© Richard Ross
Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California is one of the most oppressive regimes of the U.S. prison system. It was designed to control and isolate the growing gang affiliations within California prisons following the CDCR’s massive expansion throughout the 1980s. It opened in 1989 and established THE model for maximum security prisons in states across the U.S.
Pelican Bay Prison specialises in solitary confinement. When photographer Richard Ross documented prisons as part of his Architecture of Authority project he went to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Pelican Bay.
The most segregated inmates spend 22 and half hours in a cell barely larger then your bedrooms or bathrooms. For the other 1 and a half hours they occupy a concrete pen for “exercise.”
It is a god-forsaken hole.
The most isolated prisoners have put together a strike plan. Yes, they have demands, but more than that they want to make a point about the inhumane and invisible conditions they inhabit. Yes, many of them have committed heinous crimes but cooping them up like dogs serves only to increase tension, anger and danger.
BACKGROUND AND DEMANDS
Prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison have called for an indefinite hunger strike as of July 1, 2011 to protest the cruel and inhumane conditions of their imprisonment. The hunger strike was organized by prisoners in an unusual show of racial unity. The prisoners developed five core demands.
California Prison Focus supports these prisoners and their very reasonable demands, and calls on Governor Jerry Brown, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate, and Pelican Bay State Prison Warden Greg Lewis to implement these changes. California Prison Focus has also joined “Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity,” a coalition of grassroots human rights activist groups in the Bay Area supporting the demands of the prisoners participating in the hunger strike.
Briefly the five core demands of the prisoners are:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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).
The Pelican Bay hunger strikers have support form the other SuperMax in California Corcoran Bay Prison.