Hunger strikes at California prison renew debate over confining prison gangs


The sun rarely shines on the kingpins of California's prison gangs. To stop them from orchestrating mayhem on prison yards and neighborhoods across the state, prison officials condemned hundreds of reputed gang members to years of isolation in windowless cells. For five years, the tough strategy worked, wardens insist. Quarantined crime bosses lost contact with their followers. No one could hear what they had to say. At least, not until July 1, when some of the most securely held prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison stopped eating and broke through their shuttered lines of communication with a mass hunger strike that spread into prisons across the state. "Am I an innocent lamb? By no means, but I can tell you this: I never deserved to be locked up in a dungeon for seven years just because they allege I'm a gang member," said Ronnie Yandell, one of the leaders of the hunger strike that lasted three weeks and spread to 12 other prisons with promises of more strikes to come. Now, as a court-ordered mandate forces California to reduce the number of low-level criminals in its overcrowded prisons, protests of inhumane conditions for the most hardened, violent criminals are forcing the state to rethink another problem: How can powerful and savvy prisoners be stopped from directing violence on the outside without their rights against cruel punishment being violated on the inside? Life in 'The SHU' Yandell and the other 1,110 men in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit -- known as "The SHU" -- spend at least 22 1/2 hours each day in their concrete, bathroom-size cells. Some inmates have a cellmate and some do not. Prisoners can have TVs but little human interaction. Their daily outing is a solitary 90-minute break in a barren exercise pen lined with 15-foot-high concrete walls and a limited view of the sky. Hearing about the hunger strike through a network of family members and activists, more than 6,000 inmates across California joined in. The prisons weighed each hunger striker daily, finding only about 11 percent of Pelican Bay's protesters lost weight during the 21-day strike. One lost 30 pounds. No one died, but after weeks of unwanted attention and a legislative hearing in late August, top prison officials now say they are reviewing how long and why they segregate and isolate some inmates in the state's harshest cellblocks. "Everything we're doing with these men is lawful and constitutional," said Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis. "I really didn't see the need to negotiate anything. On the other hand, in the department, we need to evolve and change with the conditions that are going on." Dogged with mistreatment complaints and lawsuits since its inception, Pelican Bay's conditions were found by a federal judge in 1995 to "hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable." But judges have also repeatedly upheld California's practice of confining inmates in isolated conditions, and in March commended Pelican Bay for improving conditions. Still, experts say, the prison realignment prompted by the court order to reduce prison populations offers an opportunity to reconsider the practice of isolating criminals. "There's a growing consensus that these ultra-isolation prisons are a bad mistake," said criminologist Barry Krisberg, director of research at UC Berkeley's Earl Warren Institute. "The theory behind these prisons was we'll collect all the worst people in one place and that will make the rest of the prisons safer and easier to manage. But they weren't necessarily the most dangerous, violent criminals. " And the levels of violence in the other places didn't really go down." 'Living like dogs' Prisoners promise another fast could begin next week inside the remote facility, just south of the Oregon border, if their demands for better conditions and an easier path out of isolation are not met. Prison officials said the strikes are a dangerous, costly and ineffective way for prisoners to voice their complaints. Yandell said it is the only way anyone will pay attention. "We're tired of living like dogs," the former Contra Costa County resident wrote in a handwritten letter to this newspaper, one of several interviews conducted between the newspaper and self-defined leaders of the strike. "Not even terrorists at Guantánamo Bay are treated like this." Convicted of killing two men in El Sobrante a decade ago during a drug deal, Yandell was placed in Pelican Bay's SHU -- the oldest and biggest of three similar units around the state -- after prison officials designated him a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white-only gang. The only way out of solitary confinement was to "debrief" -- to convincingly denounce his gang affiliation and ideology and name former collaborators. But many prisoners never find their way out of the SHU; the average time spent inside the state's isolation units is 6.8 years, and some prisoners have been there for decades.

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