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Vol. 75/No. 27      July 25, 2011

Calif. inmates fight lockdowns,
punishment of groups by race
(front page)
LOS ANGELES—Inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison began a hunger strike July 1 to protest inhuman conditions. Their protest immediately spread to other prisons in California as thousands of inmates refused meals in solidarity with the strike. According to Prison Focus, 6,600 prisoners turned down prison trays on the first day. Street protests have also taken place on the inmates’ behalf in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and other cities.

The prisoners demand an end to the Special Housing Units (SHUs) where prisoners are held in lockdown for 22 hours a day in a windowless, soundproof concrete cell—some of them for decades.

In a formal complaint to Gov. Edmund Brown and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation secretary Matthew Cate on behalf of their fellow inmates at Pelican Bay, Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell demand an end to the arbitrary policy of assigning inmates to SHUs for gang activity “even though they have not been charged or found guilty of committing a gang-related illegal act.”

Solitary confinement is a favored punishment of the California Department of Corrections. One example is the case of longtime Black Panther Party member Geronimo Pratt, wrongly imprisoned for 27 years on a murder conviction. He was held in solitary confinement for eight years.

The strike also demands an end to the policy of requiring prisoners to “debrief”—inform on gang activity by their fellow inmates—in order to get released from the SHU, at great risk to their own personal safety and that of their families.

Another demand is the elimination of group punishments where prisoners of an entire racial group are punished when one individual in that group is charged with breaking a prison rule.

Other demands raised by the strikers cast further light on the grim conditions they face. They want adequate food that has nutritional value, more access to natural sunlight, one photo a year, a wall calendar, and a phone call each week.

According to Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, the demands of the hunger strikers are being “reviewed and evaluated very thoroughly.” However, “the department is not going to be coerced or manipulated,” she added. “That so many inmates in other prisons throughout the state are involved really demonstrates how these gangs can influence other inmates, which is one of the reasons we have security housing units in the first place.”

On May 23 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California prison system conditions are cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The court ordered California to reduce the population in state prisons by 46,000 over the next two years. The court said nothing at all about any modification of the SHUs.
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Breaking morale is aim of solitary confinement  
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