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Crosscurrents

A look inside the Security Housing Units in California state prisons

Today is day 24 of the prison hunger strike in California. It started off with thousands of prisoners refusing meals, protesting the conditions in the Security Housing Unit, or what’s also been called solitary confinement. The number of strikers has now come down to several hundred, and last week one of them, inmate Billy Sell, died in the SHU at Corcoran State Prison. He had been there for 24 years. The CDCR has issued a statement that his death a suicide, but mediators are calling for an independent investigation to see if he had received proper care during his hunger strike.

Danny Murrillo was released from prison in 2010. He spent seven of the 14 years he was incarcerated in the SHU, or what some also call “the hole.” He explained that being validated to be a member of a gang means that you are likely to be in security housing, or solitary confinement, for the remainder of your sentence, whether it is a year to the rest of your life.

“That’s what the men are fighting for right now,” Murrillo said. “They want to end the long-term solitary confinement based on being labeled a gang member or an associate to a prison gang.”

Nancy Mullane is the author of Life After Murder, which traces the path of several lifers at San Quentin. She’s spoke with KALW's Holly Kernan about the ongoing hunger strike across California state prisons, and the conditions in security housing units, where inmates are sometimes segregated for alleged affiliations to prison gangs.

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Danny Murrillo spent 14 years total in the prison system, two of those years as a minor, and seven of those years he spent in the SHU. KALW’s Martina Castro spoke with him about what he found most challenging about being in the SHU for that long.

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What do you think about the hunger strike and the conditions in the SHU? If you have a personal story to share with us, you can also let us know on our tipline at 415-264-7106.

Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.
Nancy Mullane develops, reports, and produces feature stories for This American Life, National Public Radio, and KALW. She is the author of the book Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption.