On August 23rd, 2011 legislators from the Public Safety Committee of the California State Assembly held an informational hearing on conditions in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU). Concern amongst legislators was sparked during the hunger strike as information began to be revealed around the torturous conditions long term solitary confinement as well as the practices of gang validation and debriefing that exist at Pelican Bay as well as in other SHUs in California. Community members and family members began calling their legislators, urging them to take action. The hearing was initiated by Tom Ammiano, representative from San Francisco and chair of the Public Safety committee. While no decisions were to be made at the hearing, it was a first step in pushing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to take responsibility for upholding the human rights of prisoners.
The day began with a press conference held on the South Steps of the Capital
Dolores Canales, the mother of a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner, Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and Molly Porzig, a representative of Critical Resistance, spoke to members of the media on the nature of the conditions, why we were gathering that day and what we were hoping for in terms of outcomes from the hearing.
The rally that followed drew about 300 people from all over California. Some family members had driven all night from Los Angeles and San Diego to take part in the rally and be present for the hearing. Emotions ran high as we listened to the speakers describe the conditions they had experienced first hand, some who had been confined to the SHU, some who currently have sons, brothers or other family in the SHU. The rally was really a place for us to frame why we were there and to support each other as we prepared to take part in a hearing that we hoped would really push forward the hunger strikers 5 core demands.
The legislative hearing began a bit late and there was some confusion on the part of legislators as to the location because the room had been changed to accommodate the large crowd. Both the floor of the assembly room and the balcony were packed, with folks spilling out into the hall to watch the hearing on a closed circuit television.
The hearing consisted of three panels. On the first panel, Glenda Rojas spoke to the concerns of family members, Earl Fears, a former prisoner who did time in the Corcoran SHU, described the actual condition in the SHU and Rev. William McGarvy of the Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture, spoke to inter-religious perspectives on solitary confinement. On the second panel, Charles Carbone, a lawyer, provided many statistics on the SHU and pointed out discrepancies between information CDCR provides and what actually is happening in California’s prisons. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz, gave information on the psychological effects of solitary confinement. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist, and Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee, laid out some alternatives to long term solitary confinement as well as gang validation and debriefing, many of which have been implemented successfully in other states including Mississippi.
Finally, we heard from representatives of CDCR, Scott Kernan, undersecretary of operations for CDCR and chief of the office of correctional safety. Representatives, particularly Holly Mitchell of LA and Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, asked some tough questions, at times exposing the misinformation and manipulation of the CDCR officials.
Tom Ammiano made sure to point out that this was only the first hearing. It’s important now
that we continue to pressure our lawmakers to take action to end the deplorable conditions at Pelican Bay and in other SHUs around the state.
Contact legislators who were present at the hearing and urge them to contiue pushing for an end to the conditions at Pelican Bay and to meet the prisoners 5 core demands!