Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa spends 22.5 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,” she said. “Walk inside the SHU! Sit down for a minute!”
Levin said confining inmates in the SHU for long periods of time amounts to torture. Reverend Theon Johnson agrees.
“Over 100 people have been in the SHU for over 20 years. Most of whom have no new disciplinary write ups or incidents,” he said. “My friends that is torture! That is torture!”
The Corrections Department’s Jeffrey Callison acknowledged the SHU is not a place most people would choose to spend time. But he dismisses the claims of torture, pointing out inmates have access to cable TV, radios, legal and family visits and a law library.
And Callison said policies on who gets sent to the SHU and how the unit operates have been revised. As a result, hundreds of inmates have been sent back to the general population.
“There have been other changes and improvements,” he said. “And there are no end of ways in which prisoners can express their concerns about conditions in prison.”
Four of the state’s 34 prisons have SHUs. The units house a total of about 3,500 inmates.
More than 100 inmates have participated in the hunger strike continuously since it started July 8th.