Sunday, July 5, 2015

After Hunger Strikes, Solitary Confinement Reforms Come to California’s Prisons——and Leave Thousands Behind

Four years ago... approximately 6,600 people in California prisons launched a hunger strike in protest of long-term solitary confinement. The protest would be the first of three large-scale actions by state prisoners to bring awareness to the issue of long-term solitary confinement.

At the epicenter was Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, home of the state’s oldest and most notorious Security House Unit (SHU), where people deemed the “worst of the worst” spend 22½ hours a day in small, windowless cells, some for decades.

At the heart of the hunger strike were the so-called Five Core Demands:
  • End group punishment & administrative abuse
  • Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang criteria
  • Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement
  • Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food
  • Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates
The hunger strike lasted nearly three weeks, ending on July 21, 2011. It generated national attention, and on August 23rd the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee held a hearing on the practice of long-term segregation.

While state lawmakers and corrections officials signaled some interest in reviewing and revising procedures, little concrete progress was made. Two more hunger strikes would follow, one in September of 2011 and another in July 2013, the latter involving the participation of 30,000 people throughout California’s prison system.

The system has seen some change since the first hunger strike. Where once there were close to 11,000 individuals in some form of isolated confinement, today there are about 8,000. But that number still leaves California with more isolated prisoners than almost any other prison system in the nation, and for advocates of abolishing solitary confinement, much work remains to be done.


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