Taeva Shefler and Kim Rohrbach
Jorge Gomez spent over a decade in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) at the time of California’s historic 2013 Prisoner Hunger Strike. Launched in early July 2013, the strike was to protest torturous and inhumane conditions at Pelican Bay’s SHU and at other isolation/segregation units throughout the state. Over 30,000-plus incarcerated persons participated at its height, with many refusing food for as long as two months. In the early days of the 2013 Prisoner Hunger Strike, Mr. Gomez refused up to twelve consecutive meals. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) struck back, on July 16, 2013, by issuing him a Rules Violation Report (CDC 115). Hundreds, if not thousands, of other prisoners also received 115s for their participation in the strike.
Understanding that a 115 on his record revoked good time credits, could have kept him in the SHU longer, and affected his future chances of parole, Gomez challenged the disciplinary report through Pelican Bay’s extensive appeals process and into state court. On March 25, 2016, in an unpublished decision, the California Court of Appeals ruled that Gomez was not guilty of a rules violation for having refusing meals during the strike, finding that the peaceful refusal of food did not present “some evidence” of an act that “might lead to violence or disorder, or otherwise endanger facility, outside community or another person.” In re Gomez, Case No. A142470 (CA 1st App. Dist.). The court ordered CDCR to revoke the 115 from his file and restore the 90 days of good time credit that were taken pursuant to the disciplinary report.
While this represented a clear victory for Gomez, the fact that the court did not publish the decision prohibited other prisoners from relying on this holding in their own lawsuits on this issue. Finding this an unjust result, and in keeping with our commitment to act in solidarity with jailhouse lawyers, Taeva Shefler, on behalf of the NLG’s Police and Prisons Committee, petitioned the court to publish the decision. Carol Strickman, another member of the P&P Committee, also petitioned the court on behalf of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children and the litigation team in Ashker v. Brown (the federal class action challenging the practice of long term isolation at Pelican Bay’s SHU). Despite opposition filed by the Attorney General’s office, on April 15, 2016, the court agreed to publish the decision.
Publication of the opinion renders it citable as authority under California law. There is the possibility that the state will appeal this decision to the California Supreme Court; yet, should the opinion and its publication stand, it will now assist countless prisoners who received disciplinary reports in connection with their participation in the 2013 Prisoner Hunger Strike. This is a victory for the NLG, but moreover for jailhouse lawyers around the state in their struggle against the unchecked power of CDCR and for their basic right to refuse food as a form of protest.