- Created: Thursday, 08 August 2013 16:09
- Written by Nicki Jameson
‘We have taken up this hunger strike and work stoppage, which has included 30,000 prisoners so far, not only to improve our own conditions but also as an act of solidarity with prisoners and oppressed people around the world.’
Pelican Bay SHU protest leaders, 10 July 2013
On 8 July 2013, prisoners across California began an indefinite hunger strike against the appalling conditions in the state prisons’ Special Housing Units (SHUs). The SHUs are solitary confinement units where prisoners can be detained for years on end. There are four prisons in California with SHUs: Corcoran, Pelican Bay and Tehachapi for men and Valley State Prison for women. As we go to press, three weeks after the protest began, several thousand prisoners are still refusing food, despite repeated attempts by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to break the strike, by such actions as threatening all prisoners involved in the protest with disciplinary proceedings, moving 14 supposed hunger strike leaders from the Pelican Bay SHU to the even more restrictive Administrative Segregation, confiscating legal papers, forcing cold air into the cells of striking prisoners and piling sandbags in front of their doors.
The protest was well planned and has the support of other prisoners across California and beyond, as well as a lot of support from outside activist groups in the US. Mainstream media coverage has, however, been minimal, as all the pro-government TV channels focus on ‘atrocities’ abroad, while ignoring those in their own backyard.
The protesters are organised around Five Core Demands:
1. End group punishment and administrative abuse.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the US commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.
5. Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.
These are the exact same demands around which California prisoners organised in 2011. The protest then led to negotiations between prisoners’ representatives and the CDCR. However, it immediately became apparent that the authorities were not prepared to give any ground. Since then prisoners’ representatives have tried repeatedly to arrive at a mediated settlement. On every occasion the CDCR has been completely intransigent and the prisoners felt that they were left with no alternative but to embark on a further protest.
Solitary confinement is torture
More than 500 of Pelican Bay’s SHU inmates have been held in solitary confinement in windowless cells for over ten years. Around 80 have been in solitary for more than 20 years.
In May 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a class action lawsuit against the state of California for its use of prolonged solitary confinement in Pelican Bay prison. The case (Ruiz et al v Brown et al) challenged prolonged solitary confinement and deprivation of due process, based on the rights guaranteed under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, which say that no one should be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and that everyone is entitled to the due process of law.
The effects of prolonged solitary confinement have been well documented by many experts. To quote just one example:
‘Those thousands held in solitary for years on end report the expected classic symptoms of psychic disturbance, mental deterioration and social disruption. As described by various penal psychiatric experts, the symptoms of this syndrome include massive free-floating anxiety, hyper-responsiveness to external stimuli, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, a feeling of unreality, difficulty with concentration and memory, acute confusional states, the emergence of primitive aggressive fantasies, persecutory ideation, motor excitement, and violent destructive or self-mutilatory outbursts…Isolation tears apart family and friendship ties creating social dislocation.’ Dr Corey Weinstein, 2009
Gang status and the debriefing policy
Over half the men held in solitary confinement in the California SHUs are there because of ‘gang validation’, ie because the prison authorities have determined that they belong to a gang. Evidence of ‘gang membership’ can be pretty much anything, including a tattoo, a chance conversation with someone already perceived to be in a gang, or the word of another prisoner, himself trading this information for a passage out of the SHU.
Indeed the whole system is Kafkaesque – prisoners are sent to solitary because someone says they belong to a gang; they can only get out if they ‘debrief’, ie if they: a) accept that this is true; b) name other gang members. Even if all the original ‘validations’ were accurate, this would be a highly punitive system, with a huge possibility of prisoners providing false testimony in order to secure their way out. Given that the ‘gang’ label is frequently wrongly applied in the first place, it is unlikely that any of the information provided by those debriefing is in any way reliable
This is, of course, not the point. The CDCR is not concerned with eliminating gangs so much as demonising and dehumanising prisoners. Black and Hispanic prisoners are particularly likely to be ‘gang validated’, as is any prisoner who is perceived, even in the most minor way to organise resistance to the system. At a 400-strong demonstration outside Corcoran prison on the sixth day of the hunger strike, Danny Murillo, who spent seven years in solitary in California prisons, told the crowd:
‘I have witnessed numerous individuals, primarily Latino and Black inmates, being targeted because they hold in their possession drawings of Aztec, Mayan, or other indigenous cultures, or for having books by Malcolm X or George Jackson. What this policy says to me is that the culture, heritage, the memory of your ancestors and your political identity are a violation of CDCR regulations and because of this violation you can be placed in solitary confinement in a cell for 22½ hours per day for the duration of your sentence, which could range from a couple of months to the rest of your life.’
FRFI salutes the struggle of the California prisoners and encourages readers and supporters to send solidarity messages to the prisoners. Those leading the action at Pelican Bay are:
Todd Ashker C-58191 Paul Redd B-72683
Sitawa N Jamaa (Dewberry) C-35671 Alfred Sandoval D-61000
Antonio Guillen P-81948 Danny Troxell B-76578
Lewis Powell B-59864 James Williamson D-34288
Ronnie Yandell V-27927
The address is PBSP, PO Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532, USA.
Sign the petition in support of the Five Core Demands here: http://tinyurl.com/k5khbdq
Daily updates on the protest and on national and international solidarity can be found at: prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com and solitarywatch.com
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013