The Struggle Against Death in California’s Gulag Archipelago, Summer 2011

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The Struggle Against Death in California’s Gulag Archipelago, Summer 2011

In the months before summer 2011, news spread that between 50 and 100 prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), Corridor D, were going on an indefinite hunger strike, starting July 1.

What was initially expected to involve scores of men laying their lives on the line quickly exceeded all expectations, and in the first weekend of the strike over 6000 prisoners across California participated. While numbers had dropped by the second week, there were still hundreds on strike, and some had escalated to a thirst strike. A human being can only survive a short while without liquids, and as of July 12 there were already reports of prisoners suffering renal failure. It suddenly became horribly clear that this was for real.

It is no coincidence that the largest – and potentially the most tragic – prisoner struggle in recent California history was planned and organized in Pelican Bay’s SHU. The D corridor (also known as the “short” corridor) has the highest level of restricted incarceration in the state of California and among the most severe conditions in the united states.  The rules of their confinement are extremely harsh in order to force them to “debrief” or offer up information about criminal or prison gang activity of other prisoners.  Most inmates in the SHU are not members or associates of prison gangs, as the PBSP staff claims, and even those who are put their lives and the lives of their families and other prisoners at risk if they debrief.

Using conditions of severe mental and physical harm in order to force prisoners into confessing is torture. Many debriefers simply make up information about other prisoners just to escape the isolation units.  This misinformation is then used to validate other prisoners as members or associates of prison gangs who in reality have nothing to do whatsoever with gang activity.

A system of lies elicited by torture, a kafkaesque world where (regardless of one’s “crime”) an anonymous accusation can land you in a torture chamber … this is the nature of the Pelican Bay SHU. There are people who have spent decades in these conditions, despite overwhelming evidence that even short-term isolation can cause serious psychological harm. The SHU is killing people slowly, in a way that is supposed to be “acceptable” and sanitized, with no need of a capital conviction. It is by grasping this reality that one can see that the prisoners’ – though refusing food and in some cases water – are not fighting to die, but are literally fighting to live.

These are the five core demands of the hunger-striking prisoners:

Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.

Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.

Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.

Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.

Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).

Please check out the below “Key Documents”, provided by Ed Mead, editor of Prison Focus magazine (and a former political prisoner himself). While all the documents are relevant, the first two (“Formal Complaint” and “Final Notice”) contain the essential information.

If you are in contact with any California prisoners it is urged that you let them know that outside support groups are drafting litigation to contest the constitutional validity of certain CDCR practices inside California’s Security Housing Units. And that any prisoner having information on this subject, or who is seeking to learn more about this law suit, should use confidential legal mail to contact:


Marilyn McMahon

Attorney at Law

PO Box 5187

Berkeley, CA



If you can think of any other documents or information missing from this list, please let me know. For inquiries and most up to date information, please visit the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) Coalition`s blog at or telephone 510-444-0484.

Key Documents

July 12: A DIRECT CALL FOR A STATEWIDE WORK STRIKE SUPPORTING THE HUNGER STRIKE TO ABOLISH SHU POLICIES: A call that has been circulating to expand to a state-wide prisoner work strike, to win demands and save the lives of the hunger-strikers.

Pelican Bay Phone Numbers: The Pelican Bay phone number is (707) 465-1000 – i believe this is a list of extentions.

Formal Complaint: Laying out the conditions at Pelican Bay, and demanding remedy.

Final Notice: PBSP SHU D-Corridor Hunger Strike: Final notice and demands of July 1st hunger strike.

Letter of Clarification: from Todd Ashker

Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Units Peaceful Protest Hunger Strike Starting July 1, 2011: by Pelican Bay prisoners James Crowford and Mutop DuGuya (a/k/a Bow Low)

Using Penal Code Section 2933.6 to Expand Due Process Rights for Validated Inmated: A Guide to Action