From the Trenches: CA Inmates Win Against Long-Term Solitary Confinement

“From the Trenches” is a battle cry. In a globalized world that criminalizes the rebellious in spirit, it’s easy to forget that change-minded activists and organizers are tallying up tiny victories against sociocultural and economic oppression on the regular. The column will serve as a weekly reminder that we not only can win, but we do, often. So hasta la victoria siempre and all that.

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California reached a settlement with a group Pelican Bay State Prison inmates on Tuesday that will see hundreds of state prisoners removed from long-term solitary confinement. Experts say long-term solitary confinement results in “psychological damage, increased anxiety, disordered thinking and a high risk of suicide.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, California was one of the “shrinking number of states” that throws inmates into long-term solitary confinement based on gang membership in an effort to control gang violence. The settlement could end that practice, meaning only inmates who commit violent crimes while in prison would be eligible for long-term solitary confinement. If the reforms succeed, they could mean a changing tide for long-term solitary confinement practices across the country.

The victory was the result of a lengthy organizing effort by long-term solitary inmates themselves, which since 2011 has evolved into a state-wide prison movement, one of the largest in US history. Truthdig‘s Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan report:

They call themselves the Pelican Bay SHU Short Corridor Collective. This group of men has been subjected to long-term solitary confinement, some for more than 20 years, in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, located in the far northern corner of the state. From within their small, windowless cells, they began talking, organizing. In July 2011, they launched a hunger strike in protest of conditions in the “SHU” (pronounced “shoe”), the Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay’s solitary-confinement facility. More than 1,000 SHU prisoners joined in. They issued five demands, and after three weeks, officials offered what the hunger strikers considered a good-faith pledge to review policies in the SHU. Months later, after no action was taken, they went on a hunger strike again. This time, more than 12,000 prisoners joined in, across California and even in other states.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a public-interest law firm with a focus on human rights, filed suit on behalf of all prisoners in California’s prison system who had been accused of gang affiliation and, thus, sent to the SHU. As the lawsuit wended its way through the legal system, a third hunger strike was initiated, in July 2013. More than 60,000 prisoners took part. A movement was growing.

Listen to the Pelican Bay inmates’ stories of life in solitary and the growth of their movement:

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