Roughly 60 miles away from Humboldt State, Pelican Bay, a maximum security prison near Crescent City, is known for holding some of the most dangerous inmates in the state. Here, inmates have severe prolonged sentences of solitary confinement. Last year the public took notice of the inhumane conditions thanks to the efforts of inmates who organized a hunger strike.
Assembly Bill 1270, a bill that loosens constraints and condemns retaliation against inmates participating in interviews, passed the state senate in late August. It currently sits on the governor’s desk waiting to be signed.
Existing laws in California allow reporters to enter prisons for interviews at the prison administration’s discretion. However, even with permission, reporters are not always allowed to bring with them pens, paper or cameras — tools that are essential for interviewing.
When interviews are conducted, inmates are hand-selected by staff, and areas available to tour are only those the prison administration deems acceptable for viewing. A journalist ultimately writes about the showcased facade — not the actual conditions of the prison or its inmates.
Bar None, a human rights watch group based in Humboldt County, stands in solidarity with inmates and their families. They hope to abolish the current prison system.
Jessica Whatcott, an HSU critical race and gender professor, volunteers as the outreach coordinator for Bar None. Whatcott toured Pelican Bay several times and claims inmates are being deprived of sense stimuli.
Inmates dwell inside an eight-by-ten-foot windowless cell 23 hours a day. In Pelican Bay, something as insignificant as color is turned into a privilege.
“There are no colors around the prison — even the guard’s uniforms are gray,” Whatcott said.
Those incarcerated in secure housing units never fully expose themselves to the sun. When they go out to exercise in their cement yards, only a sliver of sky comes in through a semi-open roof overhead. The lack of sun can cause vitamin D deficiencies in inmates, along with a gamut of psychological problems.
“[Inmates] go crazy from lack of sensory stimulation,” Whatcott said. “They need access to light.”
Whatcott said that inmates released from Pelican Bay also suffer from symptoms normally found in prisoners of war. Hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia and impulse control problems all stem from long-term solitary confinement in prison.
Lawsuits questioning the legitimacy of solitary confinement, asking whether it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, have been filed against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The CCR works on human rights violation cases internationally, and represents a group of former Pelican Bay inmates who served sentences ranging between 10 to 28 years in long-term solitary confinement. The CCR claim it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
In 2011, a hunger strike lasting three weeks began inside Pelican Bay. Joining the strikers were 12,000 inmates at other secure housing units throughout California.
Critical Resistance is another organization that hopes to dismantle the current prison system. Members of human rights groups who protested brought the issues of human rights violations within prisons on to the streets where everyday people could take notice.
Awareness about the conditions of solitary confinement increased in the media coverage of last year’s hunger strike. Following the strike, family members, attorneys and average citizens put pressure on lawmakers to reform the current prison system from one that punishes to one that rehabilitates.