Pelican Bay Prison Hunger-Strikers: George Ruiz

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Prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) are isolated for at least twenty-two and a half hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, any kind of programming, adequate food and, often, medical care. Nearly 750 of these men have been held under these conditions for more than a decade, dozens for over 20 years. This treatment has inflicted profound psychological suffering and caused or exacerbated debilitating physical ailments. 

Ostensibly, these men are in the SHU because they associate with gang members and isolating them is necessary to prevent gang activity and racially motivated violence. But in the summer and fall of 2011, these men, joined by other SHU prisoners throughout California, showed this claim to be the lie that it is. Organizing across racial lines, more than 6,000 SHU prisoners went on hunger strike for several weeks to protest their conditions. That’s right – men who have been isolated for over a decade and deprived of basic human rights because they are allegedly connected to racially divided gangs worked together to demand basic rights and constitutional protections for themselves and one another. Now they have resumed their hunger strike, demanding that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation meet their demands. 

Here is the ninth in our series of their stories and those of their families.

The secured housing unit, where inmates are kept in solitary confinement, at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 9, 2012. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)

The secured housing unit, where inmates are kept in solitary confinement, at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 9, 2012. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)

George Ruiz, plaintiff in the Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit challenging long-term solitary confinement.

My name is George Ruiz and I am 71 years old. I am a Mexican-American and have been incarcerated since 1980 and eligible for parole since 1993. However, multiple parole boards have told me that as long as I’m in the Pelican Bay SHU, I will never be paroled unless I first debrief and get back to the general population.

I have been housed in the Pelican Bay SHU and indefinitely detained in solitary confinement for 29 years since being validated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) as a member of the Mexican Mafia (EME) when I was a young man. I have been disciplined only once for violating a prison rule in over 29 years. Indeed, my only rule violations in the past 30 years have been for missing a count in 1981, possession of wine in 1983, possession of unlabeled stimulants and sedatives in 1986, and a rule violation entitled “Mail Violation With No Security Threat” for using the term sobrino - which means nephew in Spanish – in a letter I wrote.

Despite this innocuous prison record, I have spent over 29 years in harsh isolation, without access to normal human contact. I have developed serious medical problems since being in solitary. I have glaucoma and had a corneal transplant on my left eye. I have been told that I need one for my right eye. I also have diabetes, which became aggravated after a change in my medication. I recently developed pneumonia, kidney failure and difficulty breathing, and experienced a delay in being seen by a medical practitioner. I had to be hospitalized for these conditions, but after I got somewhat better, I was returned to the SHU. I also suffer from arthritis and high blood pressure.

Pelican Bay Prison Hunger Strikers

(Image: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson)

 

Recently, the Pelican Bay medical staff determined that due to my diabetes and kidney failure, I am a high-risk patient whose medical needs cannot be adequately attended to at the SHU, and that I should be transferred. However, that recommendation was reversed by the Institutional Gang Investigations (IGI) and then chief medical officer Michael Sayre. I have been informed by the doctor that the only way to receive better medical treatment for my diabetes and kidney failure is to debrief and return to the mainline.

The most painful and difficult issues for me are the loss of any real physical and emotional contact with my family. Most of my immediate family lives in San Diego. I have had very few social visits from family and friends during my time at the SHU at Pelican Bay. I have two daughters and a son. My daughters find it very hard to visit me because it is so far away. It is very expensive and time-consuming for them to drive for 850 miles from San Diego to Crescent City, as it takes about 14 hours to drive here without stopping.

One of my daughters visited me about six years ago. I have a sister who is 80 years old and cannot visit me because of her fragile health and the distance she would have to travel to see me. Once at the prison, my sister would only have one and one-half hour on Saturday and Sunday to speak to me. One of my granddaughters attempted to visit me several months ago from San Diego. She was recently married and had changed her name since her driver’s license was issued. She was turned away by the guards and didn’t get to visit me even though she brought all the legal documents to prove her name change was legitimate.

Meanwhile, scribbled drawings from my two-year-old great-grandson have been confiscated for supposedly containing “coded messages.” On one of her few visits, my four-year-old granddaughter wanted to hug and kiss me when she was saying goodbye. She started crying because she couldn’t touch me through the Plexiglass. My heart was broken right there. I tried to comfort her, but was unsuccessful. My suffering in the SHU is made so much worse because I can’t call my relatives and maintain any degree of emotional connection with them. I want to be with them so I can hug them, kiss them and live what little life I have left with them. I want to go home.