2011-09-01 "Hunger strikes at California prison renew debate over confining prison gangs "
CRESCENT CITY -- The sun rarely shines on the kingpins of California's prison gangs. To stop them from orchestrating mayhem on prison yards and neighborhoods across the state, prison officials condemned hundreds of reputed gang members to years of isolation in windowless cells.
For five years, the tough strategy worked, wardens insist. Quarantined crime bosses lost contact with their followers. No one could hear what they had to say. At least, not until July 1, when some of the most securely held prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison stopped eating and broke through their shuttered lines of communication with a mass hunger strike that spread into prisons across the state.
"Am I an innocent lamb? By no means, but I can tell you this: I never deserved to be locked up in a dungeon for seven years just because they allege I'm a gang member," said Ronnie Yandell, one of the leaders of the hunger strike that lasted three weeks and spread to 12 other prisons with promises of more strikes to come.
Now, as a court-ordered mandate forces California to reduce the number of low-level criminals in its overcrowded prisons, protests of inhumane conditions for the most hardened, violent criminals are forcing the state to rethink another problem: How can powerful and savvy prisoners be stopped from directing violence on the outside without their rights against cruel punishment being violated on the inside?
Life in 'The SHU' -
Yandell and the other 1,110 men in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit -- known as "The SHU" -- spend at least 22 1/2 hours each day in their concrete, bathroom-size cells. Some inmates have a cellmate and some do not. Prisoners can have TVs but little human interaction. Their daily outing is a solitary 90-minute break in a barren exercise pen lined with 15-foot-high concrete walls and a limited view of the sky.
Hearing about the hunger strike through a network of family members and
activists, more than 6,000 inmates across California joined in.
prisons weighed each hunger striker daily, finding only about 11
percent of Pelican Bay's protesters lost weight during the 21-day
strike. One lost 30 pounds. No one died, but after weeks of unwanted
attention and a legislative hearing in late August, top prison officials
now say they are reviewing how long and why they segregate and isolate
some inmates in the state's harshest cellblocks.
doing with these men is lawful and constitutional," said Pelican Bay
Warden Greg Lewis. "I really didn't see the need to negotiate anything.
On the other hand, in the department, we need to evolve and change with
the conditions that are going on."
Dogged with mistreatment
complaints and lawsuits since its inception, Pelican Bay's conditions
were found by a federal judge in 1995 to "hover on the edge of what is
humanly tolerable." But judges have also repeatedly upheld California's
practice of confining inmates in isolated conditions, and in March
commended Pelican Bay for improving conditions. Still, experts say, the
prison realignment prompted by the court order to reduce prison
populations offers an opportunity to reconsider the practice of
"There's a growing consensus that these
ultra-isolation prisons are a bad mistake," said criminologist Barry
Krisberg, director of research at UC Berkeley's Earl Warren Institute.
"The theory behind these prisons was we'll collect all the worst people
in one place and that will make the rest of the prisons safer and easier
to manage. But they weren't necessarily the most dangerous, violent
criminals. " And the levels of violence in the other places didn't
really go down."
'Living like dogs' -
Prisoners promise another
fast could begin next week inside the remote facility, just south of the
Oregon border, if their demands for better conditions and an easier
path out of isolation are not met. Prison officials said the strikes are
a dangerous, costly and ineffective way for prisoners to voice their
complaints. Yandell said it is the only way anyone will pay attention.
tired of living like dogs," the former Contra Costa County resident
wrote in a handwritten letter to this newspaper, one of several
interviews conducted between the newspaper and self-defined leaders of
the strike. "Not even terrorists at Guantánamo Bay are treated like
Convicted of killing two men in El Sobrante a decade ago
during a drug deal, Yandell was placed in Pelican Bay's SHU -- the
oldest and biggest of three similar units around the state -- after
prison officials designated him a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a
The only way out of solitary confinement was to
"debrief" -- to convincingly denounce his gang affiliation and ideology
and name former collaborators. But many prisoners never find their way
out of the SHU; the average time spent inside the state's isolation
units is 6.8 years, and some prisoners have been there for decades.
this fog-enshrouded region off the Pacific Coast, prisoners rarely get a
glimpse of the sun, and their pallid faces show it. Not many family
members can afford the long trip to visit them, and when they do, they
must speak through phones. Prison workers carefully vet all written
correspondence, confiscating some letters that break the rules. Meals
arrive through a slot in steel doors.
"We've got these gang leaders
here in Pelican Bay that are very influential," said Lt. Dave Barneburg,
a gang investigator at the prison working to stop gang leaders from
directing organized crime on the streets. "They don't do the assaults.
They don't do the hits. They don't personally get their hands dirty, but
they command legions of subordinate gang members."
Price of isolation -
a third of Pelican Bay's prison population lives in the SHU, and most
of the rest live in what's called the "mainline," or general population
prison. Mainline prisoners have the freedom to play soccer or basketball
on a field, buy extra food from canteens, visit a chapel and
occasionally mingle in a common area outside their cells. When the sun
is out over Pelican Bay, they can bask in it.
Mainline prisoners also cost taxpayers less: $58,324 per inmate a year, compared with $70,641 for SHU inmates.
years, prison officials tried to manage gangs, not suppress them, but
even in the bleak confines of the SHU, gang leaders found ways to direct
violence within the prison and in their hometown neighborhoods,
That began to change in 2006, when the prison
placed some rival gang leaders in the same short blocks and further
restricted their communications. These leaders, Barneburg said, lost
their secretaries and the people who once did their bidding. Prison
officials don't have data to prove their strategy has worked in reducing
violence, but say inmates who earned their way out of isolation tell
them it works.
A way to get out -
In a rare media tour of the
prison last month, prison officials hand-picked two prisoners who could
speak with the media. Both men were on their way out of the SHU for a
less harsh facility after volunteering for a months-long debriefing
Incarcerated since he was 16 for a gang killing in West
Sacramento and in solitary confinement for most of that time,
35-year-old Harold Rigsby said he finally picked Bible studies over the
ideology of the Northern Structure, a gang associated with the powerful
Nuestra Familia network.
He renounced his gang, revealed
everything he knew about it and took no part in the July hunger strike,
viewing the protest as a plea for "little things like sweats, and better
food, and more packages."
"There's no arguing that this is a
harsh place," Rigsby said. "When I was still an active gang member, I
would've wholeheartedly agreed that this was an inhumane place. But at
the same time, we all have to understand that the SHU is a necessary
form of prison because of all the gangs."
In letters to this
newspaper, hunger strike leaders painted a different picture of life in
the prison and the motivations for their strike, complaining about poor
medical care, coercive interrogation tactics and a gang classification
system they say promotes racial divisions and is too subjective.
Bay has had hunger strikes before, but the magnitude of this protest
surprised many, as did the ability of inmates -- people officials have
characterized as the upper echelons of California's prison gang culture
-- to reach across racial boundaries.
"Once we decided to do the
hunger strike, we just passed word to our friends, and family, and
attorneys, and civil rights organizations, which spread the word,"
Yandell wrote. "Whites, Mexicans and blacks were all together on the
PRISONER HUNGER STRIKE DEMANDS
Eliminate group punishments and practice individual accountability if a prisoner breaks a rule.
the gang classifications that send people to long-term isolation, and
abolish the "debriefing" process by which inmates can only get out of
isolation if they provide information on gang activity.
Comply with a 2006 report by a federal commission that recommended segregating prisoners as a "last resort."
Provide adequate food.
educational, self-help and religious programs and offer more
privileges, including a phone call per week and permission to wear
COST OF ISOLATION
How much taxpayers paid per year for regular prisoners and those kept in isolation:
$58,234: Per regular inmate
$70,641: Per inmate in isolation