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Prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) are isolated for at least 22 ½ hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, any kind of programming, adequate food and, often, medical care. Nearly 750 of these men have been held under these conditions for more than a decade, dozens for over 20 years.
Ostensibly, these men are in the SHU because they associate with gang members and isolating them is necessary to prevent gang activity and racially-motivated violence. But these men have organized more than 30,000 SHU prisoners across racial lines to go on hunger strike to protest their conditions. That’s right – men who have been isolated for over a decade and deprived of basic human rights because they are allegedly connected to racially divided gangs worked together to demand basic rights and constitutional protections for themselves and one another.
Here are their stories and those of their families.
For the past 16 years, I have spent at least 22.5 hours of every day completely isolated within a tiny, windowless cell in the Security Housing Unit at California's Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City (Del Norte County).
Eighteen years ago, I committed the crime that brought me here: burgling an unoccupied dwelling. Under the state's "three strikes" law, I was sentenced to between 25 years and life in prison. From that time, I have been forced into solitary confinement for alleged "gang affiliation." I have made desperate and repeated appeals to rid myself of that label, to free myself from this prison within a prison, but to no avail.
The circumstances of my case are not unique. In fact, about a third of Pelican Bay’s 3,400 prisoners are in solitary confinement; more than 500 have been there for 10 years, including 78 who have been here for more than 20 years, according to a 2011 report by National Public Radio. Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort - for years on end. It is a living tomb. I eat alone and exercise alone in a small, dank, cement enclosure known as the "dog-pen." I am not allowed telephone calls, nor can my family visit me very often; the prison is hundreds of miles from the nearest city. I have not been allowed physical contact with any of my loved ones since 1995. I have developed severe insomnia, I suffer frequent headaches, and I feel helpless and hopeless. In short, I am being psychologically tortured.
Claimed reforms or opportunities to be transferred out of the SHU are tokens at best.
Our other option to improve our lot is "debriefing," which means informing on prisoner activities. The guards use this tactic as leverage in exchange for medical care, food, amenities and even, theoretically, removal from the SHU. Debrief sessions are held in complete secrecy. When another prisoner is the subject of a debrief, he is not informed of the content, so he is punished with no means to challenge the accusations.
I have two disciplinary citations on my record. The first arose because I donated artwork to a nonprofit organization. The other is because I participated in a statewide hunger strike to protest conditions in the SHU. The strike was thought to be a success, with more than 6,000 inmates going without food for several weeks and ending with the promise of serious reforms from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In spite of the promises, the CDCR does not plan to institute any meaningful reforms.
Now fellow SHU inmates and I have joined together with the Center for Constitutional Rights in a federal lawsuit that challenges this treatment as unconstitutional. I understand I broke the law, and I have lost liberties because of that. But no one, no matter what they've done, should be denied fundamental human rights, especially when that denial comes in the form of such torture. Our Constitution protects everyone living under it; fundamental rights must not be left at the prison door.
Being in prison is an ordeal to say the least, but the Security Housing Unit is an altogether different form of punishment. Coming to the SHU has opened my eyes to the harsh realities of physical and mental torture. Before this, I only had a vague idea what mental torture might be like. Now I know it is 10 times worse than I had imagined. It is a challenge each day just to remain sane. I experience a wide and shifting range of emotions, including depression, hopelessness, antipathy, anxiety and humiliation, and I have chronic insomnia. It is difficult even to concentrate from moment to moment; my thoughts are mixed and perplexing, even in my sleep (when I am able to sleep at all).
Under no circumstance should anyone be treated like this. We are human and should not forfeit basic human rights because we are in prison. Of course everyone should be held accountable for their actions. However, punishment for a crime should never amount to torture. What's more, SHU confinement is additional punishment, on top of imprisonment, not for any crime or violation of prison rules, but for unsubstantiated claims that we have associated with gang members.
It would be easy to respond to this treatment with the same cruelty and malice that is administered daily to SHU prisoners. Constant disrespect can make someone a hateful monster, and many have been irreparably harmed by this experience. I struggle not to fuel the problem, to keep my wits about me even when I feel I may descend into madness. I hope this cruelty never shapes my ability to remain a human being.
I was transferred to the Pelican Bay SHU on May 2, 1990, whereupon staff told me that I would be here until I paroled, died or debriefed. I’ve been here ever since.
In 2004 I was party to a group request for program opportunities in order to be able to meet parole board recommendations for parole suitability. Pelican Bay's written response was, ‘Denied. You are considered a terrorist and until you agree to fully assist the authorities with bringing down the gangs, you will remain in SHU with no program opportunities. In our opinion, you should never be deemed suitable for parole without assisting the authorities.’
One of the first things gang unit staff ask a debriefer is, ‘Do you want to call your wife and family and tell them that you’re done and let them know they may be in danger?’ This threat is well established—many debriefers and their family members outside prison have been seriously assaulted and killed.
This attitude is in keeping with how prison staff view prisoners and their families. In 1992, my paraplegic mom traveled 400 miles to visit me. Visit staff told her she’d have to wheel herself to the SHU visiting area. Another visitor assisted her. The next day, staff hassled her for four hours before letting her in to visit. She never came back due to what happened. Over the years, I received two 10-minutes phone calls with her: one when my sister died in 1998 and one when my grandmother died in 2000. Pelican Bay staff told me many times that if I wanted to be transferred closer to my mom so I could see her, all I had to do was debrief. She has since passed away.
My name is Martha Esquivel. My brother, Luis, has been in the SHU in Pelican Bay for 13 years. In that time, two of our siblings and our mother have passed away. In 2002, Mom was 73 years old and very sick. She made the long, difficult trip to visit Luis at Pelican Bay and was heartbroken to only be able to see him through a window. After that visit, Mom’s health declined even more and she was unable to travel to visit Luis. She would talk often about how much she missed him. We sent letters from doctors describing Mom’s condition and trying to get Luis moved to a prison closer to home, but we were unsuccessful. Now my father is in the same situation—at 89-years-old and in poor health, the long trip to Pelican Bay is too difficult for him. He is also unable to speak to his son, because Luis is not allowed any phone calls.
Mom never got to see Luis again before she died in 2009. When she died, I called the prison and was allowed a 10-minute phone call with Luis. It was only the second time I’d talked to him on the phone since he’d arrived at Pelican Bay in 1999. I told him Mom had passed away but he did not cry. We were speaking in Spanish and he told me that the guard was right in front of him and he would wait to cry until he got back to his cell because he didn’t want to give the guards something to pick on him about by crying. He told me to be strong. I couldn’t believe he was about to go back to his cell to cry all alone, and here he was telling me to be strong.
Then, in February 2006 our sister, Luz, fell ill and our family wrote a letter to Luis preparing him for her death. He asked for a phone call and, by the time he was able to call, Luz had passed away.
In 2010, our oldest brother died in Tijuana. Jose was 15 years older than Luis and was like a father figure to him. I called the prison again and requested a phone call with Luis, but I was told I could not have one because Jose had died in Mexico. I offered to provide the phone number of the mortuary, so that the prison could call and verify that my brother had died, but it made no difference. I still don’t understand why it mattered where Jose had died, but I was not allowed a call with Luis to tell him.
Instead, I wrote him a letter. I used different colored pens to tell the story. I started with blue, which I told Luis represented God and the sky. Next was yellow, for the sun and hope. Then purple—‘In other countries,’ I told Luis, ‘they use purple to represent death, just like we use black here.’ Luis wrote me back and told me that, when he reached the purple ink when reading my letter, he knew that someone had passed. And that was how he learned his brother had died.
Through all this loss, our family has been unable to have contact with Luis, unable to comfort him or be comforted by him.
I’m denied physical contact with family and friends. I’m not allowed to make or receive phone calls or have a photograph taken to send home. None of my nieces, nephews [or] grandchildren have ever heard my voice or seen what I look like. They all live in another state and can’t afford the expense to come visit me. For most of us in the SHU, mail is our only connection to the outside and to family and friends. Sadly, this institution wants to break as many ties and bonds to family and community as it can. Staff members constantly look for ways to make the SHU more punitive. One tactic is to totally stop, or to delay for weeks at a time, our personal mail. This is all designed in an effort to frustrate and disrupt any bonds we may have with family or friends on the outside. Many of them just decide to stop writing rather than endure the frustration.
In 1980, was part of a major lawsuit to improve prison conditions. I rallied to get other prisoners involved so Folsom Prison could be added to the lawsuit. I helped to bring Blacks and Mexicans together to talk, ending years of racial violence. I attempted to help Black correctional officers form a Black union. I provided legal assistance to all races, challenging everything from their convictions and sentences to losses of good time, lack of medical care, and other matters. For that, I am called the worst of the worst.
When we arrived here, late, on the prison bus, pulling through the many prison gates, a guard stepped aboard to give us his speech: ‘This is your new home Pelican Bay State Prison. Look to your right, left and behind you. See them trees in the hills? This will be the last time you’ll see a tree. Look at the ground, see the dirt? This will be the last time you see dirt of this earth.’
We walked into this building, which looks like an underground bunker but is above ground. There are no windows to look out. There are no trees or grass anywhere in sight. There is no dirt from the earth to feel, no sun or moon to watch, no stars in the sky to count. We see no birds flying above, only their sounds let us know they’re near. The little things in the outside world we once took for granted are now against prison rules—in here they’re called contraband.
My name is Marie Levin. I am the younger sister of Ronnie Dewberry. Ronnie has been held in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison since 1990, a circumstance that is truly cruel and unusual punishment. When I heard about the inhumane conditions in the SHU, I broke down crying uncontrollably.
Ronnie lives in a cramped, windowless cell for at least 22 1/2 hours a day. He is let out of his cell only to exercise alone in a concrete enclosure and to shower three times weekly. He is allowed no phone calls and may only receive one package per year. His food is often cold and rotten. Ronnie has chronic stomach problems, swollen thyroid glands and a severe Vitamin D deficiency. He also suffers from high blood-pressure and has at times been denied his medication. He says that being in the SHU feels like psychological torture. It is traumatizing knowing that a loved one is suffering and there is nothing you can do about it.
Ronnie and I are ten months apart and we were very close growing up. At first, he was in a prison near our family and I was able to visit him regularly. But since he was transferred to Pelican Bay in 1990, I have seen him only five times. The drive is almost 8 hours, I don’t own a car and, travel and lodging are very expensive. There is so much time between visits that, each time, Ronnie looks much older. After the long, costly trip, we are only permitted to visit for 1-2 hours, through a piece of glass. I have not been able to hug my brother in over two decades. Our mother has had several strokes and is now paralyzed, speaks with difficulty and suffers from dementia. She longs to see her only son, but she is no longer able to make the long and difficult trip. Though Ronnie is eligible for parole, he will not be paroled while he is in the SHU. I fear our mother will pass away before she and Ronnie can see each another again.
In 2001, our oldest sibling, Carol, suffered kidney failure and Ronnie set about trying to donate a kidney to her. He was able to get tested and found out that he was a compatible donor, but the prison would not allow him to make the donation. For years, Ronnie fought for permission to save his sister. Carol died in 2010, in a puddle of blood, bleeding out after a dialysis treatment. She was 59 years old.
I am very grateful for this lawsuit and for all of the support that has been given to Pelican Bay prisoners since the hunger strikes. The movement to end these barbaric conditions has lifted Ronnie’s spirits as well. For the first time in a very long time I feel hopeful that Ronnie’s situation might change for the better.
My name is Jeffrey Franklin. I am from Los Angeles, CA, and I have been in prison for over 30 years. I have spent the last 24 of those years in the SHU.
I originally ended up in the SHU for violating a prison rule against having “material that can be made into or used as a weapon” in my possession. I was given a 15-month SHU term as punishment. However, after my SHU term expired, I was designated to be kept in the SHU indefinitely because prison guards found my name in another another prisoner’s possession—even though this is not a rule infraction. Thus, I have been unable to see, hold, touch, walk with, and interact with other prisoners, friends, or family for over twenty years for something I could not have been sent to the SHU for in the first place. In 2006, I was found denied inactive status even though I was not placed in the SHU for having been active in a gang to begin with. Yet, 7 years later, I am still in the SHU.
I have had 24 years of good behavior, without any write-ups. I feel I deserve a less restrictive living situation. And I should be closer to my family. I have five grandchildren whom I have never seen, and a 36-year-old daughter whom I have not seen since 1982, when she was 6 years old.
It is very difficult to live day-to-day in the SHU. Sometimes people simply snap, suddenly and unpredictably. In fact, one of the worst challenges I have faced is witnessing so many other SHU prisoners lose their minds. It is hard to describe the horrors of insanity, the incessant screaming and noises and incoherent speech. Thousands of prisoners are kept in sensory deprivation units for years, until they are mentally ill, or sometimes until they commit suicide because they can no longer cope with the loneliness, the sounds of people losing their minds, or harassment from prison guards. Holding on to your own rationality becomes a major challenge.
Being in the SHU is designed to break you, to make you submit, but it is not clear to what. The only ways to get out alive is to inform on other prisoners—even if you have no information to provide, even if you risk violence by doing so, even if doing so puts your family in danger. Prison officials will also withhold adequate medical or mental health care unless you debrief. This is coercion and wickedness, pure and simple.
My name is George Ruiz and I am 71 years old. I am a Mexican-American and have been incarcerated since 1980 and eligible for parole since 1993. However, multiple parole boards have told me that as long as I’m in the Pelican Bay SHU, I will never be paroled unless I first debrief and get back to the general population.
I have been housed in the Pelican Bay SHU and indefinitely detained in solitary confinement for 29 years since being validated by CDCR as a member of the Mexican Mafia (EME) when I was a young man. I have been disciplined only once for violating a prison rule in over 29 years. Indeed, my only rule violations in the past 30 years have been for missing a count in 1981, possession of wine in 1983, possession of unlabeled stimulants and sedatives in 1986, and a rule violation entitled “Mail Violation With No Security Threat” for using the term “sobrino,” which means nephew in Spanish, in a letter I wrote.
Despite this innocuous prison record, I have spent over 29 years in harsh isolation, without access to normal human contact. I have developed serious medical problems since being in solitary. I have glaucoma and had a corneal transplant on my left eye. I have been told that I need one for my right eye. I also have diabetes, which became aggravated after a change in my medication. I recently developed pneumonia, kidney failure and difficulty breathing, and experienced a delay in being seen by a medical practitioner. I had to be hospitalized for these conditions, but after I got somewhat better I was returned to the SHU. I also suffer from arthritis and high blood pressure.
Recently, the Pelican Bay medical staff determined that due to my diabetes and kidney failure, I am a high-risk patient whose medical needs cannot be adequately attended to at the SHU and that I should be transferred. However that recommendation was reversed by the IGI and then Chief Medical Officer Michael Sayre. I have been informed by the doctor that the only way to receive better medical treatment for my diabetes and kidney failure is to debrief and return to the mainline.
The most painful and difficult issues for me are the loss of any real physical and emotional contact with my family. Most of my immediate family lives in San Diego. I have had very few social visits from family and friends during my time at the SHU at Pelican Bay. I have two daughters and a son. My daughters find it very hard to visit me because it is so far away. It is very expensive and time consuming for them to drive for 850 miles from San Diego to Crescent City, as it takes about 14 hours to drive here without stopping.
One of my daughters visited me about six years ago. I have a sister who is 80 years old and cannot visit me because of her fragile health and the distance she would have to travel to see me. Once at the prison, my sister would only have one and one-half hour on Saturday and Sunday to speak to me. One of my granddaughters attempted to visit me several months ago from San Diego. She was recently married and had changed her name since her driver’s license was issued. She was turned away by the guards and didn’t get to visit me even though she brought all the legal documents to prove her name change was legitimate.
Meanwhile, scribbled drawings from my two-year-old great-grandson have been confiscated for supposedly containing “coded messages.” On one of her few visits, my four-year old granddaughter wanted to hug and kiss me when she was saying goodbye. She started crying because she couldn’t touch me through the Plexi-glass. My heart was broken right there. I tried to comfort her but was unsuccessful. My suffering in the SHU is made so much worse because I can’t call my relatives and maintain any degree of emotional connection with them. I want to be with them so I can hug them, kiss them and live what little life I have left with them. I want to go home.