- Created: Sunday, 07 August 2011 17:38
- Written by Nicki Jameson
On 1 July prisoners in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay state prison in California began an indefinite hunger strike. By the following week, at least 6,600 prisoners in 13 prisons across the state had joined the protest. On 15 July the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) responded to pressure from the prisoners and their supporters by commencing negotiations but these quickly broke down as it became clear that the CDCR was not interested in meeting any of the prisoners’ demands. As FRFI goes to press prisoners in Pelican Bay are understood to have ended the protest, having won some immediate concessions and the promise of a full review. In other prisons the hunger strike continues for now. Nicki Jameson reports.
Protest and struggle in prison
This year sees the 30th anniversary of the biggest and most powerful prison uprising to take place in the US. In the years since the revolutionary revolt at Attica prison in New York State was brought to an end by the murderous intervention of the National Guard on 13 September 1971, the national prison population has risen by over 700%, with conditions and treatment in some penitentiaries as bad as or worse than ever. The determination of prisoners to highlight abuse remains, but widespread and deliberate changes to prison architecture and regimes have ensured that the sort of mass uprising which took place at Attica is now virtually impossible; ‘super-max’ and control unit prisons are prevalent across the system and solitary confinement is used extensively.
This hunger strike was a last resort for prisoners who had exhausted all other attempts to bring their grievances to the attention of their captors. The prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU are clear that the conditions they are forced to endure amount to torture and that they had no other option. Earlier this year prisoners in Ohio, who participated in the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising (See FRFI 202 April/May 2008 http://tinyurl.com/3jr7l84) and who had been held in solitary confinement for 13 years, undertook a successful hunger strike. When the California prisoners announced their protest, Bomani Shakur of the Lucasville Five, wrote:
‘Ask anyone who has ever been on a hunger strike, and they will tell you that the process of intentionally starving oneself is a very painful ordeal. Typically speaking, it is a protracted form of suicide; taken too far, the body will shut down and die. And yet, there are places on this planet where the idea of death is preferable to continuing down a path that offers no hope or relief from suffering. I live in such a place; I know.
‘[Going on] hunger strike… was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. However, after countless appeals to reason had failed, and after coming to the end of all that we could do (law suits, grievances, petitions, etc) we made the decision to risk our very lives in order to bring about the necessary changes that would allow us to live as human beings. In the end, we stood firm, garnered world-wide support, and prevailed. Now prisoners in California… have decided to undertake a similar course of action. To them, I say: Bravo!’
Secure Housing Units are torture chambers
Cells in the Pelican Bay SHU measure eight feet by ten feet and are made from smooth concrete, with no windows. They have fluorescent lights which are kept on 24 hours a day and prisoners remain in their cells for at least 22 hours of every day, with meals delivered through a concrete slot in the steel door.
Prisoners are sent to the SHU either for fixed terms for breaking prison rules or for indefinite periods, because they have been ‘validated’ as ‘gang members’:
‘Courts of law do not sentence prisoners to the SHU. Rather, correctional administrators assign prisoners to the SHU… Jailhouse lawyers and political activists are disproportionately sent to the SHU. Although a gang validation finding is reviewed regularly and, by law, is not supposed to extend for more than six years, the prison’s gang unit inevitably comes up with “new evidence” to extend the validation finding. Prisoners who have been “validated” as gang members can escape the SHU if they “debrief.” To debrief is to provide prison officials with information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to the prisoner who debriefs, or to his family; conversely, prisoners are often falsely identified as gang members by prisoners who debrief in order to escape the inhumane conditions of the SHU.’ (‘A brief history of Pelican Bay’, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/)
Treatment of prisoners across California is notoriously appalling and courts have repeatedly found systemic abuse and, in particular, medical neglect. In 1995, following the Madrid v Gomez legal action on behalf of 3,600 Pelican Bay prisoners, federal district court judge Henderson found that prisoners had been subjected to excessive violence, cruel and unusual punishment, and substandard medical care. Henderson recorded myriad staff abuses and ordered numerous reforms, however he stopped short of declaring the physical structure of long-term solitary confinement unconstitutional and the ruling was largely ignored.
Support the prisoners!
The protesters raised five basic 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.
The SHU regime is so restrictive that the type of improvements demanded in relation to point five included such basic ‘privileges’ as:
• one photo per year
• a weekly phone call
• two packages per year
• wall calendars to be allowed in cells
• pull-up/dip bars on exercise yards
• access to correspondence courses with external examination.
The protest has been well organised and disciplined. Prior to embarking on it, the prisoners ensured they had back-up from an external support coalition, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, which has been co-ordinating solidarity demonstrations and publicity. Crucially, whilst the system focuses on gangs and division, central to the protest is the unity of all groups of prisoners. In a statement issued on 1 July, prisoners James Crowford and Mutop DuGuya write:
‘The CDCR uses every trick they can to force men into debriefing, including ever increasing levels of what can only be described at torture… It is this ever increasing attack that has forced us prisoners to put aside our historical differences in order to address the protracted attack on our lives and to expose the criminal activities and abuses against all indeterminate SHU prisoners in the state of California… This hunger strike will be carried on by all races, New Afrikans (Blacks), Mexicans (ie of all walks), whites and others who realize the we are silently being murdered by CDCR/CCPOAA Union as well as the US judicial system who have turned a blind eye while we suffer a civil death at the hands of profiteers.’
The California authorities tried to spread disinformation and limit the dissemination of publicity to break the protest and prevent support. There has been barely a mention of the hunger strike in the US national press. Despite this, there have been solidarity demonstrations across the US and Canada and, although their physical health deteriorated rapidly, the morale of the protesting prisoners remained high.
Support the California prisoners by insisting the CDCR agree to the five demands: Write to: Secretary Matthew Cate, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 1515 S Street, Sacramento 95814, USA. Tel: 001 916 323 6001 and Governor Jerry Brown, State Capitol, Suite 1173 Sacramento, CA 95814, USA. Tel: 00 1 916 445 2841.
For further information see: http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 222 August/September 2011