California inmates renew demands

A correctional officer works at one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California prison inmates housed in the state’s highest-security prison have sent an open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, threatening hunger strikes and work stoppages if the state does not limit the length of time prisoners can be held in isolation cells.

The undated letter, signed by four prisoners housed in segregation at Pelican Bay State Prison, contends California prison officials failed to deliver on promises made to end a series of prison hunger strikes that involved as many as 6,500 inmates in 2011. Giving a July 8 deadline, the inmates ask for an end to indefinite holding of prisoners in Security Housing Units, where they are isolated from other inmates, denied privileges and allowed out of the cell 90 minutes a day.

The state uses Security Housing Units to segregate inmates who are believed to be leaders of prison gangs or pose other security dangers. In 2012, California began reviewing inmates housed in segregation for inclusion in a five-year “step down” program that moves them back into the general prison population. Previously, the state required SHU prisoners to confess and provide incriminating evidence of gang activities in order to get out.


Inmates ask that the step-down program be shortened to 18 months and that the state limit the time a prisoner can be held without charges in administrative segregation, a similar form of isolation, to 11 months.

In addition, the inmates add 40 “supplemental” demands dealing with nearly every aspect of prison life, from the length of family visits, quality of food and living conditions to the techniques used by guards to monitor prisoners suspected of hiding contraband in their rectums.

California currently has some 3,000 inmates in Security Housing Unit cells. More than 500 have been in segregation for a decade or more, some as long as 20 years. Prisoner rights lawyers are challenging the practice in federal court.


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