How Violent Convicts Changed Prisons With the Ultimate Peaceful Protest

A historic, hard-won settlement will change the lives of nearly 2,000 prisoners.

A protest against indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons outside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation office in Sacramento, California, on July 30, 2013. (Photo: Max Whittaker/Reuters)

Sep 3, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Every six to eight weeks, Dolores Canales drives 14 hours north from her home in Fullerton, California, to talk to her son, John Martinez, through a glass wall. Martinez has been incarcerated for second-degree murder since 1994. The visits matter, because seeing his mom every couple months is the closest thing to contact he gets with another human being who isn’t a corrections officer.

Martinez has spent the last 14 years in solitary confinement, in Pelican Bay Prison in Crescent City, where he has been for almost five years, and at Corcoran State Prison before that. He is one of the prisoners who will likely reap the benefits of a historic settlement reached Tuesday in a case challenging how, when, and for how long the California Department of Corrections uses solitary confinement.

At the core of the settlement is an agreement by the state to effectively stop throwing away the key on inmates in solitary confinement on the sole basis of alleged gang affiliation. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 inmates will be returned to the general population. Martinez, who was found guilty of killing a fellow gang member prior to his incarceration, is one of the prisoners who were sent to solitary on this basis. Gang affiliation could be established based on possession of artwork, photos, or the people a prisoner speaks to rather than a violation of a prison regulation, according to Carol Strickland, one of the lawyers who represented prisoners in the lawsuit.

Danny Murillo, a former Pelican Bay prisoner, knows well the effects of spending years in isolation. Murillo spent seven of his 14 years in solitary confinement and has been an activist who organizes protests against mass incarceration and solitary confinement in the Bay Area since his release from prison in 2010.

“[Solitary] is there to dehumanize you, to break you physically, mentally, and spiritually,” Murillo told TakePart. He grew up in southeast Los Angeles, was arrested at 16 for armed robbery, and arrived in prison on his 18th birthday. He is one of the many prisoners sent to solitary for alleged gang affiliation. Murillo said he was sent to solitary for having a calendar with pictures of Aztec and Mayan drawings—images that corrections officers associated with gangs.

“If you’re Mexican and you have a Mexican flag, they think you’re part of the Mexican mafia,” Murillo said. “If you’re black and you have a book by Malcolm X, they assume you’re in a gang.”

The settlement is the product of a lawsuit that was first filed by two men housed in the Secure Housing Unit, corrections jargon for solitary confinement, at Pelican Bay in 2009. Todd Ashker, the named plaintiff in Ashker v. Gov. of California, organized a hunger strike in 2011 with his fellow prisoners, challenging the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to meet five core demands—chief among them ending the practice of indefinite solitary confinement.

In 2012, two legal organizations—the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children—took on the two men’s cases, adding eight more plaintiffs and ultimately winning class action status. By July 2013, the men had organized a third hunger strike, which at its peak had 30,000 participants in prisons across California and lasted up to for some prisoners.

“The success we’ve achieved in litigation would not have been possible without the unity of the prisoners that was formed during the hunger strike,” Strickland told TakePart. “That nonviolent, peaceful protest created a change in the environment of how people think about solitary confinement.”

To organize the hunger strikes, the prisoners put aside tension between racial and ethnic groups to work toward a common goal. “Our movement rests on a foundation of unity: our Agreement to End Hostilities,” wrote the plaintiffs in a statement published after the settlement. “It is our hope that this groundbreaking agreement to end the violence between the various ethnic groups in California prisons will inspire not only state prisoners, but also jail detainees, county prisoners and our communities on the street, to oppose ethnic and racial violence.”

Ashker and others live in eight-by-10-foot cells in the state’s most notorious supermax prison, which is where officials send what they determine to be the worst of the worst. More than 500 prisoners at Pelican Bay have each lived in solitary confinement for more than a decade. The detrimental effects of being isolated in a tiny cell for 23 hours every day without any natural light include paranoia, hallucinations, and panic attacks, psychiatrist Stuart Grassian found through interviews with hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement.

Isolation also endangers prisoners by putting them at heightened risk of suicide, a tragic truth recently seen in the death of Kalief Browder, who took his life after being released from Rikers Island in New York, where he spent months in solitary.

When Murrillo was sent to solitary, he hunkered down and read everything he could: Voltaire, Hugo, Galeano, and Dickens, to name a few. After his release, he went to community college and then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he immersed himself in the politically active campus. He just finished his bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re a success story,’ ” said Murillo. “But I’m here in spite of prison, not because of it. People change, but it doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a process, and we as a society need to participate in it.”

Canales, the cofounder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, a grassroots organization made up of family members whose loved ones are in solitary, was still giddy from news of the agreement Wednesday.

“We are all so full of hope,” she told TakePart. “I hope this sets a precedent for other states.” But like Murillo, she sees this as the beginning of the road to the work ahead.

“It’s so much bigger than solitary confinement itself,” Canales said. “There are so many things happening now with Obama addressing the issue of mass incarceration—it would be a dangerous thing to be satisfied.”