On September 26, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California resumed their hunger strike to bring attention to what they say are inhumane conditions and to call for an end to solitary confinement in prison. The hunger strike quickly spread to at least a dozen other prisons across the state. The following first-person article was written by a hunger striker at Pelican Bay State Prison, who is currently living in solitary confinement, known as a Secure Housing Unit (SHU).
I’ve been in the SHU since July of 1987 so I’ve lived through a lot of physical as well as psychological abuses. I was originally placed in SHU at San Quentin’s Adjustment Center. The first thing I noticed as I was being escorted past the sergeant’s office was a caricature of a boar hog dressed in a correctional officer’s uniform holding a noose with a hammer hanging from it posted on the wall. So, being Mexican, I knew what time it was. Slowly, the blatant racism was pushed into the politically correct broom closet but it’s never been thrown out.
In 2003, I was returned from court to Pelican Bay and told in no uncertain terms that I would die here.
When PBSP created the control unit – known as the short corridor – in early 2006, the goal of the Office of Correctional Safety (OCS) was made perfectly clear: Debrief or die! They implemented orders to the short corridor correctional officer (C/O) staff to apply pressure to targeted prisoners, and the gang unit (Institutional Gang Investigations, or IGI) became the overseers of the control unit and began to target prisoners’ families and friends and attempt to create discord by mixing up mail, withholding and delaying personal mail and restricting visits for as little as saying hello to another prisoner. Their goal is to isolate these targeted prisoners.
I had never believed in hunger strikes, thinking that they’re counter-productive. However, when the gang unit began to work in concert with the chief medical officer – the IGI actually decides the level of medical treatment prisoners in the short corridor receive – I decided to participate in this and the next hunger strike, but here’s why:
A few years ago, a close friend – his name was Jimmy – developed cancer. The medical staff, MTAs and RNs, explained that if he’d debrief, become an informant, he would receive better medical care. Now Jimmy and I had known each other since we were teenagers running the streets of East Los Angeles getting high and living the lifestyle that ended up with both of us in prison for life.
As Jimmy’s cancer grew worse, he began chemotherapy. Jimmy mentioned to me how the IGI would “show up” at the clinic and comment that he could have contact visits with his wife before he died if he’d debrief. He refused but that’s how he found out the cancer was terminal! Jimmy loved his wife more than anything and he wouldn’t tell her everything about the head games and bullshit like waking up from surgery still under anesthesia being questioned by IGI, but I had warned him of that because it happened to me and at least three other prisoners.
After one of the surgeries, Jimmy was returned to his cell after a brief stay at the Pelican Bay prison infirmary. Those cells are completely bare except for a bed and all you can do is lay there and wait. On the second night back in his cell, he awoke to a bad pain. He said it was a little after 2 a.m. and the staples had opened along his abdomen and he was bleeding. He was holding his intestines in, calling for the C/O. The C/O came and saw the blood and said he’d call the RN on duty.
The C/O came back approximately 30 minutes later with a roll of toilet paper. Jimmy was sitting on the blood-covered cement floor holding a towel soaked in blood against his stomach. The cop tossed Jimmy the toilet paper and said the medical staff would not come until the next shift and there was nothing he could do. Jimmy held his stomach closed in pain until almost 6 a.m. when the medical finally came and they rushed him to the hospital. He asked that I keep it to myself because that was his style.
I was pissed! He had requested two hardship transfers to Corcoran because of its medical facility and he’d be able to see his wife and family more before he died. Both were denied and he was told to debrief and then he’d be transferred but he steadfastly refused. The cancer spread and the gang unit increased the head games, telling the medical staff to confiscate his shaded prescription glasses. But luckily, a Dr. Williams stepped in and told the medical staff to leave Jimmy alone as he was at end stage cancer. Jimmy chose to stop the chemotherapy and die. We’d talk through a steel door and discuss everything and nothing and plan out his funeral. He died in December of 2010 and I am proud and honored to have been his friend.
Shortly after Jimmy’s death, I was told that approximately eight of the older prisoners had been approved for transfer to the SHU medical facility at New Folsom, but the gang unit had those transfers stopped citing that those prisoners, all in their 60s and 70s, had not successfully completed the debriefing, thereby issuing a death sentence to all of these prisoners and denying adequate medical care.
I am 53 years old with incurable illnesses, Hep-C and Crohn’s disease, so I am participating in the hunger strike to expose how prisoners are being mistreated and medical treatment withheld as a coercion tactic.
The abuses, physical and psychological, the intimidations and harassments have a very well documented history here at Pelican Bay State Prison. They should speak for themselves.
Early 1990: Rumors of abuses at PBSP SHU come to light. The prison opens doors to media tour.
1995: Rumors of abuses citing C/Os extracting prisoners from their cells, stripping them naked and leaving them hogtied in the cold cells and on the cement yard overnight. Prison opens doors to media tours.
1998: C/Os accused of setting up inmates, opening cell doors in SHU.
2001: Prisoners began hunger strike to change debriefing process as it was not legal! Promises were made, Castillo case settled and reworded to be used against prisoners. Prison opens doors to media tours.
2006: California Inspector General’s Office issues memo for media release citing their investigation exposed that the PBSP internal affairs would avoid finding staff misconduct on excessive use of force and that some changes had been made but more are needed.
During this hunger strike, prisoners have been threatened with “progressive discipline,” which means the prisoners’ property will be taken out of the cells and they will only be allowed a pair of shower shoes and a pair of underwear until the administration deems the prisoner as “programming.”
The warden had a staff meeting before the last hunger strike telling staff that he would ignore the hunger strikers, which he did, violating the CDCR regulations and allowing prisoners to become ill. Grievances were returned unprocessed, so it never happened.
That is Pelican Bay State Prison. So now you know why I participate in the hunger strike.
Send our brother some love and light: Alfred Sandoval, D-61000, Pelican Bay State Prison, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.
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