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Calif. Inmates ‘Prepared to Starve Themselves’ to Protest Indefinite Isolation

July 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California is designed to hold some of the state's most violent offenders in isolated security units. In early July, inmates launched a state-wide hunger strike to demand limits on time spent in solitary. Special correspondent Michael Montgomery offers background on the policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now, from California, prisoners held in isolation for years and sometimes decades are mounting protests.

Special correspondent Michael Montgomery with the Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED San Francisco has the story.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California is designed to hold some of the most dangerous inmates.

Inside is a bunker-like security housing unit, where hundreds of men have been held for more than a decade. Earlier this month, inmates at Pelican Bay launched a statewide hunger strike over conditions in the security units. They are seeking an end to what they call indefinite solitary confinement and an easing of restrictions.

PROTESTER: End torture now!

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Advocates and family members took to the streets in support of the action, which drew in thousands of inmates from more than 14 prisons.

PROTESTERS: End torture now!

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Before the hunger strike got under way, I was allowed to visit Pelican Bay’s security unit. I wanted to find out more about the isolated conditions and the lives of the prisoners held here, prisoners like Jeremy Beasley.

JEREMY BEASLEY, inmate: Conditions back here are horrible. You don’t get no sunlight. I haven’t had any human contact with anybody without being in chains since 2004.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Beasley is serving a life sentence for murder. Once behind bars, he joined a violent white power prison gang. And that’s when officials sent him to Pelican Bay.

Before recently agreeing to leave the group, Beasley spent nearly 10 years confined 22-and-a-half-hours each day alone in a small cell.

JEREMY BEASLEY: I wasn’t a saint before. I believe that certain people should be isolated, but without no sunlight, without — going years with no sunlight. It would be nice to look out a window and see the outside. That would be nice.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: When was the last time you saw the moon?

JEREMY BEASLEY: The moon? Oh, I don’t even know. It would have to have been back in ’98.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: For an hour-and-a-half each day, Beasley is allowed into a small pen with 20-foot-high concrete walls partially covered with Plexiglass. And that is his day every day.

Pelican Bay is one of dozens of supermax prisons around the country. They’re built to minimize contact between inmates often described as the worst of the worst. But what distinguishes Pelican Bay is the extraordinary length of time some inmates have been held inside. Some 500 men have been imprisoned at Pelican Bay for more than a decade, according to a federal lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of civil rights groups.

The suit alleges that years of solitary confinement causes severe physical and psychological damage and violates a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Pelican Bay inmates launched the hunger strike on July 8. The strike has sparked protests throughout California led by inmates’ families, their demands, limits on the time that inmates can be held in solitary. They also want more family visits, phone calls and rehabilitation programs.

Marie Levin’s brother Ronnie Dewberry is locked up at Pelican Bay and is one of the strike organizers. MARIE LEVIN, hunger strike supporter: The United Nations has declared that 15 days is the maximum amount of time that any one person should be in solitary confinement, but yet they have allowed my brother to be in solitary confinement for 29 years.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Levin had to wait nearly 25 years to get a new picture of her brother. That’s because restrictions at Pelican Bay included a ban on inmate photographs. The ban was eased last year.

MARIE LEVIN: The first one, in the late ’80s, I see a strong, vibrant young man. The second photo, I see an older man weary, but still yet holding on.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Pelican Bay warden Greg Lewis rejects charges of abuse. He says the units are humane and that inmates leading the hunger strike, like Marie Levin’s brother, are powerful prison gang members who run criminal networks behind bars and on the streets.

GREG LEWIS, Pelican Bay State Prison: Everybody’s seen the movie “The Godfather.” Everybody’s seen how the godfather himself never pulled a trigger, never strangled anybody, didn’t run the rackets, didn’t run the booze. These are those men.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Lewis alleges that all the inmates here are in the upper echelon of dangerous gangs, and would operate with impunity if they weren’t locked up at Pelican Bay.

GREG LEWIS: These are not your burglars. They’re not your street corner drug dealers. These men are highly violent, and it provides for the safety of my staff, which is paramount.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: But not all the men fit this profile.

I met Lonnie Rose at his home in Stockton. He was just recently released from Pelican Bay.

And so when you look around at all this, you know, the trees, what do you think? How does it feel to you?

LONNIE ROSE, former inmate: I think it’s good to be home.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Rose was sent to prison for a nonviolent drug offense. But following a riot, officials sent him to Pelican Bay, saying he was active in a violent prison gang. Rose was then held in isolation for nine years based on two pieces of evidence, a drawing, supposedly with gang symbols, and a puzzle book inscribed with the name of another inmate, an alleged gang member.

So, tell me about this book.

LONNIE ROSE: This is “Match Wits With Mensa.” And little did I know it would cost me six more years in the Pelican Bay SHU.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: So the officers came into your cell, they found this book, they saw another inmate’s name in it, and that was enough?

LONNIE ROSE: That was enough.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Rose says he didn’t know the other inmate, but prison staff concluded that he was actively associating with a known gang member. Earlier this year, Rose petitioned for release from prison following changes to California’s sentencing laws. A judge determined he wasn’t a danger to society and granted Rose freedom.

LONNIE ROSE: The courts saw it for what it was. I went to prison on a drug case. I haven’t been that big of a problem. And I don’t pose a threat to public safety.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Lonnie Rose isn’t an isolated example. We found other inmates locked up in the security units under a policy that allows tattoos, drawings and books to be used as evidence of gang affiliation.

Pelican Bay’s former warden, Steve Cambra, said cases like Rose’s suggest the prison security unit is not being used the way it was intended.

STEVEN CAMBRA, former warden, Pelican Bay State Prison: Those cells are departmental high-value cells, expensive cells that should be for the current violent predator that’s causing problems in your prison system. They should be reserved for those guys.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Cambra oversaw many inmates placed in isolation and he sees another problem. Once in the security units, most inmates are held indefinitely.

Until recently, the surest way out was to divulge information about the gangs. Inmates say this leaves them with a stark choice: Snitch on other prisoners or remain locked in isolation.

STEVEN CAMBRA: So, yes, it troubles me. I think there should be a light at the end of the tunnel for almost all inmates.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: I went to Sacramento to speak with corrections officials about the security units. Associate director Kelly Harrington says the department has already made the changes that the hunger strikers are calling for.

KELLY HARRINGTON, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: The department’s view is that we have — we have met those demands.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Harrington cites a new department program implemented following a 2011 hunger strike that has transferred more than 200 men out of the security units and into regular prisons.

Men still held in isolation can work their way out by refraining from gang-related activity and participating in special classes.

KELLY HARRINGTON: Hopefully, the men that are in the security housing units will see that as an incentive to go out.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: But protesters say the department’s new policy doesn’t go far enough. They want men held in the security units for more than 10 years to be let out of isolation within six months.

The next round of settlement talks in the federal lawsuit are scheduled for the end of the month. But with both sides digging in, inmates say they are prepared to starve themselves to death.