Isolated California inmates keep seeking change with hunger strike

jwhite@sacbee.comJuly 21, 2013 

7W21PRISON

Lt. Rick Graves stands in the inmate concrete exercise yard at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City. Prisoners are protesting the rules and duration of solitary confinement.

JIM WILSON — New York Times file, 2012

Severed from the rest of the world, California inmates in solitary confinement are once again hoping to starve their way to change.

For the third time in two years, prisoners who decry solitary confinement as a human rights violation have embarked on a hunger strike. They are clashing with corrections officials who call prolonged isolation a necessary tool to fight violent gangs that disrupt prisons and intimidate other inmates.

"Conditions have worsened" since the first two strikes, said Kamau Walton, a spokeswoman for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, and this time, barring some changes, "the prisoners are not going to be putting an end to it."

At issue is the widespread use of "segregated housing units," or SHUs: tiny, windowless cells used to wall off some inmates – including those who have committed offenses in prison, like murdering other inmates, and those who belong to prison gangs – from the other prisoners.

Driving the strike are accused gang members who have spent years secluded in SHUs. There are currently about 3,600 prisoners housed in solitary confinement, a figure that includes inmates facing open-ended stays and those with fixed terms for specific offenses.

As of Friday afternoon, the number of inmates refusing food had dwindled to 1,235 across 14 state prisons, down from more than 12,000 when the protest began last week.

Inmates and their allies cast the strike as a continuation of a pair of 2011 hunger strikes that also challenged California's solitary confinement policies.

Strikers relented so the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could make promised changes. Inmates did win some concessions, like being allowed to have winter caps and send annual photos of themselves to family members.

But a lack of progress on the broader solitary confinement framework has led prisoners to resume the protest, Walton said.

"CDCR said they would re-evaluate the processes, and, whether or not they did, nothing has changed," she said.

This time, leaders of the strike are projecting a determination and intensity that exceeds the previous strikes, according to Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee.

"There's a level of desperation that is palpable," Magnani said.

Officials reject the notion that nothing has changed. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for CDCR, pointed to a two-year pilot program to change the rules around solitary confinement. Thornton said officials had been mulling changes before the initial 2011 hunger strike began.

"The claims the hunger strikers are making are the same they made two years ago, and yet the policies are vastly different," Thornton said.

Launched in November of 2012, the program changes the process by which prison officials select inmates for indefinite segregated housing. Prisoners are now assigned to the units if their gang affiliation is proved through a points-based system that takes into account evidence like tattoos, reading material, talking to other gang members or a conviction stemming from gang-related behavior.

It also allows inmates in SHU units to enroll in an incremental "step-down" program. That process can take up to four years, a reduction from what has been a minimum six-year stay.

As of June, 208 inmates in the units had either been transferred or approved for transfer, and 115 were enrolled in different phases of the program, according to CDCR. Thornton said officials intend to review the status of every gang-identified inmate serving an indefinite term.

For prisoners and their allies, it isn't enough. Magnani praised officials for pursuing "very comprehensive changes" but said four years is far too long to remain in a situation she likened to psychological torture, particularly for inmates who have already spent years in isolation.

Advocates also assail the fact that prisoners labeled as gang members can be held in solitary confinement for a limitless amount of time.

"They haven't changed the fact that men can still live in isolation for decades on end without any hope of getting out," said Charles Carbone, a prisoners rights attorney who litigates gang validation cases.

Carbone argued that the new system for validating gang members is essentially the same as the old one, with a key difference: the universe of inmates eligible to be placed in SHUs now includes those who are "disruptive or violent, regardless of their gang affiliation," according to a set of recommendations CDCR is implementing.

"It becomes offensive to call it reform," said Carbone. "It's a change, but it's not a change for the better."

A list of demands published on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition also seeks an end to "debriefing," a process in which prisoners looking for a way out of the SHU share information on the gang in which they served.

Advocates say the process endangers inmates who risk being labeled snitches. Corrections officials counter that inmates who want to be released back into the general prison population must take steps to disassociate themselves from gang life.

"The department is always going to support an inmate who wants to drop out of a gang," Thornton said. "That's called rehabilitation."

The strike has drawn gestures of support from lawmakers. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who earlier this year convened a hearing on solitary confinement in his capacity as chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, issued a statement "urging prison officials to make more progress in establishing fair and humane policies."

"This is not always a population people want to defend," Ammiano told The Bee. "There's some egregious things people have done. But this is not using a scalpel, so to speak, it's using a machete to mete out justice."

The Center for Constitutional Rights has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of 10 inmates confined to SHUs at Pelican Bay State Prison maintaining that the current policies constitute cruel and unusual punishment and deprive inmates of due process. Between them, the inmates named as plaintiffs have spent more than 200 years in solitary confinement.

In August, a district court judge will consider a request to expand the challenge to a class-action lawsuit on behalf of other prisoners inhabiting SHUs. Jules Lobel of the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the attorneys representing the inmates, said the ultimate goal is to make the punishment fit the crime.

"Duration matters," Lobel said. "It's one thing to say we're going to put you in terrible conditions for two weeks, for two months. It's another thing to say we're going to put you in these conditions for 20 years."

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @CapitolAlert.

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