Faces and Voices from the Hunger Strike
Below are six individuals in Pelican Bay State Prison and Corcoran State Prison SHUs. All have been held in the SHU for over a decade, and participated in the previous two hunger strikes. All have indicated their intention to participate in this July 8th hunger strike, despite some of them having medical conditions.
J. Heshima Denham, 41 , Corcoran State Prison SHU. Denham has been in the SHU for over a decade following validation as a member of the Black Guerilla Family. As evidence of gang activity, he has reportedly has his cell raised by prison guards for Japanese artwork involving dragons; the dragon is a symbol of the BGF.
See Heshima’s article: A day in the life of an imprisoned revolutionary
“Solitary confinement must be defined by the effects this isolation and the torture techniques used to break men has on those so situated. We should know. All of us have been both with and without cellies over our periods of indefinite SHU confinement. Despite our level of development and continued advancement, it would be the height of hubris for us to contend this isolation has not adversely affected our minds and bodies. For anyone to consider these conditions anything less than torture could only be a prison industrialist or some other type of draconian public official.
In the final analysis, torture must be defined by the effects it has on its victims. 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 the torture unit.”
Todd Ashker, 50, Pelican Bay SHU. Incarcerated since 1984, he has been in the SHU since 1986, after prison officials deemed him a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a charge he denies. He is one of the leaders of the hunger strikes.
According to a UN Petition filed by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional law: “Mr. Ashker’s outdoors time is in a small, concrete enclosed dog-like yard 1 ½ hours a day with no exercise equipment other than a hand-ball recently given to the SHU inmates as a result of a hunger strike. He claims his yard time is always cancelled due to “staff training,” and from the years 1989 – 2011 he received zero time outside, other than when he was allowed to go to into a small enclosed concrete yard. He spent 24 hours a day 7 days a week in a small concrete cell for 22 years. Mr. Ashker’s meals are under- portioned, watered down, under- cooked food is spoiled, cold, no nutrition, salad is rotten, trays are always dirty and covered with dirty dish water.”
Kijana Tashiri Askari (Marcus Harrison), 41, Pelican Bay SHU. Following validation as a Black Guerilla Family member, he has been in solitary confinement since 1994.
“With regards to the revisions that were done to SHU management gang policies, well, that is exactly what has taken place—’revisions’ (e.g. ‘reform’). Hence, more of the same in that, the revisions have only strengthened CDCR officials power and ability to label and validate every prisoner in CDCR as belonging to a Security Threat Group–e.g. ‘prison gang.’At the crux of the revisions is a lack of a definitive and ‘behavioral-based’ criteria, as to what actually constitute as being gang activity. Meaning, any and everything can and will still be considered as gang activity, in spite of how innocuous the activity may be.”
Mutope Duguma (James Crawford), 46, Pelican Bay SHU. Incarcerated since 1988, Duguma has been in the SHU since 2001, following his validation as a member of the Black Guerilla Family; a charge he claims is false. “I was involved in gang life as a young man in South Los Angeles, like many other young black men from broken communities, but I was never a member or associate of the BGF. I never even met a member of the BGF during my first decade in prison,” he has written. He claims he was targeted for political activity, and last year won a lawsuit against CDCR for withholding his mail on the basis that his political writings constituted “gang activity.”
Duguma is known for having authored “The Call” in 2011, initiating the first round of hunger strikes. “The purpose of the Hunger Strike is to combat both the Ad-Seg/SHU psychological and physical torture, as well as the justifications used of support treatment of the type that lends to prisoners being subjected to a civil death. Those subjected to indeterminate SHU programs are neglected and deprived of the basic human necessities while withering away in a very isolated and hostile environment.”
Michael “Zaharibu” Dorrough, 59 , Corcoran State Prison SHU. Dorrough has been in the SHU since 1988, following validation as a member of the Black Guerilla Family. He has subsequently been kept in the SHU for reasons including writing for black nationalist newspapers and eulogizing a deceased inmate who was a BGF member.
“I was diagnosed with severe depression several years ago.
I don’t know which is worse.
At some point you know that the isolation has affected you. Perhaps permanently. It involves so many different factors. Particularly the isolation itself.
Over the years you have seen other people snap. Human beings cutting themselves. Eating their own waste. Smearing themselves in it. And sometimes throwing it at you. Human beings not just talking out loud to themselves–but screaming at and cursing themselves out.
How could you not be affected by this kind of madness?!”
Arturo Castellanos, 52, Pelican Bay SHU. One of the leaders of the hunger strike, he has been in the SHU after validation as a member of the Mexican Mafia.
“During our last meeting of May 23, 2011, Warden Lewis and CDCR Deputy Director Stainer dropped in. The reps asked Mr. Stainer several questions about the revisions to the STG. He was vague in his answers and then said although they are on his I-pod, he hasn’t seen them yet. And they should be out in two weeks. Bottom line, it was the same old CDCR evasive tactics and the guy just basically wasted our time. Oh, he did say that the STG will replace the 6 year Inactive Status Program – Big Whoop! Yeah, it will but it will have the same end result. Only this time, we’ll all be bouncing back and forth like a ping-pong ball between step-1 and step-2, all while we’re in the same cell until we die. Thus, I personally don’t see any real change coming in their revisions to the STG that we already rejected in March. I hope I’m wrong but with CDCR’s track record, I doubt that I am.”
Many thanks to Sal from SolitaryWatch.com for collecting these photos and stories. Those with photographs of their loved ones in the SHU are encouraged to submit them to the author at: Sal.Solitary@Gmail.com
Welcome to the education section of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. More than 30,000 California prisoners initiated an indefinite hunger strike. They are calling on the Governor and the CDCR to meet their 5 Core Demands.
California holds nearly 12,000 people in extreme isolation at a cost of over $60 million per year. The cells have no windows, and no access to fresh air or sunlight. The United Nations condemns the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture, yet many people in California state prisons have been encaged in solitary for 10 to 40 years!
In 2011, over 12,000 prisoners and their family and community members participated in statewide hunger strikes protesting the inhumane conditions in the SHU. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) promised meaningful reform. In February 2013, prisoners announced that another hunger strike would begin July 8th because of CDCR’s failure to fulfill that promise. That strike involved over 30,000 people locked in CA prisons, as well as hundreds of other prisoners, young and old, throughout the United States.
- Introduction to the 2013 Hunger Strike. (6 min video)
- “Stop Torture in US Prisons!” by American Friends Service Committee (6 min video)
- “Attica is All of Us”, video by Freedom Archives
- “Three Thousand Years to Life,” a short documentary from 1973 when guards went on strike, prisoners took over Walpole State Prison (Massachusetts).
- “Why Solitary Confinement is Modern Day Torture” an illustrated op-ed video by artist Molly Crabapple explaining the psychological and physical trauma suffered by those forced to spend 22-24 hours a day alone — sometimes for reading the wrong book, or having the wrong tattoo — in a grey, concrete box. (5 min video)
- Interactive timeline of California’s prisoner hunger strikes.
Click on the image to explore our interactive timeline of the California prisoner hunger strikes
Articles & Readings
A Survivor’s Manual for Solitary Confinement by Kijana Tashiri Askari (Nov. 2011) written for prisoners.
Hunger Strike Recap: CA prisoners Showed the Way! (Aug. 2011) A thorough summary of the hunger strike that started at Pelican Bay July 1st, 2011.
“A day in the life of an imprisoned revolutionary.” May 8, 2012 by J. Heshima Denham
“The New Inquisition: Gang Validation” by Steve Champion. A piece written by Steve Champion, currently locked up in San Quentin State Prison, detailing how gang validation/labeling is used to criminalize and repress political thought, expression and action in prison.
“Isolation, Indeterminate Sentences Used to Extract Confessions at California Supermax Prison” by Jeffrey Kaye, PhD (Psychologist in San Francisco), published July 2011.
Pelican Bay History
A Brief History of Pelican Bay by Keramet Reiter, a Ph.D. candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at Berkeley School of Law
“Solitary Confinement is Cruel and Ineffective.” August 2013. Scientific American.
“A Cage within a Cage: A Report on Indeterminate Security Housing Unit (SHU) Confinement & Conditions” by Lauren Liu with Robin Rederford, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (July 2011). Click here to download a pdf of the report (about 20 pages)
“The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units” published by Amnesty International, September 27, 2012.
“Out of Control: The Battle Against Control Unit Prisons“, Nancy Kurshan, Counterpunch, July 5-7, 2013.
What Is Solitary Confinement? Provided by American Friends Service Committee
“Lifetime Lockdown: How Isolation Conditions Impact Prisoner Reentry“, published by the American Friends Service Committee, August 8, 2012.
“Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States” published by Human Rights Watch with the American Civil Liberties Union, October 10, 2012.
“The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons” published by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which was published alongside a slew of graphics, prisoner letters and other media, October 2, 2012.
Spring 2012 Issue of Dart Society Reports. The mission of the Dart Society is to connect and support journalists worldwide who advance the compassionate and ethical coverage of trauma, conflict and social injustice. The Spring 2012 Issue focusing on investigating solitary confinement in particular, and incarceration/corrections in general.
Torture & Imprisonment
“Confronting Torture in US Prisons”, Angola 3 News & Alternet. June 2011 interview with activists/journalists and co-founders of Solitary Watch website, James Ridgeway and Jean Casella. History and purpose of solitary confinement & Pelican Bay, as well as media strategies for organizing against torture and imprisonment.
“Georgia Prison Strike: A Hidden Labor Force Resists” by Michelle Chen“How Does the Biggest Prison Strike In American History Go Unnoticed?” by Mark Anthony Neal
“What Is the Prison Industrial Complex?” by Rachel Herzing
Exporting Prisons and Torture Tactics Internationally
Read A Visit Inside Colombia’s Most Notorious Prison, La Tramacúa by James Jordan from Alliance for Global Justice for a break down of why 54 prisoners have also begun a strike this June at La Tramacúa penitentiary in Valledupar, Colombia. Eight prisoners have sewn their own mouths shut-extreme measures due to extremely bad conditions. La Tramacúa was built with US funds and is part of an effort to transform the prisons on a US model.
Readings selected by the SF Bay View newspaper
- Hungry for reform, SF Bay Guardian July 3, 2013
- Support the Pelican Bay hunger strike, by Shaka At-thinnin, SF Bay View
- Californian prisoners prepare for hunger strike, by Peadar King, Irish Times
- California prisoners inspire the world, by Willie Ratcliff, SF Bay View
- CDCR to prisoners: Submit to force-feeding to get demands met, by Paul Redd et al, SF Bay View
- Sabotage, by Mutope Duguma et al, SF Bay View
- Treating us like slaves: an analysis of the Security Threat Group Step Down Program, by Randall Sondai Ellis et al, SF Bay View
- Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective: How many will die when hunger strike resumes? by the four main hunger strike reps, SF Bay View
- Demands from the San Quentin State Prison Adjustment Center, by A/C reps, SF Bay View
- Life expectancy of prisoners, by Carl S. Harrison, SF Bay View
- Corcoran SHU staff told to ignore legal mandate to protect lives of hunger strikers, by J. Heshima Denham et al, SF Bay View
- Chowchilla Freedom Rally: It just ain’t right, by Wanda Sabir, SF Bay View
- Build a movement to close solitary confinement, by Mumia Abu Jamal
- Reflections on our accomplishments so far – no more suffering in silence, by Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Ronnie Dewberry, one of the four main reps), SF Bay View
- San Quentin 3 declare solidarity with prisoners’ agreement to end hostilities, by Sundiata Tate, David Johnson, Bato Talamantez, SF Bay View
- California prisoners make historic call to end hostilities between racial groups in California prisons and jails, by Short Corridor Collective (hunger strike reps), SF Bay View
- The solitary confinement profiteers, by Mutope Duguma, SF Bay View
- Monster Kody: an interview wit’ author Sanyika Shakur, by Minister of Information JR, SF Bay View
- A day in the life of an imprisoned revolutionary, by J. Heshima Denham, SF Bay View — a must read
- Let’s rock! The musings – or mental fog – of a hunger striker, by Gabriel Huerta, SF Bay View — this is a little gem, a classic that we republished in the April paper to give the guys a boost. It inspired the name of a major newsletter for Cali prisoners, called Rock.