The Pelican Bay Hunger Strikes and the Legacy of Torture in U.S. Prisons

By Jordan T. Camp


On July 1, 2011 prisoners incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison initiated a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their confinement in the Security Housing Unit (SHU). In these security units or “prisons within a prison” as they are known, prisoners are held in isolation twenty-two out of twenty-four hours a day and experience extreme sensory deprivation. The demands of the multiracial group of hunger strikers included: ending solitary confinement, instituting individual rather than group punishment, abolition of the gang debriefing policy, better food, adequate clothing, art classes, phone privileges, and sufficient healthcare and sunlight (1).    In organizing these dramatic protests prisoners have inspired waves of solidarity actions, in which 6,600 prisoners in at least a third of California prisons have participated. (2)


Pelican Bay State Prison was opened in Crescent City, California in 1989 as the state’s first supermaximum security prison. In the midst of a fiscal crisis for the state, then California Republican Governor George Deukmejian legitimated the construction of this two hundred million dollar institution in the name of safety, security, law and order (3). During Deukmejian’s reign California embarked on an unprecedented prison expansion (4).    Once constructed, Pelican Bay was celebrated as a model for the rest of the country. Described by state officials and major media outlets as a way to contain prisoners who were “the worst of the worst,” Pelican Bay represented the extension of an incarceration model developed at Marion Federal Penitentiary in Southern Illinois—the first federal supermaximum security prison (5). According to Marc Mauer, “prison administrators appear to have chosen a course that favors the continual escalation of repression as a means of control.” (6) By the early 1990s, 36 states adopted the use of supermaximum security units, a repressive trend Human Rights Watch called the “Marionization” of human rights abuses in U.S. gulags—in violation of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners protecting against torture (7). At the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. has at least 60 supermaximum security institutions in 44 states. The prisoners are disproportionately Black and Latino. Legal, scholarly, and journalistic criticism continue to argue that these facilities violate human rights and amount to torture (8).


A recent Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata, found that conditions in California prisons represent serious violations of constitutional rights. In refusing to eat for three weeks the Pelican Bay hunger strikers have not only endorsed the Supreme Court ruling, they have also challenged the racialization of incarceration: the perpetuation of “group-differentiated vulnerability … [to] premature death.” (9) As Michelle Alexander and Ruth Gilmore argue, mass incarceration is “not only destructive public policy,” but is “as morally indefensible as any system of racial domination and social exclusion.”(10)    While the immediate aim of the strikes is to stop the widespread use of torture and human rights abuses, it is part of the larger struggle to end the racist mass incarceration of poor people of color. (11) These struggles deserve the widest possible support from everyone who wants to change the world. (12)

(2) “6,600 Prisoners Refused Meals,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2011,
(3) Mike Davis, “Hell Factories in the Field: A Prison Industrial Complex,” The Nation 260: 7 (February 20, 1995): 229-234.
(4) Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 26.
(5) Alan Eladio Gómez, “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary, 1972,” Radical History Review 96 (Fall 2006): 58-86.
(6) Marc Mauer, The Lessons of Marion, The Failure of a Maximum Security Prison: A History and Analysis, With Voices of Prisoners (1985, reprt., Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, 1993).
(7) Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” (December 10, 1984),; David Matas, Allegations of Ill-Treatment in Marion Prison, Illinois, USA (London: Amnesty International, Jan. 1987).
(8) Craig Haney, “Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement,” Crime and Delinquency 49:1 (January 2003): 124-156; Jared Sexton and Elizabeth Lee, “Figuring the Prison: Prerequisites of Torture at Abu Ghraib,” Antipode (2006): 1005-1022; Colin Dayan, “Due Process and Lethal Confinement,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107:3 (Summer 2008): 496; Avery F. Gordon, “The U.S. Military Prison: The Normalcy of Exceptional Brutality,” in The Violence of Incarceration, ed. Phil Scraton and Jude McCulloch (New York: Routledge, 2009), 174; Atul Gawande, “Hellhole: The United States Holds Tens of Thousands of Inmates in Long-term Solitary Confinement. Is This Torture?” The New Yorker, March 20, 2009,
(9) Gilmore, Golden Gulag, 28.
(10) Michelle Alexander and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Prison Edict Backlash Reveals Race Bias,” Sacramento Bee, June 5, 2011, reveals.html.
(11) Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005).
(12) Colin Dayan, “Barbarous Confinement,” New York Times, July 17, 2011,
Jordan T. Camp studies the relationships between race, class, culture, and social movements in the context of neoliberal globalization and prison expansion. His recent and forthcoming work appears in American Quarterly, Kalfou, Race and Class, and In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, edited by Clyde Woods (The Johns Hopkins University Press). He received his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

One thought on “The Pelican Bay Hunger Strikes and the Legacy of Torture in U.S. Prisons

  1. Pingback: Support & Resistance Expand | Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity

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