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'Can't Even See The Sky': Ex-Prisoner On Solitary Confinement


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, it's the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. That's the time of year practicing Muslims maintain a strict fast during the day, a day that begins with the call to prayer. We'll tell you about a television station in England that has provoked a lot of discussion with its decision to broadcast that call to prayer every morning. We'll tell you what people are saying about that in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to another story that is also about renouncing food, not for religious reasons, but in this case, in protest. Prison authorities in California say that more than 12,000 inmates across the state have been on a hunger strike this week. Local media has suggested that that number is actually much higher. The inmates are protesting conditions in the prisons, especially in so-called security housing units, and over the use of solitary confinement.

We wanted to know more about this story, so we've called on Paige St. John. She's a reporter from the Los Angeles Times who's been following the hunger strikes. She's with us from Sacramento. We also hope to be joined at some point in the program by Jerry Elster. He's a former inmate in California who's spent 26 years behind bars and now works with the advocacy group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and we hope to hear from him from San Fransisco. Thank you both so much for joining us.

PAIGE ST JOHN: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: And I do want to say that we reached out to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and California Governor Jerry Brown's office. They were not able to provide someone for our conversation, but we did receive a statement and we'll tell you about that statement later in the program.

Paige St. John, let's start with you. What set this off and how was this organized? And as I mentioned, we are hearing different reports about the scope of this, so can you give us - shed some light on that as well?

ST JOHN: Sure. Let me start with where we are at the moment. We're in day five of a protest that began Monday. On Monday, 30,000 inmates in two-thirds of the prisons in California and in four prisons outside of the state, where California inmates are housed, began refusing their state issued meals. There was...

MARTIN: Did they have specific...

ST JOHN: ...Allegations...

MARTIN: Yeah. Were there...


MARTIN: ...Specific demands...

ST JOHN: Demands...

MARTIN: ...Complaints...


MARTIN: ...And how were those communicated?

ST JOHN: The strike had been announced for months. Since January, inmates had been - across the state had been saying they would join in, but it originates from Pelican Bay State Prison, the California supermax. It's the most isolated prison up near the Oregon border, with a group of inmates that call themselves the Short Corridor Collective. These guys are in what the state calls segregation and they call solitary confinement. They are housed, most of them, single-celled with no visible - no visual access to other inmates, remaining in their cells 23 hours a day, roughly, and what movement they're allowed are always in shackles and chains, and held there sometimes indefinitely.

Jerry joins us, you mentioned he was 26 years in that situation, but there are several hundred who have been in that kind of housing indefinitely for gang affiliations. Not necessarily even gang-related behavior, but affiliations. So the court demand for the protest this time around, as well as in the hunger strikes in 2011, is over indefinite solitary confinement. They're demanding an end to that practice in California.

MARTIN: Jerry...

ST JOHN: Other...

MARTIN: I understand, Jerry Elster, I understand that you're with us now.


MARTIN: And you were in one of those Security Housing Units, or SHUs, back in the 1980s. I don't know if it's the same now, but can you describe from your experience what that's like and why that would lead people to want to protest in this way?

ELSTER: OK, slightly - they become slightly more even egregious than the ones I was in. I was in - the last two I did was in 1989, was in Tehachapi max. That was a Maximum Security Institution for California at that time, but they opened up Corcoran in '88 and later on, Pelican Bay. I guess that was their extreme max that they could get to.

The one I was in, I was locked up in an 8 by 10 cell, no contact with outside people, incommunicado with family members. I'm from Los Angeles County, which is like most of those men that's locked up in those isolation units.

The way they have made it even more egregious compared to what I went through - I was in a locked unit and a cell with about maybe 20 other inmates in the whole unit, and that's all you saw every day. You know, you probably went to a little, small yard, which was outside at that time, where we got to communicate with each other.

The way they've upped the ante in Pelican Bay is these prisoners are locked down the same as we were, for 23 hours a day, coming out only for a shower and then they have a catwalk that's in the back of their cell, so they're not even leaving their cell, really, for that. They go out on the catwalk, which is covered by a fiberglass partition where they can't ever really see the sky, and they have a little piece up there where they say the sky can come through.

They have no contact with anybody. The only physical contact they're really having is when the guards aggressively handle these prisoners.

MARTIN: What's the worst part of it, Jerry? Is it the no contact with family?

ELSTER: The no contact with family and loved ones. I mean, to try to quantify one over another, I think, is almost impossible because there are so many things that's bad about it. I mean the sensory deprivation. They get no outside sunlight or anything - or natural sunlight or anything.

They're way on the other end of the Oregon border, where - so it's impossible for family members to travel up there. Most of them are under some type of restraint where they can't even correspond with their family members or receive anything or they don't get any pictures or anything.

One of the - one particular guy has been in this situation for 40 something years, Hugo Pinell. He's been up there - man, it's horrible. This guy's been - he's just been in there and I don't think he has - it's not like he's in there for murder or anything like that. This guy's just - I mean, most of them are for their political belief. One guy was locked up for almost 20 something years just for talking to his friend and getting tagged as an affiliate.

MARTIN: A gang affiliate. We're talking about the hunger strikes in California prisons. We're speaking with Jerry Elster. He's a former Californian inmate. Now he's an advocate. We're also speaking with Paige St. John of the LA Times.

Paige, I'm going to go back to you. As I mentioned, we reached out to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and also to Governor Jerry Brown's office. They didn't provide someone to join our conversation, but the Department of Corrections did send us a lengthy statement. And they basically said that a vast majority of the people in these units are gang members and they say they've already started changing the policies to address some of these concerns last year. So, Paige St. John, what's your take on that?

ST JOHN: Well, actually, sometimes they use the word gang members, but that's incorrect. Some of the men have been what the state calls validated as gang members, but 80 percent, by the state's own counting, are what they call affiliates.

These are people who've not engaged in any physical gang-related behavior or been determined to actually be a member of a prison gang, but whose name may have shown up on a list someone else kept. They may have been found to have in their possession something determined to be gang-related, such as Mayan artwork on a calendar, or in some cases - and Jerry began to talk about this - they have copies of books by Malcolm X or about George Jackson, and African-American literature is considered part of the security threat group that the state monitors and feels is a danger to prison security.

MARTIN: Well, we've only got about three minutes left, so I wanted to ask, Paige, what - where is this headed?

And I do want to mention that there's another story about California prisons that we're also following and we'll be talking more about that next week. It's that there are allegations of forced sterilizations of female inmates. So, I want to talk about that next week.

But so, Paige, where is this headed? I understand that the department is, you know, is threatening disciplinary action under state law. And it says that this is a disruption - participation in a mass disturbance or refusing to participate in a work assignment are violations of state law and that there will be disciplinary action accordingly. What do you see as - where is this going, Paige?

ST JOHN: Well, the state has begun to take a line that they did in 2011, but much sooner down the road, of telling inmates they will search their cells, seize any food that they might find in there so that they can - as one inmate put it, if you want the world to think you're hungry, we're going to make sure you're hungry. Inmates will be written up for rules' violations for participating in the strike.

The state deems it illegal for an inmate to participate in what they call a disturbance. That can come back to haunt these protestors when they seek parole later on down the road. Some, including - especially the leaders of this protest, are faced with being put into solitary confinement if they're not already there.

MARTIN: Jerry Elster, you participated in a similar hunger strike, as I understand, when you were incarcerated back in the day. How was that resolved and how do you think this one will be, if you don't mind my asking for your opinion here?

ELSTER: Well, the hunger strike I participated in wasn't in isolation. It was on the main - it was the general population and basically it was handled by force the same way. People were locked up, people received write-ups who they felt were the leaders or antagonists of the situation.

I also have a letter that supporters, the reps, they're not leaders, they're reps chosen by different races - 'cause this is the first time that prisoners have come together across gang lines, religious affiliation, and they wrote a letter that I would like to read. A short, real short note thanking people who're supporting them.

It says, greetings to our supporters and all people of conscience. We are grateful for your support of our peaceful protest against the state-sanctioned torture that happens not only here, Pelican Bay Prison, but everywhere. We have taken up this hunger strike and work stoppage, which has included 30,000 prisoners in California so far, and this was two weeks ago....

MARTIN: ...OK...

ELSTER: ...Not only to improve our own conditions but also an act of solidarity to all prisoners and oppressed people around the world. We encourage everyone to take action to support the strike wherever they live. Sign the petition demanding Governor Brown stop the torture. Plan rolling solidarity fast if you are able, use every means to spread the word and participate in a nonviolent direct action to put pressure...

MARTIN: ...I'm sorry Jerry we're almost out of time, that's why I'm going to cut you off there. Paige we have 20 seconds left. Is there anybody mediating this to your knowledge?

ST JOHN: Not yet. There have been talks leading up to the protests and there is a mediation team, representatives of some of the inmate advocacy groups. They're on standby to, again, talk with state administrators.

MARTIN: OK, and we have to leave it there for now. Paige St. John is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Jerry Elster spent 26 years behind bars in California and he now works with the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, which is an advocacy group for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ST JOHN: My pleasure.

ELSTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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