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California Hunger Strike Centers On Jail Within A Jail

Aaron Liu |
September 30, 2011 | 5:28 p.m. PDT

Associate News Editor

Prison official deny that SHU is solitary confinement. (Creative Commons)
Prison official deny that SHU is solitary confinement. (Creative Commons)
At least 3,370 prisoners throughout the California prison system this week are refusing eat state-issued meals in protest of conditions in Security Housing Unit (SHU) – a method of solitary confinement intended to punish prison crimes and break up gang activity by keeping dangerous prisoners locked up inside a jail within a jail.

Lack of communication has augmented the crisis. On one hand, the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity mediation team announced Sept. 28 that prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison, CCI Tehachapi, CSP Corcoran and Valley State Prison for Women have begun refusing food until prison officials heed to their request of ending the security unit as well as ending policies that confined inmates feel perpetuate gang killings within prison walls:

The prisoners are refusing food to protest what have been characterized by human rights groups as torturous conditions in California’s Securing Housing Units (SHUs) at Pelican Bay, CCI Tehachapi, CSP Corcoran and Valley State Prison for Women. Prisoners continue to rally around 5 demands, originating at Pelican Bay, which include an end to the practice of long term solitary confinement as well as the policies of gang validation and debriefing.

Despite this, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation remains unsure of the prisoner’s demands. They say that unlike the previous hunger strike in July, in which inmates wrote a letter to prison officials before the strike telling them of their demands, confined inmates did not communicate their intention to strike before the protests Monday.

“We don’t know why they started on Monday – we don’t know their demands” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman with the Department of Corrections. “None of those things have been communicated directly to us.”

The Department of Corrections reacted to the strike by warning prisoners they would be punished if they participated. They also sent a memo to prisoners saying officials were deliberating new prison policies. Huffington Post notes an article by California Watch which documents the potential changes:

A separate department memo also distributed to inmates today outlined the new policies being developed by senior corrections staff, including "increased privileges based upon disciplinary free behavior, a step down process for SHU (Security Housing Unit) inmates, and a system that better defines and weighs necessary points in the (gang) validation process." The memo warned that work on the new policies "may be delayed by large-scale inmate disturbances or other emergency circumstances."

Thornton noted there were two ways inmates could end up in confinement, with violent offenders in prisons locked determinately and gang affiliated inmates locked indeterminately. She also downplayed the extent of the security unit's reputation as a form of total isolation for inmates.

Still, inmates in the units have their constraints. Southern California Public Radio reports that inmates in "the SHU" spend almost 23 hours of their day confined to a window-less jail cell, removed from any sort of physical contact with the outside world:

The Department of Corrections says the SHU was designed to punish and control inmates that run prison gangs. Inmates say it’s a form of torture to coerce them to “rat” on other prisoners so they can get out of the SHU.

Some critics of SHU have pointed out that lack of recourse for some inmates, coupled with a lack of true isolation for others, have made the practice ineffective in the past. California Watch cited the story of two inmates – one a leader in the Mexican Mafia who commanded subordinates and orchestrated deadly turf wars from the unit's confines, another an inmate unable to clarify his innocence while in unit after being mistaken for being a gang member – as evidence for reform.

The Department of Corrections acknowledged that crimes have been committed behind the unit's bars.

“There have been numerous indictments about the impact of organized crime – that’s what prison gangs are – on our community.” said Thornton.

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