“Give Us in Here the Strength to See This Thing Through”: A Chronicle of the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike
August 17, 2011
by Sal Rodriguez
In March 2010, Julie Tackett, a Seattle-based activist inspired by her religious faith, began exchanging letters with Bryan, an inmate in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California. Neither could have anticipated the astonishing direction their correspondence would take.
Bryan has been in solitary confinement in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) for 16 of 21 years he has been in prison, for a crime committed when he was a teenager. Determined “not to let the place crush him,” Bryan learned Spanish and German while in lockdown, and has kept himself busy over the years through artwork, writing a novel, and having international pen pals. He has described his life as a “quiet small Japanese garden.”
Bryan’s extended placement in solitary is a result of his being named 16 years ago by various anonymous inmates as a gang member. This “debriefing” process requires that inmates effectively “snitch” on other inmates and reveal gang activity in return for a release from solitary. Many inmates implicated by this process, including Bryan, were never written up for or noted to have any gang affiliation whatsoever either in or out of the prison. Yet once they are “validated” as gang members and placed in the SHU, they are likely to live out the rest of their sentences in solitary confinement. Every six years, a review process examines validated inmates’ status. According to Bryan, in 2008 his cell was searched, and officials found a drawing and poetry done by a validated gang member; prison officials also accused Bryan of writing a card and sending it to a validated gang member, although the card was never produced. Based on these incidents, Bryan was condemned to another six years in solitary.
In Bryan’s own words regarding his placement in extended solitary:
I take full personal responsibility for being a young violent prisoner who got myself thrown in the SHU. I make NO excuses nor do I try to blame others or justify my actions. But it has to be recognized that my validation as a gang member was based solely on the confidential debriefing reports of inmates who could no longer continue to suffer under these condition of perpetual isolation in solitary confinement. There is no individual accountability under the current CDCR policies. I have now been in solitary confinement for over a decade, not based on a CDCR rules violation but rather for a false label put on myself by inmate informants broken under SHU conditions. Now in the ultimate form of group punishment I am to be housed in solitary confinement, not based on my actions but based on this gang label.
Initially, Julie and Bryan corresponded about once a month. Julie said she was unprepared for what she learned of the hellish circumstances that had been Bryan’s life a decade and a half. In May 2010, Bryan first told Julie about his placement in the Secure Housing Unit:
I’ve been in the SHU for 15 years (solitary confinement) and as you can imagine, one either comes to know his/her self or breaks. I have my ups and downs just like everyone else but I “freed” my mind years ago. So I actively reach out to the “world” and try to stay engaged through my writing.
In the May 2010 letter, Bryan also revealed that in the 15 years of incarceration at Pelican Bay, he had only had two familial visits—his family lives in Texas, where he grew up. Upon learning this, Julie decided to visit Bryan in September of 2010. She recalled that she found Bryan to be, in person, just as he was in his letters and postcards: very intelligent, spiritual, good-humored, thoughtful, and an excellent conversationalist. Over time, the soft-spoken, reserved Bryan would become more open, and Julie would describe her in-person meetings with Bryan as very animated, often delving into esoteric topics, and very enjoyable.
In May 2011, Bryan indicated to Julie that there would be a hunger strike in the Pelican Bay SHU beginning July 1:
You know me well enough to know that I am in NO WAY suicidal, nor do I wish to harm myself in any way. But collectively we feel as though we are already dead under these conditions of extreme isolation and deprivation. I’m personally willing to go to this extreme in order to prove my desire to live. This is not life Julie…period. We are here for one reason only, our refusals to debrief. I’ve had no serious write ups in almost a decade. I have friends here who have 20-25 years in clean. Why are we here? Because we’re “labeled” as gang members? What about the other 100,000 labeled gang members on Cal. main lines?
Bryan then asked Julie to serve as his “monitor” during the hunger strike. Up to this point, Bryan hadn’t told his family what life was really like in the SHU, instead reassuring them over the years that he was doing fine and keeping himself busy. Julie and Bryan agreed to share news of the hunger strike with his family, and a mutual understanding was established.
Julie made the decision to drive the 500 miles from Seattle to Pelican Bay, just south of the Oregon-California border. She would remain there from June 24th through the end of the hunger strike. Striking a tent in a campground a mile outside Crescent City, California, Julie embedded herself in a growing support network. Over the next several weeks, she would meet and befriend family members of hunger strikers, supporters, and even sympathetic correctional officers. She would also maintain a blog, called “My Brother’s Keeper,” detailing her experiences and sharing excerpts from her correspondence with Bryan.
On day one of the strike, Bryan wrote:
Now it’s 4:05….I spent that minute asking your god, my god….whatever positive guiding force there may be…to look out for you all out there and give us in here the strength to see this thing through.
On the third day of the strike, Julie and Bryan met. Julie was sure to keep Bryan informed of the growing support network outside of the prison, and he wrote:
It was great to hear that the Native Americans were out protesting for us. I sure hope you let them know that we could hear them and that we truly appreciate their support. It was good for morale to share that and the news that Folsom had participants as well. Collectively we are not as optimistic that this will end any time soon but either way we are committed.
By day six, Bryan noted a lack of medical care for hunger strikers:
Still haven’t seen a lick of medical care a full 6 days in. They threw that Ch. 22 Hunger Strike protocol right out the window and “doctor” Sayre pulled all strikers off their meds en mass. So the MTAs are real happy, no protocol on checking on we strikers and half the meds they were used to delivering are now gone.
On day seven, Bryan reported, medical care was finally made available. He had already lost 17 pounds. Bryan had signed a medical directive indicating: “Do not attempt resuscitation (DNR), Comfort measures only and NO artificial nutrition by tube.” He also gave Julie Power of Attorney.
On Saturday, the ninth day of the hunger strike, Julie was able to visit Bryan. Bryan had begun to experience difficulty sleeping and came off as very tired. Julie updated Bryan of the growing support on the outside. Bryan would apologize in a letter dated the July 10th for not being “more on my game.”
On the 11th, Bryan’s condition became more trying:
REALLY long day. I had zero energy and couldn’t get warm all day. We were on lock down so I couldn’t take a little walk to break up the day. I tried to pace my cell but it didn’t make any difference. I know the guys in here are hurting. It was dead quiet all day and when we did speak I could hear it.
I have to do something with my time. I feel like I’m just wallowing in the misery…minute by minute. I have to find a way to pull my mind away from it. My problem is how hard it is to concentrate. Tomorrow I’m pulling out a book and forcing it. The isolation is 10 times worse than the hunger.
On the 12th, Bryan found solace and inspiration in the story of Bobby Sands, the Irish republican hunger striker who died of starvation in a British prison in 1981:
I reread the chapter in “Nothing But An Unfinished Song” (Ch.22) when Bobby Sands starts his hunger strike and eventually dies and it was a good wake-up call. Eleven days ain’t squat! I was laid up in bed for the last 3 days as if death was already upon me. I had to break that and keep moving.
Julie visited Bryan on the 16th and 17th. By the 16th, he had lost over 25 pounds. In their meeting, Julie said, Bryan wasn’t himself. He was withdrawn and seemed very depressed. The usually engaged and good-humored Bryan was unfocused and quiet. Their meeting on the 17th was no different. Bryan had been nauseous and, as Julie put it, he “went from being Bryan to being a hunger striker.” He was, however, still very committed, and insisted that he would see the strike until the end.
The hunger strike ended on July 21st, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation making a few token concessions, and indicating that it would review its debriefing and gang validation policies.
On July 23rd, Julie was denied a visit to Bryan. After some calling around, she found out that Bryan had been removed from his cell on the 21st due to complications from the hunger strike. Monday the 25th she was informed that Bryan was diagnosed with hypophosphatemia, a low level of phosphorous in the blood resulting in, according to Bryan, “several major seizures and a series of other serious medical issues due to chemical imbalances from starvation.”
Julie learned later that Bryan had been rushed to Sutter Cost Hospital in Crescent City for vital, life-saving care. His heart had been in tachycardia (dangerously high heart rate) and he’d had seizures. For seven hours doctors in the emergency room worked frantically to stabilize his system with numerous IV administrations.
Bryan would be transferred to the Intensive Care Unit for an additional two days. During this period he was repeatedly pressured to debrief: “[I was] asked by every new shift of COs if it was worth it and asked if I was ready to debrief yet. I expected that but not the level at which they came at me.”
He would spend an additional day at Sutter Coast Hospital and then a day at the prison infirmary before being sent back to his cell. The prison infirmary is located in an area that holds psychologically troubled inmates, who were, according to Julie’s recounting, “screaming, yelling, kicking doors.”
“He looked ragged on Saturday and a bit better by Sunday so he seems to be on the mend,” Julie wrote on the 2nd of August. She had returned to home in Seattle the day before.
“I am so proud to be his friend. He was willing to lay down his life for the well-being of others,” Julie says. “I want people who read this story to walk away with an understanding of the situation in prisons across the country. During this hunger strike, ethnic groups all came together for the common good. I really hope that the CDCR follow through with good faith to bring about changes in their policies.”
Bryan will be up for review regarding his placement in solitary confinement in 2014.
Reflecting on her befriending of Bryan and all that had happened, Julie posed the question: “Should I continue on my well-worn path of interests or should I commit to work for positive change on behalf of thousands of men and women suffering within America’s prisons?” Fortunately for Bryan and the tens of thousands of inmates in solitary confinement, she has chosen the latter.
Julie Tackett outside her tent at the campground near Pelican Bay State Prison. The tent, she notes, is “larger than TWO cells in the SHU.”