The California prisons hunger strike began on July 8, with around 30,000 prisoners around the state taking part. Weeks later, 561 inmates in nine California prisons continued to refuse food and reports of a first death surfaced. The ongoing strike eventually led to a meeting between the prisons chief and inmate advocates last week.
The protestors are showing their solidarity with inmates at the remote Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City who are being held in solitary confinement in the “SHU,” or Solitary Housing Units, which is essentially a prison within a prison.
Decades In Solitary Confinement
In some cases prisoners have spent 25 years encased in concrete, almost entirely alone, with no view of the outside world except possibly through a television and without rehabilitation programs. California also requires inmates in the security units to be in cuffs or belly chains whenever they’re outside their cell or exercise areas. They can only meet visitors from behind thick glass.
(Silvia) Rogokos said her brother, Frank Reyna, has spent more than two decades in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, or SHU. She worries the prolonged isolation has permanently damaged Reyna, who was convicted of second-degree murder. “They’re kept in these cells for 22 hours. They go out and exercise in what looks like a dog pen. There’s no rehabilitation for them, (so) how can he better himself?”
Corrections officials insist the segregated housing is needed to control gang leaders and dangerous criminals. CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison said, “The reality is that inmates in the security housing unit determine themselves how long they’re there for. They can get out of the housing units through renouncing their connection to a gang, through behavior improvements and through debriefing.” In other words, by snitching on their fellow prisoners.
In any case, as NPR reports, more than 90% of the inmates are there because they are allegedly linked to violent prison gangs, but in fact these connections are tenuous at best. For over half of the men, the evidence for their connections to these gangs amounts to nothing more than tattoos, drawings or letters.
First Known Death
On July 22, Billy Sell, serving a life term for attempted murder, was found hanged in his cell in the security housing unit at the Corcoran State Prison in central California.
According to prison officials, the local coroner preliminarily ruled the death a suicide by strangulation. They also stated that there was no evidence that Sell’s participation in the hunger strike had been a factor.
However, inmate advocates disagree, saying that fellow prisoners reported Sell had been requesting medical attention for several days before his death, though a spokeswoman for a federal receiver overseeing state prison healthcare denied Sell was refused medical treatment.
Now Amnesty International is demanding that the state of California order a thorough, impartial investigation into the death of prisoner Billy Sell and make the results public.
California Prisons Chief Meets With Prisoners’ Advocates
In what appears to be a step forward, Jeffrey Beard, who is Governor Jerry Brown’s appointed head of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, met with advocates for inmates for the first time on August 2. Advocates included Ron Ahnen, president of California Prison Focus, which publishes a newsletter circulated to thousands of state inmates that hunger strike organizers used to broadcast their protests, along with representatives from the American Friends Service Committee.
Following the hour-long meeting with Beard, advocates who support the protesting inmates issued a statement:
We gave [Secretary Beard] ideas that would help bring the prisoners’ hunger strike to a just end in short order. We provided input for revisions to CDCR’s Security Threat Group Policy and Step Down pilot program. Our revisions are intended to create more humane conditions and circumstances. We urged him to follow the lead from other states, such as Illinois, Colorado and Mississippi, to end harsh and long term isolation practices.
A few temporary policy revisions are already in place, allowing some inmates classified as gang members to be moved out of the units based on their behavior.
However, Isaac Ontiveros, spokesman of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, said inmate advocates are seeking further substantive policy changes, which they discussed during Friday’s meeting.
We will wait to see the results of these negotiations, and hopefully they will be good.
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