Look for the title “Joint Informational Hearing on Segregation Policies in California Prisons” dated October 9, 2013. It is just about four hours long, so it’s a very big file and takes a long time to download.
Some California prisoners got good news on Friday: the Federal Communications Commission agreed to limit how much companies can charge for phone calls made from behind bars. But this welcome reform does not affect SHU prisoners. Why? Because SHU prisoners in California are not allowed to call home. Lack of family phone calls is one of the reasons why California’s SHU cells are characterized as solitary confinement – the harsh deprivation of family and social ties.
Prisoners in the SHU are not even allowed to write letters to their loved ones, if their loved ones are also incarcerated. The letters they are allowed to write are copied and scrutinized by gang investigators for evidence of gang involvement. And gang investigators find “gang involvement” everywhere they look – even in the drawings of a five year old girl who sends her artwork to her daddy. Imagine a little girl getting her drawing back from the prison because it is considered gang-related. Gang investigators will even reach out to family members and friends who write to SHU prisoners, warning them that they face possible investigation themselves merely for corresponding with a SHU prisoner.
SHU prisoners in long-term solitary confinement value their family relationships above all else. So that is what SHU prisons try to destroy. Consider this: a mother with two sons in prisons (one in general population and one in SHU) cannot write to both. Why? Because she knows that gang investigators will link her sons to each other through her address, thereby jeopardizing the son in general population with gang validation and placement in SHU.
This is the meaning of cruel and unusual punishment. How long would you tolerate these sorts of attacks on you and your family? Would you be driven to hunger strike because of these and other cruelties?
CDCR has created the conditions that drive prisoners to desperation. Whether it be a lonely suicide in an isolation cell or a united peaceful protest, the message is clear: SHU prisoners have been pushed beyond the limit of what human beings should have to bear. It is horrifying to witness CDCR’s response to the current hunger strike: crank up the cruelty and let them die.
Today is Day 35.
On behalf of the Mediation Team, Carol Strickman, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, (510) 289-7225
Hunger Strike Mediation Team Dr. Ronald Ahnen, California Prison Focus and St. Mary’s College of California Barbara Becnel, Occupy4Prisoners.org Dolores Canales, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement Irene Huerta, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee Marilyn McMahon, California Prison Focus Carol Strickman, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children Azadeh Zohrabi, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children
The Stop Mass Incarceration Network and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, in support of the California prison hunger strikers and their five demands, invite the public to visit an installation of a life-sized mock Security Housing Unit (SHU) cell on the California State Capitol South Steps in Sacramento.
The cell will be on display – and you can walk right in to see how it feels – from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 14. A press conference, featuring Assemblymember and Public Safety Committee Chair Tom Ammiano, the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, people formerly incarcerated in California Department of Corrections (CDCR) SHUs, SHU prisoners’ families, and other voices of support and conscience will be held at noon.
IT'S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS since I've been inside a prison cell. Now I'm back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man's cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I'm taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can't get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I've ever inhabited. You can't pace in it.
Like in my dreams, I case the space for the means of staying sane. Is there a TV to watch, a book to read, a round object to toss? The pathetic artifacts of this inmate's life remind me of objects that were once everything to me: a stack of books, a handmade chessboard, a few scattered pieces of artwork taped to the concrete, a family photo, large manila envelopes full of letters. I know that these things are his world.
"So when you're in Iran and in solitary confinement," asks my guide, Lieutenant Chris Acosta, "was it different?" His tone makes clear that he believes an Iranian prison to be a bad place.
He's right about that. After being apprehended on the Iran-Iraq border, Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and I were held in Evin Prison's isolation ward for political prisoners. Sarah remained there for 13 months, Josh and I for 26 months. We were held incommunicado. We never knew when, or if, we would get out. We didn't go to trial for two years. When we did we had no way to speak to a lawyer and no means of contesting the charges against us, which included espionage. The alleged evidence the court held was "confidential."
What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?
I want to answer his question—of course my experience was different from those of the men at California's Pelican Bay State Prison—but I'm not sure how to do it. How do you compare, when the difference between one person's stability and another's insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the "dog run" at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn't write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?
"There was a window," I say. I don't quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. "Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—" Without those windows, I wouldn't have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.
When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back.