RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Here in California, thousands of prisoners are on a hunger strike. It started Monday. They're showing solidarity with inmates of the Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison. Problem inmates there are held in the security housing unit known as the SHU. The SHU has become notorious for keeping inmates there for decades, often in isolation.
Advocates for the inmates have filed a federal lawsuit to end the protracted use of solitary confinement.
To learn more, we turned to Michael Montgomery of member station KQED. He's reported extensively on Pelican Bay and the SHU.
MICHAEL MONTGOMERY, BYLINE: Pelican Bay State Prison was designed to hold what a lot of people say are the worst of the worst. They're not always the worst of the worst, but that's what's often said. It's a prison within a prison. Men are placed in there after the Department of Corrections has determined they're prison gang members or that they've done really bad things in prison. It's a concrete warren of cells that are divided into clusters. There are no windows. The men spend almost all their time alone in the cells. The only substantial time they have out is in an adjacent exercise area with 20-foot-high cement walls. There is no view of the outside world, except on television.
MONTAGNE: Though I gather prisoners were able to coordinate this hunger strike.
MONTGOMERY: The inmates have been able to coordinate the hunger strike through letters and through visits, and families and advocacy groups have helped get the world out to prisons throughout the state. And I think one reason the protests are catching on - we're getting information that there's as many as 30,000 inmates involved in this action - is it's the inmate's response to Governor Brown here declaring an end to the prison crisis.
MONTAGNE: You spoke of the conditions, but what does it take for a prisoner to be put into the SHU?
MONTGOMERY: Well, this is part of the controversy. More than 90 percent of the inmates at Pelican Bay are there under allegations that they're connected to violent prison gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia. And some of these inmates indeed are notorious leaders of these groups. But a lot of the men - as many as half or more - are considered associates. And the evidence that's being used against them are things like tattoos and drawings and letters, not specific actions that they've conducted on behalf of the gangs. And this is really at the heart of both the federal lawsuit and the hunger strike.
MONTAGNE: Well, do - once in isolation, do prisoners ever get back out?
MONTGOMERY: They do get back out, some of the inmates do. The easiest way out is what's called debriefing. Inmates consider that snitching, and that is divulging secrets of these gangs. However, if you are not in the gang, that puts you in a catch-22. How can you give up information that you don't have?
MONTAGNE: There was another hunger strike. I know you reported on this back in 2011, and the state prison system agreed to make some changes. What did they do, exactly?
MONTGOMERY: The Department of Corrections is implementing a new system which changes the criteria that they use to put me in these security units. They've also developed what they call a step-down program, which is a way for inmates to earn their way out of these special units without having to snitch. The inmates say that this is too little, too late. They want a cap put on the amount of time that any inmate should spend in these units. They say that no one should be in for more than five years. Now, that may seem like a huge amount of time, but some of these men have been for 20, 25 years under what the department calls an indeterminate term. That is, it's open-ended. The inmates want that system abolished.
MONTAGNE: A part of this earlier deal that you've reported on involved photographs. Why was that so important?
MONTGOMERY: There are a host of restrictions imposed on inmates in these security units. One of the most unusual, possibly unique around the nation was a ban on photographs, which was really hard on families. You know, Pelican Bay is way up in California's north coast, near the Oregon border. Most of the men are from Southern California. So, we found situations where there were families who haven't seen images of these men for 20 years. The department lifted that ban, and all of the sudden, these young men were old men now. And I think getting these photographs was very bittersweet for some of these families, although it has spurred them to reconnect and actually go visit the men at Pelican Bay, but behind thick glass.
MONTAGNE: Reporter Michael Montgomery is with member station KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Thanks very much.
MONTGOMERY: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.