Pelican Bay is not Enough!! Continuing the Struggle Against Extreme Isolation and Sensory Deprivation

By Victoria Law, criticalmassprogress.com

Last month, prisoners across California ended a nearly three-week hunger strike. The strikers, who numbered 12,000 at the strike’s peak, had 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.

The strike, the second three-week hunger strike to rock California’s prison system this year alone, was called by men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The SHU is explicitly designed to keep prisoners in long-term solitary confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. Men are locked into their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door.

Prison administrators place men in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term because they were “validated” as prison gang members. Prisoners who have been “validated” as gang members are released from the SHU into the general prison population only if they “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefs and his family on the outside. In addition, prisoners are often falsely identified as gang members by others who debrief in order to escape the SHU. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member to be sent to the SHU: jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU.

Nearly three weeks after the strike began, the CDCR promised both the hunger strikers and members of the outside mediation team to review every single SHU placement under new criteria. In response, the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay ended their strike on October 13th. Two days later, hunger strikers at Calipatria State Prison halted their strike, stating that they were enabling prisoners to regain their strength.

But the struggle over the SHU is only the beginning.

Laura Magnani is the regional director of the American Friends Service Committee and served as a mediator during negotiations between the hunger strikers and the CDCR. She points out that, in 2008, 14,500 people in California’s state prisons were held in some form of solitary confinement. Of those, only 3,500 were in Security Housing Units. The remaining 11,000 are held in other forms of isolation, such as Administrative Segregation. The promised changes to SHU policy will do little to ameliorate their own torture. Once the changes have been drafted, reviewed and approved, she said, advocates and supporters need to work to expand these new policies to non-SHU isolation units. (1)

Conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation are not unique to California. Over the last 25 to 30 years, the use of extended solitary confinement has become more routine in U.S. prisons.

In 1986, the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, opened a control unit specifically for women political prisoners in 1986. It was built underground and entirely white. Women were prohibited from hanging anything on the white walls, causing them to begin hallucinating black spots and strings on the walls and floors. Their sole contact with prison staff came in the form of voices addressing them over loudspeakers. The unit was shut down in 1988 after an outside campaign and a court decision that determined their placement unconstitutional. The practice of solitary confinement continues today, however, with jailhouse lawyers and other incarcerated activists often targeted. (2)

Today, there are 20,000 people held in supermax prisons, institutions designed to permanently isolate each prisoner for the duration of his or her sentence. Supermax prisoners are confined to small cells 24 hours a day. Many of the cells have no windows and are soundproof. Visits, phone calls and mail from family and friends are severely restricted; reading material is censored. Exercise is a solitary pursuit in a small cage in a yard.(3)

Approximately 80,000 people are in some form of solitary confinement across the United States.


In 1996, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which manages the federal prison system, created the Special Administrative Measures (SAMS). Under SAMS, a prisoner is held in 23 to 24 hour solitary confinement. All of his mail is monitored and censored. He is only allowed contact with immediate family members. Under SAMS, they are not allowed to reveal their loved one’s condition or the conditions of his confinement. SAMs, which are considered “administrative,” not punitive, can be imposed on a prisoner who had been classified as violent for a maximum of four months. After September 11th, the time limit was expanded. The Attorney General can now place a person under SAMS for an entire year. When that year is over, he can renew the prisoner’s SAMS status. Prisoners can be and have been placed under SAMs during their pre-trial detention. Fahad Hashmi, a U.S. citizen accused of providing material support to terrorists, spent three years under SAMs before he even went to trial. At his sentencing, his speech was rapid. When asked to slow down, he apologized, noting that, because of his three years under SAMS, he has not had many occasions to talk to other people.(4)

The impact of extreme solitary confinement is not limited to Fahad Hashmi. Damion Echols was exonerated after spending 18 years in solitary confinement. During those 18 years, he had only walked in full restraints. Upon his release, he had to relearn how to walk. He also had to relearn how to see past a few feet; after 18 years, his eyes had become unused to seeing past the few feet inside his cell.(5)

Even a few weeks in solitary confinement can have drastic repercussions. Sarah Pender, held in solitary confinement in Indiana for three years, recently wrote about another woman on the solitary housing unit: “Just yesterday [she] was writing on the walls with her own blood. Before she cut her arms, she strangled herself with a shoestring until the guards found her purple. Before that, she used her fingernails to rip chunks of flesh out of her face. She had been held here for two months after essentially sassing a guard.” (6)

People in the U.S. are increasingly recognizing the use of solitary as a means of legalized torture. In 1988, continued public pressure and advocacy led to the shutting down of the control unit at FCI Lexington. Today, activists, advocates, family members and community members are fighting to draw attention to these atrocities and publicly pressure authorities to either release individual prisoners into general population or to drastically change procedures around solitary confinement.

The ACLU and Indiana Protection Services Agency filed a class-action lawsuit against the Indiana Department of Corrections on behalf of all prisoners held in solitary housing units that suffered from mental illness. The Federal District Court for Southern Indiana heard the case over the summer and is expected to make a decision at the end of this year.(7) Pender, who notes that her three-year stay in isolation is “one of the longest periods a woman has ever been held in isolation for a single, non-violent act in Indiana history,” filed a civil suit in April 2011 against specific prison officials raising similar claims regarding SHU conditions, lack of appropriate mental health care, and the mental health effects of solitary confinement.


Other tactics have also been used to raise awareness and outrage around solitary confinement: In October 2009, Theaters Against the War, Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative, along with individuals concerned about the human rights atrocities inflicted upon Fahad Hashmi by the SAMS, began holding weekly vigils outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. For seven months, these vigils continued with opera singers, theater artists, human rights and social justice activists supporting Hashmi’s friends, family and immediate community. As Hashmi’s trial neared, a call went out to fill the courtroom with supporters. The government responded by first asking for anonymity and extra security for the jury, thus implying that the jurors had reason to fear Hashmi’s supporters. It then dropped three of its charges, offering a 10 to 15 year sentence instead of a potential 70 year sentence if Hashmi pled guilty to the last remaining count of material support. The number of friends and supporters filled not only the courtroom but three overflow courtrooms on the day of Hashmi’s sentencing.(8)

During the hunger strike started at Pelican Bay, family members, advocates, and concerned community members across the country acted to draw attention to the hunger strike. In Oakland, supporters held a weekly vigil on Thursday evenings. On July 9, 2011, supporters organized demonstrations in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Nine days later, 200 family members, lawyers, and outside supporters from across California converged upon CDCR headquarters in Sacramento, delivered a petition of over 7,500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers, and then marched to Governor Brown’s office to demand answers. That same day, supporters in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York City, and Philadelphia also held solidarity rallies.

Compelled by the hunger strike, its ensuing publicity, and community pressure on legislators, the California Assembly’s Public Safety Commission held a hearing on SHU conditions on August 23. Former SHU prisoners, family members, attorneys, advocates, and psychiatrists testified about the need for substantial changes to SHU policies and practices. When the hunger strike resumed again in September, so too did the actions to keep the strike—and the conditions prompting it—in public consciousness.
On October 13, 2011, the day that the hunger strike ended at Pelican Bay, students, attorneys, civil rights activists, and family members convened at Brooklyn College for a one-day conference that connected the human rights atrocities in the federal prison system with the struggles of the prison justice movement. Attendees learned from each other’s struggles and experiences and built bridges between movements that often work separately.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, 60 people braved the November rain to rally outside the NC Division of Prisons. The protest was co-organized by anti-prison activists and members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, a group whose imprisoned members have been harassed and segregated within the NC prison system. Outraged by this harassment, the continued targeting of politically-active North Carolina prisoners, and the recent hunger strike in California, the rally focused on solitary confinement with banners stating, “Against Solitary—Love for All Prison Rebels,” “Solitary is Torture” and “Against Prisons.”

Protesters marched form the Division of Prisons to the rear of the men’s Central Prison. Although police prevented the march from reaching the prison fence, the prisoners could see the protest from the windows and, in response, banged on the glass.


Concerns about solitary confinement are not limited to activists, advocates and family members. The European Convention on Human Rights holds that the extreme isolation in ADX Florence amounts to torture, stating that “complete sensory isolation, coupled with total social isolation, can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security or any other reason.” On October 18, 2011, Juan Mendez, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, presented a written report on solitary confinement in the U.S. to the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee. He stated that solitary confinement “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles. Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, supermax, the hole, secure housing unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion (of information) technique.” He called for a ban on any type of solitary confinement exceeding 15 days.

What does all this mean for the 80,000 people isolated in extreme solitary confinement right now?
“It’s nearing the end of 2011,” wrote Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay. “How is it that thousands of prisoners in SHU-type units across the country are being subject to conditions the International Courts have condemned as torture?” (10)

On the day that the Pelican Bay hunger strike ended, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights exhorted the audience at Brooklyn College: “We need to build on the momentum of Pelican Bay, Bradley Manning and other cases.” (11)

Let us take these words—and the organizing of those both in and out of prison—as a call to action.

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