Hidden Behind Concrete and Barbed Wire: Hearings Expose Torture in California's SHUs
"My brother has been in Pelican Bay SHU for the last ten years. I'm here today to be the voice, not only for him, but for all of the prisoners who are suffering in the SHU and for all of the prisons in California. There are a lot of questions that I want answered. I want to know what our elected officials are going to do to change what's being done? Why is it 30 days later and still nothing has been done when the CDC agreed to part of the prisoners' demands? I want to know why my brother is tortured on a daily basis year after year. Why is he not fed correctly and why is he so pale and skinny? Why does my mom have to cry every time she goes to see him? Seeing everybody that has come out today just lights my fire, because I know that I am not alone and I can let him know that he is not alone."
Today we will inform the general public that our loved ones, our families and our friends are being severely tortured at Pelican Bay and the State hasn't done anything yet.
Dorsey Nunn, former prisoner, Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children,
and part of the negotiating team for the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers
On August 23, in Sacramento, attorneys, psychologists, religious leaders, and most of all former prisoners and their family members and loved ones testified on the savage treatment in California's Security Housing Units (SHUs). Their testimony revealed a prison system that can only be described as torture, a nightmarish system in which a prisoner can be thrown in solitary confinement for decades based on anonymous informants and rumors, a system which would be cruel and unjust if it were applied to animals and not human beings. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) also testified to defend and create public opinion for the prison system they run and its current practices, including the SHUs.
The hearings were called by State Senator Tom Ammiano and the California State Assembly Public Safety Committee in response to the 20-day hunger strike initiated by prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU on July 1, 2011. These prisoners put their lives on the line, demanding basic human rights. More than 6,500 prisoners across the state joined the strike when it was initiated.
More than 200 people rallied outside and then packed the hearing in support of the prisoners, many had driven all night from Los Angeles, San Diego and other parts of the state.
Very little of the content of these hearings was reported in the mainstream press. Earl Fears, a former prisoner at the Corcoran SHU said, "We call the SHU the 'silent killer' because you have not a voice on the outside to tell the public what goes on." It is important that this powerful testimony be heard. And spreading this testimony can be part of challenging these conditions and exposing the illegitimacy and inhumanity of a system that allows them to exist. What follows are excerpts from the testimony, interviews done by Revolution and comments made at a rally/press conference before the hearing.
"Treated worse than prisoners in any civilized nation"
"It's torture to put human beings in a 10 foot by 6 foot cell and leave them there for the rest of their lives. No human contact, no photo. Nothing for 20 or 30 years. Even a year, or less than a year is torture."
Kendra, a family member of a SHU prisoner
The SHU is designed to destroy the mind, body and soul of those who are inside. It's also designed to destroy the mind, body and soul of the families. The administrators have done a very good job of portraying our brothers inside as wild animals, as beasts. You see it on the news. They don't even refer to them as human beings—and that's what they are: human beings. They are guaranteed human rights. We must do everything we can to ensure that they get those rights."
Statement at the hearings by Richard Brown,
former Black Panther and member of the San Francisco 8
Laura Magnani from the American Friends Service Committee and author of a report exposing isolation in U.S. prisons testified that, across the U.S., 80,000 prisoners were being held in long-term isolation in 2000, a 40% increase from five years earlier. She said that most experts put the current number at 100,000 nationwide. "These are shocking statistics," Magnani said, noting that the UN Human Rights Commission has specified that prolonged solitary confinement is prohibited as a form of torture.
"Other practices associated with these units also involve torture," Magnani said, "such as violent cell extractions, three point restraints, or hogtying, and, most recently, a process called 'contraband watch' that puts prisoners in diapers leaving them in their own waste for days at a time."
Craig Haney, a professor of psychology and a nationally recognized expert on solitary confinement said Pelican Bay "exposes inmates to psychologically dangerous conditions of confinement... routinely worse than prisoners in any civilized nation anywhere else in the world are treated, under conditions that many nations and human rights organizations regard as torture." Haney quoted Judge Thelton Henderson, one of the first jurists to review conditions in Pelican Bay, who wrote that the SHU "may press against the outer limits of what humans can psychologically tolerate."
Rev. William McGarvey, a Presbyterian minister and representative of Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture, testified that solitary confinement results in "the destruction of the human spirit." He said that Native Americans and Rastafarians are often placed in solitary for refusing to cut their hair or remove dreadlocks. He also said that anti-Islamic prejudice is responsible for the ballooning solitary population in federal prisons where 60-75% in CMU's (Communication Management Units) are Muslims.
"My husband is housed in the Pelican Bay SHU and has been there since the prison first opened in 1989," Virginia told the panel. "That's 22 years, and all of those in the SHU. That should be unheard of in the United States of America but unfortunately it is not. He hasn't been allowed to get any sunlight, walk outside or get his picture taken in those 22 years. As of recent he cannot even have a wall calendar or drawing paper. Those were taken away and when asked why the answer is always for the safety and security of the prison. Our visits are only two hours long but the prison is far from anywhere, located just 20 miles from the Oregon border. We can't hold hands during visits like other inmates and their wives as our visits are behind glass."
Earl Fears, the former Corcoran SHU prisoner, described why he thought conditions in the SHU constitute torture: "We need to talk about hunger. We need to talk about things that go on behind the wall that are not known to people in society. We need to hear about things that happen that make grown men cry, a gangster cry, a con cry. ... I want to talk about what it's like to have a guard walk by your cell open the little flap and say, 'Mr. Fears, your mother died,' and then shut the flap and that's the end of the conversation. You're shut off from all society in the SHU. I can't get a phone call to my lawyer to let him know something is being done wrong in here. In the hole you don't have a phone call to call a lawyer. You don't have a phone call to call your mother, to call your brother, to call your son. You don't have that right."
Gang Validation: "At the mercy of CDCR's closed system"
The items that validated him are items that would not be uncommon for me to have in my backpack on any given day..."
A law student whose brother is in the SHU
One of the main demands of the prisoners has been an end to the process under which prisoners are sent to the SHU. This system called, "gang validation," has resulted in thousands being sent to the SHU as gang members with little or no factually supported collaboration of gang activity and with no chance of getting out except by "debriefing," meaning giving names of other supposed gang members.
Charles Carbone, an attorney who represents prisoners testified that, "The overwhelming majority of prisoners who are doing time in the SHU for gang validation have not committed a serious rules violation of any kind." Carbone said that the affiliation process is not based on "gang activity," in other words being involved in any activities by a gang which violate prison rules, but on "affiliation," mere association, and this can be—and is—defined very loosely.
Carbone said that only three pieces of "documentation" are needed to validate someone and send them to the SHU. According to Carbone one of the most widely used is the confidential informant and that there is no opportunity for someone facing validation to challenge this. Another item that can be used for gang validation can be a book that merely mentions an historical fact. Carbone said that books by or about 1960s prison leader and revolutionary George Jackson are often used to validate someone as a gang member. He also said that he had just heard that the book The Art of War by the ancient Chinese military leader Sun Tzu was also used as evidence of gang affiliation.
With this kind of "evidence" people are sent to the SHU with no review for a minimum of six years unless they debrief, go insane or die.
Here are some remarks by family members to the panel:
- A law student: "I have a brother in the Corcoran SHU and I wanted to talk about how people are ending up in the SHU and why they are being validated as gang members. My brother is not a gang member. He has never been found guilty of any gang activity. What he was validated for was a book written by George Jackson, which was an international best seller and which was assigned to me as part of my undergraduate studies at UC Riverside. It was required for me to read this book before I graduated. Another item was an article that he had written on Black culture. The third item was a photocopy of a book that he had on Black culture which had the name of a validated gang member written on it."
- Kendra's husband served eight years at Pelican Bay before being transferred to Calapatria State Prison. According to Kendra he was just falsely validated as being in a prison gang. She said that it's up to the gang cops to determine if there's enough evidence. Kendra described the process. "I think it's like three points. A point could be a confidential informant. It could be a little tattoo symbol. It could be pictures, symbols from Mexico, an Aztec symbol, they'll get you for that. You don't even need to have direct communication with a validated gang member. And there's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men being validated."
Kendra went on to say that they have also taken away her husband's visits for three years which she says they not supposed to do. Kendra's husband will have his next hearing in 2017. "We have a daughter and it's affecting her. She wants to go see him and I have to tell her she can't. He never had an assault on a prison staff. He is not a violent person. He was working a 40-hour-a-week job in the prison kitchen [before he was sent to the SHU]."
- Cynthia's brother has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay for 15 years and before that he was in the SHU at Corcoran, New Folsom and Old Folsom for 10 years. She said, "My parents are 82 and 76 and they haven't been able to touch their son, be close to him. They sit on the side of a glass partition and talk to him through a phone. I have done that also and it's a degrading thing. They haven't had pictures of him in, my God, I can't even tell you how long. His kids have never seen him except on the other side of a piece of glass.... We need change. We need humanity and we need to make sure our brothers, uncles, and children are not forgotten."
- Glenda Rojas testified of a family member who served ten months in the SHU after a false gang validation. She described how her family pulled together in support and ran up against roadblocks and threats as they tried to get her loved one out of the SHU. Along the way the CDCR "lost" important papers, did not return phone calls, were rude to her and other family members, and threatened the family saying that they should stop taking up the case "or else." Since then she has taken up helping the families of other prisoners in similar situations.
- Julie Tackett camped outside Pelican Bay in a tent during the hunger strike. Her loved one, Brian, has been in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay in the short corridor for 16 years. She read Brian's remarks prepared for the legislators: "I take full responsibility for being a young violent prisoner who got myself thrown into the SHU. I make no excuses nor do I try to blame others or justify my actions. But it has to be recognized that my validation as a gang member was based solely on a confidential debriefing report by inmates who could no longer continue to suffer under these conditions of perpetual isolation and solitary confinement. There is no individual responsibility under the CDC policies. I have now been in solitary confinement for over a decade, not based on CDCR rules violations, but rather on a false label put on myself by inmate informants broken under SHU conditions... We are at the mercy of CDCR's closed system."
Denial of Health Care
A formal complaint by Pelican Bay SHU inmates laying out their reasons for starting the hunger strike documented denial of adequate medical care to SHU prisoners. According to the prisoners complaint, starting in 2006, Pelican Bay began to "systematically discontinue and deny medication, specialist care, assistive aids by telling SHU inmates, 'if you want better care get out of the SHU' and now SHU inmates are chained down to the floor of the clinic like animals if they need to see a doctor/nurse.) The psychiatric staff are complicit too, claiming that "there are no mental health issues precluding continue SHU confinement", without any personal interaction with those inmates."
The following are excerpts from the testimony at the hearing about health care in the SHUs:
- Teresa, whose son has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay for eight years, said, "I have seen him physically beaten to where he has nerve damage to his ribs. I had one [outside] doctor tell me that it doesn't have to be permanent. The doctors there could help but they refuse to. These men have been physically beaten and mentally abused."
- Attorney Carol Strickman, a staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, told the panel, "We've heard many reports from prisoners at Pelican Bay that they have been told by the health care providers that if you want good medical care then debrief. The withholding of reasonable medical care is part of the coercion to get these guys to debrief."
- Earl Fears, who spent time in the Corcoran SHU, testified on the medical treatment he witnessed and experienced: "I want to talk about being a diabetic and not having my insulin shots given to me on time which could cause me to go into a coma. I want to talk about a person on dialysis who they don't seem to care if he gets to his treatments on time." Backing up Earl Fears is a recent inspector general report which found that "failure to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes is a central problem cited by a recent audit of 17 California prisons." (KGO-TV, February 23, 2011)
- Maria, with two sons in the Pelican Bay SHU, told how one son wrote to her about a growth in his eye shortly before the hunger strike began. Medical staff have refused to address his condition despite Maria's many phone calls.
- "My brother has been in the SHU for 19 years and it's only by the grace of God that he is not insane," Marie told the panel. "My sister needed a kidney. He was compatible with her. He tried to be able to give her his kidney but they didn't let him because he was in the SHU. She died last year."
- A number of prisoners and family members testified that after a while the skin color of those in the SHU begins to lighten. Israel, a young former SHU inmate said, "I know how it is to turn white when you are brown. I was in the SHU and locked up and your skin turns different colors when you've been there for a while. ...I'm not afraid to tell the world what's going on in there."
These hearings clearly demonstrated, with overwhelming evidence, the inhumanity, cruelty and illegitimacy of California's prison system, and the utter justness of the prisoner's hunger strike and their demands.
Tens of thousands of prisoners around the U.S. are being held in the kind of barbarous conditions that the prisoners at Pelican Bay have so courageously rebelled against. It remains very urgent that all those who oppose injustice and oppression continue to speak out and wage a determined fight to support the prisoners and their demands and put an end to this. This battle is not over!