Family members of prison hunger strikers mobilize against solitary confinement

A banner is held at Oscar Grant Plaza as part of the Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement on March 23. (San Fransisco Bay View)

A banner is held at Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza as part of the Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement on March 23. (San Fransisco Bay View)

“By our silence, this is how they’ve gotten away with decades-long isolation,” Dolores Canales told me as this year’s anniversary of the California hunger strikes drew close. In July 2011, Canales’s son Johnny and several thousand others incarcerated in the state’s Security Housing Units, or SHUs, went on hunger strike to protest the policies allowing them to be placed in 23-hour lockdown for an indefinite period of time.

In the SHU, people are locked inside their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. Although prison policy dictates that they be allowed outside for one hour each day, Canales and other family member report that their loved ones are often held in their cells for several days without respite, then allowed outside for a single five-hour stretch. Until recently, those who had been classified as gang affiliates were placed in the SHU for an indeterminate or indefinite period of time. The only way out was to debrief — or supply information on the gang in question, including identifying other gang members and associates. Those who refused remained in the SHU. In Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum-security prison near the Oregon border, nearly half of the prison is devoted to the SHU. Some have spent years, if not decades, in the SHU. Although the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, insists that the SHU is not solitary confinement, those within and their loved ones outside dispute this claim.

The hunger strike that began on July 1, 2011, was the first of three. The third, which began on July 8, 2013, rocked California’s prison system when over 30,000 people refused meals the first day. The strike, which lasted 60 days, catapulted California’s prison system — and the issue of solitary confinement in the nation’s prison system — into the national consciousness. It also galvanized family members to connect and begin mobilizing against the conditions that their loved ones had been living in for years. For many, it was their entry into prison justice organizing.

In 2012, the CDCR implemented the Step Down Program to assess those who had been validated as gang affiliates. Each person’s classification is reviewed by the Departmental Review Board which then assigns them to one of five steps. Those assigned to the first two steps remain in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Those assigned to the third and fourth steps are transferred to the SHU at Tehachapi, a 670-mile drive southeast. Those in the fifth step are placed in general population. As of June 12, 2015, 1,274 people have undergone these reviews; 910 have been released directly to Step Five.

For the past four years, I’ve been following and writing about conditions within Pelican Bay, as well as the organizing both inside and outside. I’ve repeatedly interviewed people inside the SHU, those who have since been sent to Step Five, and their family members. As this year’s anniversary of the strikes approached, family members have continued organizing around not only their loved ones’ confinement, but also to end the practice of solitary confinement altogether. In southern California, family members have banded together to form California Families Against Solitary Confinement.

Maribel Aitkins (née Herrera) is one of those family members. Her uncle, Luis Esquivel, had been confined in the SHU for 17 years. In 2011, when he told his sister Martha that he was joining the hunger strike, the entire family sprang into action. Using GPS to guide them through unfamiliar streets, they drove from San Diego to Los Angeles and joined the solidarity rallies. Throughout the strike and in the months after, they continued making the 100-mile drive, connecting with other family members who had also come out to support their loved ones’ efforts and to demand changes. Locally, they connected with the Chicano-Mexicano Prison Project, connecting the issue of solitary confinement with issues around race and incarceration and supporting each other’s efforts.

In February 2015, Luis Esquivel was reviewed and assigned to Step Five. He was transferred to the state prison in Calipatria, a two-hour drive from San Diego. Although his family can now visit him more frequently, hug him and buy him food from the vending machine in the visiting room, they continue to press for change for everyone. “My uncle was the reason we were introduced to this type of activism,” Aitkins explained to me. But they want to be sure that no one ever has to endure the SHU again. “We may be called California Families Against Solitary Confinement,” Aitkins said, “but in actuality, we want to abolish solitary confinement.”

Being involved in the movement to end solitary has pushed both Aitkins and her mother Martha into public speaking and political organizing. The day before our conversation, both women had participated in the Chicano-Mexicano Prison Project’s annual conference on prisoners and colonialism. Martha facilitated a workshop about the SHU while Aitkins acted as the conference’s emcee, a new role for her. “It was the first time I’ve ever done anything like that,” she recounted. “I was nervous, but it was a great opportunity.”

At the conference, she and her mother urged attendees, some of whom had long been involved in prison activism and some of whom have family members in prison, to join their anti-SHU efforts. They told attendees about the July 14 hearing in Sacramento about CDCR’s proposed new regulations for people in the SHU participating in group activities. Currently, those participating in group therapy or other programs are locked in Treatment Modules, which CDCR defines as “heavy steel and mesh telephone booth types of enclosures with transparent high-impact strength plastic on the front and sides.” Each person participates in the group from inside his individual locked cage. The new regulations propose swapping these booths for Security Desks and a Security Table where, rather than being confined to a booth, a person is secured directly to the desk or table. (The Treatment Modules, or booths, will not be discontinued. They will still be used along with the proposed alternatives.)

Canales and other Los Angeles area family members are planning to drive to Sacramento for the hearing. “At least a couple of carloads will be heading up,” she told me.

Aitkins is hopeful that it will be more than a couple of carloads. She’s hoping that the connection with the Chicano-Mexicano Prison Project will gather enough San Diegans to warrant chartering an entire bus for the seven-and-a-half hour drive to the state legislature.

Although many of the people in Pelican Bay’s SHU are originally from southern California, family organizing is also happening in the north. In the Bay Area, Marie Levin, whose brother Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa had been in the SHU since 1990, has been organizing with Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition formed in 2011 to support the hunger strikers. In response to requests by those still inside the SHU to keep up the momentum and increase public awareness about their everyday conditions, they began holding monthly events. “We chose the 23rd of each month because these guys are spending 23 hours a day in their cell,” she explained.

The first of these monthly actions occurred on March 23, 2015, at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland. Levin and others stood with a banner, handed out information and urged people to get involved. In May, they held two actions. Some canvassed door-to-door in Oakland, while others headed to the pier in San Francisco where tourists catch the ferry to visit Alcatraz. “Many weren’t from the area,” Levin recalled. “They were shocked that these conditions exist.”

More and more family members have been joining the movement. “Since the last time we spoke, there are more family members involved,” Canales told me. “It’s spread out.” Word has spread about the organizing efforts of Canales, Levin, Aitkins and other family members — through media and word-of-mouth, both inside and outside of prison. Now, when a person enters the SHU, others will tell him that their family members should contact California Families Against Solitary Confinement. Other times, SHU prisoners will write directly to Canales with the phone number of the mother of a new arrival. Connecting with these women helps family members navigate the confusion around SHU placement — and gives them the opportunity to become involved with fighting for change.

And these new family members are ready — and eager — to take action. “They really want to get involved with policy change and rule changes,” Canales told me. “There are so many family members who have so many ideas.” One way they’ve been making their voices heard and breaking the shame and stigma of incarceration is by visiting their local legislators and introducing themselves with the words, “I’m a constituent and I have a loved one in prison.”

They’ve also helped each other stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones — pooling resources and sharing information to ease the financial burden of visiting nearly 700 miles away. “If a cheap flight is available, we spread the word and share the cost of car rentals and hotel rooms,” Canales explained.

And, as Aitkins and her family have demonstrated, they don’t drop out even after their loved ones are released from the SHU. Canales recounted getting a call from a reporter who wanted to interview a family member about CDCR’s emergency regulations that allow for strip searching visitors in certain prisons. The regulations do not pertain to Pelican Bay, where the 90-minute visits take place through glass and physical contact is absolutely impossible. But they are in place in other prisons that allow contact visits, including some prisons where people have been sent as part of Step Five. Canales contacted a woman whose husband had been transferred to one of those prisons. Canales recalled that the woman, who had never spoken to media before, was initially hesitant, fearing that speaking out might jeopardize her husband’s new placement. But, Canales told me, she spoke with her husband who “encouraged her to speak out, saying he didn’t care if he was sent back.” The woman agreed and shared her experiences with CDCR’s new strip search policies.

“We have to be able to speak out,” Canales reflected. She’s heartened by the new family members joining the movement and the growing demonstrations that they are not alone. “You see that more people, including legislators, are willing to stand up, speak out and say, ‘No, this is not right.'”

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