The prison hunger strike that has been taking place throughout various state prisons in California for 31 days now originated in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison. The inmates at this facility are held in long-term solitary confinement, under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. Some prisoners have been held under these conditions for over 20 years.
The hunger strike intends to bring an end to the torturous conditions that exist inside the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison. Inmates in other prisons in California have participated in the hunger strike along with the hunger strikers in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison. These prisoners have also issued their own demands to bring change to the torturous conditions that exist within the prison system of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Some of these demands are as simple as weekly phone calls or the ability to send a photo to their families once a year. All of the strikers’ needs are united by five core demands, which seek to bring fairness and human decency into the CDCR.
The protest is a follow-up to hunger strikes in 2011. At that time, the CDCR promised to reform their policies – and never followed through. This time many prisoners have vowed not to eat until they have a legally binding agreement from the CDCR.
I support the hunger strike because it is an act of resistance by those the system has cast off as less than human and unworthy of human dignity. The hunger strike/work stoppage is a call to action that crosses racial and geographical lines against the torture tactics the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) is inflicting on those it holds in Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg) and in the Security Housing Unit (SHU). It is also a call to action against the validation process, a racist policy that is used to justify the placement of our brothers in the torture dungeons of Ad-Seg and the SHU.
The methods used to justify the long-term solitary confinement of our brothers are based on policies that identify imprisoned people as members or associates of a prison gang through the validation process. Institutional Gang Investigators (IGI) must provide three sources of evidence that indicate association or membership. Under the validation process IGI has up to 1500 ways to label someone a member or associate of a prison gang and they can include:
- Confidential information
- Letters family and friends
- Legal material
- Verbal or written communication with other inmates
I speak from personal experience, and what I want to tell you is that the validation process is part of a racist and oppressive system that criminalizes the culture, the ethnic and political identity of those who are targeted for validation. Having spent 7 years from a 15-year prison sentence under solitary confinement in Ad-Seg and the SHU, I have witnessed numerous individuals, primarily Latino and Black inmates, being targeted because they hold in their possession drawings of Aztec, Mayan, or other indigenous cultures, or for having books by Malcolm X or George Jackson.
What this policy says to me is that the culture, the heritage, the memory of your ancestors, and your political identity are a violation of CDCR regulations, and because of this violation you can be placed in solitary confinement in a cell that measures 8×10 feet with no access to fresh air or natural sunlight for up to 22 ½ hours per day for the duration of your sentence, which could range from a couple of months to the rest of your life.
Imagine having to spend the rest of your life in solitary confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation only because you desire to know the history of your ancestors.
For those who cannot hold onto their morale and are unable to endure the torture tactics that the SHU imposes on the mind, body and soul, for those that are not able to endure the sensory deprivation, the physical isolation, and the unremitting monotonous routine that is life in the SHU, CDCR has established a divide and conquer tactic that continues to perpetuate the state manufactured violence that exists within CDCR.
The “debriefing process” as a way to get out of the SHU, is an ineffective policy that does more damage than good. The idea that in order for me to get out of the SHU I have to provide information on another inmate so that that inmate can take my place in the SHU only continues to perpetuate the cycle of torture and oppression. The debriefing process is a dehumanizing tool of oppression that is designed to strip the dignity of our brothers in solitary confinement.
Those serving time in the SHU are placed in solitary confinement without access to constructive programming, the elusive “rehabilitation” that CDCR fails to provide. CDCR claims that it offers rehabilitation. The whole point of rehabilitation is to prepare those who are in prison for their return home so that they can become productive members of their communities. But in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison educational and life skills programs (e.g. the Estelle program and college correspondence courses), the rehabilitation program has been cut drastically.
Lastly, before I close I wanted to tell you about the effects solitary confinement has had on me. But I was having trouble describing the effects because after being exposed to those torturous conditions for such a prolonged period of time, the effects seem and feel normal.
I recently came across an article that was on the SolitaryWatch.com website titled the “Faces and Voices of the California Prison Hunger Strike.” What caught my attention was a picture of a familiar face, onethat I recognized from 2001 when I was in Ad-Seg at High Desert State Prison. The picture was of “J. Heshima Denham” who is housed under solitary confinement in the SHU at Corcoran State Prison.
In the article he describes the effectsof the torture units in the SHU. He states, “Torture must be defined by the effects it has on its victims. And no one who has been confined to these indefinite torture units for any length of time, either single or double celled has escaped the psychological and physical devastation of the torture unit.”
The psychological and physical devastation that our brother Heshima describes are real issues that I will have to live with until I find some method of healing that will allow me to be able to overcome the years of psychological, physical and spiritual forms of torture that Ad-Seg and the SHU inflicts on the mind, body and soul.
In solidarity with all struggles for human dignity!
Danny Murillo is a survivor of the SHU. He is currently a student at the University of California, Berkeley. An earlier version of Murillo’s piece was published in LA Progressive.