SHUs. A living tomb.

SHUs. A living tomb.

California, quite possibly, has the most brutal prisons in the nation. This is deliberate, and part of the massive prison industrial complex in the California gulags, er, penal system. The worst are the Orwellian-named Special Housing Units (SHUs), where inmates are kept 22 hours a day in 6×9 foot cells with deliberate sensory deprivation and little, if any, human contact permitted. You can be put into a SHU if a guard says you might be a gang member or if he says you were talking to one. There is no appeal. You stay there until you are paroled, rat someone out, or die.

The Midnight Special, a leftie bookstore in Santa Monica, had an art opening today of drawings done by inmates in currently in SHUs. I bought one, a quite beautiful drawing of a quetzal and two hummingbirds done by Jack L. Morris. Jack has been in a SHU and in virtual solitary confinement for nineteen years. They don’t let SHU inmates have colored pencils, so the color in their drawings comes from them rubbing the color off photos and text in magazines, then laboriously transforming it into paint.

What is gained by not letting Jack have colored pencils? What is gained by keeping anyone in solitary for that long? This is not rehabilitation, this is not even punishment, instead this is torture. If a US soldier were to be captured by the insurgents in Iraq and held under such conditions, the Bushies would be screaming ‘human rights violations’, yet such barbarities happen routinely in supposedly enlightened California.

In 1995 a Federal Court found conditions at Pelican Bay to be unconstitutional. Amnesty International has said conditions in SHUs and SuperMax violate international standards for humane treatment of prisoners. Yet nothing has changed.

Luis Rodriguez spoke, then read poetry written by inmates as well as some of his own. He was a gang member in the 70’s, now is a respected poet and author. He helped start Tia Chucha’s Cafe Cultural (“Where art and minds meet – for a change”) in LA, works with gang kids, and is perhaps best known for his book, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., which he wrote in an attempt to steer his son away from the gang life.

Y’see, for many there, including Rodriguez, this is deeply personal. He has friends and family in prisons, including his son, who is doing 28 to life in Illinois. Two women, sisters of men in SHUs, read poetry their brothers have written. Yeah yeah we need to git tough on crime and stomp the evildoers, but when you see a grown woman almost unable to read the poetry because she so misses her brother who has been in one of these living tombs for 25 years – well, there just has to be a better way. Because what SHUs are can only be called torture.

The event was taped, and maybe the tapes will be allowed into the SHUs. All the speakers made a point of saying how, while family and friends may be in SHUs, they are not forgotten and are still family. And that no one should be treated like that.

It appears there will be an initiative on the ballot in November in California making the grotesque Three Strikes Law applicable only to “serious and violent” crimes. Right now, 4,100 3rd Strikers are serving 25 to life sentences for nonviolent crimes – yet more evidence of vindictive madness in an out of control penal system.

Prison Activist Resource Center

Families to Amend California Three Strikes

Death Penalty Focus