An article from the LA Review of Books giving a history of the mass hunger strike movement that challenged solitary confinement in the California prison system.
LAST YEAR might be remembered as a turning point in the history of the American prison system. Several states, including New Jersey, New York, and California, reported a sharp decrease in prison population. President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and meet with a group of inmates. Criminal justice reform, starting with a repeal of mandatory sentencing, became a topic of political urgency. The death penalty continued to inch toward extinction, with dwindling public support and the lowest number of executions in 25 years. Finally, legal settlements in California and New York struck powerful blows against the practice of solitary confinement. Pre-election pandering (not to mention a hypothetical Republican presidency) might reverse some of this progress. Much remains to be accomplished before the country’s dismal record ceases to be an international embarrassment. Still, there is reason to believe that the darkest days of mass incarceration might be behind us.
This is the story of how the battle against solitary confinement in California was won.
The story’s main setting is the Security Housing Unit (SHU, pronounced “shoe”) of Pelican Bay State Prison — California’s toughest, most dreaded penal institution, from which some of the most isolated prisoners in the world were able to make the world listen. Among them were Sitawa Jamaa, Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, and Antonio Guillen — the most recognized representatives of the “Short Corridor Collective.” Each of them had been convicted of violent crimes and had been “validated” by investigators as a member or associate of a prison gang — or, in the current bureaucratic parlance, “Security Threat Group.”
As a result, these men were locked in a windowless 8×10 cell for 22-and-a-half hours a day, with the remaining time spent in the three-cell-long enclosure officially designated as the “exercise yard,” which prisoners refer to as “the dog run.” Like most SHU prisoners, they were celled alone, remaining alone during exercise. Their typical day followed a rigid routine — partly dictated by the institution, partly self-imposed by the prisoners to stave off insanity. Wake up at 5:00 a.m., work out, take a birdbath in the sink, breakfast at 7:30 — with the rest of the day to be filled by television, more working out, reading, and writing. No educational program was provided, no contact visit was allowed, no normal social interaction was possible. Ashker, the original plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, had been living this life for a quarter of a century. Describing the experience in a deposition, he called it a sense of continuous silent screaming: “I’m not talking about screaming, like, Oooh … I’m talking about if you could put every emotion of the human spirit, of hopelessness, pain, agony, hatred, all these emotions in.”
The United Nations rapporteur on the issue of solitary confinement in the United States explicitly called the arrangement “torture,” or cruel and unusual punishment. The 2015 settlement vindicated this view. Until recently, such an outcome seemed utterly out of reach: cut off from society and divided by prison politics, the prisoners had not been able to mount a collective challenge, and to promote wide awareness outside the prison walls. Ten years ago, the story took an unexpected turn.
California is, notoriously, a hotbed of prison gangs, with some of the oldest and strongest in the entire US system tracing their roots to San Quentin, Soledad, or to the state’s Youth Authority facilities in the 1950s and ’60s. For the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the solution to this problem was to be found in tougher security measures, according to the national trend that led to the rise of “supermax” prisons. This led to the creation of Pelican Bay in 1989. Designed to house about 2,700 inmates, including a thousand in its so-called Secure Housing Unit, Pelican Bay had it all: remote location, size, state-of-the-art security, the ironically quaint name. Despite Pelican Bay, gangs remained strong — even in Pelican Bay itself.
In 2006, a more proactive approach was introduced. Standard practice at the time was to split SHU prisoners according to their ethnic/geographic background. There are four recognized main groups in the California system: Southern Hispanics, Northern Hispanics, Whites, and Blacks. Anyone else is commonly referred to as “Others.” The Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Black Guerrilla Family are the historical gangs that draw from these constituencies. They have limited membership but extensive influence, with entry-level organizations doing their bidding and functioning as feeder systems. (Those organizations include Sureños, Norteños, Nazi Low Riders, and street-based gangs such as the Crips and Bloods.)
The policy of housing prisoners in homogeneous groups made intuitive sense, as the simplest way to reduce potential conflict between opposing gangs. However, it also seemed to allow gang members to share information, make collective decisions, and transmit orders to the prison mainline and the outside world. Gang leaders, or “shot-callers,” had a variety of methods for doing so, including invisible ink, hand signals, coded messages, “kites” (handwritten notes passed from cell to cell with makeshift fishing lines), and ingenious mail subterfuges (such as setting up fake law firms to send and receive letters that could not be inspected). A “green light” (death sentence) might be relayed on a scrap of paper pressed to the glass in the visiting booth. From the perspective of Gang Investigators, this posed a daunting challenge. How do you stop men so resourceful and committed, who may already be serving life without parole?
The new approach was to isolate a number of presumed shot-callers and “troublemakers” from the rest of their groups, clustering them together in a section of the SHU known as the Short Corridor (which isn’t actually short, but shorter than the others, with four housing units instead of six). The idea was that this would disrupt the gangs’ chains of command and communication. Prisoners assigned to the Short Corridor suddenly found themselves not only being held in solitary, but having unfamiliar, unwanted, potentially hostile neighbors.
In the prison system, this kind of social engineering has a long tradition. Pelican Bay’s very location, at California’s Northern border with Oregon, was chosen to enable the CDCR to move Southern California-based prisoners as far as possible away from their roots and areas of influence. The SHU itself was intended as a gang management tool: prisoners were sent to it not necessarily because of specific criminal actions, but on the assumption that they were active gang members. To earn release back to the general population, they were required to “debrief” (what prisoners call “snitching”).
A prisoner’s gang affiliation was established through various criteria, including tattoos, possession of certain artwork or reading materials, and secret testimony from other prisoners. The process, known as “validation,” was inherently controversial. Secret testimony from convicted felons, who stand to benefit from their statements and whose statements cannot be disputed by those they accuse, is a particularly low legal standard; even lower is the interpretation of signs and symbols. When black inmates learn Swahili, or Mexicans learn Nahuatl, or whites learn Gaelic, the CDCR would typically assume gang involvement. But while it’s true that those languages have been used for gang communications, it’s also true that sanctioning the very act of learning a language, or the presence of a particular tattoo on one’s body, is questionable legal territory. (Is that tattoo really a portrait of Marilyn Monroe? And if so, is she really meant to signify allegiance to the Mexican Mafia? The answer might well be yes, but making the assumption, and using it as grounds for segregation, would seem to infringe upon basic constitutional rights.)
Controversy wasn’t the only drawback. In the age of mass incarceration, prison gangs had no shortage of candidates to replenish their ranks; it soon became clear that sending a gang member to the SHU simply created a new job opening in the yard, while at the same time consolidating upper management.
The Short Corridor was supposed to fix this problem by breaking down the gangs’ ruling councils and providing an additional deterrent to ordinary members. That didn’t quite work, either. Gangs remained in business, and even from the Short Corridor, some shot-callers remained in charge. (A recent federal indictment alleges that a member of the Mexican Mafia was able to orchestrate from his cell a broad coalition among rival Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles.)
Most importantly, something else started brewing. The prisoners of the Short Corridor included a number of “jailhouse lawyers” — self-educated litigators used to challenging the system. Additionally, prison tends to create economies of sharing: it is common for people to pass around books and magazines until everybody has had a chance to read them.
Over time, Short Corridor prisoners began to overcome their mutual distrust, focusing on their shared situation rather than on their differences. Those differences tend to fade, anyway, the longer one remains in solitary. White men start speaking with Hispanic accents. Dark-skinned men grow pale from lack of sunlight. Everyone develops thick muscles from the same daily exercise routines. Most men crop their hair short for low maintenance. Many grow a mustache, and all those mustaches grow gray. Eventually, differences become abstract.
Ed Bunker, the celebrated novelist who spent 18 years behind bars, including a stint in San Quentin as the youngest prisoner ever to enter the institution, would always tell me: “crime is a young man’s game.” At 30, a criminal begins to age out of a gang’s demographic base; at 40, he hits a kind of “criminal menopause.” Neuroscience has its own explanation for this: the frontal lobe — the part of the brain that governs thinking about the consequences of one’s actions — is still developing until the early to mid-20s. Middle-aged men serving long prison sentences, on the other hand, can hardly avoid thinking about consequences.
In the mid-2000s, a majority of the Short Corridor residents had hit middle-age. Over the next few years, some delved into the writings of thinkers like Howard Zinn and Michel Foucault. In a sense, it was the kind of intellectual environment one might expect to find at a college campus, with students debating the legacy of the Black Panthers, Hugo Chávez, or the Irish Republican Army. Except, in this case, the discussion was happening in tiny fragments, through vents and drains, among men who couldn’t even see each other. These prisoners decided to call themselves the “Short Corridor Collective.” They realized that exiting the SHU was a political cause.
Last summer, I visited the SHU with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a group of reform advocates led by my friend Scott Budnick. The drive from Los Angeles takes about 13 hours (relatives of inmates often take a bus). The alternative is to catch a plane to Medford, Oregon, and then drive two hours to Crescent City. The drive is beautiful, cutting through redwood forests and a timeless landscape of Americana. Roadside attractions include a smokejumper museum and a tiger preservation center, sitting proudly across the street from a trailer park. Crayon signs advertise raw honey stands. Rusty propeller planes lie by barns. By the time you reach Pelican Bay, you are thinking this would be a good place to live — as did the thousands of hippies who turned Humboldt County into one of their last refuges (and prime marijuana farmland).
The prison complex makes for a sudden, sharp contrast: a grim, fortified citadel on a large deforested area. The SHU is laid out in a distinctive X shape, its long sections segmented into smaller ones, and ultimately to 80 square feet of space per prisoner. As a visitor, you enter it through a small, unassuming building, which opens in the back to a fenced sally port. From there you travel into the belly of the beast.
What strikes you about the SHU is a sense of being entombed: doors open and close behind you with a pneumatic hiss, different from the metal clang of most prisons. It makes you feel sealed in. You walk down corridors the length of football fields, leaving sunlight and fresh air further and further behind, as if descending underground.
I expected a riot of smells, as I experienced on other occasions upon entering a prison — the multiple layers of sweat, mold, waste, disinfectant, cheap food, the incense which prisoners are allowed to burn for religious reasons, and which sometimes they use to mask other smells — tobacco, weed, the molten plastic that they fashion into tools and weapons. These smells usually accompany equally strong and layered noises — screeching, banging, talking, singing, laughing, moaning, mixed with the sound of TVs and radios tuned on different programs.
The Pelican Bay SHU is a very different place. It is much quieter, with no loud noises (except, of course, when someone reaches his breaking point), and a narrower range of smells. The only bright colors I saw were in a pod where a mural of a sunny beach has been painted in front of the cells, as an experiment in morale-boosting. It’s not sensorial deprivation, but certainly sensorial limitation. The atmosphere is dense with a muted despair. Prisons are haunted, but you don’t always feel it. In the SHU, it’s palpable.
In my limited interaction, I found all prison staff to be professional, courteous, and responsive. Abusive behavior from staff could happen in any prison (indeed, in 2002 two Pelican Bay guards were found guilty of conspiracy to arrange beatings and stabbings of inmates). But the point is that the horror of life in the SHU does not require any sadistic attitude from correction officers. It is simply built in — dehumanization is crystallized in the architecture itself.
A SHU pod has no natural light. Cells have a built-in cement shelf with a sliver-thin mattress, a built-in metal sink/toilet combo, a built-in desk and stool. The door is perforated metal, creating a disturbing visual sensation. The holes are not wide enough to put a finger through, but you can insert the tip of your pinkie to make contact with the inmate’s. It’s called “the pinkie shake.” A couple of times I’ve had inmates touch mine with thumb and index, to produce an actual miniature shake. It conveyed both a kind of irony and a rueful solemnity — a case of those strange, mixed feelings peculiar to the emotional vocabulary of prison.
Similar conditions exist in ADX Florence and other segregated units in maximum security facilities across the country. They are the lowest circle of the prison hell.
A prisoner who enters the SHU will quickly experience a loss of positive emotions. The human mind is designed to wander, craving novelty and change. Confinement to a small space deprives it of stimulation and its sense of purpose.
SHU-related disorders start with unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as fear, sadness, anger, self-loathing, anxiety. They might also include loss of appetite, insomnia, dizziness, palpitations, shallow breath, headaches, loss of memory, deteriorating eyesight, inability to concentrate, nightmares, hallucinations, paranoia, disturbing fantasies, withdrawal, lethargy, regression, despair, suicidal ideation, and perceptual distortion. These conditions are deep-rooted. The genetics of social behavior is now studying how isolation can actually affect gene expression, changing who we are on the very cellular level.
The problems don’t end with release from prison. Former residents of the SHU reported difficulty readjusting to society, including disorientation, feelings of inadequacy, discomfort in public places, trust issues, flashbacks, alcohol and substance abuse.
These are, by and large, the symptoms of any victim of torture. Solitary confinement has also been compared to the experiences of being shipwrecked, quarantined, or stranded in a remote wilderness for a long period of time, resulting in a kind of “unmooring” of the mind.
In the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow confined a series of monkeys to a solitary chamber he called “the pit of despair.” After a few days, he observed that most would hunch at the bottom. He wrote: “One might presume at this point that they find their situation to be hopeless.” The monkeys ended up “profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.” Their ability to return to normal interaction with other monkeys was directly connected to the amount of time spent in solitary. Twelve months, Harlow found, “almost obliterated the animals socially.”
While human endurance is greater, we follow a similar pattern. Psychologists believe that the social dimension of life is essential to human nature because it provides a person with the ability to “verify reality.” In other words, interaction with other human beings confirms, sharpens, and completes what we learn from our senses. In her 2013 book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, philosopher Lisa Guenther writes:
We rely on a network of others, not just to survive or to keep ourselves entertained but also to support our capacity to make sense of the world, to distinguish between reality and illusion, to follow a train of thought or a causal sequence, and even to tell where our own bodily existence begins and ends.
Stripping away that social dimension leaves reality in a state of uncertainty. Did the tree fall in the forest if there was no one to see it? Eventually, one finds himself in the position of that hypothetical tree. The question becomes: If I perceive something, and there’s no one there to corroborate it, are my perceptions real? Am I real?
Being a prisoner is the loss of control over one’s own life, which takes the form of a “debt” to be paid. For prisoners in solitary, the alienation goes one step further: lack of contact and interaction causes them to lose the shared experience of time, to the point that time itself breaks down. Some say the suffering is “spiritual.” Many try to explain it through metaphor and paradox: the mind becoming your private torture chamber. Remaining just human enough to suffer the constant loss of humanity. A living death.
The effects of prolonged solitary confinement on humans have been clearly visible on the many inmates who have become physically ill or committed acts of self-harm. Many have killed themselves (despite the obstacles, suicide is twice as common in prison as in the free world, and half of prison suicides involve people in solitary). Many have lost their minds, like a young man named Sam Mendez, who came to believe that he was the husband of a TV celebrity, a Green Beret, and the father of 11 children.
The new book Hell Is a Very Small Place, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd, is a powerful collection of testimonies from victims of solitary confinement, and required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the subject. It exposes the perversion of a system designed to destroy the human mind. Consider the experience of Five Mualimm-Ak, who writes that:
One day, I ate an entire apple — including the core — because I was starving for lack of nutrition. I received a ticket for eating the core because apple seeds contain arsenic. The next time I received an apple, fearful of another ticket, I simply left it on the tray. I received a ticket for “refusing to eat.”
(Tickets, or disciplinary violations, are considered grounds for extending one’s detention in solitary.)
And yet one still finds, even in the SHU, striking examples of resilience — men who can maintain their strength despite their conditions. These men tend to elicit sympathy: much as we might abhor their crimes, they come to represent humanity under siege.
In 2011, the Short Corridor Collective decided to fight back.
A book by professor Denis O’Hearn, Nothing But an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands, which chronicles the famous IRA hunger strike in the Maze Prison, had become a source of inspiration. (SHU inmates are allowed a small number of books, though prison censorship can be capricious: banned titles in the United States have included Auschwitz — a New History, The Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, and The Penguin Book of Love Poetry.)
As they read O’Hearn’s book, a few prisoners, including Ashker, started wondering about the possibilities. For black prisoners, the story was already familiar: as a group, they had a long history of political engagement, going back to the Black Panthers and Black Muslims in San Quentin in the 1960s and ’70s.
Professor O’Hearn’s book had affected people in US prisons before, including some who decided to go on hunger strikes. The first time that happened, in Ohio, “I was a bit shocked, but not surprised,” O’Hearn told me.
Mostly, I felt a sense of responsibility, like, what have I done? After living through it in Ireland, I knew the horror of hunger strike. But I also knew that these were guys who had been made voiceless and who had nothing to lose. Their bodies and lives are all they have left. So if they asked for advice, for example on whether to drink certain liquids or take certain vitamins, I would tell them what I knew. But I simply would not try to change their course of action.
To appreciate the magnitude of the challenge that the Collective was facing, one must remember that even talking about a hunger strike was not a simple matter. The discussion could only happen in small increments, one short conversation at a time. In this prohibitive situation, the prisoners had to figure out what to demand, how to send their message out, how long they were willing to go.
It took months to form a plan and spread the word through the informal network of relatives, friends, and advocates. The strike started on July 1, 2011, and involved up to 6,000 prisoners across 13 prisons. It ended three weeks later, when the CDCR agreed to consider the prisoners’ requests for reform. By September, nothing had changed. Frustrated by the lack of action, prisoners went on strike again. This time, participation doubled. The prisoners were learning from experience, figuring out how to roll out the strikes from prison to prison so the numbers stayed high, and how to manage their bodies to maximize endurance. Family members were getting more involved on the outside, sharing petitions, organizing demonstrations, using social media to give wider exposure to the strike’s five “core demands”:
Eliminate group punishments for individual rule violations;
Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
Comply with the recommendations of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
Provide adequate food;
Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates, including expanded visiting, one photo per year, a weekly phone call, two annual packages, wall calendars.
Despite the greater participation, the second strike did not yield much better results. The CDCR granted a few minor concessions, such as the installation of pull-up bars in the exercise yard, and introduced an alternative to debriefing. This was called the “Step Down Program.” Its purpose was cognitive and behavior modification through a process that could last four or five years, with advancement through the stages rewarded by further concessions. On completion of Step Two, for instance, a participant would be allowed an extra photo and possession of playing cards.
The program relied heavily on “interactive journaling,” based on material provided by The Change Companies, a privately owned business. The first journal was called “The Con Game.” It contained the following quote:
Myth: criminals are the victims of society. They are products of dysfunctional families, abusive childhoods, bad neighborhood, poor schools and an unfair economic system. Truth: each person is responsible for his or her own thinking and behavior. Many people grow up in difficult circumstances and lead responsible, crime-free lives. Task: Explain how have you practiced this myth in the past.
Another quote: “A chameleon is a reptile that can change its color so as to blend in with its surroundings. How has your past behavior been similar to the actions of a chameleon? Explain.”
The participant in the Step Down Program was ultimately expected not only to admit his character deficiencies, but to show acceptance of a prescribed worldview. Paradoxically, if a prisoner believed that the connection between crime and socioeconomic circumstances is not “a myth,” then he would have to lie in order to prove that he had outgrown “the con game.”
Not surprisingly, the Short Corridor Collective took a dim view of the program, though a number of prisoners decided to enter it. This was, in part, a strategic calculation: they needed to try the program in order to effectively criticize it.
But if the prisoners’ situation hadn’t changed, neither had their resolve. Their third strike would be the largest and most decisive. Two factors proved critical to the Collective’s enduring strength. The first was their ability to shape the narrative. The CDCR denied that the SHU constituted “solitary confinement”; the Collective insisted on using the term. Furthermore, it insisted on the word “torture,” which had become a national flashpoint.
The other key factor was their unity, which led to a written appeal for the immediate end of race-based hostilities across the entire California prison system. It was a bold, unprecedented declaration. Although the CDCR refused to publicize it, the appeal still found its way into every prison.
And it worked. While lawyers prepared a class action lawsuit, prisoners were coming together in huge numbers. At its highest point, the final hunger strike in July 2013 involved as many as 30,000 men — an outstanding result by any conceivable standard. The media took notice. The fact that a small group of prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU were able to mobilize so many was an undeniable achievement. From the bottom of the pit, they were making history.
The CDCR did not take all this passively. Hunger strikes are particularly unsettling to prison authorities because they radically change power relationships. By refusing food, prisoners both expose and disable the system’s reliance on the threat of physical harm, seizing the moral high ground in the process. Pentagon officers were sufficiently threatened by the hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay to label them as acts of “asymmetrical warfare” and to suppress them with force feeding — a practice that the UN and the World Medical Association denounce as inhumane.
The CDCR, in turn, worked hard to present the strikes as a gang power play. There was truth to the idea that gangs went along with the strike: nothing so big could happen in prison without gang compliance, and it seemed no coincidence that the four spokesmen had been validated as members of the “Big Four.” But the whole prison gang phenomenon isn’t quite as simple as one might think. According to a 2014 study by David Skarbek, The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, prison gangs are not just opportunistic coalitions of criminals but parallel governance structures, regulating prisoners’ lives and activities where the institution cannot do so — either because the activities are illegal or because the prisoners refuse to rely on an institutional authority.
In this sense, prison gangs are an integral part of the reality of prison. They are, in fact, so endemic that even gang dropouts, assigned to “Sensitive Needs Yards,” end up forming new ones. (There are currently a dozen of them in California, including Pesetas, a derogatory term for snitches, Bad News Banditos, Cut Throat Family, Drop Out Squad, and Gay Boy Gangsters.) While the prison system fights gangs, it also perpetuates the conditions that make gangs viable. Race-based housing assignments and race-based lockdowns (by which an entire race is subjected to restrictions after a gang-related violation) are cases in point. The segregation of validated gang members is another example. SHU staff works under the premise that they’re dealing with “the worst of the worst.” The assumption is partially based on the prisoners’ records, but it is also self-fulfilling: the conditions of the SHU make it a powerful incubator of anger, resentment, and mental instability. Furthermore, the aura of danger conferred upon a convict by the very fact of being in the SHU can enhance his criminal reputation, allowing him to hold sway over men he never met.
From this perspective, detractors who called the strike a “gang power play” seemed to miss the point. The suspension of racial hostilities actually called into question the very premise for the existence of gangs — if nothing else, it was a step in the right direction.
In conjunction with the power play argument, the CDCR applied a number of strike-breaking tactics. According to prisoners, these included under-reporting participation, withholding meds (on the grounds that they have to be taken with food), misinformation (“the strike is over”), denigration, blocking mail, and “food temptation.” At the beginning of the first strike, a Fourth of July menu advertised on the Pelican Bay institutional channel included hamburgers, hot dogs, beans, taters, coleslaw, salad, strawberry cake, ice cream, milk, and juice. Some of the prisoners had not seen a strawberry in 20 years.
Still, the strike went on. For the first few days, the prisoners’ bodies had processed their reserves of glucose, before going into ketosis and starting to consume body fat. After three weeks, their bodies had started consuming muscles and organs, entering the danger zone. The prisoners knew this would happen. They also knew that risk increased their leverage. For years and decades, they had been hearing that there are three ways to leave the SHU: debrief, parole, or die. They were demanding a “fourth way” — serving a definite period of time — but they would take “die” if it was on their terms.
The CDCR was not going to allow it. On Monday, August 19, 2013, a judge issued an authorization to disregard “do not resuscitate” orders and to force-feed prisoners. Pelican Bay would adopt the Guantánamo solution; ultimate control over the prisoners’ bodies was back in the hands of the authorities.
On Friday, August 23, 50 prisoners from Pelican Bay were moved to other prisons across the state.
The Short Corridor Collective was allowed to meet in the law library to decide what to do. Most prisoners had long resumed accepting meals. The ones left on strike numbered about a hundred. There was one bright spot: the State had called for legislative hearings. Faced with the imminent prospect of being force-fed, the Collective called off the strike. It was day 59.
Despite the underwhelming immediate results, public opinion had shifted. It would continue to do so through the hearings, providing essential fuel to the lawsuit.
As a response to the third strike, the CDCR began discussing and introducing more changes. They were largely palliative — technical adjustments to the process of assignment to the SHU and the subsequent reviews of status. Some were downright regressive, such as the proposed lengthening of SHU terms for those who participate in strikes.
The most significant change was the relocation of many inmates through the Step Down Program. With an unspecified number of prisoners now in Corcoran and Tehachapi SHUs (where they were supposed to continue the program), the CDCR might have hoped to undermine their ability to be part of the class action lawsuit.
“We filed a supplemental complaint,” Professor Jules Lobel, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told me. “We argued that a change of location didn’t compromise the plaintiffs’ standing.” The judge agreed. According to the ruling, anyone who had already spent 10 years in the SHU remained eligible for the lawsuit. The number was a staggering 500 prisoners.
After a series of postponements, the case was finally supposed to go to trial at the end of 2015. It would have forced the State of California to defend a system that thousands of people across the country, President Obama, and the United Nations, had taken a stand against.
The State blinked. In the spring, negotiations for a settlement began in earnest. Lawyers and CDCR officers met in person a number of times, and hammered out the sweeping agreement announced on September 1.
According to the settlement, California’s use of solitary confinement would be transformed from a status-based system to a behavior-based system. Gang-validated prisoners would only be sent to SHU if found guilty of a serious “SHU-eligible” rule violation. Validated gang affiliates would enter a two-year SHU step-down program for return to general population after serving their determinate SHU term. In addition, virtually all of those prisoners who have spent more than 10 years in solitary would be immediately released to a general-population setting.
It is undeniable that prison changes prisoners. It ostensibly aspires to change them for the better, into “rehabilitated” citizens. It often does the opposite, hardening them into more ruthless criminals. It can make them into misfits, born-again believers, political activists, litigators, advocates for human rights. Sometimes the journey goes from one road to another.
All the men in the Short Corridor were convicted of serious crimes, including murder. None of them calls himself “innocent.” But the story of the Short Corridor Collective is a story of change, both for the prisoners and for the system.
I met Todd Ashker in the SHU, talking to him through the door. He was initially guarded, as all prisoners are when they don’t know if you’re an officer, a lawyer, an activist, or a reporter. An officer had described him to me as “grumpy,” which I found odd — can anyone spend decades in the SHU and maintain a cheerful disposition? Still, as soon as I mentioned Professor O’Hearn, his eyes lit up. Our conversation was short, but it gave me a clear sense of a highly intelligent man, committed to a cause.
Ashker denies that he was ever a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. But even if one believed otherwise, Ashker’s writings from the SHU are sharply at odds with the ideological trappings of that gang, showing that he read and embraced the work of many progressive thinkers. The bottom line is that a prison gang’s primary agenda is about power and profit; Ashker, on the other hand, sees himself as a fighter for human rights — and human rights are exactly what he achieved.
Another man I met in the SHU remains on my mind. I withhold his name because he’s not a spokesman, though his personality is so charismatic that a judge called him “the most unusual, most likable felon” he ever met. He has a quick smile and a warm voice; you almost become unaware of the big, bold tattoos that cover his body and most of his face.
He sent my friend Scott a letter. It reads:
Many Years of Jail, Years of Prison, Even the SHU could never change me. Punishment, torture, that don’t change people! It only makes us worse because in order to survive it, we have to become tougher.
Today I learned something, compassion! that works! You guys don’t know us, but treated us as humans. You guys did in minutes, hours, what the SHU could not do in years, decades — make us open up. Humble us. Make us want to change.
The settlement is only a beginning. It will have to be implemented, protected, and hopefully adopted as a template for the rest of the nation, which still has up to 80,000 people in solitary. There will be challenges along the road.
A chilling warning had already come two weeks before the settlement was announced, when prisoner Hugo Pinell, freshly transferred from the Pelican Bay SHU, was assassinated in New Folsom. Pinell, known as “Yogi Bear,” was a legendary figure, beloved by many fellow inmates for his role as an activist, and reviled by officers for being part of the “San Quentin Six,” who attempted escape in 1971 (the incident left six people dead, including George Jackson, a founder of the Black Guerrilla Family). A native of Nicaragua, Pinell was a friend of Jackson and an example of the messy journey from crime to political activism. He originally pleaded guilty to rape, though he later maintained that the charges were trumped-up. His subsequent crimes were committed in prison and involved violence against guards, including murder, resulting in multiple life sentences. According to fellow prisoners, he became the target of beatings and abuse for the next 40-odd years, while advocating for racial solidarity. Pinell spent most of his time in the SHU; lacking disciplinary violations, he was finally transferred to a transitional unit in New Folsom. From there he was placed into general population, where he was stabbed to death by members of a white prison gang. A riot ensued.
This kind of violence would provide fodder to critics of the settlement, which include the powerful prison guard union. Still, this is how change happens. The CDCR is a large organization, not unlike the military or the law enforcement agencies in its range of views. While the default attitude is conservative, officers know that respect for prisoners is the first and most effective safety measure. As SHU prisoners are currently being relocated, the test for the system will be to provide for them a safe environment, with adequate care and education programs, where they can prepare to reenter society, or spend the remainder of their time in humane conditions. It would be a victory not just for the men of the Short Corridor, but for all of us.
Alessando Camon is a writer and producer, currently based in Los Angeles, where he is writing a TV show set in California’s prisons.