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One Month After Historic Hunger Strike Ends, Legislators Hold Hearings About Solitary Confinement

"This hearing gives the opportunity for people to do something other than starve themselves to death."

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A Legal Challenge to Indefinite Solitary: Ashker v. Brown

On Thursday, September 26, lawyers presented oral arguments for Ashker v. Brown, a federal lawsuit on behalf of 10 prisoners in Pelican Bay’s SHU. The lawsuit alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ right to due process. 

Attorneys urged the judge to grant the suit class-action status. More than 500 people have been in Pelican Bay’s SHU for over 10 years; more than 200 have been there for over 15 years; and 78 for more than 20 years.  Class certification would extend the remedies in the case to apply at least to all Pelican Bay SHU prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years.

Claudia Wilken, the federal judge hearing the case, said that she is likely to allow the suit to be expanded from the cases of 10 prisoners to include the approximately 1,100 people held in indefinite isolation. She set the trial date for November 3, 2014.

Returning to Pelican Bay

As reported earlier in Truthout, on August 23, the CDCR moved at least 50 hunger strikers to New Folsom Prison, just outside Sacramento, to provide them with better medical attention during their strike. Because New Folsom’s SHU and Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg) were full, hunger strikers were housed in a portion of the prison temporarily converted into an Ad-Seg unit. "The cells are constantly cold, given that the cell’s air-conditioning is always on full blast, blowing out cold air," Benton reported. "We are not allowed any yard activity or physical access to the law library." Reports on medical attention were mixed: Benton stated that medical staff often "just walk by one’s cell and look in on you, usually with no comment." However, Mutope DuGuma stated that both medical and custodial staff at New Folsom were "one hundred times more human than Pelican Bay medical/staff. We were actually treated fair."

For many, the month at New Folsom provided them an opportunity to see the sky. Benton noted that his cell had a window providing him with a view of mountains, trees and birds "to which I am taking in each day, as well as the joys and the warmth of the sun, to which I/we have been denied for so long." DuGuma too was able to see the outside world. "I haven’t seen a moon or direct sunlight in thirteen years," he wrote. "It was beautiful."

Once the strike ended, CDCR began returning prisoners to Pelican Bay and the other prisons where they were originally housed. Mutope DuGuma was moved on September 24. DuGuma noted that, like the ride to New Folsom, no medical staff accompanied the bus. In addition, he stated that prison staff  "didn’t lock the cages other than the gate that cut off to them, so the front and back could interact with each other. On the last five-and-a-half hours, they didn’t turn on the lights, leaving us free to move in waist chains and ankle chains." Given the California prison system’s history of racially-based violence, DuGuma hypothesized, "I think the COs were trying to serve us a threatening message as well as test our  end to all hostilitiesbecause we literally could have killed someone on this bus and got away with it."

Effects of Hunger Strike Still Felt

Although the hunger strike has ended (or been suspended, as some participants are quick to point out), hunger strike participants still feel the ramifications of going weeks, if not months, without food. Lorenzo Benton stated that he continues to feel occasional lightheadedness, aches and pains, fatigue, and wakes 10 times each night. "Being 58 years old, one’s body is not as young as it used to be, so one is aware it’s going to take a little time to reboot and rebuild this machine of mine."