Dozens of inmates held in solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay State Prison have filed complaints against guards waking them up every 30 minutes night and day in what prison authorities claim are safety checks to guard against suicides.
“It’s torture when you can’t sleep because of the nonstop banging of the metal doors, stomping by the guards, buzzers, and the guards shining a flashlight in your eyes two times an hour,” inmate Akili Mims told the Guardian newspaper Sept. 25, seven weeks after the “checks” were implemented.
“They call it a ‘wellness check,’ but in fact it undermines health,” said Anita Wills, one of the speakers at the protest. “It’s part of trying to break down the humanity of the prisoners.” Wills, who has a cousin and a son in prison, is active in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, the group that sponsored the protest.
Inmates confined in Pelican Bay’s notorious Security Housing Units — the majority of those incarcerated there — are held in windowless cells 23 hours a day.
Prison authorities claim the checks are required under a 1995 court order holding that medical care in California prisons was inadequate, handed down in a case filed by prisoners suffering from mental illness. Prison officials implemented the decision in 2006, but not at Pelican Bay until several months ago.
“Instead of taking care of the prisoners’ health, they are doing the opposite,” said Verbena Lea, who drove to the protest from Eureka, a town close to the Pelican Bay prison on the northern border with Oregon. Lea helped organize a similar protest outside the prison in September, where they held up a giant banner saying, “Sleep Deprivation is Torture.”
“I think it’s the prison system retaliating against prisoners in solitary confinement who supported the Ashker case,” Dolores Canales, a leader of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, told the Guardian. The class action lawsuit was brought by Pelican Bay prisoners who led three hunger strikes, including one in 2013 of over 30,000 at its high point.
Initiated by Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell, the suit was settled in September. It ordered an end to officials throwing prisoners into solitary for indefinite periods of time by labeling them “gang affiliated.”
“The settlement should be viewed as a victory we can build on in our protracted ongoing struggle to end long-term solitary confinement,” Ashker said. He has been confined to the Pelican Bay SHU for over 20 years.
Another victory by a Pelican Bay prisoner who has been part of the fight against solitary confinement in California was scored Nov. 27 when Jesse Perez was awarded $25,000 by a federal grand jury.
Perez, imprisoned since he was 15, took part in the prisoner hunger strikes and successfully challenged the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in court for unfairly placing him in solitary. In retaliation, the guards destroyed his belongings, including his legal papers.
Perez wrote that he hoped to shine a public light on — and rein in — retaliatory actions activists have had to endure when they exercise their constitutional rights.
The Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition organizes protests on the 23rd of each month. For information visit: prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.
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