As 44 men enter their eighth week of hunger strike in the California prisons, having only water, electrolytes and vitamins since July 8, the United Nations and the Restorative Justice Committee of the California Conference of Catholic Bishops called on Governor Brown for changes the prisoners seek.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, urged the United States government to abolish the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement:
"Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture."
On Aug. 23, 2013, from Geneva, Switzerland, Mendez renewed a call to have on-site visits in U.S. prisons. In June 2012, in conjunction with Senate hearings on solitary confinement in the U.S., Mendez made a request to the State Department to visit U.S. prisons. He has not heard back.
Bishop Richard Garcia of Monterey recently said,
"We call upon Gov. Brown and Dr. Jeffrey Beard, California Secretary of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR), to address the egregious overuse of solitary confinement, violations of CDCR treatment policies of prisoners in the Secure Housing Units (SHU) and threats against prisoners participating in this current non-violent demonstration."
He referenced a pastoral letter on the subject of isolation: "We oppose the increasing use of isolation units, especially in the absence of due process, and the monitoring and professional assessment of the effects of such confinement on the mental health of inmates."
California condemns more prisoners to extreme isolation than any other government entity in the world, in absolute numbers and in percentage of incarcerated. A conservative reading of California official statistics reveals well over 10,000 adults are held in some form of solitary confinement.
With the last week, the California court opened the possibility of force feeding.
For More Than 50 Days, 44 Men Have Not Eaten to Argue They Are Tortured
The demands of the hunger strikers are reasonable: an end to long-term indefinite solitary confinement, a telephone call now and then, some sunshine, a look at a tree, a bird, classes, the chance to hug their children, grandchildren, wife, mother, friend, group interaction. They are always subject to the total power, whim, personality, mood of guards and often an ethos of degrading humiliation. The striking starving prisoners are peacefully protesting for an end to the torture, not to be released into the community.
The most egregious confinement is at Pelican Bay Super Max in Crescent City along the rugged coast, seven miles south of the Oregon border. Visiting, although permitted, is prohibitively expensive in both time and money, Confined 22 to 24 hours a day in a 11'7" x 7'7" windowless concrete cell. It is no wonder the US does not want the UN Special Rapporteur making on-site visits.
California argues that the availability of TV and the possibility for some of the men to have cellmate mean that long-term indefinite confinement in a windowless 11'7"x 7'7" concrete cell for 22 1/2 to 24 hours a day, year in and year out, is not torture.
Prisoners are not sentenced to solitary by the courts; they are assigned by the prison administrators. You get indefinite, life-long SHU assignment because of WHO the gang "intelligence" unit (IGI) decides you are. Tattoos, books, art work keeps men in solitary for life even with absolutely no behavior problems. Violent behavior gets a SHU assignment of a maximum of five years.
More than 500 men have been held like this for over 10 years; close to 80 men more than 20 years; one man, 48 years.
The prison thinks the way to control gangs in the community and in the prisons is through massive numbers of isolation cells. The Pelican Bay Human Rights Movement issued a cross racial call, an Agreement to End Hostilities, to cut down on prison violence, the CDCR refused to circulate it.