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Prison Hunger Strike Supporters Take Fight to Capitol

Aug 14, 2013

A simulated SHU prison reform advocates displayed at the State Capitol on Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Credit Katie Orr / Capital Public Radio

As an inmate hunger strike in California stretches on, prison reform advocates want the rest of us to know what it’s like inside a SHU. Katie Orr reports from Sacramento.

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa spends 22 1/2 hours a day in Security Housing Unit, or SHU. It’s a room the size of a parking spot. Jamma has been living that reality for the past 29 years. He’s an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison and is participating in a hunger strike to protest the use of long term solitary confinement. 

At a rally in front of the Capitol, his sister, Marie Levin, stood in front of a simulated SHU and implored lawmakers to experience how her brother lives. 

“I invite every legislator who is inside of this building here to walk inside this SHU. Walk inside the SHU! Sit down for a minute," says Levin.

Levin and other reform advocates say confining inmates in the SHU for long periods amounts to torture. 

But the Corrections Department dismisses those claims, pointing out inmates have access to cable TV and a law library. The department’s Jeffrey Callison says policies on who gets sent to the SHU and how the unit operates have been revised and hundreds of inmates have been sent back to the general population.     

There have been other changes and improvements. And there are no end of ways in which prisoners can express their concerns about conditions in prison,” says Callison.

More than 100 inmates have participated in the hunger strike continuously since it started July 8th.