Today, the 23rd of the month, invoking the 23 hours per day that prisoners spend in their cells in the SHU, activists throughout California are taking action to bring attention to prison conditions. Below Dolores Canales shares the story of her first contact visit with her son, after a settlement in CCR's case Ashker v. Governor of California effectively ended longterm solitary confinement in CA prisons.
In the early morning of January 1st, 2016, before sunrise, I began the New Year preparing for a moment that at times I thought might never happen. My son John Martinez had been held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison for 15 years, where no outside human contact is allowed, only visits behind the glass, talking through a phone. I sat and waited for my son to enter the general population visiting room at Salinas Valley State Prison with visions still in my mind of caged visiting booths in a cement hall. When he was in solitary confinement in the SHU, guards would escort my son out in handcuffs and lock him in the cage so we could have our non-contact visit. Now, here I was, getting ready for my first contact visit in over a decade. I was going to be able to hug my son!
The California prisoners of Pelican Bay launched a hunger strike in July 2011, followed by several other hunger strikes over the next three years, to challenge the conditions of solitary confinement and extreme isolation. During that time, while hundreds of family members organized around the suffering of our loved ones, it was hard to imagine what it would be like for my son to be released from the SHU. After the settlement in CCR’s case Ashker v. Governor of California, the vision became so real that at times I felt as if my heart would burst from hope!
So as I waited with anticipation for my son to enter the visiting room, I was filled with a million different emotions... and then in an instant, I watched him enter the room with no chains, shackles or handcuffs, not even a staff escort as he had when he was in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit. As he walked over to me with a smile, he looked so free in comparison to the years of visiting him behind glass. My eyes started to fill with tears. But as he reached out to hug me I must have had the biggest smile on my face and I was overtaken with laughter and hugs, and a moment of clarity that this was really happening, I was hugging my son for the first time in over 15 years!
Our visit was so great, but we both continued to mention others who are still sitting in solitary. We both brought up the fact that the dungeons of solitary, where no human should ever be, still exist, waiting to be filled. But for that weekend, as we laughed, talked and hugged, it was almost as if it never did exist, I guess that is why we both kept bringing it up ... because while it does exist we can’t forget those that languish in the dark, cold cells of the SHU units.
I barely know how to describe my feelings. Surreal, inexpressible joy and yet bittersweet, because there we sat as if 15 years had not gone by. As I watched him eat his chocolate cake and drink his soda with such a delight, tears silently rolled down my face. Why would we deprive someone of such basic pleasures as food items, such basic necessities as sunlight and human contact? So maybe I have SHU syndrome –even though my son is out of solitary, my mind and heart can't forget and trapped deep in my soul is the human being that sits in the windowless cell of Pelican Bay.