Amnesty International report finds California SHUs illegal

Date of Alert: 
Thursday, September 27, 2012

Amnesty International report finds California SHUs illegal

Posted on September 27, 2012

Bunk in SHU cell, Pelican Bay State Prison © Rina Palta/KALW

Amnesty International released a report today (Sept 27, 2012), called “The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units”. The report slams the state of California for abusing prisoners’ rights under international law as well as for falling short on the recently implemented step-down procedures. It also includes a section about the 2011 hunger strike.

Read the full report HERE, or check the bullet points that we pulled out of the Executive Summary after the jump. Below that, we’ve copied and pasted the report’s section on the hunger strike.


-No other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation.

-Many prisoners have spent decades in isolation despite reportedly being free of any serious rule violations and – if they are serving a “term to life” sentence – without any means of earning parole.

-Prisoner advocates and others have criticized the gang validation process as unreliable and lacking adequate safeguards, allowing prisoners to be consigned to indefinite isolation without evidence of any specific illegal activity, or on the basis of tenuous gang associations, on evidence often provided by anonymous informants.

-No changes to the physical conditions of confinement are proposed for the Pelican Bay SHU, where prisoners would spend at least two years in the same isolated conditions of cellular confinement as they are now.

-Amnesty International considers that the conditions of isolation and other deprivations imposed on prisoners in California’s SHU units breach international standards on humane treatment.


“During the hunger strike he was taken to a Pelican Bay Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) with eleven other hunger strike leaders. He was in ASU with no warm clothes, bed blankets, possessions (including writing materials). The air conditioning was turned right up while he had just a t-shirt and trousers.” - Wife of gang validated SHU prisoner, one of the hunger striker leaders- this information was corroborated by one of the lead hunger strikers with whom the Amnesty International delegation spoke.

On 1 July 2011, prisoners in the SHU initiated a hunger strike to protest against their conditions of confinement, bringing the issue into the public spotlight.

The strike spread to prisons across the state, with more than 6,000 prisoners participating at one point.  The hunger strikers’ demands for improved conditions in the SHUs give an indication of just how stark those conditions were: they included requests for access to personal items such as being able to purchase wall calendars, “watch caps” (outdoor headwear when exercising in bad weather), “sweat pants” (to keep warm)  and at least some basic in-cell art materials. They also asked to be able to have an annual photograph taken to send to their families (a common practice allowed to most prisoners).

The strike ended on 20 July after CDCR agreed to make some modest changes immediately (allowing prisoners to have “watch caps”, wall calendars and some other personal items), and said it was undertaking a policy review to address the wider demands.  One of the hunger strikers’ “core demands” was that California comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Americas Prisons 2006 recommendation to end long term solitary confinement and make segregation a last resort. The strikers also called for prisoners who had served ten or more years of indefinite SHU confinement to be released to the general prison population.  Other demands included better food (following repeated complaints that the food provided to SHU prisoners was often cold and lacking nutrition) and requests that SHU inmates with chronic health problems be moved to the New Folsom Medical SHU facility.

Following concern among prisoners about what they perceived as a lack of progress in implementing changes, the hunger strike resumed briefly in late September 2011, but was called off after meetings between prisoner representatives and CDCR and further assurances that CDCR would institute changes.  While no disciplinary action had been taken against the first hunger strikers, the second hunger strike was treated by CDCR as a major rule violation and some prisoners were punished by having their property and canteen privileges confiscated. Fifteen of the strike leaders were reportedly moved to harsh  conditions in administrative segregation cells for a short period. Amnesty International wrote to CDCR at the time, urging it to take action to end to the hunger strike by providing assurances on improvements both to conditions and the procedures by which prisoners are assigned to the SHU, rather than through disciplinary action resulting in still harsher conditions.