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Choosing Death Over Life: (Still) Starving to Stop Solitary

Objecting to abusive conditions at California’s Pelican Bay Prison, prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) have reached Day 22 of their last-ditch effort to be heard — starving themselves.
Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
Tanya Greene,
Advocacy and Policy Counsel,
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July 22, 2011

Imagine having so few rights that refusing to eat the nutrient-less rations shoved through a hole in the door of the concrete box you call home is your only hope of bringing attention to your plight. The prisoners of California’s Pelican Bay Prison don’t have to imagine, and neither do the thousands of prisoners across the state who continue to refuse meals in solidarity with those isolated in Pelican Bay’s “barbarous confinement.”

Objecting to abusive conditions of confinement including endless and arbitrary solitary confinement that can last years, race-based group punishment, a corrupt “debriefing” process, inadequate food, and lack of education and recreation programs, prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) have reached Day 22 of their last-ditch effort to be heard, which we’ve written about before. From the confines of their bathroom-sized, windowless concrete cells, prisoners have resorted to starving themselves – a desperate act so extreme it’s difficult to imagine the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has still refused to address their concerns. And yet the strike continues, and strikers are getting ill and closer to death.

Just this year the United States Supreme Court confirmed in Brown v. Plata that California’s prison system is deeply troubled – but the prisoners at Pelican Bay are letting us know that the trouble stretches far beyond overcrowding. The severity of what is possibly the largest act of coordinated prison resistance in United States history more than 6500 prisoners are involved so far, officials admit – speaks volumes.

There are lots of problems with solitary confinement: it exacerbates rather than treats the problems of those it imprisons. The construction and maintenance of these dismal, often underground, holding cells costs two to three times more than that of conventional prisons. And those who do get a chance to reenter society usually don’t succeed – the harmful and unnatural impact of this kind of isolation results in higher-than-average recidivism rates.

This year, Maine, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado Departments of Corrections and legislatures began assessing and reforming the horrors of solitary confinement in their own states. Now it’s time for California to clean up its act.

As the strike continues, the situation grows grimmer by the hour. As of yesterday, though the CDCR declared the strike over, more than 500 inmates continue to refuse meals. Hundreds have been transferred from Pelican Bay to Corcoran and other prisons, and the CDCR has severely restricted their access to reporters. The ACLU urges that media access be provided immediately so that the true status can be known.

TO HELP: take a few minutes to contact Matthew Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and California Gov. Jerry Brown. Tell them you do not agree with the conditions the prisoners in the SHU are (barely) living under and that you won’t stand for the cruelty of keeping a human being alone in a windowless, concrete box for weeks, months, years, and even decades.

Solitary confinement must be reformed before it’s too late.

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