A room the size of a bathroom. No windows, no natural light, constant illumination. Confined within 23 hours a day, for an average of 7 1/2 years. Some are doubled up. Some have been there for 20, 30 and even 40 years.  Not just a few "worst of the worst." More than 14,000 people exist in these conditions.

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No, it's not a description of some dungeon from medieval times, or the Tower of London three centuries ago. It's not Siberia, nor is it Abu Ghraib or even Guantanamo.

It's the California penal system's long term solitary confinement program, and some, indeed, call it torture.

In his groundbreaking report on solitary confinement, ((Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture)) concluded that after as little as 15 days in solitary confinement, some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible. Such "prolonged" solitary confinement, he says, amounts to torture...

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Researchers have demonstrated that prolonged solitary confinement causes a persistent and heightened state of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, insomnia, lethargy or chronic tiredness, nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns. Other documented effects include obsessive ruminations... as well as suicidal ideation.
Some are in there because they've read "suspicious" literature. Others because they showed up in a picture with a known gang member. Some because they use gang "codewords" like "hermano". Plenty remain inside solitary because the prison powers-that-be don't like them. There is often no rhyme or reason, and there is no appeal.

Some people are trying to do something about it.

They're fighting it from the inside.

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In 2011, some of California's SHU (Secure Housing Unit) prisoners began a hunger strike. It was suspended when officials in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) pledged to "implement timely and meaningful changes...". According to the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (PBSP-SHU) Short Corridor Representatives, California reneged on its pledge and a decision has been made to resume the hunger strike, beginning July 8th, 2013.

In response to CDCR's failure to meet our 2011 Five (5) Core Demands... ((we have decided)) to resume our nonviolent peaceful protest action on July 08, 2013.

The upcoming peaceful protest will be a combined Hunger Strike (HS) - Work Stoppage (WS) action. Once initiated, this protest will continue indefinitely - until all Five Core Demands are fully met.

The five core demands are
  • End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse
  • Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria
  • Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement
  • Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food
  • Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates.

What they are struggling against:

More than 500 of Pelican Bay's SHU prisoners have been held in solitary confinement in the SHU for over 10 years. Over 78 prisoners have languished in solitary for more than 20 years. Prisoners are detained inside windowless cells, are not allowed to call home and are served substandard or rotten food.

Prisoners are frequently assigned to the SHU without any significant disciplinary record; instead they are designated for indefinite solitary confinement based on their alleged gang affiliation. They can be labeled "gang members" for waiving hello to another prisoner who has already been so-designated, or for possession of artwork, or their tattoos.

They are fighting, lending solidarity and support from the outside.

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity is an organization whose aim is to support the hunger strikers in their quest for humane treatment.

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The challenge for people outside prison is to match the courage of the hunger strikers, and to support the prisoners in winning their demands through every means we can. Historically people have taken up civil disobedience to prevent mass death, and we're in such a moment now.

Download flyers and other outreach materials here.

10 Ways to support the strike... A Call for Every CA Prisoner... Sign the petition ... Attend events, demonstrations and actions... Write to the strike leaders...

They're fighting it in the press.

Shane Bauer, famously imprisoned for many months in Iran with two companions, and in solitary confinement for four of them, penned this piece in the Los Angeles Times which begins

I'm in the Security Housing Unit... Pelican Bay State Prison... Here, 94% of SHU inmates are celled alone for 23 hours a day. They spend one hour a day, also alone, in a concrete, 16-by-25-foot "dog run." They are not allowed phone calls or contact visits. Clocks, playing cards and chessboards are banned.

My guide asks me how it compares to Iran, where I was held for 26 months. I want to tell him that no part of my experience - not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners - was worse than the four months I spent in solitary.

But that's not what comes out. All I can say is, "I had a window." For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through that barred and grated opening. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground, utterly broken, it was this patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow movement against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.

At Pelican Bay's SHU, there are no windows.

An extended version of Shane's piece can be found at Mother Jones: Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons..
the fact that Pennington is in solitary is not what is remarkable about his story. More than 80,000 people were in solitary confinement in the United States in 2005, the last time the federal government released such data. In California alone, at least 11,730 people are housed in some form of isolation. What is unique about Pennington - if being one of thousands can be considered unique - is that he doesn't know when, or if, he will get out of the SHU. Like at least 3,808 others in California, he is serving an indeterminate sentence.
Mother Jones also made with video with Shane Bauer.

They're fighting it in the courts.

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The Center for Constitutional Rights, the same group fighting Stop & Frisk in New York City, has committed to a lawsuit against prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement.

In May 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a lawsuit against the state of California for its use of prolonged solitary confinement in the infamous Pelican Bay prison. Ruiz, et al. v. Brown, Jr., et al., is a federal class action challenging prolonged solitary confinement and deprivation of due process, based on the rights guaranteed under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, at Pelican Bay. The case challenges inhumane, unconstitutional conditions under which thousands of prisoners live.
(The American Civil Liberties Union has also filed a lawsuit, Peoples v Fischer, challenging New York State's solitary confinement policies).

The bottom line.

It's hard to gin up sympathy and support for people most perceive as the worst of the worst. And there may be a few prisoners who are so dangerous they need to be isolated. But that is not what the system is doing.

Ever since solitary confinement came into existence, it has been used as a tool of repression. While it is justified by corrections officials as necessary to protect prisoners and guards from violent superpredators, all too often it is imposed on individuals, particularly prisoners of color, who threaten prison administrations in an altogether different way. Consistently, jailhouse lawyers and jailhouse doctors, who administer to the needs of their fellow prisoners behind bars, are placed in solitary confinement. They are joined by political prisoners from various civil rights and independence movements.
As it is with the rest of America's prison system, California's SHU goes far beyond what the rest of the world deems necessary and proper, even when it is not being used as retribution - even in the treatment of those who have committed the most horrendous of crimes.

It's far beyond time California, and America, began to act civilized. It's time to recognize those - inside and outside - who are fighting for this goal, and to support them.

You can help.

10:47 AM PT:
On July 13, we will mobilize from around California to Corcoran State Prison, which isolates over 1,600 people in solitary confinement. We must take this movement to the prison gates and show Jerry Brown and the Department of Corrections that we support the prisoners and demand that Jerry Brown meet with the representatives immediately to negotiate the end of the strike.

California currently holds nearly 12,000 people in extreme isolation. The state spends over $60 million per year on maintaining prisoners in isolation.

Demand the State of California stop the torture!

Show your support for the hunger strikers!

Organize to help win their demands!

Rally at Corcoran State Prison on July 13th!


Originally posted to jpmassar on Sun Jun 09, 2013 at 08:42 AM PDT.

Also republished by Occupy Wall Street, California politics, SFKossacks, Progressive Policy Zone, and Trial Watch.

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