Friday, March 15, 2013

My Visit in the Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit (SHU): Solitary Confinement is Undoubtedly Torture

On Wednesday night, I returned from two days of legal visits in the Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit (SHU). I struggle to put into words an experience that is so unlike anything I have ever experienced, but I know that I must. I feel the need to share what I've seen and what I've heard so that the torture of solitary confinement will eventually end once and for all. Without a glimpse of the horrors that happen inside the walls of this prison, too many people will fall prey to CDCR's rhetoric about these so-called "worst of the worst" prisoners and the torture will continue.

The dark and dreary "short corridor" at Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit (SHU)

Solitary Confinement

In the short couple months that Courtney and I have been interning at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, we have become incredibly immersed in this issue. The issue is California's use of long-term solitary confinement. Many prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU are being held in solitary confinement indefinitely because of alleged gang activity in prison. SHU prisoners spend 22 1/2 to 24 hours every day in a cramped windowless cell. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational, or educational programming. Food is often rotten and barely edible, and medical care is frequently withheld. More than 500 Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been isolated under these devastating conditions for over 10 years, more than 200 of them for over 15 years; and 78 of them have been isolated in the SHU for more than 20 years. Solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is now widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage to human beings and is labeled as torture under the UN's Convention Against Torture.  

SHU prisoners are also denied any meaningful review of their SHU placement, rendering their isolation effectively permanent. California imposes extremely prolonged solitary confinement based on a prisoner's alleged association with a prison gang. The problem is that gang affiliation is assessed without considering whether a prisoner has ever actually undertaken an act on behalf of a gang or whether he is - or ever was - actually involved in gang activity. The only way out of SHU isolation is to "debrief" aka "snitch" on other prisoners, which places those who do so in significant danger of retaliation and providing those who are unable to debrief effectively no way out of SHU isolation. 

For more information on solitary confinement generally, go to Stop the Torture (our campaign website that is in progress) or Solitary Watch.

Initial Trip Plans

When Courtney and I overheard Carol and Azadeh talking about doing legal visits at Pelican Bay over our spring break, we immediately decided to approach them and ask if we might be able to tag along. After hearing about the ideas, personalities, and situations of many of the men in the Pelican Bay SHU who regularly correspond with LSPC, we were both eager to speak with them in person. Luckily, Dorsey, the Executive Director of LSPC approved us to go do the legal visits, we filled out all the paperwork for a background check, and we were set! Last Friday before we left, we spent the day at the office going through the files of the men we would be meeting with on Tuesday and Wednesday. We read letters, political essays, and all other kinds of interesting materials that the men in the SHU send to the ladies at our office. I didn't know what to expect when I actually met the guys in there face-to-face, but wanted to be sure I had at least some knowledge about their background beforehand.

The Journey

Pelican Bay State Prison is 13 miles away from the Oregon border. That means it's a 7 hour drive from San Francisco. The four of us (Carol, Azadeh, Courtney, and I) left the Bay Area around 1:00 in the afternoon on Monday. As we were driving up the 101, beautiful tall redwood trees encircled us. On occasion, we would see the beautiful rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean on our left-hand side peaking out from behind the tall trees. All I could think of was that many of the prisoners we were going to visit in the SHU had not seen the light of day since some time in the 80s or 90s. My heart grew heavy when this thought came to my mind.

As we continued to drive up the coast, the weather became increasingly foggy and the landscape grew to be ominous and foreboding. The fact that Pelican Bay is so isolated from everything mirrors the isolation that the prisoners feel acutely; the isolation that the family members of the prisoners feel deeply.

We were exhausted from the drive by the time we got to the hotel. We printed out a couple of the legal documents that we needed to review with the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit (despite some roadblocks/complications) and then we went to bed. 

The Visits

The next morning, we woke up at 6:00 am and got ready to go. We once again wove through the maze of redwoods for a few miles up to the prison. As soon as we got to the entrance of the prison, shrouded in fog, there were no more trees in sight. There was nothing but rocks, gravel, and concrete to look at. To be honest, I felt like we were pulling up to something akin to a Nazi concentration camp. When I first glanced at all the barbed wire, the tall fences, and the guard towers, my stomach churned as I thought of the modern day slavery that has been perpetuated here since 1989.

The Guards

After being patted down and thoroughly inspected, a guard drove us from the general population area to the SHU. We then passed through a series of gates before we could even get to the visitor's area. When we got there, we gave the guard the legal documents that we needed to give to the prisoners (since we cannot have any physical contact with them or pass them anything ourselves). The demeanor of the guards is off-putting and very militaristic. One moment, they are smiling and joking with you, and another minute they are yelling at you for something that they never told you not to do in the first place. This is an environment where the rules are constantly subject to change at the whim of whichever guard is on duty and you are constantly on edge wondering what to expect.

Although we arrived at Pelican Bay at 7:30 am, it was 8:30 before we met with our first prisoner. On the first day (Tuesday), Carol and I did all of our visits together since it was my first time up there. I was excited to meet the men and update them on the status of the campaign and what we have been working on. This campaign is prisoner-initiated, so we are constantly seeking their feedback to make sure it is in line with their goals and vision. We got into this tiny legal visitation room (which was about 80 degrees in temperature) and it was stuffy as hell. Although it was tiny, at least it was private! (somewhat...) When the families come visit their loved ones in the SHU, their visits are completely recorded (both audio and video) and there is no door to separate them from other family members visiting their loved ones. There is no privacy whatsoever.

Barriers to Communication

As Carol and I were waiting in this tiny room, we see the first prisoner being escorted down the hall by two armed prison guards, handcuffed. He is wearing a white jumpsuit with "CDCR Prisoner" printed on the back in big black letters. The guards open the door to the room, let him in, then close and lock the door. Still handcuffed, he is forced to bend down with his handcuffed hands behind his back, and insert them through this little slot in the door. His handcuffs are then removed and he is finally able to sit down in front of us. We are, of course, separated by a thick pane of glass, so we talk by phone. Since there were two of us in the room, he talked by phone and we utilized the intercom speakerphone. This system was incredibly hard to work with, however, since each time we spoke, we had to press and hold down the "talk" button in order for him to hear us. Additionally, when we were holding down the talk button, he was then muted, making it impossible for us to have a completely fluid conversation. Each time I saw his mouth moving, I had to stop talking and immediately release the "talk" button in order to hear him. They play loud music on his side of the visiting room to ensure the "privacy" of legal visits, but the guards walk back and forth down the hallway at their leisure and I am sure that they overheard a lot of the prisoners' side of the conversation. On the second day of visits, during one of my more fun and lively visits, I also heard a lot of distracting clicking and static on the phone and I wonder if they were listening in on the conversation. I'll never know.

Visiting with the SHU Prisoners

At first, I thought that the prisoners would be sad and downtrodden. Although there were sad moments with nearly all of them (and justifiably so), I was amazed by their sense of hope and their perseverance in this struggle which is nothing short of an uphill battle. When I made eye contact with the first prisoner, he immediately smiled and looked happy to see Carol and I. We both introduced ourselves since neither Carol nor I had met him before. He is one of the hunger strike representatives and he writes to Carol and Azadeh a lot with wonderful ideas about the campaign and how to get the word out about the torture of solitary confinement in CA. His demeanor was sharp and bright. 

I met the brother of one of the members of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition and when he smiled, I saw her smile in him and I wanted to hug him. But I knew that I couldn't. I met the husband of one of the coalition members and he spoke so fondly of her. I wonder to myself when they will get to embrace again and I can only hope that it's soon. 

I met with a prisoner who is a self-proclaimed political prisoner and revolutionary. His father was part of the Black Liberation Army and he told me that he grew up in the struggle. We connected immediately because he was originally from San Diego. He was one of my favorite people that I met with during the course of the two-day visits and I was mesmerized by his thought process and wicked sense of humor. Since we were laughing so much, the guards came over and stood in front of the doorway. They sneered at him, "It sounds like you're having a little too much fun in there." He told them he was having a good ol' time, and I could see the hate in their eyes. They couldn't stand to see him laughing and enjoying himself. He told me that since he is in his cell 24 hours a day, he essentially has all the time in the word to "come up with strategies to help the community." He said that he doesn't really care about his own interests, but is more interested in having a positive effect on the community outside the prison walls. He has come up with multiple strategic proposals to help solve societal issues, one of which is to help end child hunger. When I asked him if he had any ideas about how to reach out to the public about the issue of solitary confinement, he told me that he doesn't believe that most people know that they have another community inside prison walls that is actively working on issues outside prison walls! He believes that if people knew that, they would be able to see how we can all work together to help change some of society's ills.

As the minutes went on with each of the prisoners, I have to admit that I kind of forgot where I was. I so enjoyed their company and what they had to say that the glass between us seemed to fade away and I forgot that i was holding a phone. I was jolted back to reality when the guards appeared behind them to escort each of them back to their cells. With faces made of stone, they banged on the door and took us out of the comfortable, flowing conversation that had developed over the past hour. In that hour, we were both human beings just having a conversation about our beliefs, values, and how to reach the common goal of ending this torture that goes by the name of "solitary confinement" in a torture chamber known as the "SHU." But each time the guards came to escort a prisoner out, my heart broke more and more. My heart broke because I knew that at the end of the day, I was going to be free to leave Pelican Bay free of shackles and handcuffs and cruel prison guards. I was going to feel the warmth of the sun on my face and hug my family. But the prisoners were not. Whether or not the campaign and the lawsuit succeed, I will have my freedom. They may or may not be free ever again, and that idea sickens me to my core and makes me angrier than I can say. While the men we met were able to put on a "happy face" for the hour that we were together, I wonder what it feels like when they get back to their cell and the loneliness sets in. I wonder how many tears are shed in the dark stillness of the night.

Ever since I got back from Pelican Bay, there is an uneasiness inside me that will not go away until this torture ends. I cannot stand to see my brothers, my fellow human beings locked up inside cages that are not even fit for animals. I cannot stand to see them treated like shit and denied proper medical care. I cannot stand to sit back and let California get away with this and lie to the public anymore about what they are doing.

A dark and dingy SHU cell

Get involved!

This movement is incredibly important. If this blog post sparked your attention, please please please get involved! Educate your family and friends about this issue, write to prisoners inside to keep their spirits up.

Go on Facebook to "like" Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. This page will keep you updated on events and ways to get involved!

Follow us on Twitter: @stoptortureCA and tweet relevant tweets using the hashtag #StopTortureCA

For more information about the lawsuit, click here
For more general information about solitary, click here.
For an update about the recent legislative hearing in Sacramento, click here.
To hear about a SHU prisoner's experience, read this article.

Upcoming Events in the Bay Area

If you are in the Bay Area, come to the Solitary Confinement panel we are organizing at UC Hastings College of the Law on this Tuesday, March 19th at 6:00 pm in the LBM lounge on the first floor of the 198 McAllister building. RSVP to the FB event here.

Also, last but not least, come to the California Correctional Crisis Conference: Realignment and Reform. Register here! You MUST register or you will not be let into the State Building! 

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