Interview: Carol Strickman, from Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity CoalitionPrisoners' Struggle Against "Cruel and Unusual Punishment Amounting to Torture "
is a staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a
San Francisco-based organization which advocates for the human rights
and empowerment of incarcerated parents, children, family members,
and people at risk of incarceration. She is a member of the Prisoner
Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, a member of the team mediating
between the prison hunger strikers and prison authorities (the
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation--CDCR), and
part of the litigation team in Ashker v. Brown, a case filed
by the Center for Constitutional Rights challenging solitary
confinement in California prisons, now being argued in federal
This interview was conducted June 27, 2013.
Larry Everest: The June 20 communiqué from the principal prisoner representatives from the Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) SHU Short Corridor Collective Human Rights Movement stated they'd just held a mediation session with prison officials, that their demands hadn't been met, and so they felt compelled to resume their "hunger strike/work stoppage of indefinite duration until CDCR signs a legally binding agreement meeting our demands, the heart of which mandates an end to long-term solitary confinement (as well as additional major reforms)." [Note: the prisoner hunger strike began on Monday, July 8, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that " 1 30,000 inmates refused meals at the start of what could be the largest prison protest in state history," with prisoners in "two-thirds of the state's 33 prisons" taking part.]
I want to begin with some background on the basic issue--long-term solitary confinement. Your organization has been providing services for prisoners and their families for many years, and you've personally visited Pelican Bay State Prison and the SHU (Security Housing Unit) Unit eight times in the last two years. I just saw a film clip of an inmate in the Pelican Bay SHU who talked about not having seen the moon or stars since 1998. Can you help readers understand what the conditions in the SHU are like, and what prompted the two prisoner hunger strikes in 2011 and now another one scheduled to start July 8?
Pelican Bay Exterior by CIRonline
Carol Strickman: There's a horrible, near total, lack of human contact. The Pelican Bay is divided into "pods" of eight cells with a total of eight prisoners each--four up and four down. There are a total of 1,056 SHU cells divided into 132 pods. Prisoners are confined to these 8' x 10' cells for 22 and a half to 24 hours a day--without natural light, without being able to look outside the prison walls. They are allowed showers and solitary exercise in what prisoners call the "dog run." Someone in a control booth, which controls six pods, just pushes a button and their cell door opens. Then they are monitored on closed-circuit TV, and are told when time's up and they have to return to their cell.
There's no meaningful human interaction. Prisoners may have brief conversations--shouting to each other as they walk down the tier to get to the shower or exercise area, sometimes to people in other pods. They also communicate by shouting to each other through the slots in their cell doors, perhaps they catch a glimpse of other prisoners from time to time. So there's a very limited ability to have conversation.
The guards bring food twice a day; there's a food slot in the door and a tray gets shoved through (the same slot prisoners put their hands through to get handcuffed if they're leaving the pod). You could have a word with the guard who comes to the cell then, or when mail gets delivered through the slot at night. And then once every couple of weeks some psychologists come through asking if everyone is OK. So there is some very minimal contact with staff in that way, mostly verbal contact--but again, there's a terrible lack of any normal human contact.
Another thing I've learned is that none of the SHU prisoners get a good night's sleep. These are big cavernous areas, without carpets on the concrete floors and with very big, heavy doors. Guards come in and out, open and close doors, clomp up metal stairs, rattle keys, and shout to each other. So it's very noisy during the night. In our lawsuit we cite chronic sleep deprivation as being part of the cruel and unusual punishment that prisoners are subjected to, due to the whole structure of the SHU pods.
And, as you say, there is virtually no ability to experience anything in nature; there are virtually no educational, vocational or self-help programs; and family visits (which are rare because of the distance that families must travel) are conducted behind glass. Family visits are recorded; social mail is read.
All this constitutes cruel and unusual punishment amounting to torture.
Special to Revolution:
Artworks from Prisoners
Strickman: Legal Services for Prisoners with Children recently did an assessment based on CDCR statistics. As of the end of March 2013, there were 3,941 prisoners in SHUs (3,820 men and 121 women), and another 6,251 in Administrative Segregation, or Ad Seg. (Ad Seg--often called "the Hole"--can be long- or short-term isolation in which prisoners are deprived of regular human contact, phone calls, and contact visits, and subject to other restrictions.) So that makes a total 10,192 prisoners in solitary confinement in California alone. I understand that there are another 70,000 or so in solitary confinement in prisons across the U.S.
Everest: The 2011 California prisoners' hunger strikes--one from July 1 until July 22, the other from September 26 until October 13--were very powerful. You were telling me that during the first hunger strike 6,600 prisoners took part, and in the second 11,900. I think we both feel this was an unprecedented and extremely significant struggle. At the time, the prisoners put forward five core demands--eliminate group punishments; abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria; comply with the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; provide adequate and nutritious food; and expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
They ended their second hunger strike when the CDCR promised meaningful reform. However, the prisoners' June 20 statement sums up, "For the past  years we've patiently kept an open dialogue with state officials, attempting to hold them to their promise to implement meaningful reforms, responsive to our demands. For the past seven months we have repeatedly pointed out CDCR's failure to honor their word--and we have explained in detail the ways in which they've acted in bad faith and what they need to do to avoid the resumption of our protest action."
Could you explain what the CDCR has done--and not done--to address the prisoners' demands?