Secretary Matthew Cate

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation


Dear Secretary Cate:

Human Rights Watch welcomes news today that the California prisoners' hunger strike may be ending and that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) may make changes in a few of the conditions at the Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU). Despite these developments, we think the strike underscores the importance and urgency of a careful and comprehensive review of policies and practices at the SHU.

We urge you to create a committee composed of persons of experience, insight, and integrity drawn from inside and outside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, to review the policies, practices, and conditions at the SHU and to make recommendations for appropriate changes. The scope of the review should include the specific conditions of confinement, the criteria for entry and release, and the duration of confinement there.  It is essential that such a committee include independent experts who are not employed by the CDCR and that it include a mechanism through which the views of inmates and their family members can be considered.

We recognize the responsibility of correctional officials to respond to threats to prison safety and security, in the way they deem most effective, as long as the policies and practices they choose are consistent with human rights. In the case of the SHU, however, the reportedly extreme conditions coupled with the length of time many inmates live there cannot be squared with the human rights requirement that inmates be treated with respect for their dignity and humanity and that they not be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment.  It is not clear that the department has procedures in place to ensure that inmates are not sent to the SHU unless necessary and that they are not kept there any longer than is necessary.  In addition, while there may be some inmates who are so truly dangerous that extreme security precautions for a prolonged period are required, the conditions of confinement for such inmates must be modified to ensure that they have increased access to meaningful social interaction, and educational and recreational activities (via video, television, radio, etc). In addition, all inmates should be able to earn their way out of the SHU in a way that does not put themselves or their families at risk, as the debriefing policy allegedly does.

We hope you will create a Pelican Bay State Prison SHU review committee. We urge that the committee be authorized to undertake a thorough review, that it be granted the access to inmates, officials, and documents necessary to undertake such a review, and that its analysis and recommendations be made public. Without compromising quality of review, it should be undertaken as quickly as possible. If you have any questions about this proposal and if there is any way we can assist you, please do not hesitate to be in touch.


Jamie Fellner

Senior Advisor

US Program