Pelican Bay prisoners on hunger strike to protest conditions

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Paul Sakuma/AP

Demonstrators hold up a sign during a rally in front of the State Building in San Francisco on July 1, 2011 to support prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border launched a hunger strike Friday morning] to protest conditions there. Inmates at the maximum-security prison say they’ve been kept in solitary confinement for decades, deprived of adequate sunlight, food and medical care. They also say they’re subject to prison policies that prevent them from returning to the general prison population.

Corrections officials say people land at California’s Supermax prison by committing particularly heinous murders or orchestrating gang crimes from inside prison. In other words, it’s where California sends its worst-of-the worst offenders. Because of their propensity for violence, Pelican Bay’s prisoners are kept in Security Housing Units, sometimes called “the SHU” — think solitary confinement. Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton confirmed some of those prisoners have begun to decline state-issued food.

"There have been a number of inmates at Pelican Bay Prison who have refused the morning meal," she said.

Thornton says the corrections department received a list of demands from the Pelican Bay hunger striker, and investigated claims that inmates are getting insufficient food, medical attention and light.

"There is natural light in the security housing unit but I’ll admit it is a restrictive environment. It is meant to restrict their ability to influence other inmates to do the gang’s bidding," she said.

Inmates counter that their level of confinement exceeds what a human can tolerate. Some of them have remained in the SHU for decades. They want California to follow a federal Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons recommendation to “make segregation a last resort.”

"They can talk to maybe the guy in the cell next to them through the doors, but that’s not the same interpersonal communication that humans are used to," said Ed Caden, a lawyer and former California prison warden.

He says the corrections department needs to keep close tabs on the kind of inmates at Pelican Bay. But he thinks the kind of isolation the prison enforces increases the prospect that inmates there will develop mental illness. Caden recalls that one consultant described Pelican Bay as “nothing more than a high-tech dog kennel” in a report to the state legislature.

"The program was designed to keep people in these very isolated cells with cell front made out of perforated plate steel — cells they could hardly look out of but staff could look in at them. And keep them in these conditions for 23 hours a day," Caden said.

Pelican Bay inmates in Security Housing Units say there’s almost no way for them to dwell in the general population, once authorities brand them as gang affiliates. They want corrections to change the way it determines when an inmate’s eligible for that.

“Year after year, after year, after year enduring mental torture. It is inhumane what is going on to try to break them down — if they do not debrief,” said Delores Cannales, whose son John Martinez, who is in the SHU at Pelican Bay.

Inmate advocates say the only way out of the SHU is to debrief. They describe that as telling prison officials everything you know about the gang. They say that encourages inmates to lie about other inmates to get them thrown into the SHU.

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton describes the debrief as just “a process for dropping out of a prison gang and our gang investigators work with that inmate and help them walk away from that lifestyle."

Thornton says there’s another way out of the SHU: Simply become inactive. After a period of six years when investigators have seen that that inmate has not engaged in any gang activity, that inmate can be released from the security housing unit as well. Thornton says Pelican’s Bay’s SuperMax prison policies are sound — refined over years in response to lawsuits that challenged them, and decades of intense scrutiny.

She adds that the Correction Department will monitor the inmates’ hunger strike … and will follow established policy to ensure their health and safety.

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