One year ago on July 1, 2011, approximately 6,600 inmates across California launched a hunger strike in protest of conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison. The leaders of the strike were a group of prisoners referred to as the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective, a multiracial group of prisoners.
The group issued five demands:
1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse
2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria
3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement
4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food
5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates.
The strike would last three weeks before coming to an end. Several strikers would be hospitalized. The strike brought attention to the widespread use of solitary confinement in California; currently, approximately three thousand inmates are held in one of California’s three Security Housing Units, where inmates determined to be gang members are sentenced to indefinite terms in solitary confinement. Those sentenced to the SHU for gang validation must either become an informant and leave the gang, must be inactive for six years, or they must parole from their sentence; the phrase “Parole, Snitch, or Die” captures the means of leaving the SHU.
The strike prompted the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee to hold a hearing on the issue of long-term solitary confinement in California’s prisons. Corrections officials defended their use of the SHU, arguing that it was necessary in controlling prison gangs. Critics pointed to the mounting evidence of the detrimental effects of solitary confinement, the absence of due process in gang validation, and the fact that many inmates have been isolated for decades.
The hunger strike would not be the last. On September 26, 2011, prisoners would launch another hunger strike that would also last approximately three weeks.
At least two hunger strikers would commit suicide.
In March 2012, California Correctional officials released a new gang validation policy. The plan revised the criteria for being validated a gang member and implemented a step-down program in which inmates could hypothetically be released from the SHU in four years, instead of the average of 6.8 years.
Many of the original hunger strike leaders issued a counterproposal. Several have commented that the proposed reforms are inadequate and argue instead that placement in solitary should be based on conduct rather than real or suspected prison gang membership.
On May 31, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Pelican Bay SHU inmates who have been in solitary confinement for over 10 years, arguing that such long terms in solitary constitute violations of the Eighth Amendment. In addition the lawsuit challenges the gang validation system, arguing that the current system is a denial of Due Process rights.
To date, there remain over 3,000 inmates in Security Housing Units, and thousands more housed in solitary confinement in one of several Administrative Segregation Units across the state.
It remains to be seen how the new CDCR policies are implemented and how the many inmates effected by them will react.
Writings from Hunger Strikers:
Profile of a Pelican Bay Hunger Striker
Prisoners Respond to Policy Reforms