Going Insane in the SHU Box

Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

In an amazing feat of organizing, about 900 prisoners in solitary confinement in the infamous California prisons of Pelican Bay and Corcoran staged a hunger strike in the first week of July.

The hunger strike was in protest of the corrections department’s policy to remove and isolate those inmates designated, often capriciously, as prison gang members.

These inmates are separated from the general prison population and kept in Security Housing Units, known as SHU--confined for 22 hours a day in 8-by-10-foot windowless cells.

SHU inmates are always shackled when they leave their cells; they exercise in a “yard” that is really a larger concrete cell with no exercise equipment and no view of the outside world. SHU prisoners receive all meals in their cells, are not allowed to participate in training or educational activities, are not allowed contact visits and have no phone access. The severe sensory deprivation of SHU causes some prisoners to go insane.


Given the horrific nature of indeterminate confinement in the SHU, the nature of the evidence of gang activity can be vague, well beyond the point of malevolent absurdity.

The most frequent way to incriminate a prisoner with gang associations is by way of an anonymous informant’s fingerpointing. But other criteria the corrections department uses to justify “gang membership” include possession of literature or art construed as gang-related, writing to another prisoner’s family, assisting another prisoner with legal work, signing birthday or get well cards to prisoners, exercising or otherwise interacting with another prisoner suspected of gang involvement.

Prisoners are not allowed to present evidence or witnesses in their defense. There is no requirement that the information be current; a parolee returned to prison for a new offense after 10 years on the outside can be thrown in the SHU as a gangster based on information from his previous term in prison.

Confinement in the SHU is for an indeterminate period. Before 1999, the only way for a validated gang member to be released from a SHU was to be paroled, die, go insane or become an informant on other prisoners. Since a rule change, a prisoner now can be released to the general inmate population if prison investigators determine that he has been free from gang activity for six years.


The hunger strike was organized by Steve Castillo, an inmate at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit who has waged a legal campaign for years on this issue and whose suit led to the 1999 rule change.

Here are some excerpts from a recent letter from Castillo explaining why he organized the hunger strike:

“A hunger strike (besides the obvious) is generally a desperate plea for help. And it is a plea that usually follows the exhaustion of all other attempts to bring about the necessary change; when there exists no adequate or speedy remedy; or, when the required change is immediately needed.

“Rarely in a lifetime do we ever witness a sane person go insane. And even more rare is it to witness such an occurrence happen more than once. . . . Here, I have seen such things more times than I want to remember. I thought that seeing a prisoner get shot by staff was a frightening and chilling event, but that in no way compares to seeing a prisoner calmly playing a game of chess with pieces made out of his own feces. Or, prisoners smearing their bodies and cells with their feces. Or, watching prisoners throwing urine and feces at each other through the perforated cell doors. And worse yet, since we are cell fed, we eat our meals under these conditions.

“In sum, this place seems to lose all semblance of a prison and instead takes on a laboratory environment for human experimentation.”

The SHU inmates suspended their hunger strike after California state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, promised to probe the situation expeditiously. If their grievances are not addressed, the prisoners vow to resume their hunger strike in January.

Fifteen years of 22-hour days alone in a small concrete box, after being stigmatized as a gang member for helping a fellow inmate sign a letter, or because a guard has it in for you?

Californians have no right to lecture any country in the world on prison conditions while these horrors persist.