By Rina Palta
Surveillance footage of SHU exercise yard
Inmates in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison–the most secure unit in California’s prison system–are planning what they’re calling an “indefinite hunger strike,” beginning July 1. The inmates are hoping to draw attention to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s practice of housing those validated as “gang members” indefinitely in highly restrictive and isolated conditions.
Inmates in the SHU (pronounced “shoe”) can be there as punishment for commititng a crime while in prison, and are serving a fixed term in the SHU. Others– 1,084 of Pelican Bay’s 1,107 SHU inmates–have been identified as prison gang members and are in the SHU indefinitely. For them, there’s one way out: “debriefing” to prison authorities–meaning identifying another inmate as a gang member.
Pelican Bay inmate Danny Troxell, told KALW in a letter that he’s been in the SHU for 26 years, despite continuously denying gang involvement. Troxell wrote that the SHU inmates, after filing “hundreds” of administrative complaints, dozens of civil suits, and seeking the help of numerous civil rights groups, “see this as the only option left to us to try to improve conditions.” The inmates can’t afford to hire attorneys to plead their cases, Troxell wrote, and “in any prisoner case without an attorney, it’s very difficult to prevail on any claims, no matter how unconstitutional they are. The court is able to ignore the issues, and ride over everything.”
Other inmates are rumored to be considering joining the hunger strike—particularly those housed in California’s other male SHU at Corcoran State Prison.
A hunger strike “isn’t the best idea,” said Ed Mead of the Prison Art Project in Seattle, who’s helping organize support for the SHU inmates in the general public. Mostly, Mead said, “because it hurts you, the prisoner, not anyone else” and because such actions have rarely resulted in prisons changing their policies. Nevertheless, Mead is hoping the Pelican Bay protest will draw the same kind of attention as last year’s strike by inmates in Georgia–which inspired a nationwide discussion on prisoner rights. Georgia inmates were protesting general conditions and low pay for prisoner work. The Pelican Bay protest touches on a separate hot-button issue: solitary confinement.
The practice of housing prisoners in “solitary confinement”–single cells, with heavy restrictions on visitation, phone calls, and little to no face-to-face interaction with other human beings–is high on the radar these days, as it has become more common. There’s accused Wikileaks leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning’s tale of being held under perpetual surveillance and separation from other inmates in a US military prison. And reports of severe restrictions on inmates accused of having links to “terrorist-related activity,” housed in the federal Communications Management Units in Marion Illinois and Terre Haute, Indiana. And earlier this year, an audit found that the California Division of Juvenile Justice regularly exceeds restrictions on housing juveniles in solitary confinement by not allowing kids out of their cells for the state-mandated three hours a day.
The most enduring argument against SHU-like settings for prisoners, which isolate inmates to varying degrees, is the psychological toll of long-term isolation. From its inception at Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829–where prisoners were completely segregated so they couldn’t corrupt each other and would have time and space to reflect on their crimes–solitary confinement has been shown to cause or trigger mental illness.
In 1890, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller wrote about the prison:
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