On July 8, 30,000 prisoners refused meals in protest of what they say are inhumane conditions that exist in prisons across California. After 10 days, as we go to press 2,500 remain striking.
The core issue of the hunger strike in 24 prisons is the placement of inmates in small, windowless solitary confinement cells called Security Housing Units (SHU), for indeterminate lengths of time. Prison officials allege that it is a method of controlling gang activity in prison yards.
Isaac Ontiveros, of the prisoner advocacy group Critical Resistance, explains that “the United Nations states that holding a prisoner for 15 days or longer in solitary confinement is a method of torture. An average stay for prisoners in the SHU is 6 ½ years.”
Jose Villarreal, a Mission native currently locked in SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, notes that “…of the 60 prisoners in my cellblock, 55 are Latino, three are black and two are white.”
“I have seen this mirrored in every block I have been in, yet we hear nothing about imprisoned Raza who remain in the shadows,” he added.
Villarreal alleges that the majority of Pelican Bay State Prison’s inmates in SHU are Latino, who are “validated” by their contacts, tattoos, artwork, or reading as active gang members, and usually held in SHU for months or years at a time.
Dolores Canales, spokesperson for California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC), speaks to the harsh SHU confinement.
“Absolutely, we’re talking 10, 20, 30 years in SHU. The meals are meager, sometimes missing food items, the food tray is usually wet, which is unsanitary. Their exercise is only going from one cell into another cell.”
In a manifesto published by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSSC), a group supporting striking prisoners at Pelican Bay, Danny Murrillo—a prisoner who spent seven years in solitary confinement— describes a racist validation process: “I see primarily Latino and Black inmates targeted because they have drawings of Aztec, Mayan, or other indigenous cultures, or for having books by Malcolm X or George Jackson.”
“This policy says that culture, heritage, the memory of your ancestors, your political identity are a violation, and you can be placed in solitary confinement for the duration of your sentence, ranging from a couple months, to the rest of your life,” he added.
Most prisoners locked in SHUs are not fully validated. According to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR)-issued press release: “Twenty percent are validated, maintaining influence over street gangs and represent a significant threat to institution security. Eighty percent are associates, who carry out criminal activities for validated members.”
Inmates only exit SHUs by “debriefing,” or snitching on other active gang members, jeopardizing their own safety in the prison. In response, the CDCR has developed it’s own “Step-Down Program,” a multi-step program that provides increased privileges for validated inmates who refrain from gang behavior.
Carol Strickman, lawyer for Prisoners With Children, says “debriefing will continue unchanged, the Step Down program is not an effective solution…it’s basically a piece of paper in the prisoner’s file saying they progress to a particular step…but [CDCR] has told us that the program is not functioning, there aren’t enough prisoners in any given step, at any given prison for it to be meaningful yet.”
On July 12, 400 people convened at Corcoran State Prison in solidarity with the thousands of men still peacefully refusing meals in prisons across California. Despite vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight, and major loss of body weight from inactivity, the men continue to refuse nourishment, the only action left in making a final attempt to gain humane living conditions, and reclaim dignity.