Inmates' public relations push captures nation's attention
Something big is coming, Lt. Christopher Acosta said in the spring of 2011.
"We're just getting ready. We'll see."
Acosta is a slim Hispanic man who speaks as fast as lightning, a mile-a-minute type. His head is shaved and there's usually a white line above each ear, where his sunglasses block UV rays while he leads prison tours.
He was still finessing his new position as the public face of Pelican Bay State Prison, which was about to encounter its biggest media blitz since 2000, when correctional officers opened fire on rioting inmates, killing one and wounding 15.
This time, the drama was far less sudden. Inmates at Pelican Bay led two hunger strikes that spread through California's prison system, galvanizing sympathizers, garnering national media attention and spurring calls for change from some state legislators.
The strikes were part of a publicity campaign several years in
the making. Ironically, it resulted from investigators' attempt to put a
muzzle on prison gang communications. Inmates "validated" as gang
members or associates and placed in the Security Housing Unit for
indeterminate terms started cooperating.
Public relations, they
decided, was their only way out of the SHU, aside from violating their
principles by going through the prison's "debriefing" process, which
they call "snitching."
'PEOPLE BECAME SOCIABLE'
started in 2006, when Pelican Bay's Institutional Gang Investigations
unit rounded up the validated SHU inmates it considered leaders,
shot-callers, the most influential in their respective prison gangs, and
placed them close to each other in the Short Corridor for intense
monitoring. The IGI said it was looking to stop these guys from running
their criminal syndicates on California's urban streets.
came up with this list," says Ronnie Dewberry, a validated Black
Guerilla Family member who represents blacks in the Short Corridor
Collective, a group of inmates who have directed the publicity campaign.
"They isolated us. They wanted to destroy us worse than others."
IGI developed a placement list that desegregated inmates, somewhat
evening out the distribution of races and suspected gang affiliations in
each pod. It forced diverse prisoners to start communicating with each
other, Dewberry says.
"Instead of digging heels in with each
other, people became sociable. That's the one thing we had in common -
none of us committed a crime to be placed in the SHU."
Elrod, a validated Aryan Brotherhood member before he began the
debriefing process last December, participated in both hunger strikes;
the first one left him hospitalized after he began having seizures.
"You can't sit next to another guy and not get to know him," says Elrod. "Essentially that borne the Collective."
Todd Ashker, a validated Aryan Brotherhood member and white
representative in the Collective, filed a lawsuit in 2009 challenging
SHU conditions and his placement in it.
"It went nowhere. The
courts aren't going to do anything for us," says Elrod, who used to call
Ashker a "Brother." "Only way to get out is to do it ourselves."
KEY WORD: 'TORTURE'
Over the next year the Collective had to sell the hunger strike; each member had to convince his own clique.
took a year or two to put together," says Antonio Guillen, a validated
member of the Nuestra Familia who represents northern Hispanics in the
Collective. "Communicating back here is difficult."
Brotherhood began pushing a book about a member of the Irish
Revolutionary Army who started a hunger strike in which he and several
other inmates died protesting prison conditions, catching the attention
of the world. They sought free association with other prisoners and more
educational and recreational demands.
"We've been in these courts
fighting and haven't received justice in the court system," says
Dewberry. "Let's do something that's going to tell Sacramento that what
they've been doing to us is illegal and inhumane. We came to the
conclusion that it can't be something to cause harm to prisoners or
staff - I'm talking about physically."
Violence couldn't be the answer here, not for inmates claiming the IGI had mislabeled them as thuggish barbarians.
got to think of something better without proving to the world we are
the monsters CDCR portrays us to be," says Guillen, speaking of the
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "We understood
we couldn't do this on our own."
It was going to take a
multi-level approach: the hunger strike to send a message, human rights
activists to let people know what's going on, the media to amplify the
message, legislators to call CDCR out and attorneys to help with
litigation, Guillen says.
A year before the first hunger strike,
inmates went on a letter-writing campaign to prison advocate blogs,
activist groups including Amnesty International, legislators and
"We needed an outside support group that could be our
voice," says Guillen."It took a while for the word to get around. We set
the date months in advance."
Media was the No. 1 priority.
media changed everything in here," says Elrod, who was not a member of
the Collective but actively followed its directives. "It gave prisoners
With Americans questioning the conditions of war
prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, "what better time to push
the 'torture' label?" says Elrod. "It was almost fate."
"We always put 'torture' in the letters ... that was in the mainstream, that was in the public's mind ... and it was effective."
prison blogs and newsletters composed of inmate writings began
propagating the protest to other inmates, advocates and families. Prison
newsletters featuring writings from inmates shot word of the impending
hunger strike down the coast.
"That's where we got a huge jump on
CDC," says Elrod. "CDC was thinking everybody else thought it was a
joke. I don't think they took it seriously, and they got outranked
THE STRIKE SPREADS
With dozens of
validated inmates from various racial groups in the SHU on board, the
Collective sent a notice to CDCR in May 2011 that a hunger strike would
commence the following July. Attached were five core demands that boiled
down to changing the validation process, stopping the debriefing
process, ending long-term solitary confinement, providing better food
and offering more educational programs for those in the SHU.
The prison began preparing.
our experience, organized mass hunger strikes don't last very long,"
CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton said on the eve of the hunger strike.
was referring to a Pelican Bay hunger strike in 2002 that involved 65
SHU inmates. After its first day, about a third resumed eating and
within five days it was over.
But this wasn't 2002, and those
validated inmates hadn't been segregated from allies and housed with
their enemies for four years.
"This ain't ever happened in CDC, that we ever came together," says Dewberry.
7 a.m. on Friday July 1, 2011, the breakfast trays that were slid
through the slot of the perforated metal doors in Pelican Bay's SHU were
refused, as were lunch and dinner.
By the end of the day, about
5,300 inmates across nine prisons were refusing meals. Two days later,
the number swelled to 6,600 at 13 prisons - which was the hunger
strike's peak. By the following Wednesday, the numbers dwindled to 2,100
and trickled down from there until the day before the end of the 20-day
strike, when 440 inmates in four prisons (75 in the Bay's SHU) were
Fasting specifics were debated, with officials
stating inmates had still been eating from their canteen stock. The
greatest weight loss was 29 pounds by an inmate at the California
Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. Seven people at the Bay lost more
than 10 pounds.
"Prisoners nowadays are becoming acutely aware
that you have to fight for your right," says Dewberry. "This hunger
strike woke everybody up."
news media coverage was nationwide. The Los Angeles Times, San Diego
Union-Tribune and New York Times covered the strike, along with several
other news and media outlets.
"(CDCR) kind of downplayed the
significance of the hunger strike," says Guillen, telling the Collective
it couldn't address the concerns while it was still going on - so it
When they met July 20, the CDCR told hunger strike
representatives it needed time to respond to the core demands and had
offered educational courses, beanies and wall calendars as an initial
good faith gesture, Guillen says.
Meanwhile, several requests to
visit Pelican Bay's SHU led to a media tour for more than a dozen
journalists in August. Microphones and voice recorders were pointed
toward Acosta, toward the doors of inmates held in debriefing pods, and
later in the faces of two debriefers the IGI escorted to a small room to
Off the reporters went, back to their papers and
stations with their observations. Some touted the tour as "rare" or
"unprecedented," lending further mystique to the SHU.
had been giving tours for years - though certain areas, such as the
Short Corridor, remain off-limits. In fact, Acosta's primary job is to
coordinate tours for reporters, criminal justice students from nearby
colleges, the Del Norte County Grand Jury and politicians - to name a
There were also rumblings in Sacramento.
About a week
after the media tour, the state Assembly's Public Safety Committee held a
hearing to review SHU policies and issues, with the focus mainly on
A prisoner rights attorney, a former Corcoran State
Prison SHU inmate, a relative of an inmate at the Bay's SHU, and
academic speakers - including a psychologist - all damned the validation
process and long-term solitary confinement.
representatives were there to answer questions and emphasize the need
for SHUs to combat prison gangs. They also noted the state was already
working on policy revisions.
Following the panels of speakers was
about an hour of public testimony also condemning SHU conditions, the
validation process and long-term solitary confinement.
going to pit-bull this issue," they were assured by Chairman Tom
Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat. "I know we will be seeing a lot more
of each other."
The Washington Post published a broad-brushed
editorial in August arguing against solitary confinement and referencing
the hunger strike as a push by inmates to get such modest concessions
as a photo per year, a phone call per week, and wall calenders. It cited
the reason for the strike as being "an exasperated and understandable
reaction to the invisible brutality that is solitary confinement."
web version of the editorial links prominently to the website of a
prisoner rights organization focused on publicizing solitary
While Guillen and
Dewberry have talked about the mental effects solitary can have on a
man, the main motivation for the hunger strike is opposition to the
validation process and a perceived lack of due process once an inmate is
locked into the SHU.
Another meeting was held between inmates and staff in August, but nothing was accomplished, Guillen says.
stopped the momentum," says Guillen. "We pretty much got everything
situated to go on a second hunger strike. We needed to draw as much
attention as we could to our cause."
Inmates went on another letter-writing campaign, again tapping into their media sources.
On Sept. 26, the second hunger strike commenced. After three days, at its peak, 4,525 inmates were considered to be fasting.
lasted about 18 days, but this time CDCR was prepared. At Pelican Bay,
officers rounded up about 17 men deemed instrumental in the strike and
took them to Administrative Segregation units, where they were separated
from other inmates to cut off communications. Officials also began
citing hunger strike leaders for rules violations, deeming it a mass
"They immediately looked for a way out," says Elrod,
who was one of the 17 placed in Ad-Seg during the second wave of hunger
strikes. "The talking went from 'It's go time,' to 'How long are you
going to stay?'"
Shortly after the hunger strikes, the California
Office of Inspector General released a report at the direction of the
It concluded that CDCR had made good-faith efforts
to provide the privileges promised at the end of the hunger strike and
found food services in compliance with requirements.
also opined that a "Max B" program inmates were seeking would be
irresponsible due to the violence it caused at San Quentin State Prison
in the 1980s. The program had essentially established a general
population yard for SHU inmates.
The report encouraged the CDCR to
move forward with its own gang management reforms, which were
implemented in a pilot program last October. The reforms retooled the
validation process, forcing IGI to have more evidence when validating an
inmate. They also gave inmates another way out of the SHU through a
four-year step-down program that doesn't involve renouncing gang
affiliation, just gang activity.
May 2012, a contingent of prisoner rights attorneys took up the
handwritten lawsuit Ashker had filed in 2009. The lawyers widened the
pool of co-defendants so that it represented more groups of SHU inmates
in an attempt to meet the criteria for a class-action lawsuit.
In August 2012, the Collective went on another campaign, directing all inmates to end hostilities and refrain from violence.
in September 2012, Amnesty International released a report entitled,
"USA: The Edge of Endurance. Prison Conditions in California's Security
The report mainly focused on conditions at Pelican
Bay and echoed what attorneys, prison rights advocates, and family and
friends of inmates were saying.
Tessa Murphy is a campaigner on
the U.S. Research team who has a degree in Latin American studies and
has been dealing with U.S. issues for Amnesty International for the past
"I have to effect change based on the research we've done," says Murphy in an interview with the Triplicate.
That research began in early 2011, but "the hunger strike underscored our concerns," says Murphy.
"Our report is based upon testimony from individuals," says Murphy. "We tried to be absolutely comprehensive."
The report did not, however, delve further than a toe-tap into the problem with prison gangs that the CDCR is facing.
SOME BAD REVIEWS
Acosta was busy giving tours to media and advocates throughout 2012.
"Everybody thinks the SHU is some dark 'Star Trek' hole and it's not," he says.
At the end of tours, visitors often admit they had misconceptions about Pelican Bay, Acosta says.
freelancer writing for Rolling Stone Magazine (a bi-weekly with a 1.4
million circulation) spent a day at the Bay touring the SHU and
interviewing Warden Greg Lewis.
His December article looked at
solitary confinement on a national level as well as the psychological
effect confinement can have on inmates. He included a few paragraphs
about the Bay. The article was entitled, "Slow-motion Torture."
Jones magazine (a bimonthly with a circulation of 270,000) published a
cover story in its November/December issue written by a journalist who
had recently returned to the U.S. after being captured by Iranian police
near the Iraq/Iran border. He was held for 26 months and spent four
months in solitary confinement.
The journalist intertwined his own perceptions and experiences with those of the convicts held at Pelican Bay's SHU.
article is entitled, "Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I went
inside America's Prisons," on the magazine's website. He won a magazine
journalism award from the Hillman Foundation for the piece. He also went
on to be interviewed by various media outlets, further condemning
Last May, Mother Jones named Pelican Bay the sixth-worst prison in America.
'ON THE RADAR'
February, a year and a half after the initial Assembly hearing, Ammiano
made his first trip to Pelican Bay. He spoke with inmates, including
Elrod, Guillen and former Nuestra Familia member Javier Zubiate.
couple of weeks later, the Public Safety Committee held another hearing
regarding the SHU and CDCR's progress in changing the validation
criteria - which officials stated had been in the works a half-year
before the hunger strikes.
"We all learned a lot," said Ammiano
during the second hearing, speaking about his trip to the Bay with his
staff. "Some expectations were not what we thought they might be, on the
good side; and then it's always, in situations like this, some
expectations were left with gray areas."
He closed out the hearing by saying: "I think the most important thing is that the issue is on the radar."
The audience applauded.
"I do think this has become a populist issue - bigger than the legislature, bigger than the CDCR," Ammiano said.
Assembly members have not proposed any specific changes in SHU policies.
Ammiano declined several interview requests from the Triplicate.
Triplicate also tried to interview Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, a Los
Angeles Democrat who has staunchly supported the hunger-strikers. Those
attempts were also unsuccessful.
Mitchell ended the February
committee hearing by stating, "I just hope that in our next
conversation, the next opportunity this committee has to discuss this
issue, that we can really delve more deeply into living conditions in
Mitchell has not visited Pelican Bay. In fact, Ammiano is the only member of the Public Safety Committee to have done so.
BACK IN BUSINESS?
Near the end of both hunger strikes, more than a dozen inmates were taken down to Corcoran for medical reasons.
the first trip, several inmates were informed the hunger strike was
over. Elrod concluded that CDCR must have agreed to the demand for the
"Max B" program or the Collective wouldn't have called off the strike.
With the strike halted, "we go straight to (Aryan Brotherhood) business," says Elrod.
and other Aryan Brotherhood inmates who were in Corcoran began laying
out plans for recruiting, extortion, selling dope and organizing weapons
on yards, he says.
"The whole time we're down there in Corcoran ... we were planning what we're going to do as AB members as soon as we got out."
hunger strikes helped push Elrod to debrief. He says he felt conflicted
about the "support we were getting and the lie it was based on."
had a lot of people putting a lot of stock in what I was saying," says
Elrod. "So many people came forward. With that, it really started me on
One visit in particular made an impact. Last August, a
former youth counselor found him after a blog had posted his writings.
She flew out to see him at the Bay and asked him, "How'd you end up in a
place like this?"
"I gave her this same line of bullshit" - the IGI is corrupt, the validation process is a lie.
"That visit really weighed on me," says Elrod.
The support that poured in made him feel like he was no longer being judged as a convict, but viewed as a human being.
"All these people I saw come forward," says Elrod. "All these people who made no judgment."
and Dewberry say, however, debriefers aren't to be trusted. They are
spinning a web of lies and acting as the IGI's puppets, who are feeding
them lines. It's the message inmates from the SHU propagate.
"For us, it wasn't a sham," says Guillen in defending the hunger strikes. "For us, it's very real."
BATTLE LINES DRAWN
of the news coverage Pelican Bay receives digs deep into the
conditions, the validation process and the debriefing process, but
barely addresses California's unique predicament with a prison culture
enmeshed with organized crime that controls operations on the streets.
The Collective hollers abuse, misidentification and injustice while diminishing its members' alleged role in prison gangs.
Guillen has been identified as an upper-echelon member within the Nuestra Familia, controlling all of its street crews.
Mexican representative Arturo Castellanos has been identified as leader
of the Florencia-13 street gang and a Mexican Mafia member.
Todd Ashker has been identified as an Aryan Brotherhood member.
Ronnie Dewberry has been described as holding several positions within
the Black Guerilla Family through the years: enforcer, sergeant,
Though they deny it, all members of the Collective have been identified as high-ranking members of prison gangs.
because of the clout they and the rest of the 12 alternative
representatives have that the hunger strikes have been effective,
Former Nuestra Familia member Javier Zubiate says
that while the hunger strike wasn't forced upon inmates, any Nuestra
Familia member who was looking to move up in the gang would have thought
twice about not taking part.
The Collective's battle has entered
the courts. Its members are making their push with thousands of outside
supporters behind them.
Reach Anthony Skeens at email@example.com.