A Year After Mass Hunger Strike in California Prisons, What Has Changed?

By Victoria Law

CRESCENT CITY, Calif.—On July 8, 2013, 30,000 California prisoners launched what became a 60-day mass hunger strike. One year later, however, Luis Esquivel is still sitting in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in solitary confinement in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. “Right now, my uncle is in his cell with no windows,” said his niece, Maribel Herrera. “It’s like sitting in a bathroom – your sink is there, your toilet is there, your bed is there. And you’re just sitting there. I can only think about that for so long because it hurts.”

Herrera’s uncle has been in solitary confinement for 15 years. “I hadn’t seen my uncle since I was a child,” said Herrera. “I can’t even remember hugging him.” When she visited him in 2012, her first-ever visit to Pelican Bay, more than 850 miles away from her family’s home in San Diego, hers was the first visit Esquivel had received in seven years.

Esquivel is one of the plaintiffs in Ashker v. Brown, a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent 10 or more years in the SHU. In the SHU, people are locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Those accused of gang membership or association are placed in the SHU for an indeterminate length of time.

Accusations of gang involvement often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence. Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for more than a decade. Until recently, the only way to be released from the SHU was to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence.

The lawsuit, filed in 2012, followed two three-week mass hunger strikes the previous year. During each hunger strike, hunger strikers issued five core demands:

1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;

2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;

3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;

4. Provide adequate food;

5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

In 2013, prisoners struck again, reiterating their five core demands and issuing 40 additional demands, such as expunging all violations for participation in the 2011 strikes and prohibiting retaliation for those participating in the most recent strike.

The strike ended after California State Senator Loni Hancock, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Assembly member Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, promised to hold hearings around the issues raised by the hunger strikers. As reported earlier in Truthout, the legislators’ support pushed both the CDCR and the hunger strikers toward a resolution. Hearings were held in October 2013 and February 2014. Both Ammiano and Hancock introduced separate bills proposing time limits on solitary confinement. Ammiano’s bill did not pass. Hancock’s SB892, which has drawn criticism from both advocates and SHU prisoners, has been amended although it does not end the use of confidential informants in determining SHU placement. Those placed in the SHU before January 1, 2015, are to be placed in the Step Down Program no later than July 1, 2016, meaning that those who have already spent years in solitary confinement may still be awaiting review for up to another two years.

The Lawsuit, the Review Process and the Step Down Program

On Tuesday, June 2, 2014, a federal judge ruled in favor of class certification, allowing hundreds of California prisoners to join the suit. However, the class is limited to those held in Pelican Bay’s SHU for 10 or more years. Those held in other prisons’ SHUs are not included.

In March 2012, the CDCR released its plan changing SHU placement. Prisoners identified as part of Security Threat Groups (STGs) can be placed in the SHU. Advocates and prisoners charge that the STG designation would enable CDCR to place greater numbers of people in the SHU. Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a grassroots coalition of Bay Area-based organizations and community members, stated, “Under the old policies, a prisoner could be placed in the SHU for affiliation with any of seven prison gangs. Under the new program, any grouping of three or more prisoners can be added to the list as a “security threat group,” membership in which can result in a SHU term.”

That same year, CDCR unveiled its new Step Down program for those serving indefinite SHU sentences for gang membership or association. In an email to Truthout, CDCR Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton notes that, under the Step Down program, prisoners are not required to debrief or drop out of their gang. But debriefing has not been eliminated: A validated gang member or associate can still choose to debrief instead of completing the Step Down program; that person would then be moved to a Transitional Housing Unit.

PQ Despite CDCR’s earlier assertions that the hunger strike was fomented by gang leaders and that participation in the hunger strike might be considered negatively during the Step Down review, hunger strikers have been moved out of the SHU.

As of June 9, 2014, CDCR has conducted 828 case-by-case reviews of prisoners housed in the SHUs and Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs) on STG charges. Of those reviewed, 557 have been released to Step Five, which is general population housing. Two hundred thirty-one people have been placed in Steps One through Four, six are going through the debriefing process and the rest remain in the ASU.

Sitawa Nantumbu Jamaa, one of the plaintiffs in Ashker, went through the review process in May 2014. He was placed in Step Three. “We thought he’d get Step Five being that he’s not a gang member,” his sister Marie Levin told Truthout. “But he’s not being taken out of the SHU. He’ll still be behind glass as far as visiting is concerned.” Jamaa is scheduled to be moved to the SHU in Tehachapi within four to six weeks.

Despite CDCR’s earlier assertions that the hunger strike was fomented by gang leaders and that participation in the hunger strike might be considered negatively during the Step Down review, hunger strikers have been moved out of the SHU. Paul Redd, another Ashker plaintiff who had participated in all three strikes, was recently approved for transfer to general population at Corcoran State Prison after more than 20 years in the SHU. Three other plaintiffs – Danny Troxell, Jeffrey Franklin and Gabriel Reyes, have also been placed in the Step Down program and transferred out of Pelican Bay.  “If they’re out of the Pelican Bay SHU, they’re no longer in our class,” attorney Anne Weills told Truthout. However, unless the judge rules otherwise, the five plaintiffs recently transferred from Pelican Bay will remain as named plaintiffs.

Lorenzo Benton, who spent more than 25 years in the SHU, was also transferred to general population after the review process. He was sent to another prison where he was assigned to both a work program and a vocational training program. He described “sucking up the sun” each time he goes out to the yard. “I even had the opportunity for semi-night (7 to 8:30 pm) yard for the first time of my 38 years of incarceration,” he wrote in a letter to Truthout. “The summer skies and summer breeze was wonderful as I took in the sunset.”

Release from the SHU also comes with surveillance and the threat of being returned: “Within days of my arrival, I was subject to an interview and an advisement by the institutional gang investigation (IGI) unit here. They laid out their expectation, such as no gang and/or criminal activities, random urinalysis and cell searches, monitoring of one’s movements and activities, and an every so often interview on one’s actions here. They even closed with the statement, ‘That they look forward to the Step Down Program working out.’ “

He remains unconcerned, noting, “Gang activity is not something I choose or elect to involve myself with nor is it a practice of mine.”

CDCR Proposes to Ban Certain Publications

Both Benton and Redd seem confident that they can steer clear of all allegations of gang activity. However, the CDCR’s proposed new regulations around publications may make it more difficult for them to stay informed of prison activism and policy changes while also avoiding charges of associating with validated Security Threat Groups.

On April 4, 2014, CDCR announced proposed new changes expanding the definition of contraband (or prohibited possessions) to include “written materials or photographs that indicate an association with validated STG members or associates.” Possessing these materials can lead to being labeled an STG member or associate and placement in the SHU.

Censorship of publications is not new. Daletha Hayden, mother of one hunger striker, recounts handing out fliers in the parking lot of Corcoran State Prison during the 2011 hunger strike. She met a person from the prison’s mailroom who informed her that mailroom staff were throwing away publications. The editor of the San Francisco Bay View noted, “In 2013, every month’s issue of the Bay View from January to June except February’s was ‘disallowed’ at Pelican Bay State Prison and withheld until well after the hunger strike began on July 8. Those issues were packed with letters from prisoners explaining and discussing the reasons for the upcoming strike.”

“The proposed change is absolutely a response to the hunger strike, the activism, the organizing and the media [coverage],” stated Weills. “It’s meant to attack and isolate prisoners, to cut their voices to the outside world as well as to other prisoners. Media was a clear mechanism for doing so.”

Family Members Organizing

Family members have been actively organizing to abolish solitary confinement. Dolores Canales, whose son has spent 13 years in the SHU, originally became involved with hunger strike support during the 2011 hunger strike. “I just wanted to know when my son was going to eat,” she recounted. But she had no intention of changing SHU policies. “I had accepted it as the way it was.”

That same year, Daletha Hayden drove to Sacramento to learn how she could support her son Ian, who was also participating in the 2011 strike. Ian has spent six years in the SHU at Tehachapi on charges of gang association. “I haven’t been able to hug, touch or kiss my son in six years,” she stated. “I only get a one-hour visit each week and they [prison staff] are very strict about that one hour. Sometimes they even short me that.”

Like Canales, Hayden had no prior connection with prison justice organizing. Her son sent her California Prison Focus, a publication located in Oakland. Hayden looked up the group’s website and saw that they were having a meeting. “I jumped in my car and went,” she told Truthout. She started learning about other organizations fighting for prisoners’ rights and against prison expansion, such as CURB (Californians United for a Responsible Budget). She also met Canales and other women who formed the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC).

Herrera has a similar story. During the 2011 strike, she and her family drove from their home in San Diego to Los Angeles. “We didn’t know anyone there,” she recounted. “We just set our GPS, got to Los Angeles and started rallying.” She and her family drove to Los Angeles for every rally and protest that year.

Family members also joined the mediation team that met with CDCR to negotiate the hunger strikers’ demands. During the 2013 hunger strike, CDCR secretary Jeffrey Beard requested that family members not attend his meeting with the mediation team. “He had said that he didn’t want to meet with family members during the hunger strike because he thought it would be too emotional,” Canales recounted. Instead, he offered to meet with family members after the strike was resolved. Five family members, including Canales and Levin, were scheduled to meet with Beard in June.

Even after the strike, family members continue to organize, driving several hours to meet with other families, sometimes as frequently as once a week. “We’re not going away,” stated Canales. “If anything, even more family members are willing to get involved.” She noted that people inside the SHUs are urging their loved ones to join advocacy efforts and that CFASC’s visibility has given them an opportunity to do so. “A lot of family members had no way of getting involved before,” she explained. “They didn’t know how to do so. They feel isolated with having a loved one in prison, but, with CFASC, they can find encouragement. We know what each other are going through.”

Their organizing has not only raised visibility of prison conditions among the general public, but it has also allowed family members to support each other. “I now am surrounded by family members whose loved ones have been in solitary confinement for 20, 30 years,” reflected Canales, who was recently awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship to continue her organizing with family members to end solitary confinement and decrease mass incarceration. “We draw our strength from each other. We’re growing our family movement. To speak out, to no longer accept that this is the way it is.”

Family members in both Southern and Northern California are planning events to commemorate the strike’s one-year anniversary as well as to remind the public about the issues. In the Bay Area, Levin and other family members and supporters will hold a rally. In Los Angeles, family members are planning events all day, including a morning rally at the state building, an afternoon get-together including a barbecue in San Bernadino, and a candlelight vigil that night.

“We Are Not the Worst of the Worst”

Those who have gone through the Step Down program have not forgotten those they left behind. One month after his release to general population, Lorenzo Benton wrote, “For me, this [my release into general population] was further assurance that I, as well as others, were wrongfully being held in SHU on indeterminate status for all those years (and some still are), after being labeled ‘the worst of the worst.’ Such a review shed light on much. We are not the worst of the worst. All need a chance at our freedom, whether in prison or in society, because we are all children of humanity who want a better life.”

This article originally appeared at Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.




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