California Prison Hunger Strikes Sparked Solitary Reforms, Internal Documents Show

The hunger strikes launched from Pelican Bay's SHU provided the impetus to changes in California's solitary confinement policies. Photo: Julie Small, KPCC.

The hunger strikes launched from Pelican Bay’s SHU provided the impetus to changes in California’s solitary confinement policies. Photo: Julie Small, KPCC.

How influential were the three hunger strikes held by California prisoners in spurring the sweeping changes to solitary confinement policies that were announced yesterday?

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has repeatedly stated that they were already planning to reform long-term solitary confinement before the hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013. But internal documents obtained by Solitary Watch dispute that narrative, showing the hunger strikes did in fact directly spark the first movements toward reform.

On Tuesday morning, in announcing the settlement of Ashker v. Brown, a class-action lawsuit seeking the end of long-term solitary confinement in California, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard told reporters that the settlement was only made possible by the department’s proactive efforts to reform segregation policies. Beard explained that the department began looking into reforms of solitary confinement in 2007 and later worked to create a Step Down Program. Without that program, Beard said, the settlement would not have been resolved.

CDCR spokesperson Jeffrey Callison later clarified Beard’s remarks as saying that “the effect of the hunger strikes and the Ashker lawsuit may well have influenced some of the details of today’s settlement, but that the general direction had already started.”

It is understandable that corrections officials want to avoid giving too much credit to the hunger strike leaders, who were also the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, as doing so might empower future actions against perceived ills.

In downplaying the power of the prisoner protests, the CDCR has proclaimed that they were already working to reform solitary confinement before the July 2011 hunger strike, which was subsequently followed by another in September-October of that year and a third, massive strike in the summer of 2013.

In a press release put out by the department in August 2013, at the conclusion of the last hunger strike, CDCR issued a public response to the demands of hunger strikers. “In May 2011, prior to two hunger strikes that year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) began revising its gang validation and Security Housing Unit (SHU) confinement policies and procedures,” the statement read.

In October 2013, CDCR released a fact sheet providing background information on the hunger strikes which explained that the July 2011 hunger strike ended “after Pelican Bay strike leaders better understood the…plans already in progress to review and change policies regarding SHU confinement and gang management.”

Most recently, this narrative surfaced in response to a July 1 piece on Solitary Watch, when CDCR sent an email requesting a correction. They said that the Warden’s Advisory Group which proposed reforms to the SHU and prison gang management, was formed two months before the July 2011 hunger strike, not afterwards, as we reported.

The truth, however, is that the first hunger strike directly served as a catalyst for change, and CDCRs own documents verify that.

In a special review dated October 17, 2011, the Office of the Inspector General informed State Sen. Darrell Steinberg of its findings reviewing CDCR’s response to the July hunger strike. “As a result of the July 2011 hunger strike, the department formed a Warden’s Advisory Group (WAG) to review the current gang management program and to develop recommendations for improvement,” the OIG reported. An internal CDCR memo further clarifies that the WAG was formed in October 2011.

In other words, the WAG wasn’t formed before the July 2011 hunger strike, but “as a result” of it.

[Read More…]

Hundreds may be moved out of windowless solitary confinement cells at Pelican Bay and other California prisons.

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