Just a few weeks into his solitary confinement, Alex Sanchez began to lose his grip on reality.
“After a month I was schizophrenic. I didn’t know who to trust and I was talking to myself," said Sanchez, a co-founder of the gang prevention group Homies Unidos. In 2009, he was accused of gang-related extortion and assaults, and placed in solitary confinement in California. Feds later dismissed the charges against him.
"I would argue with myself, and that only happened to me in one month. Imagine someone that’s been in there for 30 years,” Sanchez told ABC News-Univision. “Some of these folks have basically trained themselves to be able to maintain and sustain their mental state of mind under those conditions but many of them lose it.”
Sanchez is now part of a coalition supporting an estimated 29,000 inmates in prisons across California who went on a hunger strike this week, protesting solitary confinement and other conditions they say are inhumane. Prisoner advocates are calling the hunger strike the biggest protest of its kind in California's history.
The prisoners say they have a number of reasons for participating in the hunger strike, but their first demand is to end long term confinements in high-security "special housing units" (SHUs) where inmates are isolated for 22-24 hours per day. Prisoner advocates say more than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in the isolation units with no human contact and often windowless cells.
“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez told the General Assembly’s third committee in October 2011.
Méndez said prolonged solitary confinement over 15 days should be subject to an “absolute prohibition,” citing scientific studies which established that some lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation.
Yet hundreds have been held in SHU for more than 10 years, according to Amnesty International.
"The last time I was able to touch my brother was 1982," Marie Levin -- whose brother reportedly has been in solitary confinement for 29 years -- said in a video posted to YouTube by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition of prisoners-rights groups supporting the inmates.
Inmates housed in SHU are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of prisoners at California's infamous Pelican Bay State Prison.
“I had to communicate through my attorney to know how my family was doing, and you become incommunicado with everyone, and meanwhile you can be having your human rights abused,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said there were inmates in isolated cells who purposely started fights with prison guards for the sole purpose of having some human interaction.
“For many of them in isolated units, the only contact they have is with law enforcement, and order to interact with them they have to fight, and they fight with them because they need some interaction," Sanchez said. "When they end up in their cell all beat up, they did it to have contact with humans."
Solitary confinement in California also appears to fall disproportionately on Latino prisoners. SHU assignments disproportionately affect Latinos. In Pelican Bay, 85 percent of SHU occupants were Latino in 2011, according to the CCR's lawsuit. Latinos make up 41 percent of California’s prison population.
SHU assignments are an administrative act and are not part of a person’s court-ordered sentence. According to the California Department of Corrections, an inmate's assignment to the SHU is “a result of being involved in prison gang activity. Leaders of notorious gangs such as Aryan Brotherhood, Nuestra Familia, and Mexican Mafia are housed in the SHU.”
But the CCR argues that gang affiliation is assessed without considering whether a prisoner ever was actually involved in gang activity.
The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition is organizing a large demonstration at the California State Prison, Corcoran, on July 13. Families of those affected by high security isolation units are expected to attend.
"There's a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death, if necessary," Todd Ashker, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison participating in the hunger strike, says in the pro-prisoner coalition's YouTube video. "None of us want to do this, but we feel like we have no other option."