Not an isolated incident in California

In response to continued issues with long-term isolation in so-called Secure Housing Units (SHUs), a large hunger strike in California prisons has begun, organized by prisoners at Pelican Bay in the extreme north of the state. This follows a similar strike in 2011.

Isolation is prisons is grievously abused in the United States, with over a third of Pelican Bay’s prisoners in isolation- for an average of eight years. 78 prisoners have been in continuous isolation for over 20 years. Gabriel Reyes, who was sentenced to 25 to life for violating the three strikes law, talks about the horrible effects of long-term isolation, concluding “In short, I am being psychologically tortured.”

This system is inhumane, and long-term isolation is considered torture by the United Nations. Due to the sparse rooms and lack of human contact, prisoners lose all sense of time and develop serious psychiatric problems like self-mutilation and severe anxiety. This has been seen not only in the United States, but among death row prisoners in Japan. Besides social estrangement, a lack of information about their condition strains prisoners. California prisoners do not know if or when they will be released from an SHU to the general prison population, just as Japanese prisoners are given very short notice about when they will be executed.

The California system is a mess. The healthcare system has been in federal receivership for years due to class-action lawsuits, a panel of judges- backed by the Supreme Court- has repeatedly demanded that the state deal with overcrowding. And death row has been under a moratorium for years, due to evidence that lethal injection is not in fact humane and without serious pain.

This is in some parts a reflection of a broken justice system, where mandatory minimums and long sentences for non-violent crimes put more people in jail, for longer periods. And that is a reflection of a broken society, with low graduation rates, a lack of quality jobs, and serious shortcomings in social services. In short, the prison system in California is the society magnified. While it’s worse at Pelican Bay than a California city, the same issues unite both.

The new hunger strike it almost five times the size of the one in 2011. This is because the previous call for help did not achieve what it needed to. The only option is to get bigger, get louder, and get in the way.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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