Hunger Strike Protests Solitary Confinement in California Prisons

California’s Catholic bishops have requested that state leaders investigate the alleged overuse of such detentions by prison officials.

Aerial view of Pelican Bay Prison
Aerial view of Pelican Bay Prison (photo: Wikipedia)

LOS ANGELES — A massive prisoner hunger strike in California state prisons has prompted calls from the Catholic Church and prisoner advocates for an independent investigation into the prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners — some of them held in isolation for decades — and a review of the reforms prison officials have attempted to put in place.

California is in the midst of a lengthy prison hunger strike, provoked largely over the state’s indefinite detention of prisoners in solitary confinement. It is the second hunger strike since 2011, and the California Catholic bishops have called upon state leaders to convene an independent commission to investigate the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s alleged “overuse of solitary confinement, violations of CDCR treatment policies of prisoners in the Secure Housing Units (SHU) and threats against prisoners participating in this current non-violent demonstration on the inhumane treatment of human beings.”

“The California [Conference of] Catholic Bishops and its conference staff have been in dialogue with the CDCR for 12 years on the very issues being surfaced now, hoping that they would have been resolved. Sadly, this has not happened,” said Bishop Richard Garcia, chairman of the California Conference of Catholic Bishops' Restorative Justice Committee, in a July 12 statement.

Bishop Garcia said the SHU served “no restorative or rehabilitative purpose” and noted that prolonged isolation past 15 days could be considered torture by international standards.

“No one affected by crime is helped when a human being is subjected to this inhumane form of punishment. It is time for change now,” he said.

The prison hunger strike began July 8, when 30,000 prisoners reportedly refused state-issued food. The CDCR officially recognized the strike on July 11, when 12,341 inmates had not eaten for three days (missing nine consecutive meals). As of July 30, the number of hunger strikers dwindled to 521 inmates in eight prisons, but the prison death of alleged hunger striker Billy Sell — ruled a suicide by CDCR officials — has put renewed scrutiny on the morality of indefinite prisoner isolation in the SHU.

The strike, organized in part by convicted murderer and Aryan Brotherhood gang member Todd Ashker, demanded an end to “long-term solitary confinement” in its “five core demands.” It also called for an immediate release of prisoners into the general prison population for inmates locked up for the past 10-40 years in 80-square-foot SHUs.

The other core demands listed by the coalition Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity included abolishing group punishment for individual inmate violations, eliminating the inmate debriefing policy perceived by some prisoners as “snitching” on one’s gang, improving inmate nutrition and expanding inmates’ communication with the outside world.

Bishop Garcia told the Register that the California bishops are approaching the issue of securing prisoner human dignity from a “restorative-justice perspective.”

“This includes reaching out to the victims of a crime and their families and to the perpetrators and their families as well,” Bishop Garcia said. “The dignity of each human person must be valued and respected because God teaches so much about the importance of repentance and also forgiveness.”


Reforms Under Scrutiny

However, the prisoners’ “five core demands” have already been met by CDCR reforms, said CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

“We’ve addressed all those concerns,” Thornton told the Register. “We started implementing the reforms last October.”

In October, the CDCR reported more than 3,100 gang members were housed in SHUs. Since then, the CDCR reports 382 cases have been individually reviewed, and more than 200 inmates have been approved for transfer to the general inmate population.

Thornton said the CDCR has moved to a “behavior-based reform” and is piloting a new step-down program to provide gang-validated prisoners a way out of the SHU. She said the department has trained gang investigators in the new policies, and it is conducting case-by-case reviews of prisoners with alleged gang ties. The reforms give inmates a path out of the SHU, she said, and require them only to renounce gang violence, not their gang membership.

“In as little as four years or less, they can be out of the SHU and back in the general population,” she said. The CDCR reports 115 inmates are at various stages in the step-down program.

Thornton said that prison investigators have a “debriefing process” for members who want to leave their gangs. Investigators only determine that a SHU inmate has actually left his gang, Thornton said, and they do not require prisoners to share information or “snitch” on their gangs. She said CDRC gives protection to former gang members and their families from reprisals for leaving gangs.

SHU: Torture or Anti-Gang Tool?

Thornton said the debate over the use of SHUs has to take into account the issue of gangs and gang leaders.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that, in the city of Los Angeles, gang-related murders accounted for 61% of homicides for youth 15-24 years old. In the city of Long Beach, Calif., that statistic rose to 69%.

The SHU, Thornton explained, is part of the CDRC’s strategy to interrupt communications between gang leaders and gang members, which could endanger those inside and outside the prison walls.

Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said the California bishops were not “naive” that most SHU inmates were gang-connected.

“The challenge has always been: How do you assess the impact of [prolonged isolation] on a human being?” he said.

 According to Juan Méndez, the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, solitary confinement is defined as 22 hours of isolation per day, even with guards present, for any period longer than 15 days.

Mendez submitted a report in 2011 to the U.N. General Assembly committee dealing with social, humanitarian and cultural affairs, urging countries to ban solitary confinement, saying the practice could amount to “torture” and should only be used in exceptional circumstances for as short a period as is necessary.

Thornton, however, disputed that SHUs amount to “solitary confinement,” because prisoners have a mandated 10 hours of yard time a week.

“This is a modern correctional system, not the 1800s or 1700s,” she said.


Life in the SHU
Amnesty International has urged California officials to adopt the U.N. norms on solitary confinement and find a better way to stop gang violence and achieve prisoner safety without resorting to subjecting prisoners to years of isolation.

Thenjiwe McHarris, an expert with Amnesty International, told the Register the practice amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. Prisoners generally spend 22.5 hours of every day in their 80-square-foot cells, meaning a SHU prisoner isolated for a year spends roughly a total of 520 hours, or only 21 days, outside his cell; a SHU prisoner isolated for a decade would have spent a total of 7 months outside.

“You have no real human contact with your family, other people you might have known or the general prison population,” McHarris said. “You really are alone.”

McHarris said that, at the Pelican Bay Prison, a SHU prisoner’s 90 minutes outside the SHU per day look very bleak.

“You’re looking at a very small concrete yard, with no real access to sunlight, to fresh air, and there is very little to do in that space,” she said.

Amnesty has outlined its concerns regarding the use of SHU in a report entitled “The Edge of Endurance.”


Extreme Measures?

Both Amnesty and the California Catholic Conference have expressed concern about allegations that CDCR has taken extreme measures to end the hunger strike.

McHarris said Amnesty has received reports that prison authorities have blown cold air into the cells of hunger strikers and confiscated prisoners' fluids, hygiene products and legal materials, as well as other employed disciplinary measures, including increased isolation in the SHU.

The group Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity alleged that SHU inmate Billy Sell was a hunger striker who died in his cell after staff denied repeated requests for medical attention. The CDRC disputes that Sell was a hunger striker, and it ruled his death a suicide.

“These hunger strikers have a right to engage in peaceful protest; they should not be subjected to what California state prison authorities are subjecting them to,” McHarris said.

Thornton denied that prison authorities were taking any punitive measures other than what is prescribed by law to end the hunger strike. She also stated that prisoner medical attention has been the responsibility of the federal government, not the CDCR, since 2006.

However, Thornton did say that prisoners seemed to have a “lack of understanding” about how the reforms are being implemented and that administrators sharing information about them has had a positive effect on the strike.

“We want people to know we instituted this reform, not because we had to, but because it is the right thing to do,” she said.

Call for Independent Oversight

Still, the California bishops have called on Gov. Jerry Brown to establish an “outside oversight committee” to independently investigate and address any potential human-rights violations.

Dolejsi said the use of SHUs poses “a very complicated issue,” and the California bishops do recognize limited conditions in which SHU may have “value or circumstances in which they could be used.”

“There are very dangerous people in there,” he said. “But we charge people in the corrections system to make responsible judgments based on human dignity and serving the common good.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.