Civil libertarians and Hollywood celebrities recently signed a letter voicing support for prisoners engaged in a hunger strike over conditions in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison.
They ought to save their outrage.
Inmates fomenting the hunger strike claim human rights are being violated. But they include killers and leaders of the most brutal gangs in the prison system. They are from the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerrilla Family, Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia. One shot-caller was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in federal indictments returned last week in Los Angeles seeking to disrupt Mexican Mafia operations.
Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that the hunger strike has nothing to do with conditions and everything to do with gang leaders wanting to get into the general population so they can more readily conduct their gang business. We see no reason to gainsay his statement.
California prisons are monitored closely by the federal courts, a court-appointed special master, and a receiver who oversees health care, plus aggressive prisoner rights attorneys from the Prison Law Office in Berkeley.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento have issued orders that have forced California to spend billions to vastly improve health and mental health care in the prisons. The judges’ orders led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision prompting the state to reduce the number of inmates from 174,000 to 119,000.
There was a time when The Bee’s editorial board urged strict oversight of Pelican Bay’s security housing unit, for good reason. In its first years of operation, there were instances of terrible abuse by guards of inmates. Health care clearly was inadequate, and prison officials inhumanely housed severely mentally ill prisoners in the units. Isolation exacerbated their illness.
In 1990, the Prison Law Office filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that conditions in the unit amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. In 1995, Henderson issued a scathing decision upholding much of what the Prison Law Office sought and appointing a special master to oversee the unit. The judge lifted that oversight in 2011, after becoming convinced that the prison was adhering to his decree.
Henderson left unanswered the question whether a decade or more in security housing is so detrimental to inmates’ mental health that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights has raised that claim in a suit on behalf of inmates including the hunger strike leaders. The matter is pending before U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken.
In the past, gangmembers could get out of the units only by agreeing to inform on their fellow gangsters, which was tantamount to a death warrant for the informant. Prison officials last year modified the policy and now offer inmates ways to get out of security housing units short of informing on fellow gang leaders.
Beard made clear that he is trying to move away from long-term segregation, while reserving long-term housing in the units for truly hard cases.
Security housing units are stark. But it’s not as if they are rat-infested, medieval holes. Many inmates have cellmates and can talk through the locked doors to their neighbors. Pelican Bay inmates have televisions, with 23 channels, including the four broadcast networks, PBS, BET and ESPN, plus educational and self-help channels and Bible channels in English and Spanish.
Security housing units are not country clubs. But inmates have to work to get there. For the safety of other inmates, that’s where some of them should remain. Celebrities such as Peter Coyote, Jay Leno and Susan Sarandon and civil libertarians diminish their credibility by embracing the cause of gang leaders who masquerade as human rights advocates.