Amnesty International Public Statement
04 October 2011
Following a resumption of a hunger strike by California state prisoners, Amnesty International is calling for urgent implementation by the California prison authorities and state legislature of policies to improve conditions in, and assignment to, the state’s Security Housing Units (SHUs).
Prisoners across California last week resumed a hunger strike in protest at conditions in the SHUs at Pelican Bay and other facilities, where several thousand prisoners are held in isolation, confined to windowless cells for more than 22 hours a day, with minimal human contact and no work, recreational or educational programs.
A three-week hunger strike by prisoners last July ended when the California correctional authorities agreed to institute some reforms, including a review of the procedures for assigning thousands of alleged gang members to indefinite SHU confinement.
While the department has said a draft policy is under review, which includes increased privileges for SHU inmates who remain disciplinary free, a better gang “validation” process and a step-down procedure, it appears that many prisoners are unconvinced that significant change will be effected.
While Amnesty International welcomes the corrections department’s review of its SHU policies, the need for reform is long overdue. According to figures released by the corrections department in August this year, some 500 prisoners in Pelican Bay had spent more than 10 years in SHU confinement and 78 more than 20 years – enduring conditions which a US court held in 1995 “may press the outer bounds of what humans may psychologically tolerate”.
Amnesty International is concerned by reports that the California corrections department is treating the current hunger strike as an “organized disturbance” and disciplining those who participate. Such disciplinary action reportedly includes removing prisoners in the general population who support the strike to solitary confinement in Administrative Segregation units. The organization has written to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to urge that prisoners seeking humane conditions are not subjected to punitive measures.
The California department of corrections has granted Amnesty International’s request, made earlier this year, to visit the SHU units in Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Valley State Prison for Women. Amnesty International’s delegation was due to visit next week, but the visit was postponed by the Department when the hunger strike resumed.
Amnesty International has welcomed the department’s willingness to allow it access to the prisons and hopes to visit at the earliest opportunity. The organization is currently in negotiation regarding the dates for its visits to the three units.
In the meantime Amnesty International urges that the hunger strike be brought to an end through a clear commitment by the authorities to ensure humane conditions for all prisoners and a meaningful process by which inmates can progress out of the SHU so that no prisoner is held long-term or indefinitely in extreme isolation.
As of last week some 4,000 prisoners – and at one point as many as 12,000– in prisons throughout the state were reported to have gone on hunger strike.
Some are confined to SHU units in various prisons. They include Pelican Bay State Prison where some 1,500 prisoners [check numbers] are housed in windowless cells for 22.5 hours a day, in conditions which a court stated in 1995 “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate”. While the ruling (in Madriz v Gomez), held that inmates who are already mentally ill, or at high risk of suffering serious mental illness, should not be confined in SHU conditions, it fell short of finding that conditions were unconstitutional for all inmates. However, it noted that prisoners had at that point been confined to the SHU for three years or less, and stated that “We cannot begin to speculate on the impact that Pelican Bay may have on inmates confined for periods of 10 or 20 years or more.
Some changes which were promised following the last hunger strike – such as wall calendars in the cells – are not guaranteed to all inmates and are reportedly “privileges” which must be earned.