California inmates starve for more freedom

August 7, 2013 7:17:29 PM PDT
A hunger strike at several California prisons has entered its fourth week. The inmates want California to limit the use of small cells known as Security Housing Units, inmates call it solitary confinement. Our media partners at the Center For Investigative Reporting obtained exclusive video of these cells and were granted rare access to the state's highest security prison - Pelican Bay. They found inmates who have spent years and even decades locked up in these cells.

Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City was designed to hold the state's most dangerous inmates. Inside a bunker-like high security housing unit, hundreds of men have been held in isolation for more than a decade.

For the last five years, Peter Sartorezzi has spent 22.5 hours a day alone in a small cell. A federal lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of civil rights groups, alleges that inmates are held in isolation based on the slimmest of evidence -- tattoos, greeting cards and even a simple "hello" has been enough to lock up a convict.

"We're not allowed a cup. We're not allowed a bowl," said Sartorezzi, "We're not allowed phone calls. I haven't seen my family since I've been busted."

Sartorezzi is serving 25 years to life for attempted murder. Prison officials say he was separated from the rest of the prison population because an informant identified Sartorezzi as a member of a violent prison gang called the "Mexican Mafia."

"I'm not here for violence; I'm not here for discipline. I'm here because a man decided to use me as his way out." Satorezzi admitted, "I might have a few tattoos. This is prison, you know what I mean? I was never able to confront those who confined me here. It's all hearsay."

The suit asserts that years of solitary confinement causes severe physical and psychological damage, violating a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis rejects charges of abuse, "It is my position, and always has been my position, that these men are treated very humanely."

Lewis says the units are necessary, and alleges that all the inmates here are dangerous gang members.

"These are not your burglars, not your street corner drug dealers. These men are highly violent and it provides for the safety of my staff, which is paramount," said Lewis.

On July 8th Pelican Bay inmates launched the hunger strike. The action has sparked protests throughout California led largely by inmates' families. They are demanding limits on the amount of time inmates can be held in isolation. They also want more family visits, phone calls and rehabilitation programs.

Marie Levin is from Oakland. Her brother Ronnie Dewberry was originally convicted of murder and is locked up at Pelican Bay as an alleged gang member. He is one of the hunger strike leaders.

"The United Nations has declared that 15 days is the maximum amount of time that any one person should be in solitary confinement, but yet they have allowed my brother to be in solitary confinement for 29 years," said Levin.

The department has made some changes. It lifted a decades' long ban on inmate photographs, allowing prisoners like Peter Sartorezzi to begin sending new pictures to their families. Sartorezzi's mother, Madeleine, hadn't seen an image of her son in nine years.

Madeleine said, "He's alive, but you can't touch him, you can't hear him, you can't see him. That's what they call a ghost."

The family posed for a group photo and sent it to Peter. Madeleine just received a new picture of her son. She says it's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough. Like other families, she wants prison officials to ease restrictions and move more men to regular prisons. Protestors are demanding that men held in the security units for more than 10 years be let out within six months.

The strike, however, is now in its fourth week, and with both sides digging in, inmates say they are prepared to starve themselves to death.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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