Unbroken Spirit

California SHU Prisoner Hunger Strikes and the Promise of Rebirth


  • Angélica Camacho


In 2011 and 2013 California prisoners rose in protest of the conditions of confinement in Security Housing Units (SHU) and launched a series of hunger strikes that would disrupt business as usual for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). This article discusses the SHU prisoners’ resilient spirit and their refusal to exist within the confines of their isolated captivity and prison walls. Through Clyde Woods’s frameworks of “asset stripping” and “enclosures” I discuss how Pelican Bay, designed as a prison within a prison, can then be understood as an enclosure within an enclosure. I argue that the SHU was designed to fully strip incarcerated men of all assets and achieve incapacitation in order to eliminate any threat of prisoners’ collective organizational power. Despite the SHU’s highly developed forms of surveillance and psychological torture, many prisoners refused to concede and have their spirits broken. Instead, they relied on camaraderie to regenerate their spirit and build the communal power to resist carceral state violence.