three weeks. Prisoners in California’s SHUs account for less than 5 percent of the total prison population, but they account for half of the suicides in CDCR.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops has called for a change in “this inhumane form of punishment.”

CDCR provided a way for gang bangers to exit SHU. That method, known as the “debriefing process,” requires them to become snitches. That policy, says Murillo, does more damage than good.

 “The idea that in order for me to get out of SHU I have to provide more information on another inmate so that inmate can take my place in the SHU only continues perpetuation the cycle of torture and oppression,” he says. “The debriefing process is a dehumanizing tool of oppression that is designed to strip the dignity of our brothers in solitary confinement.”

This is War

 “They’ll never let me out. I’m going to die here, I know that,” says Ashker. “But, I have a choice. I can slowly rot or I can fight. Fight to change things.”

The Collective, having made a decision to challenge CDCR’s SHU policy of indefinitely isolating gang members until they debrief, set about to obtain supporters.

 “It took a year or two to put together,” said Guillen. “Communicating back here is difficult.” The Collective realizing that violence would hinder rather than help their cause. The idea of a hunger strike took hold.

 “We’ve got to think of something better without proving to the world we are the monsters CDCR portrays us to be,” said Guillen. “We understood we couldn’t do this alone.”

In the year before the strike, the Collective went on a letter writing campaign to prison advocate blogs, activist, and groups such as Amnesty International, legislators, and attorneys. Word trickled to prisoners in all of CDCR’s SHU units and among prisoners in general population. Solidarity was found to protest against the SHU policy.

 “We are starting to look death in the face with these indeterminate SHU terms,” wrote prisoner Lorenzo Benton. “Looking death in the face, isolated from family and friends and no meaningful contact with others is a lonely experience that serves no on well. That is why we are seeking redress from said condition as our days are becoming more and more numbered.”

The idea of dying from hunger was a challenge even for members of the Collective. “At first I was against the idea of damaging myself,” said Ashker. “These”- he indicates hover guards- “are my enemies. They’ll celebrate when I die.”

With others on board, the collective sent notice to CDCR in May 2011 that a hunger strike would begin in July. They attached five core demands:

  • Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
  • Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
  • Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long term solitary confinement;
  • Provide adequate food;
  • Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

CDCR was not real concerned. “In our experience, organized mass hunger strikes don’t last very long,” said CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton. That experience included a 2002 hunger strike that involved 65 SHU prisoners at PBSP. Within 5 days, the strike was over.

Things were different in 2011. By the end of the day on July 1, 5,300 prisoners at nine prisons refused their meals. The number swelled to 6,600 at 13 prisons on day two. When the strike ended 20 days later, 440 prisoners in four prisons were participating.

 “Prisoners nowadays are becoming acutely aware that you have to fight for your right,” said Dewberry. “This hunger strike woke everybody up.”

 “CDCR kind of downplayed the significance of the hunger strike,” said Guillen, who said it was stopped after CDCR said it needed more time to address the core concerns and agreed to offer SHU prisoners education courses, beanies, and wall calendars as a good gesture.

While CDCR tried to minimize the strikers’ impact, they did achieve national media attention that resulted “unprecedented” tours of the SHU at PBSP. Several state law makers also took notice.

A meeting between the Collective and prison officials occurred in August 2011, but nothing was accomplished. “They stopped the momentum,” said Guillen. “We pretty much got everything situated to go on a second hunger strike. We needed to draw as much attention as possible to our cause.”

The second hunger strike commenced on September 26. At its peak, 4,525 prisoners were refusing their meals. It lasted about 18 days. This time, CDCR retaliated against the “principal prisoner representatives,” as the Collective officially call them to avoid the term leader.

They were rounded up and taken to Administrative Segregation Units (ASU). What that entails is a group of guards showing “up out of the blue at a prisoner’s cell. They’ll tell him to strip naked and hand his clothes to t. They’ll give him his boxers, socks, shoes, and t-shirt and tell him to put them on,” wrote an anonymous PBSP SHU prisoner. “Then they will handcuff him behind his back and escort him to (ASU). (ASU) is a separate building that is located not far from SHU.”

Once there, the prisoners were placed in an empty cell with nothing but the clothes they wore from SHUT. Guards turned up the air conditioning units and paraded popcorn, cheeseburgers, and other food before the strikers. “All you have to do is start eating, and we’ll take you out here, said guards.

CDCR responded by promising to make reforms. In October 2012, CDCR began a review of SHU prisoners with a goal of “reducing long-term SHU confinement for offenders who do not engage in gang behavior.” It also began at four-year Step-Down Program.

Between October and June 2012, CDCR conducted 382 reviews of gang validated prisoners in SHUs. Those reviews resulted in 208 prisoners being either transferred from SHU to general population or approved for such a transfer. Another 115 prisoners were put in a Step-Down program. That 333 or 382 prisoners reviewed have been recommended for removal from SHU puts in question the validity of their initial placement.

With little movement occurring, the Collective again organized another hunger strike. That strike became the largest in California prison history. It began on July 8, 2013. At its peak, more than 30,000 prisoners at 33 prisons in the state and 4 prisons out-of-state holding California prisoners participated. Prisoners in other states also showed solidarity by refusing to eat.

Rallies and protest took place across California. Celebrities spoke up to give support to the strikers. Beard, meanwhile, denounce the strike as a “gang power play” and an effort by “violent prison gangs” to stay in business.

His agency moved the Collective to ASU, and as the strike continued, obtained a federal court order to force feed the strikers. CDCR also quit conducting reviews to remove prisoners from SHU.

After 60 days, prison officials agreed to an “extraordinary” meeting between the Collective and 14 of their organizers in PBSP’s law library.

 “They met collectively, and talked about why the strike should end and the accomplishments they’d made, the willingness [of lawmakers] to have the hearings,” said prisoner attorney Anne Wells. “They broke up into their various groups, and they voted, and they voted to end the strike there.”

 “My arms are sticks now. Legs too,” said Ashker who used to be muscled and bulked up. “But the strike is not over. We have suspended it. If necessary, we’ll resume and go all the way, start to death. This is war.”

The suspension came on the promise of hearings by state legislators. “Not to defend gang membership, but certainly if you’re a prison inmate, because of the dynamics, all humans form groups. That’s what we do,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who added “to have as a policy being put in the SHU for (gang affiliation) alone is very, very difficult to justify.”

 “Isolation is becoming an unacceptable way to hold people for a long time,” said Denis O’Hearn, a sociology professor at New York’s Binghamton University.

The latest hunger strike left many prisoners with weight loss and possibly permanent body damage. The only death was that of Billy “Guero” Sell, who participated in the hunger strike for 3 weeks. The day after he began eating prison official say he hanged himself in his cell.

By September 5, several of the 100 strikers that remained were hospitalized. The threat of force feedings and legislative promises tilted the scales to suspend the strike and hope the public relations victory carries over to real change. Said Ashker, “I’m not happy about it, but we have to wait and see what the politicians come up with.”

Prisoner advocates and support groups will need to keep up the pressure. “Hopefully, this would be the last for such drastic actions in which one’s willpower and humanity is tested,” wrote Benton. “One should not be required to put one’s well-being to such uncertainty to have one’s voice heard and a judicious hearing before the powers-that-be for reasonable changes.”

Sources: Los Angeles Times; The Triplicate;; NY Times;;;;; Revolution Newspaper;;

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