(Cross-posted from New America Media)

Artwork by Michael Russell.

There is a stark contrast between the majestic mountain scenery that surrounds Pelican Bay State Prison, and the utter desperation of life that exists behind its walls. Most of the men here wear the look of those crushed under years of carrying a heavy burden. Their faces tell a story all their own — one of unrealized potential, punishing consequences, and possibilities of future success that no longer exist.

Pelican Bay State Prison is a maximum-security prison, where many men spend years in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) — 23½ hours a day, locked in a windowless cell. I’ve spent a quarter of my life in this prison’s cages, in its mud, learning to deal with the loud rhythm, the madness and isolation, the absence from my family and friends that has turned me into a total stranger, with so much empty uncertainty. I don’t sit here and cry. Nobody does.

The full character of a man shows itself in the SHU, where there is nowhere to hide. And today, I stand proudly back-to-back with all those strong respectful men, whose choice it is to now venture into a hunger strike and work stoppage, in peaceful protest.

Artwork by Michael Russell.

The revolution has started — a fight for our rights. And our five core demands should not be overlooked:

1. Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse for individual rules violations.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

To share a quote from Shane Bauer, an American who was imprisoned by Iran for more than two years after being apprehended there in 2009:

The more one is utterly alone, the more the mind comes to reflect the cell; it becomes blank static… Solitary confinement is not some sort of cathartic horror of blazing nerves and searing skin and heads smashing blindly into walls and screaming. Those moments come, but they are not the essence of solitary. They are events that penetrate the essence. They are stones tossed into an abyss; they are not the abyss itself… Solitary confinement is a living death. Death, because it is the removal of nearly everything that characterizes humanness; living, because within it, you are still you. The lights don’t turn out as in real death. Time isn’t erased as in sleep.

Stand and be counted. Let your voice be heard. Support our peaceful protest.

Michael D. Russell is an artist, author, and hunger striker in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, in Folsom, California.


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