It was a hot day in downtown Oakland, and beads of sweat trickled down protestors’ faces as they passed out pamphlets and set up a handmade cloth sign that read “End Long-term Solitary Confinement” in front of the Elihu M. Harris State Building.
On Wednesday, members of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition (PHSS) spent hours rallying in the heat to protest the new welfare check procedures in security housing units (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison. Welfare checks at prisons are routine walk-arounds by guards in inmate areas. Each inmate is visually monitored many times a day to insure that they are mentally stable and are not harming themselves. But members of the coalition claim the routines that have been recently implemented in the SHU at Pelican Bay are unethical because they believe the noise caused by the checks keeps inmates awake at night. “We’re very concerned about the wellness checks and we’re trying to figure out what we can do to stop that practice,” said Carol Strickman, staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a member of the group.
The PHSS coalition is a grassroots organization dedicated to raising awareness about conditions in California prisons as well as ending the practice of solitary confinement. Members of the group, who include family members of incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people, and supporters of the organization, came out on Wednesday to protest the new welfare procedure that was implemented in the SHU at Pelican Bay on August 3. A person incarcerated in a SHU is isolated for multiple hours from people other than prison security personnel. Inmates whom prison staff deem a physical threat to other inmates or who violate prison rules can be placed in these facilities, away from the general inmate population.
According to Laura Magnani, a member of the coalition, welfare checks make the SHU inmates anything but well. “The guards are supposed to go around and check on people every half hour to make sure they’re not suicidal,” Magnani said as she helped secure a pole to the bus-sized protest sign. “They’re doing it by punching a wand into a gadget that makes a terrible noise 48 times a day, and people are being kept awake all night long, causing the inmates to suffer from sleep deprivation and other types of stress in relation to these sounds.”
Terry Thornton, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), said in a phone interview that these welfare checks are conducted twice an hour at staggered intervals and do not exceed 35 minutes between checks. She said welfare checks—although not this particular procedure—were started in 2006 to reduce rates of suicide amongst inmates in segregated housing units, meaning units in which certain inmates are housed apart from the general prison population. These units include the SHU.
“The procedure is done with an electronic monitoring system. [Correctional officers] touch a button on the front of the cell and it captures the time and location the check was conducted. The correctional officers then download and log this information into the prison computer system,” Thorton said. “The button emits a little beep. However, during first watch they use a silenced device. The officers also receive training to ensure they do these checks as quietly as possible.”
The PHSS protest came three weeks after a group of California inmates and the CDCR made a settlement agreement in the class action lawsuit, Ashker v. Governor of California. The settlement states that inmates can no longer be placed in solitary confinement indefinitely and restricted the placement of individuals in the SHU for perceived gang affiliations, allowing it only if they are in violation of prison conduct rules.
According to the Center of Constitutional Rights (CCR) a group that advocates for United States citizens’ constitutional and human rights, the “case charged that prolonged solitary confinement violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibited against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violated the prisoners’ rights to due process.” Members of the center advocated for a settlement agreement in the Ashker case.
Jerry Elster, a formerly incarcerated person and a member of PHSS, firmly shook hands with friends visiting the protest and watched the heavy afternoon traffic bustle through downtown Oakland. Even with the Ashker settlement in place, Elster said, he believes that the way in which SHU inmates are treated must be reformed. Elster said he spent five years in the SHU, and he recalled feeling isolation and stress from what he claimed was constant noise made by prison guards. He said that this experience led him to protest the new welfare checks at Pelican Bay.
“Instead of doing this quietly and making sure the inmates are alright, they’re using this as a tool of harassment, depriving people of sleep,” he said. “Guards already make a lot of noise all night with their keys and combat boots on the floor, so I can imagine with this new welfare check, it’s psychological torture.”
Thornton says the sound made by the prison staff at Pelican Bay has a lot to do with the architecture of the facility, which is made of concrete, causing the walls to echo. She says the CDCR is aware of the problem and they are making an effort to fix the issue. “CDCR has sent staff from its headquarters in Sacramento to Pelican Bay State Prison to evaluate the situation and the best practices from other prisons are being implemented at Pelican Bay,” Thornton said. “We have issued earplugs to inmates. We are also looking at way to quiet the doors.”
Members of PHSS will continue to protest this procedure in the months to come. They are planning on meeting in various locations in Oakland and the Bay Area every 23rd of the month.