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Susan Estrich
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The Pelican Bay Strikers


When I first heard the news story about "Pelican Bay," all I could think of was the elegant new resort in Southern California, the Resort at Pelican Hill, where the views are (at least according to my friends) drop-dead gorgeous and the food is beyond compare.

Similar name, very different accommodations. And food.

Pelican Bay is the name of a maximum-security prison in California, where prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) — reserved for the worst of the worst, for prisoners who are members of prison gangs or have committed serious crimes in prison — have gone on a hunger strike to seek better conditions, including better food.

When I heard the news on the radio the other day, driving home from work, I had to struggle not to start laughing.

A hunger strike by prison gang members to get better conditions? Drinking only water until they get better food? Could I make this up?

I'm sorry, but does anyone care? These are people who have not only been convicted of crimes sufficiently awful to warrant confinement in maximum-security prisons, but once they were imprisoned, they went on to become members of violent prison gangs, or to commit serious crimes in prison, or often both.

And they think they're going to win our sympathy, much less better conditions, by not eating. Sorry.

Don't get me wrong. I like to think I'm as humane as the next person. I remember the day when, as a young lawyer, I helped out on lawsuits to bring toilets instead of buckets to county jails. But those held in county jails are not violent killers, not prison gang members, not men serving life terms and then killing fellow prisoners or guards once confined. There are limits to my sympathy.

The prison system desperately needs radical changes. Thanks to the powerful Prison Guards Union and the cowardice of politicians who knew better, California, like many states, went on a spree of overbroad three-strikes and two-strikes and one-strike laws, mandating longer sentences, taking discretion away from judges to decide who warrants long-term confinement and resulting — even with the boom of prison construction — in conditions unfit for anyone, including offenders.

Indeed, these long sentences have turned some prisons into nursing homes, paid for by those of us who struggle to provide decent care for our own older relatives who saved all their lives to meet expenses no one on the outside can afford.

I'm old enough to remember the days when kids who obeyed the law would complain, in our determination to show that everyone could be saved, that the only available jobs in high-unemployment areas would be reserved for those coming out of prison. The joke was "commit a crime, get a job." The good kids got nothing.

Times have changed. Rehabilitation is passe. Mostly, sadly, there is good reason for that. When you look at the records of many of those in maximum security — records that involve repeated killings and rapes and attacks on innocent people — you have a hard time coming to any conclusion but that some people are just not fit to live with the rest of us. If you don't value human life, I don't want you in my community. Ever.

Society needs to decide who we really want to imprison and who can be punished in different ways. Stealing from the boardroom actually is different from stealing on the street corner — different because street violence too often produces death, not deficits. If you want to use drugs and destroy your life, that's different from selling them to kids or killing people to get them. Any drug use feeds a dangerous market. I'm not condoning it, but I'm not sure I want to spend more than the cost of a college education to put someone in a prison and provide three squares and free health care to punish it.

Call me heartless, but I'd rather help all the kids and parents out there who, despite their hardships, are struggling to do the right thing by themselves and their families; struggling to find decent shelter and provide adequate food to their families; struggling to make something of themselves.

I have a friend who keeps telling me we have to visit Pelican-something. Hill, not Bay.

As for the prisoners in the SHU, none of them, based on my research, are claiming they don't deserve to be in prison, but only that they want it to be nicer. I'd rather take care of the people outside the prison walls first.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



7 Comments | Post Comment
you were doing okay up until you wrote,,"Stealing from the boardroom actually is different than stealing on the street corner.".. If that statemeent were true, then we should let Bernie Madoff out of jail tomorrow.
No,,, too many white collar crooks are stealing the life savings of many small investors. Sadly, this current administration has prosecuted very few of the Wall Street crooks and they dontinue their schemes.
As you are aware, the Supreme Court ruled some time ago that, "...prisoners are sent to prison AS punishment , not FOR ppunishment. We do not need to coddle any prisoner, especially a violent one, but we do have an obligation to provide them with decent food and medical care and assure that they are not abused. . Some of these prisoners may one day hit the streets. Do you want them to have an immediate excuse to get out and injure the first person they see in retaliation for being abused?
One of the greatest injustices today are the rise of FOR PROFIT prisons that provide the barest minimum of medical care and proper food as they only seek to provide profits for their investors. These prisons have the highest number of prisoner lawsuits against them and that ends up costing taxpayers money. It also makes for many angered parolees and adds to the danger caused when they are released in an embittered mental state. To be honest, it only costs a few bucks more a month to give prisoners a special meal now and then to remind them of what they miss by being on the outside. Removing all incentive for these men is dangerous. This country has a huge incarceration problem that stems from the era of mandatory minimum sentencing. That legacy is costing taxpayerrs huge amounts of money when a five year sentence for first time offenders would have been quite enough. This is a huge tax burden on many states and on the Federal system. Time to rethink the Sentencing Guidelines that mandate these huge sentences. Because the taxpayers are serving the same sentence.
Comment: #1
Posted by: robert lipka
Fri Jul 15, 2011 9:28 AM
Prisoners belong to the most despised class in our society. They have committed horrible crimes and this has been proven according to the strict standards which govern our courts--often with overwhelming evidence. Sometimes they remain violent and unrepentant; generally they are poor, ignorant and foolish. No politician seeks their support. The public deplores them. However the issue is not how much we hate them, but rather have we done justice by giving them these sentences? First we must be sure that society is safe. But if our protection is secure, then we must realize that solitary confinement and removing the contact of other human beings is one of the cruelest things that you can do to a person. We must consider whether we have moved from administering justice to giving out torture. Prisoners can't vote. Their only recourse is to send out a message, and hunger strikes traditionally are a way to do this. To put a person alone in a dark room somewhere, assure him that he occupies the lowest place in society and that he will be friendless for life should be a act required only be necessity. Our duty is to do justice, not to seek revenge.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Cowboy Jay
Fri Jul 15, 2011 10:54 AM
So, you are the lawyer that got the toi;ets installed in the Salem jail. I'm from Essex and visited friends at Sunny Salem. Crapping into a bucket is not easy and not hygenic. Most punks perferred Lawrence jail, because they had toilets. Susan, you have a long way. From relacing crap buckets to a national commentator. My friends say thanks.
Comment: #3
Posted by: JWM
Sat Jul 16, 2011 6:33 AM
Being convicted of a crime is not the same as being guilty of a crime. How many people are convicted of being black or Mexican in the wrong place and time? More than a few, for sure. Is that a good enough reason not to make torture chambers out of prisons? By imprisoning people in harsh conditions aren't we creating more monsters than we formerly had, just like bombing third world countries makes terrorists?
I think this is your Good German talking and not your good sense, and certainly not reason.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Hertz Donut
Sun Jul 17, 2011 1:42 PM
Ms Estrich,
The hunger strike at Pelican Bay is about much more than food, and because you are an intelligent woman I am sure you know that. The practice of deciding a prisoner is a gang member on the word of one other prisoner and locking that prisoner up in solitary confinement until they provide the name of another prisoner who is a gang member (whether true or not) is torture, mental torture. Some of these prisoners have been in solitary confinement for 37 years.
I will pray that one day you open your heart to those you now view as "other."
Standing with the prisoners of Pelican Bay,
Comment: #5
Posted by: Heather Stecher
Tue Jul 19, 2011 6:17 AM
The above postings are indeed probative of the proposition that assuming one is not a featus, in which case all manner of barbarism and torture commited upon you is entirely accepable and indeed a unquestionale rite and requirement of liberalism, its most dangerous belief is its adoration of violent criminals. A liberal's desire to venberate the scum of this world is in its DNA. Liberalism believes that it is important never to properly punish criminals and as is demonstrated above liberals produce a constant scroll of excuses for the dregs of this world, too old, too young, cost too much, the criminal has already been rehabilitated or will not be re habilitated by punishment, punishmant creates more criminals, when he gets out he may re offend if he did not have his a$$ kissed while inside, the criminal says he did'nt do it, his only crime was that he was black or hispanic or any other class ( other than white christian that is), he was on cold medication when he raped, murdered and ate a family of four or other such BS. In a sentence the liberal commandmant is simply thou shalt not punish a perp but you may torture and kill children in the womb any time any place and indeed up to and beyond delivery, provided the delivery was part of a botched abortion.
Comment: #6
Posted by: joseph wright
Tue Jul 19, 2011 10:51 AM
It seems I feel like I am living in the"Twi light Zone" when I read Nashville, Tennesean July 21 re- the Pelican Bay prisoners are seeking better living conditions and better food. What do they think this is "their Birthday"? It really galls me when I read such requests due to the fact that they are exactly the reason they are in prison in the first place. Susan Estrich voiced my complaints precisely when she said she had to struggle not to laugh in her article re- this request. Where are these people from "Mars"; if you dig a hole you might just fall in. I grew up during WW2 and learned the meaning of rationing. Believe me, it brought character to my life and to "try" to mind my mother and not to do anything that would embarass her and to not "break any laws". I thought it was a corporal offense to "J Walk" and still feel guilty if I don't go to the "Red Light". Oh! how i long for the "good old days" when it was expected of you to "obey" the laws.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Alice Stoddard
Thu Jul 21, 2011 12:15 PM
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