The Curry Coastal Pilot

Editor's note: This is part three of a four-part series, Inside the SHU, about California's highest-security lockup at Pelican Bay State Prison.

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 sun-glasses 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"

It started in 2006, when Pelican Bay's Institutional Gang Investigations unit rounded up the validated SHU inmates it considered leaders and 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.

"They 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."

The 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."

James 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."

Inmate 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.

"It 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."

The Aryan 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.

"We've 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 attorneys.

"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.

"Social media changed everything in here," says Elrod, who was not a member of the Collective but actively followed its directives. "It gave prisoners an outlet."

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."

Several 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 big-time."

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.

"In our experience, organized mass hunger strikes don't last very long," CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton said on the eve of the hunger strike.

She 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.

Around 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 still protesting.

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."

Reporters converge

The 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 was stopped.

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 be ques- tioned.

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.

(Pelican Bay 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 few.)

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 Pelican Bay.

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.

Two CDCR 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.

"We are going to pit-bull this issue," they were assured by Chair- man 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 calendars. It cited the reason for the strike as being "an exasperated and understandable reaction to the invisible brutality that is solitary confinement."

The web version of the editorial links prominently to the website of a prisoner rights organization focused on publicizing solitary confinement.

Second strike

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.

"They 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.

It 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 disturbance.

"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 state Senate.

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.

The report 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.

Suit resuscitated

In 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.

And in September 2012, Amnesty International released a report entitled, "USA: The Edge of Endurance. Prison Conditions in California's Security Housing Units."

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 10 years.

"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 review

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.

A freelancer writer for Rolling Stone Magazine (a monthly 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."

Mother Jones magazine (a bi-monthly with a circulation of 270,000) published a cover story in its November/December issue written by a journalist who had re- cently 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.

The 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 solitary confinement.

Last May, Mother Jones named Pelican Bay the sixth-worst prison in America.

"On the radar"

In 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, Zubiate and Guillen.

A 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 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.

The 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 the SHU."

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.

On 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.

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."

The 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."

I 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 the path."

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."

Guillen 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

Much 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.

Southern 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.

And Ronnie Dewberry has been described as holding several positions within the Black Guerilla Family through the years: enforcer, sergeant, lieutenant.

Though they deny it, all members of the Collective have been identified as high-ranking members of prison gangs.

It's because of the clout they and the rest of the 12 alternative representatives have that the hunger strikes have been effective, officials say.

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.