Revolution #238 Online, July 4, 2011

Prisoners at Pelican Bay Begin Hunger Strike

The prisoners in Pelican Bay have delivered their demands to Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and to Governor Jerry Brown. The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition has delivered 2,800 signatures in support from the petition to the warden.

The prisoners' demands include an end to long-term solitary confinement, collective punishment, and forced interrogation on gang affiliation. The prisoners have also stated that they are willing to give up their lives unless their demands are met.

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website reported that:

With using these tactics, we know the CDCR is scared that this hunger strike is powerful and growing, and is not taking the prisoners demands seriously.

The following letter was written by John R. Martinez, one of the prisoners in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison who began a hunger strike on July 1. It is addressed to Governor Jerry Brown, Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation Matthew Cate, and Pelican Bay Warden G.D. Lewis. John R. Martinez's mother Delores read this letter at the July 1 press conference in Los Angeles:


On July 1, 2011, I and my fellow prisoners—on their own free will—will be commencing a hunger strike to protest the denial of our human rights and equality via the use of perpetual solitary confinement. The Supreme Court has referred to "solitary confinement" as one of the techniques of "physical and mental torture" that have been used by governments to coerce confessions (Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 237-238 (1940)).

In regards to PBSP-SHU, Judge Thelton E. Henderson stated that "many if not most, inmates in the SHU experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation in SHU" (Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1235 (N.D. Cal. 1995)). Not surprisingly, Judge Henderson stated that "the conditions in the SHU may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate" and that sensory deprivation found in the SHU "may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience" (Madrid, 889 F. Supp. at 1267, 1280). Four years later, a Texas federal judge reviewed conditions in isolation of a Texas prison that mirrored those of PBSP-SHU. He correctly held:

"Before the court are levels of psychological deprivation that violate the United States Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It has been shown that defendants are deliberately indifferent to a systemic pattern of extreme social isolation and reduced environmental stimulation. These deprivations are the cause of cruel and unusual pain and suffering by inmates in administrative segregation …" (Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855, 914-915 (S.D. Tex.1999)).

Thus solitary confinement, by its very nature, is harmful to human beings, including prisoners,1 especially for those of us prisoners whose isolation is perpetual based solely upon our status as an associate or member of a gang. In theory, our detention is supposedly for administrative "non-disciplinary" reasons. Yet, when I asked one of the prison staff why is it we are not afforded the same privileges as those gang affiliated inmates in a Level 4 general population (GP), I was told that "according to Sacramento," we don't "have shit coming" and that it is the department's "goal of breaking" us down. Thus, our treatment is clearly punitive, discriminatory and coercive.

Further proof is provided by the fact that a member of a disruptive group—i.e., a gang per CCR 3000—who commits a violent assault on a non-prisoner will receive three to five years in the SHU as punishment and then be released back to the GP. Ironically, we on the other hand receive way harsher treatment. We are subjected to the same disciplinary SHU conditions. Worse yet, for an indeterminate term solely for who we are or who we know. Not for violent or disruptive behavior.

Most of us have been in isolation for over 15 and 20 years. In most cases, for simple possession of a drawing, address, greeting card and/or other form of speech and association.

Unfortunately, some of my fellow prisoners are not here with me today. The SHU has either driven them to suicide,2 mental illness or becoming a Judas—i.e., informer—to escape these cruel conditions, which occurred after the findings in Madrid.

An oppressed people always have the right to rise up and protest discrimination, oppression and injustice. The Martin Luther King era reminds us of that. So does the Attica prisoner uprising. Those prisoners in Attica acted out, not because they were "animals," but because they were tired of getting treated worse than animals. There is no difference with us. The only difference is that our protest is one of non-violence. We are a civilized people that simply wish to be treated as humans and with equality. Not subjected to punitive treatment year after year, which is imposed with a desire to injure. As Justice Thurgood Marshall eloquently stated:

"When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality, his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment … It is the role of the First Amendment … to protect those precious personal rights by which we satisfy such basic yearnings of the human spirit" (Procunio v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 326, 428 (1974)).

Wherefore, I respectfully request that our reasonable demands attached hereto be honored as soon as possible and that the bigotry and persecution against us for who we are come to an end once and for all.

Respectfully submitted,

John R. Martinez

"Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering."—Hebrews 13:3

cc: Family, friends and supporters

1. Empirical research on solitary and supermax-like confinement has consistently and unequivocally documented the harmful consequences of living in these kinds of environments. Studies undertaken over four decades corroborate such an assertion. (Craig Haney, "Mental health issues in long-term solitary and 'supermax' confinement" in Crime and Delinquency. Vol. 49, No. I, January 2003, pp. 124-156). See also, Amnesty International, Report on Torture, Penal Coercion, 1983. [back]

2. As Kevin Johnson reported in USA Today: California, which has the largest state prison system in the nation, saw a total of 41 suicides in 2006; of those suicides, 69 percent were in solitary confinement. ("Inmate suicides linked to solitary," USA Today, Dec. 27, 2006.) Those numbers have increased since then. [back]

The following statements of solidarity are posted at the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website:

Statement of support from Sharon Danann for the Lucasville Uprising Freedom Network:

As supporters of the Lucasville uprising prisoners who engaged in a victorious hunger strike in January 2001 in Ohio's supermax prison, Ohio State Penitentiary, we extend our support to the Pelican Bay State Prison hunger strikers. The violations of human rights of prisoners must end. The punishment of prisoners for their beliefs and for activities to improve their conditions must end. The illegal, unconstitutional and inhumane use of long-term solitary confinement must end.

The treatment of prisoners in the U.S. is an international scandal. We will do all we can to get the word out about the courageous Pelican Bay hunger strikers. We will be turning up the heat on all levels of government. We are proud to be a part of the prisoners' movement that is rising up in many parts of the country and world. Onward to victory!!

Report Back from Legal Visit Before the Hunger Strike

On June 28, two representatives of the coalition visited four prisoners from the short corridor of the Pelican Bay SHU. Each interview lasted for at least two hours. The prisoners described the conditions in the SHU and why they felt compelled to participate in the hunger strike. They provided information about their medical conditions in order to assist outside medical monitors. They expressed appreciation for the visits and for the outside support that their efforts have received to date. Following the visits, the coalition representatives attempted to meet with the warden, but he was unavailable. Instead, they met with the prison's information officer and delivered the (public) names of over 2800 signatures on the petition endorsing the hunger strikers' demands. They urged CDCR to take the situation seriously, to negotiate in good faith, to keep open our lines of communication with the prisoners and not to retaliate for this action.

Prison Law Office Supports the Hunger Strike

Pelican Bay SHU prisoners' demands for a more effective and fair means to address criminal gang activity and individual responsibility; that CDCR comply with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; and that CDCR expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU prisoners. We believe that CDCR should only hold prisoners accountable for their own actions, and that all prisoners should receive adequate food under appropriate staff supervision.

We have recently filed suit aiming to achieve the elimination of group punishment in the form of race-based lockdowns in California prisons (Mitchell v. Felker, E.D. Cal. Case No. No. 08-CV-1196-RAJ), and we have previously litigated against other deplorable conditions in the Pelican Bay SHU (Madrid v. Gomez), but we know that many intolerable conditions remain, and that meeting the above demands is an important step toward the goal of affirming the human rights and dignity of SHU prisoners. We continue to work as class counsel to improve other unlawful conditions at Pelican Bay, including inadequate medical, dental, and mental health care and accommodations for prisoners with disabilities.

The Prison Law Office calls on CDCR to respond in a meaningful way to the inhumane conditions in the Pelican Bay SHU. In addition, CDCR should take appropriate steps to monitor the health and well-being of the hunger strikers. As part of the Plata v. Brown lawsuit, we will continue to monitor Pelican Bay's compliance with Plata policies and procedures, including those applicable to hunger strikers.

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