A mother who just wanted to know when her son would eat

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Dolores Canales speaking against the use of solitary confinement at a panel in California. (WNV/Global Women’s Strike)

The temperature in Corona, Calif., can soar above 100 degrees in the summer, sometimes climbing as high as 110. For Dolores Canales and others locked into their cells 22 hours a day in the Administrative Segregation Unit at the California Institution for Women, the extreme heat was aggravated by the extreme lack of privacy.

“The cells get extremely hot in the summer, so you have to take your clothes off [to stay cool],” she recounted.

But the unit was circular, and the guard stationed in the center was able to see into any cell with the turn of his head. “You can’t cover the window on the door, so you’re always exposed to the guards, who are mostly men.”

Canales spent nine months in segregation at the California Institute for Women in 1999. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard every day. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she told me in 2013, while I was working on an article for The Nation.

Still, being in isolation took its toll. “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in.”

Canales was unable to shake that anxiety even after leaving segregation and reentering the general prison population until she was released in 2000. She recalled breaking into a sweat and panicking any time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules.

“I just can’t forget,” she said.

With her dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail, one can see the emotions that play across Canales’ face when she talks about solitary confinement — especially since her son Johnny is now living through a similar experience.

At the Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay State Prison, Johnny spends nearly 24 hours a day locked in a windowless cell. Twice a day, food is shoved through a slot in the door. He exercises alone in a cement yard the length of three cells with a roof only partially open to the sky. He never sees the sun. This has been Johnny’s life for the past 13 years.

The Security Housing Unit, known as the SHU, comprises half of Pelican Bay State Prison in the coastal town of Crescent City, 13 miles from the Oregon border. Prison administrators place people in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term for being accused of gang affiliation. Accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence. Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for more than 10 years. Until recently, providing information incriminating others, a process known as debriefing, was the only way to be released from the SHU. Those implicated are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member to be sent to the SHU; jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU. Johnny was one of those jailhouse lawyers.

By 2011, SHU prisoners had had enough. They declared a hunger strike, demanding an end to these policies and conditions. Over a thousand people, including Johnny, joined in. Although not the first time SHU prisoners have gone on hunger strike, this particular call came at a time when prison organizing was intensifying. Less than a year earlier, in December 2010, people in a dozen Georgia prisons united across racial lines to go on work strike. Their demands included wages for their labor, educational opportunities, decent health care, nutritious meals and improved living conditions. In Illinois, activists were on the verge of closing the notorious Tamms prison, where men spent years in extreme isolation. Across the nation, lawsuits against inhumane prison conditions were filed — and won. At the same time, an increasing number of people were paying attention to mass incarceration and its effects, questioning the need to lock 2.3 million people behind bars at exorbitant prices. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” which traced the evolution from Jim Crow to today’s drug war policies, popularized the issue.

In California, the state prison system was packed at nearly twice its capacity. Earlier in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the extreme overcrowding violated the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent capacity. The state appealed the decision. At the same time, it contracted with the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America to send male prisoners to privately-run prisons in Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi, and began a program known as realignment, in which people convicted of lower-level non-serious, non-sexual offenses serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons.

The July 2011 strike was the first of several that catapulted the hidden realities of solitary confinement into the American consciousness. It also began connecting isolated family members, like Canales, and pulling them into the fight against inhumane prison practices. Canales had never thought about organizing to change — let alone abolish — solitary confinement. But she soon found herself swept up in the mounting outcry against mass incarceration. In less than two years, the concerned mother became the de facto spokeswoman of a growing movement of family members joining together to end solitary confinement.

Connections inside and out

In April 2011, Johnny began sending Canales letters that he asked her to forward to the governor, the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the prison’s warden. Johnny normally handwrites his letters on lined paper, but he had asked an outside attorney to type this particular letter to make it easier for his mother to photocopy and disseminate.

“On July 1, 2011, I and my fellow prisoners — on their own free will — will be commencing a hunger strike to protest the denial of our human rights and equality via the use of perpetual solitary confinement,” the letter began.

On that day, 1,035 of the 1,111 people locked in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit began a three-week hunger strike. They issued five core demands, including the elimination of group punishments, when an individual violated a prison rule; an end to the debriefing policy and changes in the criteria for being labeled a gang affiliate; compliance with the 2006 recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons, regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; adequate food; and constructive programs for those confined to the SHU indefinitely.

That day, Canales drove to a church in Los Angeles to attend an event about the strike. When she told the people at the door that her son was in the SHU, they invited her to speak. At first, she declined.

“I didn’t think I had anything to say. I didn’t even remember I had his letter with me, so I said no,” she said later.

But, as she listened to the various speakers, she decided that she would speak. From the pulpit, drawing confidence from Johnny’s letter, Dolores addressed an audience for the first time.

“The SHU does not discriminate,” were her first words. She emphasized that the hunger strikers came together across racial lines to fight for an end to SHU policies and conditions.

“I really wanted to bring in the fact that they were doing this all together, all the races,” she later recalled. “They’ve been killing each other for decades, but now they’re coming together. This was huge.”

Then she read her son’s letter. That was her entry into organizing.

Later that day, an event organizer invited her to speak on the local radio station KGLA about the strike. She agreed, reading Johnny’s letter on the air. From then, she plunged into a whirlwind of organizing, driving an hour from Orange County to Los Angeles several times a week for rallies, demonstrations and media appearances.

In three weeks, the strike spread to 13 other prisons and, at one point, involved at least 6,600 people in men’s and women’s prisons throughout California. Outside prison, Canales and other family members began connecting with each other to support their loved ones and their demands.

“We started meeting every other day,” she said. “More and more family members were coming out, sharing stories of their loved ones in different prisons and jails who were on hunger strike.”

The strike also reconnected family members, such as Oakland resident Marie Levin and her brother Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa. The two share the same facial features: the same nose and dark brown eyes. But Jamaa has been in the SHU since 1990, so his skin is several shades lighter than his sister’s dark brown complexion and, from lack of sun, has a gray cast. By 2011, Levin had not seen her brother for 15 years. “It was too painful to be part of his life,” she explained.

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Family photo of Marie Levin and her brothers, including Sitawa Natambu Jamaa, at their father’s funeral. (Photo provided by Marie Levin)

 

Shortly before the strike, she received a visit from Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, who brought an audiotape in which Jamaa talked about his decision to go on strike. Moved, Levin attended a solidarity rally in nearby San Francisco. Like Canales, that rally became her entry into political organizing. It also spurred her decision to reenter her brother’s life. She began attending meetings of Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition of lawyers, advocates and family members in the Bay Area.

“It was overwhelming at first,” she told me in an interview for The Nation. “I found out so much information I didn’t know about. Not just about SHU conditions; they were talking about the Black Panthers and history that I didn’t know.” But Levin continued to attend, learn and grow as an organizer.

San Diego resident Maribel Herrera has a similar story. Her mother has a photo in which her uncle Luis Esquivel, then in his mid-twenties, is holding a one-month-old Herrera. But Herrera herself had no memories of her uncle. In 2011, Herrera was 23 when her mother received a letter from Luis telling her about the upcoming strike and asking for her support. ”

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Luis Esquivel and his mother, before his imprisonment. (Maribel Herrera)

Taking two cars, Herrera and her family drove three hours from their home in San Diego to Los Angeles. They relied on GPS to guide them through the unfamiliar streets. At the rally, they learned about conditions in the SHU — conditions her uncle had never mentioned in his letters. “He was trying to protect us,” Herrera reflected later. “He never said anything to make us uncomfortable, so we’d had the Hollywood image that he was getting rehabilitated.”

Herrera and her mother drove to Los Angeles for every rally that summer.

Family members were not limited to those with loved ones at Pelican Bay. Daletha Hayden’s son Ian, labeled a gang associate, has been in the SHU at the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi since 2009. Neither Hayden nor her family had prior experience with addiction or incarceration and so had no idea where to turn for help.

“I was just desperate to find answers,” she said.

Hayden, who sports a small gold ring in her nostril and an armful of bangles on her wrist, speaks slowly and clearly. Occasionally, she pauses as the weight of those years — and her son’s confinement — hit her.

In 2011, Ian sent his mother the newsletter for California Prison Focus, an Oakland-based organization dedicated to ending the human rights abuses, including long-term solitary confinement, in California’s prison system. Hayden, who lives 400 miles away on the outskirts of Victorville, visited the group’s website and learned they were holding a meeting.

“I jumped in my car and went to connect with other people,” she recalled. The drive took seven hours — and two tanks of gas. “It was that serious,” she explained. “I needed to be able to do something other than pay for quarterly packages and search for attorneys.”

When she arrived, only four other people had shown up. But the small meeting allowed Hayden to ask questions about SHU conditions and the group’s efforts to challenge them.

The group coalesces 

While family members were connecting, hunger strikers were attempting to negotiate. On July 20, four strike representatives met with Scott Kernan, Undersecretary of Operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Kernan, who retired later that year at the age of 49, has been named in several lawsuits alleging medical neglect and deliberate indifference to abuse. Two years earlier, he also made headlines when he was arrested for drunk driving. At the meeting, Kernan assured them of upcoming positive changes to SHU.

His assurances led prisoners to temporarily suspend the strike, allowing CDCR time to fulfill these promises. But the families continued their efforts. They traveled to Sacramento to remind legislators that, although the strike was over, conditions had not changed. In August 2011, Dolores Canales and Marie Levin were among nearly a dozen family members who publicly commented about SHU conditions and the need for substantial change at a hearing hosted by the Public Safety Committee, a legislative committee that investigates and studies bills about the state’s penal code and prison system.

In September 2011, when none of their demands were met, prisoners struck again. By the third day, nearly 12,000 were refusing to eat. The strike spread to 12 prisons inside California. It also spread to the privately run prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma that the state had contracted with to comply with the Supreme Court order.

The strike ended on October 31, 2011, after CDCR promised a comprehensive review of every prisoner whose SHU sentence is related to gang validation. By then, family members had established connections across southern California and, from their regular meetings, formed California Families Against Solitary Confinement.

“We were the voices of our loved ones inside and as family members,” Daletha Hayden explained. “We wanted to make the public aware of these conditions — how long people had been in solitary confinement, ways people were placed there, that it was indefinite.”

Their goal was not just to curb the use of solitary, but to end the practice altogether. “We want to abolish solitary confinement,” said Herrera. “We don’t want it to be a practice in California — or in prisons anywhere.”

On the other side, CDCR insists that there is no solitary confinement in its prison system. SHU prisoners have the option of sharing an 11-by-7 foot cell with another person. Those who choose not to share every waking moment, including using the toilet, with another person still have human contact with prison staff.

CDCR has also maintained that the SHU is necessary. When he appeared before the California Public Safety Committee, CDCR undersecretary Scott Kernan stated that the SHU is necessary to isolate gang affiliates from the rest of the prison population. “We had to protect inmates, the staff, and the public [from] the tangible threats that gangs present today in our prisons. Murder, extortions, rape, drugs are examples of the criminal activity that require the department to do something,” he testified.

California Families Against Solitary Confinement began coordinating visits to Pelican Bay. To get from the Los Angeles area, where Canales and many families live, requires a 14-hour drive up the coast. Visits consist of 90 minutes in a small booth with a plexiglass window preventing them from touching or even speaking directly to their incarcerated loved ones. Instead, they must use the phones on the wall beside them. Once those 90 minutes are over, family members face another 14-hour drive home. For many, the distance and expense make visiting impossible. Canales began informally making arrangements to travel with other family members, sharing the cost of the lengthy trip.

That arrangement enabled Maribel Herrera to see her uncle for the first time since his arrest. In February 2012, when several women planned to visit their loved ones at Pelican Bay, they asked Herrera if she wanted to join them. She and five other women piled into an SUV borrowed from Canales’s boss. It was Herrera’s first time ever visiting a prison, but she credits the other women with helping her through what might have been a more intimidating process.

“When you walk through the metal detector, you don’t lift your foot up so the machine doesn’t beep. And you have to walk through it slowly. It’s like a sideways penguin move,” she explained. “They showed me how to walk through it so you don’t set it off and you don’t hold up the person behind you.”

At Pelican Bay, each visitor is assigned a time slot. Herrera’s was at 1 p.m.; the others had been scheduled for 8 a.m. Although bringing Herrera meant delaying their 14-hour drive home by another five hours, no one complained. And so, as an adult, Herrera was able to spend an hour getting to know the uncle from a childhood photo. It was the first visit he’d received in seven years.

California Families Against Solitary Confinement also began coordinating larger family visits and organizing fundraisers to cover expenses. In November 2012, they brought three vans of adult visitors, some of whom had not seen their loved ones in years. The following month, CFASC rented a charter bus and, with half the bus filled with children, traveled to Pelican Bay again.

Families also continued to raise awareness. In the Bay Area, Levin helped Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity build a mock SHU cell as a public education tool. The cell is life-sized, allowing people to step in and momentarily experience SHU conditions. “We took that around to different parks, to First Fridays in Oakland, to universities like University of California-Berkeley and University of California-Hastings,” she said.

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Marie Levin speaking at a rally against solitary confinement. (WNV/Scott Braley)

Mass hunger strike

In March 2012, CDCR released its plan changing SHU placement from gang affiliates to those labeled as members of Security Threat Groups. While family members, advocates and prisoners charge that the designation enables prisons to place greater numbers of people in the SHU, the department has insisted that being placed in the SHU is now based on behavior — in other words, being classified as part of a Security Threat Group by itself will not land a person in the SHU. Terry Thornton, CDCR’s deputy press secretary, has stated, “The majority of inmates housed in SHUs – are no longer placed in a SHU based solely upon their validation to a Security Threat Group, unless there is a nexus to confirmed gang activity.”

That same year, CDCR also unveiled its new Step Down program for those serving indefinite SHU sentences for gang membership or association. Thornton has repeatedly noted that under the Step Down program prisoners are not required to debrief or drop out of their gang. However, debriefing has not been eliminated: A gang member or associate can still choose to debrief instead of completing the Step Down program; that person would then be moved to a different unit.

But none of these changes satisfied the hunger strikers and their families, who continue to charge that the SHU constitutes torture.

On February 14, 2013, prisoners at Pelican Bay’s SHU announced a renewed hunger strike, promising to go “all the way” if CDCR did not meet their five core demands. They then demanded that CDCR sign a consent decree spelling out the specific terms of the policies it would enact and issued 40 additional demands, such as expunging all violations issued for participation in the 2011 hunger strikes and prohibiting retaliation for those participating in the upcoming hunger strike.

Word spread in several ways. Publications that offer free subscriptions to people in prison printed news of the 2011 strike, the five core demands and the call for a renewed strike. Sometimes, family members learned about the strike and told their incarcerated loved ones. Once news reached one person in the SHU, that person spread the word, literally yelling through his steel door to his neighbors in adjoining cells. In some instances, staff themselves inadvertently spread the news.

“The officers talk amongst each other,” Hayden noted. “And they don’t whisper away from the prisoners. They talk right there in front of them.”

On July 8, 2013, more than 30,000 people incarcerated throughout California heeded the call and refused meals. More than two-thirds of California’s prisoners as well as California prisoners in four out-of-state private prisons participated.

The strike was the largest in prison history. “Thirty Thousand Inmates Refuse Meals,” exclaimed the Huffington Post. “Hunger Strike by California Inmates, Already Large, is Expected to Be Long,” predicted The New York Times two days later. In response, CDCR asserted that the strike was led by prison gang leaders. CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times calling the strike a “gang power play.” 

Canales has repeatedly refuted this claim. Labeling the hunger strike as gang coercion is a scare tactic, she told me in an interview for Truthout. “They want to draw attention away from the true goals of the hunger strike because it’s been getting support. CDCR pointing to gangs is clearly diverting from the five core demands. As long as they can get you to not look at the reasonableness of the five core demands, that’s the goal that they’re reaching.”

In the weeks leading up to the strike, family members connected by phone at least once a week to strategize on how to support their loved ones. When it began, they met in person every week in Los Angeles with several family members driving two to three hours to attend.

But keeping up the pressure hasn’t been easy. “A lot of family members work full-time jobs, so the organizing is all in our spare time even though we have families, jobs, etc.,” Canales pointed out.

Fortunately, her own boss had been supportive of her organizing. “He let me have the time to take calls for interviews and even take time off to go to rallies,” she said. But others often couldn’t take the time off or afford the cost of driving to Los Angeles for protests or to Sacramento for hearings.

Even with the boss’s approval, the never-ending struggle still took its toll. “Imagine organizing events on a daily basis — going to Sacramento on three days’ notice. Imagine organizing and being concerned for your son and holding down a full-time job,” described Canales.

Herrera agreed. “People still have their lives to continue. Being a supporter is like a second job. But,” she added, “if we stop going, others might stop going and then others will stop going.”

Canales had initially planned to limit her involvement. “I explained to everyone that I couldn’t be involved in organizing around this hunger strike. I’m the sole provider in my home. I can’t lose my job.” But the strike — and her son’s participation — weighed heavily on her. “All I could think about 24-7 was this,” she said.

As the strike continued, Canales moved past her exhaustion, becoming the go-to spokesperson for families of hunger strikers, speaking with news media and appearing on shows like Democracy Now!, and Al Jazeera’s Consider This, and The Stream. Canales was not always comfortable with this role.

“I’m not the only family member,” she pointed out, both then and now. “There are so many people who are part of CFASC.” On at least one occasion, she tried to steer media to another family member, but the outlet insisted on her.

We’re not going away

The hunger strike ended on its 60th day: September 5, 2013. But family members continue to organize. In April 2014, Canales and Levin were attending a CDCR hearing about the Step Down program when they saw CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard. During the 2013 strike, Beard had requested that family members be excluded from meetings between the mediation team and CDCR. “He said he didn’t want to meet with family members during the hunger strike because it would be too emotional,” Canales recalled. But that day, Canales walked up to him, introduced herself and asked when he would meet with family members.

On June 26, 12 days before the one-year anniversary of the strike, four family members — Canales, Levin, Irene Huerta whose husband has been held in the SHU since 1986, and Beth Witrogen whose partner has been in the SHU for over 17 years — met with Beard and other CDCR officials.

Meanwhile, prison officials in other states have taken steps to reduce solitary confinement. In Mississippi, after a 2002 hunger strike by Death Row prisoners led the ACLU to file suit, state corrections commissioner Christopher Epps closed Parchman Penitentiary’s notorious Unit 32 in 2010. By June 2012, the number of people in solitary had decreased 75 percent to 316 from 1,300 in 2007. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, Epps also refuted the belief that solitary is a necessary tool to prevent violence, pointing out that violence decreased throughout the prison by 50 percent after the state reduced its use of solitary confinement by 85 percent.

Prison directors in other states are also exploring alternatives to solitary confinement. In January 2014, Colorado’s chief of corrections Rick Raemisch decided to experience solitary firsthand at Colorado State Penitentiary. His predecessor, Tom Clements, had already reduced the number of people in segregation from 1,505 to 726 within two years. (Ironically, Clements was killed in March 2013 by a man who had been released directly from solitary confinement.) After 20 hours in isolation, Raemisch wrote, “When I finally left my cell at 3 p.m., I felt even more urgency for reform. If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use.”

Raemisch has further reduced the number of people in solitary to 577.

To compare, in June 2014, 1,188 people were housed in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit alone. That number rose slightly to 1,193 people the following month.

This past May, New Mexico’s corrections secretary Gregg Marcantel joined the trend, spending 48 hours in solitary. After those 48 hours, he met with senior staff and advocated a clear process rewarding good behavior with increased privileges and an eventual release from segregation. He also concluded that segregation for discipline should be used more sparingly.

“That can’t be the only tool in our toolbox. There’s gotta be some other sanction that we use to change that behavior that’s more immediate and more effective,” he told the Albuquerque Journal. Marcantel challenged officials to consider alternatives, such as the loss of time taken off a sentence for good behavior, visiting privileges or access to commissary items, before sending prisoners to solitary.

Armed with these examples, Canales and the other family members arrived at the meeting with Beard and other CDCR officials. Pointing to Raemisch’s and Marcantel’s stays in solitary confinement, Canales invited Beard to do the same at Pelican Bay’s SHU, an invitation that Beard did not accept.

“But he did say that the intention was that there would be no more indefinite solitary confinement and to have everyone in the Step Down program so they have a chance to move towards getting out of the SHU,” Canales recounted.

Family members also raised concerns about the slow pace of the reviews for the Step Down process, particularly in Pelican Bay. Johnny, for instance, has yet to receive a date to appear before the Departmental Review Board.

“My son would qualify for Step Five [being released to general population under observation],” she said. “But I’ve been told that he won’t be seen by the Departmental Review Board for another two years because he’s ‘only’ been in the SHU for 13 years.”

Others, who have spent more years confined to the SHU, are being scheduled first. At the meeting, Michael Stainer, the director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Adult Institutions, stated that 68 percent of the prisoners who have been reviewed have been released directly to Step Five.

Canales walked out of the meeting with hope. “We’ve seen more changes in the last two years than in the past 30 years,” she said. “Nothing would have changed if it wasn’t for the hunger strike. They are the ones who got the attention.”

But, she added, having a meeting with top CDCR officials is a first step. “With open communication, that’s how solutions can come about. It’s making us feel like we have a voice. They’re sitting there and listening to us and knowing that we’re not going away.”

A family movement

Family members continue to organize, driving several hours, sometimes as frequently as once a week. “We’re not going away,” stated Canales. “If anything, even more family members are willing to get involved.”

People inside the SHUs are urging their loved ones to join advocacy efforts; CFASC’s visibility now gives them an opportunity to do so. “A lot of family members had no way of getting involved before,” she explained. “They didn’t know how to do so. They feel isolated with having a loved one in prison, but, with CFASC, they can find encouragement. We know what each other are going through.”

Organizing has also allowed family members to support each other. “Being part of CFASC and a network has given me the mental and emotional support that I didn’t have for those first 10 years of my son’s incarceration,” said Hayden.

Canales agreed. “I now am surrounded by family members whose loved ones have been in solitary confinement for 20, 30 years,” she reflected. “We draw our strength from each other. We’re growing our family movement. To speak out, to no longer accept that this is the way it is.”

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Daletha Hayden at a rally against the use of solidarity confinement. (Photo provided by Daletha Hayden)

In the Bay Area, family members have not yet coalesced in the same way. Levin recalled that, in 2012, Bay Area families suffered a loss when Irma Hedlin, a key organizer, died suddenly. Hedlin had two sons in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Both participated in the 2011 hunger strikes, spurring Hedlin and her daughter Lisa to become involved with anti-SHU organizing.

“She was the go-getter,” recalled Levin. “She was on the front lines. She’d call me and say, ‘Marie, you wanna go to Pelican Bay?’ or, ‘Go distribute these posters,’ or, ‘Come out to this rally.’ I was learning from her. So when she passed away, it was like, ‘I don’t have a teacher anymore.’ It was devastating.”

But Levin goes on. In October 2013, she emceed a rally shortly before California’s Public Safety Committee held a hearing about solitary confinement. It was the first rally that she had ever led.

Levin and other family members, including Hedlin’s daughter Lisa, are building their family networks.

“We’re having prisoners ask their families to get involved,” said Levin. “We’re organizing to have family members get together. We’re keeping people abreast of what’s happening. We’re trying to build something that we haven’t had here yet.”

Meanwhile, in southern California, Canales — who, at times, had felt overwhelmed during the 2013 hunger strike — received not only recognition for her organizing, but also the financial support to sustain her efforts in the form of a prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship. Competition for the fellowship is fierce with only 15 to 20 chosen from several hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants working on various aspects of criminal justice reform and advocacy.

“I would have never applied, but other advocates encouraged me,” Canales recalled. “I went onto the Soros website and saw who had gotten a fellowship before. When I saw lawyers and professional organizers had gotten them, I brushed it off.”

But advocates continued to encourage her. Azadeh Zohrabi, a member of the mediation team and a former Soros Justice fellow herself, continued to push Canales. “She literally sat down with me and said, ‘Let’s start working on this proposal,'” Canales remembered. “Azadeh is one of the busiest people I know, so I thought, ‘Well, she’s willing to put the work into this. Who am I not to?'”

When she learned that she’d been awarded a fellowship, she was shocked. “I still can’t believe it,” she exclaimed over one month later. “I’m just a mom who wanted her son to eat.”

Now, she’s a mom working to build the network of mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and other family members of people in solitary confinement throughout the state. “Even though it’s not specifically for CFASC, everyone is so thrilled for me. Hopefully this means for us to grow stronger.”

Johnny is proud of his mother. In a recent letter, he wrote, “I just got through watching the news and I saw you come out. Get on, Mom, that’s what I’m talking about. I am very proud of you. Keep up the good work.”

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