VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Spatial Justice and the Pelican Bay SHU

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by Kevin McCarthy

I can speak in regard to spatiality in the context of solitary confinement, particularly Pelican Bay’s SHU (Security Housing Unit). Social processes and our personalities shaped the spatiality that was imposed upon us. The one who imposed, CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), assumed that the spatiality would have a debilitating effect upon us. The space was punitive in nature. It was an aggressive space; it was designed to attack the psyche, spirit, and soul. Many of us, however, had different plans. I learned that strong, resilient characters will transform and redefine space, if she/he does not find the existing socialization process resulting from that spatiality in his/her best interests or desires. Prior to 2015, CDCR imposed an agenda that ostensibly placed gang-related inmates in solitary confinement, indefinitely, but it was really a subterfuge to isolate those whom they deemed as a threat (e.g. influential inmates, independent thinkers, jailhouse lawyers, etc.). The guards collectively referred to these types of inmates as “trouble makers.”

The solitary cells were very stark, containing the bare necessities for existence. There weren’t any windows and the front of the cell faced out toward a blank wall. It felt as if one was in a cell within a basement. Within each living section there were eight cells. There were six living sections in a “block.” Attached to each living section was a space for physical exercise. The space was a concrete slab, surrounded by 20-foot concrete walls, covered by plexi-glass and wire mesh. The interior of the block and living section was a sea of concrete. Some parts of the block were painted white. Our eyes grew accustomed to seeing only white and gray. The conditions broke many inmates. Many inmates went crazy. Other inmates became debriefers (informants) who earned their release from the SHU; the rest of us survived by dictating the terms of our spatial socialization process.

The spatiality of solitary confinement, at Pelican Bay’s SHU, shaped social relations and subsequent inter-inmate diplomacy in a way that CDCR did not anticipate. CDCR and Pelican Bay officials organized the distribution of each living section according to opposite ethnicity and affiliation. It was prison officials’ belief that if an inmate’s neighbors were of a different ethnicity, or affiliation, they would not interact, which would intensify the effects of isolation. We, however, not only interacted amongst each other, we formed bonds. We formed friendships. That isolated space created a living condition that was devoid of distraction and daily responsibility, which would normally disrupt a conversation. Isolation allowed us to speak to one another for hours without distraction. Continuous conversation for years on end allowed us to discuss CDCR’s strategy of “divide and conquer” and devise countermeasures. It allowed for us to share, learn, and grow from our different perspectives. In the event that a discussion turned heated, the physical separation forced further dialogue and diplomacy, rather than a fistfight. It was the distribution of different ethnicities and affiliations that allowed the perfection and completion of a united front against CDCR, which was ultimately too powerful for them to withstand.

We transformed our solitary cells into study cubicles, and the SHU itself into a center of learning. It wasn’t necessarily a systematic agreement that we would collectively learn a subject, simultaneously (although some of us did study certain subjects together); it was rather more of a sense of a collective encouragement amongst each other to learn, in an act of resistance, and for purposes of self-development. The space imposed long, monotonous days. It almost seemed as if the days, weeks, months, and years were just one long never-ending day. But what this type of environment enabled was an ability to hyper-focus and hyper-study one subject for weeks, months, or years on end. We could thoroughly study certain material, analyze it in critical detail, perfect our understanding, and identify its practical applications.

Our studies led to the idea of justice. As we read about past struggles for justice, we recognized parallels between our circumstances and those of other groups who successfully fought for justice and equality. History would provide us the lessons that we would need to create our own movement for justice and have success with it. Some of the inmates who first suggested the idea of a hunger strike were inspired by the hunger strike that IRA members went on in an Irish prison. The study of each struggle for justice would only add to our intolerance of the injustices that we faced, and strengthen our resolve to combat them.

The imposition of solitary confinement also meant that any access to rehabilitative, vocational, and education programs had been foreclosed upon. So our ideas of justice necessarily included access to these programs. But it went beyond access, it extended to CDCR’s culture of treating rehabilitative, vocational, and educational programs as inconsequential services. It struck at CDCR’s custom of treating such services as a privilege for a select few, rather than a right for all.

Many of us studied law in order to challenge issues such as criminal convictions, sentences, and conditions of confinement. As we learned about rights created by law, such as the right to free speech, the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and due process rights, it underscored and validated our ongoing grievances. Once the time came to draft our proposed amendments to regulations concerning solitary confinement and rehabilitation, our knowledge of the law provided us with the technical skills to advance our ideas of justice.

The amount of reading that we did greatly improved our vocabularies. It also taught us rules of grammar, writing styles, and rhetoric. Since we did not have telephone access, the only way to communicate was through letters. As a result, we became adept at articulating our thoughts and ideas. This would prove to be an invaluable skill once we launched our campaign for reform.

On a different note, we must consider that the majority of inmates grow up in underprivileged, working class neighborhoods. The conditions of those neighborhoods incubated crime. Many inmates grow up around violence, and for many it isn’t only violence in their neighborhoods, but in their homes as well. By the time that they become adults, many of those inmates are essentially undiagnosed victims of PTSD. As a society, we tend to overlook the fact that just because an individual has been convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that he/she hasn’t been a victim of crime and trauma as well. Many never had access to adequate resources to diagnose and treat their condition. Prisons have become the space to warehouse the mentally ill as a corollary of the closure of asylums/mental health facilities under President Reagan. For many inmates, the sensory deprivation sent them into a downward spiral that they could not pull themselves out of. Unfortunately, for the mentally ill, that space became a torture chamber, and sadly, the gallows, once they could stand it no longer.

For those of us who survived, we took the sensory deprivation as a setting to heal and recover. Some inmates found peace in Buddhism. Those inmates transformed their cells into temples. In the same manner, Muslim inmates transformed their cells into a place of worship. I found healing, peace, and redemption through Jesus Christ. At times I converted my cell into a church where I could read the Bible, pray, and count my blessings. Although we may have practiced different religions, there are common tenets of those religions, such as selflessness, self-sacrifice, and justice. Those tenets were instrumental toward coalescence for a collective uprising. Spirituality did more than heal and unite, it also fortified us. We learned not to sulk over life’s hardships but rather we learned to ask for the strength to strive in the midst of them. With spirituality also came a degree of wisdom; that wisdom gave us greater faculty over the education that we acquired.

We transformed the SHU into a roundtable where we could share our ideas of justice and streamline them into a list of demands. We turned the SHU into a forum where we could discuss forms of civil disobedience, organize on a wide-scale hunger strike and work stoppage, and also design a campaign to create awareness for our cause. We ultimately transformed the SHU into a stage to spearhead a state-wide interracial and inter-affiliation agreement to end hostilities, and lead a historic protest. The Pelican Bay SHU would become the epicenter of the largest hunger strike ever recorded.

Two state legislative hearings and a congressional hearing would follow. Our efforts would also prompt a team of lawyers to file a class-action lawsuit, and a petition to the United Nations. The result had far-reaching effects. Long-term solitary confinement and arbitrary solitary confinement placement policies officially ended with the Ashker v. Brown settlement agreement. The Pelican Bay SHU now houses roughly a third of what it did, pre-hunger strikes. The Corcoran SHU houses roughly half of what it did, pre-hunger strikes; the Tehachapi SHU has ceased to exist as a SHU. CDCR has begun to make rehabilitative, vocational, and educational programs available to most inmates. The agreement to end hostilities is still firmly intact, which has allowed inmates to participate in these programs, uninterrupted. The inmates who were once in the SHU can now instill a social justice conscience in other inmates, family, and those whom they may encounter. The ripple effect of the hunger strikes is ongoing and inestimable.

In sum, our accomplishments provided a lesson in spatial justice. We rejected the socialization process that CDCR intended to occur from that spatiality. We used space in a counter-panopticon fashion. We demonstrated how to utilize space in a way to change, or overturn, agency and a state-operated mechanism of power.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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