California prisoners prepare for another hunger strike to protest persistently deplorable conditions
Prisoners and activists believe the policy was instituted as preemptive attack on the upcoming hunger strike. "We are concerned that, under the pretext of 'welfare' checks, prisoners are being harassed, targeted, and deprived of sleep as the date of planned hunger strikes and work stoppages approaches," said Isaac Ontiveros of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group. "Whatever the case, new CDCR Secretary Jeffery Beard has an opportunity to avoid the strike and begin to undo the indescribable harm that the California prison system has caused."
Problems associated with solitary confinement are closely connected to CDCR's most commonly used tool for sending prisoners like Jamaa into the SHU: the controversial "gang validation" process.
Once an inmate is listed in prison records as a gang member, he or she loses multiple rights on the assumption that they're a threat to the order of the prison. With no disciplinary write-ups since 1995, Jamaa would have been eligible for parole in 2004, except for the gang validation that led to his indefinite SHU sentence.
Getting pegged as a member of a gang can happen easily. Guards can write prisoners up for anything from the possession of artwork deemed to be gang-related, to information obtained from confidential informants whose claims prisoners often aren't allowed to refute and whose identities remain unknown to the targeted prisoners.
Last year, in the wake of hunger strikes, CDCR announced a "complex retooling" of the gang validation practices. The so-called Step Down process, created in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, is meant to transition inmates out of gangs over the course of four years, with privileges gained over that time.
It might be the most significant of the reforms that followed the last hunger strike, but prisoners and their advocates criticize it as too lengthy of a process, subject to the arbitrary whims of the correctional officers overseeing a given prisoner. In fact, they say it may widen the definition of who counts as a gang member.
Manuel Sanchez, who is participating in the Step Down program at Corcoran State Prison, wrote in a letter that he is "seriously considering returning to SHU, where I'd be less harassed and I'd get more yard access more consistently."
Compounding the problems in the prisons is a lack of transparency and public accountability.
"It's like mentioning July 8 is anathema," says San Francisco Bay View Editor Mary Ratcliff, whose African American-focused newspaper has been a CDCR censorship target.
From January to April of this year, Ratcliff said papers were being returned from Pelican Bay undelivered because they included articles about the hunger strikes, representing "material inciting participation in a mass disturbance," and "a serious threat to the safety and security" of the prison, according to CDCR Administrator R.K. Swift.
"I think it's remarkable that hunger strikes are considered a 'disturbance,'" says Ratcliff. "A disturbance is supposed to mean a fight—something that threatens people. A hunger strike is a threat to no one except the people who are participating in it."
Just as inmates can't get news from the outside, they are also walled off from journalists who might cover them and the conditions they live in.
Since 1996, the CDCR has limited reporters to only interviewing prisoners they've selected. Last September, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have opened up media access to the prisons. "Giving criminals celebrity status through repeated appearances on television will glorify their crimes and hurt victims and their families," he wrote, citing the media spectacle around Charles Manson.