Here you can search for articles that have been published in our newsletter. Our newsletter is primarily written by and for prisoners, their friends, and families. You can receive a paper copy at your home (or send one to your relative or friend in prison). We request a donation of $20 or more for four issues to help cover editing, printing, and mailing costs.
Please visit our archive if you would like to download pdf versions of our past issues.
Click on an article's title to see the full text.
Jun 10, 2016
keywords: Ashker, Restricted Custody General Population, January 2016, Pelican Bay
Prison Focus Issue 49
RCGP: The New Modern SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison
Editorial note: Mr. Ramirez submitted his below article to CPF in late February 2016. We have minimally edited portions, with his permission, with updates and for clarification and brevity.
The Restricted Custody General Population Housing Unit (RCGP) occupies a unit at Pelican Bay that was vacant for two years before the Ashker v. Brown decision. The creation of the RCGP is outlined in the Ashker settlement. I will not repeat what it says. This article is to share with readers what the settlement doesn’t tell you about the RCGP. [As of February 2016,] there are nine prisoners on B1, C-Section who seem to have been selected from Corcoran, Tehachapi, and Folsom. As of right now both A and B Sections are empty and may be for future Step Down Program. The A-Section has had one inmate housed there. None of these prisoners have debriefed, are drop-outs, rats or SNY. All are placed here on account of 1030s coming from confidential prison informants (flesh eaters). Confidential, unverified information influences what prison administration place in our C-files [central files].
We arrived on January 27th, 2016, to Pelican Bay State Prison RCGP. Most of you know me by “Big Smiley” Art Ramirez after being in Corcoran SHU’s two year Magnification SHU Program, coming then from the Short Corridor PB SHU November 7, 2013. I was the first to come out of the Short Corridor by the Departmental Review Board (DRB). All of that was the result of the third Hunger Strike. When the DRB finally starting releasing us after all those years in the Short Corridor and the SHU, many of us had been there since in opened in December 1989. Many or most were just as grey-haired as myself. My best to all, I wish upon all to decompress and continue on with your time in much more comfortable surroundings. Now we can use our five senses for what they were intended and our eyes and ears back in place.
I was told this RCGP is a mainline program but the only mainline we can see is from our cages, or when we go to visit or to the law library. There was nothing in place for us when this unit opened. This used to be a Psychiatric Security Unit (PSU). All of us have strong morales and ethics and have encountered plenty of obstacles on account of 1030s already. Not debriefing is also a strong factor why we were placed in the RCGP. This “pilot program” is the new SHU: a secret type of prison program controlled directly by Sacramento for reasons yet unknown. We are told the RCGP is first of its kind in the California prison system. A more friendly unit, the public was told, disguised on paper as a mainline program, yet what we experience is not so different from the SHUs of our past. We are each at or over fifty years old, maybe one or two a bit younger, who have been in SHUs for over twenty years of our lives. We can clearly see what is behind the curtain.
We were told we would have a concrete yard where we could congregate, but instead have been placed in cages. There were no pull up bars. After our complaints, we have been told pull up and dip bars will be placed in the cages. With more firm complaining, a basketball hoop was drilled into the wall and handballs for when it is decided that we will be allowed on group yard.
For those who didn’t read my article in Prison Focus number 42, Spring 2014, pages 9–10, on the STG Inactive Magnification SHU Program, let me share that what the DRB talked about then is happening now with this RCGP Unit today. A “more modern SHU:” where you are not cuffed as you walk to the medical clinic, law library, or canteen, but still being deprived of group yard or group day room except for one prisoner allowed one hour in the day room every other night. One and a half hours every day in “exercise” cages. We are allowed one six-hour contact visit every ninety days and three-hour window [non-contact] visits weekly Saturday and Sunday.
Every day continues to be a struggle, but because we continue to shake the tree hard, some things are coming into place, such as shower shoes and coffee packs in lunches. All we are asking is for Pelican Bay to follow Title 15, for us to receive our attorney visits, confidential phone calls with attorneys, weekly contact visits, and the other basics that we are entitled to. It does not help with roughneck guards obsessed with giving out 115s. We did not come here for more punishment.
This RCGP has only been open one month. We’ll see how it develops since the strings are pulled from Sacramento capitol. Yet there are a lot of things that need to be fixed now. We should be allowed the same number of phone calls and visits as those on the mainline. Now, phone calls and visits are tied to whether you have A1-A status, only available to those with jobs. In other places, we were given A1-A status if we were in education, but not here. We were told we would be going to a “restricted” mainline; we expected full mainline privileges, just separated from the other GP units. That has not been the case.
I only hope the Ashker v. Brown team do not give up on us in this program since the RCGP Unit is a product of the Ashker v. Brown settlement. It now appears that in negotiating that settlement, not much thought was given to how this program should work. Whatever planning went into this RCGP unit should have been in place when we arrived on January 27, 2016. When I say “team” I acknowledge those attorneys who won this victory and to us finally seeing justice done through the release of many long term prisoners from SHU. We would like the same justice to continue with this new RCGP Unit to function as a mainline with education programs, weekly contact visits, group yard, and group day room. We would like all who come into RCGP given A1–A status. There has been abuses of power from the prison administration long enough, especially against those of us who spent decades in Pelican Bay SHU. Myself a total of 33 ½ years in the SHU straight. Where is the acknowledgement that we deserve more now? Where is the common sense and logic coming into the development of the RCGP? Why begin all over when none of us in this section did anything “wrong” to be placed here.
keywords: racism, modern day slavery
Prison Focus Issue 49
“…I am writing this book for all those trapped within America’s latest caste system. You may be locked up or locked out of mainstream society, but you are not forgotten.”
The Birth of Slavery
Back there, before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together.3 —Lerone Bennett Jr. The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines.4 Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery—as well as the extermination of American Indians—with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.
In the early colonial period, when settlements remained relatively small, indentured servitude was the dominant means of securing cheap labor. Under this system, whites and blacks struggled to survive against a common enemy, what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. describes as “the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen.” 5 Initially, blacks brought to this country were not all enslaved; many were treated as indentured servants.
As plantation farming expanded, particularly tobacco and cotton farming, demand increased greatly for both labor and land. The demand for land was met by invading and conquering larger and larger swaths of territory. American Indians became a growing impediment to white European “progress,” and during this period, the images of American Indians promoted in books, newspapers, and magazines became increasingly negative. As sociologists Keith Kilty and Eric Swank have observed, eliminating “savages” is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race—uncivilized savages—thus providing a justification for the extermination of the native peoples.6 The growing demand for labor on plantations was met through slavery. American Indians were considered unsuitable as slaves, largely because native tribes were clearly in a position to fight back. The fear of raids by Indian tribes led plantation owners to grasp for an alternative source of free labor. European immigrants were also deemed poor candidates for slavery, not because of their race, but rather because they were in short supply and enslavement would, quite naturally, interfere with voluntary immigration to the new colonies. Plantation owners thus viewed Africans, who were relatively powerless, as the ideal slaves.
The systematic enslavement of Africans, and the rearing of their children under bondage, emerged with all deliberate speed —quickened by events such as Bacon’s Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon was a white property owner in Jamestown, Virginia, who managed to unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite. Although slaves clearly occupied the lowest position in the social hierarchy and suffered the most under the plantation system, the condition of indentured whites was barely better, and the majority of free whites lived in extreme poverty. As explained by historian Edmund Morgan, in colonies like Virginia, the planter elite, with huge land grants, occupied a vastly superior position to workers of all colors.7
Southern colonies did not hesitate to invent ways to extend the terms of servitude, and the planter class accumulated uncultivated lands to restrict the options of free workers. The simmering resentment against the planter class created conditions that were ripe for revolt. Varying accounts of Bacon’s rebellion abound, but the basic facts are these: Bacon developed plans in 1675 to seize Native American lands in order to acquire more property for himself and others and nullify the threat of Indian raids. When the planter elite in Virginia refused to provide militia support for his scheme, Bacon retaliated, leading an attack on the elite, their homes, and their property. He openly condemned the rich for their oppression of the poor and inspired an alliance of white and black bond laborers, as well as slaves, who demanded an end to their servitude. The attempted revolution was ended by force and false promises of amnesty. A number of the people who participated in the revolt were hanged.
The events in Jamestown were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of bond workers and slaves. Word of Bacon’s rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed. In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves. Instead of importing English-speaking slaves from the West Indies, who were more likely to be familiar with European language and culture, many more slaves were shipped directly from Africa. These slaves would be far easier to control and far less likely to form alliances with poor whites.
Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interests, the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves.
Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.8 By the mid-1770s, the system of bond labor had been thoroughly transformed into a racial caste system predicated on slavery. The degraded status of Africans was justified on the ground that Negros, like the Indians, were an uncivilized lesser race, perhaps even more lacking in intelligence and laudable human qualities than the red-skinned natives.
The notion of white supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Before democracy, chattel slavery in America was born. It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system—slavery—while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites. The southern slaveholding colonies would agree to form a union only on the condition that the federal government would not be able to interfere with the right to own slaves.
Northern white elites were sympathetic to the demand for their “property rights” to be respected, as they, too, wanted the Constitution to protect their property interests. As James Madison put it, the nation ought to be constituted “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”9 Consequently, the Constitution was designed so the federal government would be weak, not only in its relationship to private property, but also in relationship to the rights of states to conduct their own affairs. The language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind (the words slave or Negro were never used), but the document was built upon a compromise regarding the prevailing racial caste system. Federalism—the division of power between the states and the federal government —was the device employed to protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slaveholding states. Even the method for determining proportional representation in Congress and identifying the winner of a presidential election (the electoral college) were specifically developed with the interest of slaveholders in mind. Under the terms of our country’s founding document, slaves were defined as three-fifths of a man, not a real, whole human being. Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy.
4. For an excellent analysis of the development of race as a social construct in the United States and around the globe, see Howard Winant, The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
5. Bennett, Shaping of Black America, 62.
6. Keith Kilty and Eric Swank, “Institutional Racism and Media Representations: Depictions of Violent Criminals and Welfare Recipients,” Sociological Imagination 34, no. 2-3 (1997): 106.
7. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975).
8. Ibid.; see also Leslie Carr, Color-blind Racism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997), 14-16.
9. Gerald Fresia, Toward an American
Jul 15, 2015
keywords: sleep deprivation, torture, Pelican Bay, PHSS
From Prison Focus Issue 46
Peaceful hunger strike protests by California prisoners involved over
30,000 people and lasted 60 days. Strikers and their loved
ones have met cold hearted retaliation from CA Department
of Corrections. Yet people in solitary and their families and
supporters continue to keep the pressure on, educate the public,
and organize to stop the torture-- the brutal prison practice
of solitary confinement. California keeps people in cages
and concrete cells in extreme isolation for years, with no human
contact, no natural light, no phone calls, and access only
to horrible food and negligent to abusive ‘medical care.’
A new massive state and now nation-wide mobilization
called Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Con-
finement began on March 23, 2015 and will continue on the
23rd of each month.
Ever since the spring of 2011 when CA prisoners in Pelican
Bay’s SHU Short Corridor sent 5 human rights demands,
in writing, to CDCr officials and sent those demands out to
their families, human rights organizations, and anyone else
who might listen, solidarity organizing on the outside has
attempted to match the intensity, geographical span, and astute
human rights work by the prisoners. During the three
hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, people all over the world
were inspired to act, outraged at the exposed realities of
solitary confinement torture. The prisoners’ courageous actions
prompted worldwide media and United Nations attention,
legislative hearings, proposed legislation, some CDCr
changes, and national and international solidarity actions.
Indeed, most media formerly refused to even acknowledge
that California has people in solitary confinement and has
had individuals locked down for decades. Now, major media
openly reports “The horror of solitary confinement — which
often masquerades under names such as “prison segregation”
or “restricted housing” — remains clear today.” (Washington
Post Editorial, July 1, 2015).
However, the public at large seemed to lose momentum,
perhaps forgetting about the state torture happening behind
concrete and barbed wire, once the massive hunger strikes
halted. While hunger strikers, in unconscionable living conditions,
try to recover their health and restore their organs,
damaged by refusing food for so long to get the world’s attention,
the public buzz about the horrors of solitary and the
talk in classrooms and churches about the moral imperative
to abolish solitary quieted down. People seem distracted
from thinking about the thousands of people tortured in extreme
“We don’t want them to have to hunger strike again.”
Recently, in response to a proposal from people incarcerated
in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU involved in the
momentous 2011 and 2013 California Hunger Strikes, the
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) initiated
Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement.
Statewide Coordinated Actions are re-focusing the spotlight
on the torture of solitary confinement, from the grassroots,
and revitalizing the general public’s attention to end it.
Since March 2015, community organizations, loved ones
of people in solitary, and human rights advocates have been
mobilizing monthly actions in cities across California, including
Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Culver City, San Diego,
Oakland, Arcata, San Francisco, Pasadena, San Jose, Manila,
Pt. Reyes, and Santa Barbara, on the 23rd of each month.
“Our outside supporters…---across the state--- [are] publicly
rallying on the 23rd of each month for the purpose of keeping
the subject of our endless torture in public view, and thereby
exposed to the world!!! The 23rd of each month is symbolic
of our 23+ hours per day in these tombs-of-the-living-dead--
-and it is hoped such rallies will spread across the nation!!!”
(Todd Ashker, March 30, 2015)
Indeed, Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary
Confinement are spreading across the nation. Organizations
outside of CA and outside of the US are excited to join this
effort. There are over 75 endorsers and co-sponsors in CA,
nationwide, and globally, and organizations and prominent
individuals keep adding on. Groups are currently organizing
23rd actions in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York,
and Pennsylvania. People mobilizing in numerous locations
at once are circulating much needed information and helping
to put the realities of solitary confinement and other prison
human rights abuses in the forefront of national concern.
Locations for actions on the 23rd range from busy downtown
centers in Chicago, LA, New York, and Oakland; the
site in San Francisco where tourists wait to tour the torture
chambers of now closed Alcatraz prison; university and college
campuses; gorgeous seascapes on the Pacifi c coast of
California; Chuco’s Justice Center, base for the Youth Justice
Coalition and others; the Kinetic Sculpture Race, a bicycle
“Triathlon of the Art World,” 70 miles south of the Pelican
Bay torture chamber; to a major metropolitan commuter
transit center in Boston. All this is in stark contrast to the
sensory deprivation of solitary confinement torture cells.
Actions have included public rallies with speakers, including
members of CFASC and formerly incarcerated persons;
informational booths; performances and discussions of If the
SHU Fits - Voices from Solitary Confinement: A Reader’s
Theatre Performance; rolling fasts; massive distribution of
literature at big festivals and fairs; chalk-ins about solitary
confinement; educational encounters with passersby; press
conferences; letter-writings to incarcerated persons; a giant
puppet performance of the people defeating the prison industrial
complex; reader’s theater of the Agreement to End
Hostilities, the 5 Core Demands, and the Proposals for Action;
public screenings of the documentary Breaking Down
the Box; and letter-writing in support of CA Senate Bill 124
to define and limit solitary confinement of youth.
Participants have given out thousands of handbills about
the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, the prisoner-class
led human rights struggle, the CA Hunger Strikes,
the Agreement to End Hostilities, how to get subscriptions
to publications for people locked inside, invitations to help
grow CFASC in Northern CA, Human Rights Pen Pal applications,
etc. All of those materials are available at the
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website, so anyone has the
ability to set up an informative action.
These mobilizations outside the prisons help bring hidden
torture into the public eye, show the world that folks who are
incarcerated have support, update people on the conditions
inside and the needs and work of the Prisoner-class Human
Rights Movement, and make clear that solitary confinement
The courage that prisoners continue to demonstrate after
the three Hunger Strikes, while upholding their Agreement
to End Hostilities across racial/ethnic and geographic
lines, should give us all the strength to organize in our own
communities. It is up to us to demand that the torture ends.
People suffering in solitary confinement don’t have time for
silent bystanders or toothless legislation.
A massive public movement is essential to end this torture.
We must break through the silence and pressure the courts,
legislatures, halls of power, and media to act to end solitary
confinement. We do not want the people in prison to have to
risk their lives in another hunger strike! Please participate in
these important mobilizations on the 23rd of every month.
“We will be with the prisoners...in the courts, in the legislature,
and out in the community. We will use every venue
available to us, UNTIL THE TORTURE IS ENDED.” ●
For more information see: prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com,
Jul 15, 2015
Prison Focus Issue 46
I recently heard about the mass actions going on out in society
to raise awareness about the upcoming court date [for Ashker class action].
It’s important that people outside of SHU, and outside of
prison for that matter, get involved in our efforts because on
some level what we are going through affects everyone. So
in that sense participation is key.
The recent monthly actions have been held on the 23rd
of each month where folks have been raising awareness out
on the streets. The idea of involving people in the anti-SHU
or anti-solitary struggle is important, but I think it’s [also]
important to cast our net wide in order to build momentum.
I think after the court date in December that people exploring
ways to better get folks on the streets involved in prison
struggles for human rights start thinking of creating a day of
action which is more inclusive of various prisoners, not just a
certain demographic. It is understandable that we keep focus
on SHU and ad seg prisoners, but the issue of prison oppression
is scaling the walls of the maximum security prisoner
whether we like it or not. The struggle for prisoners’ rights,
or prison reform is stretching out to other prisons and even
A day designated at prisoners’ Human Rights Day should
be a day that includes prisoners throughout the U.S. and in
every prison. It should be a day which has historically represented
prisoners struggling for justice, a day which represents
all prisoners struggling against state repression. As I
scoured various dates the only one which signifi es this the
most is September 9th, the date of the Attica Uprising where
all prisoner rose up against the state to reclaim their humanity.
The date of September 9th would be inclusive of all prisoners
throughout the U.S. and can be used to highlight the
history of prisoners in the U.S. not just suffering oppression,
but resisting as a class against the state. It would get wider
swath of people to get involved and take notice about not just
solitary or SHU issues, but for prisoners in general. It would
open up these efforts to a larger audience than just the current
friends and family of SHU prisoners. Our sights should be
set on shooting for a complete U.S. prison-wide movement
The efforts created from within the SHU are spreading and
affecting laws and reforms spanning across the U.S. in regards
to prisons, our ideas and days of action should not lag
behind these developments but instead lead them. ●
[Ed’s Note: Jose’s piece points to the need for prisoners to
honor the struggles of those past by having a generally accepted
Prisoners’ Day. I agree that the Attica uprising should
be the event we celebrate each year on September 9th. In fact
I’ve done so for many years. Every September, in whatever
publication I was putting out at the time, I always tried to
have something on the Attica uprising. Sadly, I’ve not done
so in years. I’ll look for some of those old Attica articles I’ve
written over the years and share some of the better ones with
readers in future issues of Prison Focus.
I’ve been noticing what appears to be a trend in which
prisoners are agitating for outside people to fight your battle
for you, while you passively sit back and eat Bonbons. I’ve
been here before, more than a few times. As soon as you forget
that it is your struggle and your responsibility to fight it,
when you fail to remember that the only reason you have any
outside support at all is because of the sacrifices of the SHU
prisoners, then you have lost all understanding of the dynamics
of this struggle. As soon as you rely on people other
than prisoners you are plunging a knife in the back of the
movement. Your base is prisoners, and from that everything
else flows. Look to outside volunteers too much and you burn
them out. Look to the courts, legislature, or executive branch
for relief, you are pissing up a rope. Remember, self-reliance
in all things!]