29,000 inmates enter 2nd day of hunger strike in largest prison protest in California history

The "Security Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The "Security Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison. Julie Small/KPCC

In the largest prison protest in California history, 29,000 inmates have refused to eat for a second day in a row to protest long-term isolation of inmates in what are called security housing units, or SHU.

California holds 4,500 prisoners in those facilities at four prisons across the state. Inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border launched the hunger strike to protest a level of confinement they call “torture.”

Prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU stay in their cells 22.5 hours a day. They leave only to exercise in a small cement court yard or to shower or visit staff. They don’t get to talk to relatives or friends by phone.  If someone comes to visit, a glass wall separates them.

Patricia Aguilar’s husband, Tino, was released from the SHU last month — after 17 years.

"He’s just so thin," said Aguilar by phone from her home in the Los Angeles area.  "I’m so used to seeing him behind the glass. But when you put your arms around somebody and you realize how thin they are, that’s pretty crazy."

Aguilar’s husband was serving 25 years to life for receipt of stolen property – a non-violent, third-strike offense – when prison officials validated him as a gang member because he had a drawing of the Mexican Flag.

Corrections officials have isolated validated prison gang leaders or affiliates who pose a public threat in the SHU to protect other prisoners, staff and the public.

Spokeswoman Terry Thornton said many of them have been for serious crimes.

"There are subservient street gangs that are beholden to these gang leaders at Pelican Bay and other places that call the shots and order hits on other people, murders on other people," Thornton said. "They control drug trafficking in our communities and in our prisons." 

But advocates for prisoners say a lot of the inmates who end up in the SHU aren’t those guys. Advocates also say there has to be some end to solitary confinement.

In 2011, CDCR revealed that 78 inmates had spent more than 20 years in the SHU and that more than 400 have been in for at least a decade.

Last year prison officials raised the threshold for evidence used to validate a gang leader or member.  They also created a program for inmates to earn their way out of the SHU. 

The department reviewed the cases of more than 382 inmates and found 115 could be released into that step-down program. They found another 208 eligible for general prison population yards.

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