Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition
Oakland, July 22, 2013 – As the California prison hunger strike enters its 3rd week, reports of retaliation against strikers have increased. Last week it was reported that prison officials had moved at least 14 strikers from the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay to Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg), confiscated confidential legal documents, and forced cold air into their cells. Later in the week, legal advocate Marilyn McMahon and one of her paralegals were summarily banned from visiting any California prison. Reports that strikers have been moved to Ad-Seg or to entirely different facilities have also been coming from Corcoran State Prison. The denial of medical care to strikers, especially those with preexisting health conditions, remains a widespread concern for families and advocates.
Meanwhile, the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to claim that the hunger strike is a massive gang conspiracy. At the same time, the CDCR claims its SHU and debriefing programs have been thoroughly reformed and are effective at creating safety throughout its prison system. Please find below a point-by-point clarification of recent claims made by CDCR spokesperson Terry Thorton on Al Jazeera’s The Stream, July 18, 2013.
Thorton: “Those who are placed [in the SHU] indeterminately, administratively, because they have been validated as a gang member or a gang associate.”
FACT: There is no way for a prisoner to challenge this administrative process, or an indeterminant sentence; one of the main demands of the hunger strikers is for a modification of the criteria for gang validation. In fact, the recently revised criteria for gang validation has actually expanded, making it easier for the CDCR to validate wider groups of prisoners.
Thorton: “Typically SHU inmates at Pelican Bay, and the other SHUs as well, they do get out to the yard every day. They go to visiting, they have access to the law library, they have cable television, they have access to reading materials and educational programs too.”
FACT: The yard is still part of sensory deprivation – prisoners have no access to any outside recreation. The mandated hours are few and routinely not met. Reading materials are heavily restricted and possession of certain kinds of materials can be cause for gang validation. There are NO educational programs in SHU. Visiting is conducted through glass, no physical contact is permitted with visitors, and the visiting times are very short (1-1.5 hours).
Thorton: “And the department of correction and rehabilitation has created a system now where inmates can get out of the SHU without dropping out of their prison gang. They have created a step down program now where inmates can earn their way out of the SHU. There are rehabilitative elements in this step down program, something the department never had before in all the decades it has been dealing with the issue of prison gangs. The department’s efforts have been primarily focused on enforcement, and now we have rehabilitative elements, interdiction elements in the way we manage gangs and we implemented these reforms last October.”
FACT: There is no guarantee of release from the SHU – even upon completion of the step- down program. The step-down program can still take more than 5 years and can still result in an indefinite SHU term. From Pelican Bay SHU prisoner Antonio Guillen, “The step down program is a deliberate attempt by CDCR to deceive the public into believing that real change is under way. In truth, however, there is absolutely no change to the validation process (which is the origin of the indeterminate SHU sentence) and the policies and regulations that make up this abhorrent practice remain intact.”
Thorton:“If an inmate is validated as a gang associate, and there is no confirmed disciplinary behavior with a nexus to gang activity, that inmate is not going to be automatically put in the SHU anymore. We’ve done case by case reviews; hundreds of people have gotten out of the SHU.”
FACT: If the new policy is genuine, those who have been isolated without disciplinary charges should be placed back in general population immediately. Releasing 208 out of 12,000 people from isolation into general population hardly indicates a good-faith effort to introduce a new program.
Thorton: “Absolutely there needs to be discussion and engagement, there also needs to be some acknowledgment about the progress, the reforms that the department has instituted as well. We have let hundreds of people out of the SHU, we are hoping to a quick resolution of this mass hunger strike because unfortunately the staff resources to manage this hunger strike safely have all been diverted away and we have had to temporarily halt our case by case reviews of validated inmates, which I find really unfortunate.”
FACT: a quick resolution of the strike would be good faith and binding discussions and engagement with the prisoner representatives in all the prisons. Honest negotiations would lead to an immediate implementation of reforms. As the CDCR is mired in numerous lawsuits regarding human rights violations–medical negligence, overcrowding, inadequate mental health services–outside oversight and intervention is crucial. California Governor Brown’s silence on the strike is unfortunate given his unique position to be able to compel change in one of the world’s most notorious prison systems.