SAN FRANCISCO—In the spring of 2011, prisoners inside Northern California’s Pelican Bay State Prison contacted Bay Area prisoners’ rights and prison abolition organizations and requested support for an indefinite rolling hunger strike against 20-40 years of mental and physical torture. The strike would begin July 1.
The hunger strike organizers included 50-100 men in the prison’s notorious solitary confinement area, also known as the SHU, or Security Housing Unit. They reached beyond the prison’s carefully manufactured racial, generational, and geographical boundaries, and organized themselves around five basic core demands.
The hunger strikers asked that the organizations on the outside form a coalition that would amplify their voices from the inside. Responding to this request, groups such as Critical Resistance, California Prison Focus, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and All of Us or None joined forces to form the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition. The group moved into action quickly, putting forth the five core demands:
1) Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
2) Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to long-term isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
3) Comply with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than 30 years.
4) Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities.”
Currently, these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).
As America was planning its July 4th celebrations, the hunger strikers began their act of resistance against torture in America. To the state of California’s dismay, solidarity rallies sprung up in cities around the world. And by the state’s estimates, at least 6600 people in 13 prisons around California engaged in a one-day hunger strike on July 1 to express their support. Activists pointed out, however, that the California Department of Corrections has a long history of dishonesty, and that the number was much likely in the tens of thousands.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners fasted for an extended period of time. Stories slowly began spilling out of various prisons—such as Corcoran, Valley State Prison for Women, and Calipatria—about people who, despite having never met the men in Pelican Bay, stopped consuming food and water for weeks to support the struggle.
Innocent San Quentin death-row inmate Kevin Cooper joined the one-day solidarity fast on July 1 and made his opinion and spirit of resistance clear in an interview with the San Francisco BayView newspaper. Cooper said, “I’m behind the strike. If that comes back to haunt me somewhere down the line in the criminal justice system, so be it.”
Hugo Pinell, who was a close comrade of the late George Jackson, and has been in Pelican Bay’s SHU since 1990, joined the hunger strike. Political Prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal issued a recorded statement entitled, “Dying for Sunlight,” referring to the prisoners’ demand for precious time outside of the SHU’s 8×10 concrete, soundproof cells.
A national day of action was called by the coalition for July 9. In San Francisco, a rally of over 250 supporters was joined by an ANSWER-led Libya solidarity rally. The antiwar activists marched from their rally point to the hunger strike demonstration, chanting against state torture and linking the wars abroad to the war at home.
Support rallies and banner drops were organized in Oakland, Chicago, New York, Montreal, Los Angeles, Raleigh, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and countless other cities. Supporters organized buses and traveled from all over California to deliver to the CDCR 7500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers.
However, prison officials refused to recognize the five core demands and would not begin negotiations. For the hunger strikers, days without food turned into weeks.
A source with access to medical conditions in the prison stated: “The prisoners are progressing rapidly to the organ-damaging consequences of dehydration. They are not drinking water and have decompensated rapidly. A few have tried to sip water but are so sick that they are vomiting it back up. Some are in renal failure and have been unable to make urine for 3 days. Some are having measured blood sugars in the 30 range, which can be fatal if not treated.”
The crisis deepened when the prison began withholding life-saving medications from the hunger strikers. The state also transferred at least 17 of the men at Pelican Bay to Corcoran for supposed medical reasons. They neglected to mention, however, that Corcoran had received the clearance to begin force-feeding the hunger strikers. Luckily, none of the prisoners were subjected to that horrific process.
On July 16, with the world watching, the CDCR presented the Pelican Bay hunger strikers a proposal in the form of a vague statement that it would review its existing policies about the SHU, but it promised no changes. The prisoners unanimously rejected the proposal and continued refusing food.
On the evening of July 20, however, the hunger strikers came to an agreement with the CDCR and called off the hunger strike. The prisoners explained in a letter to supporters that the CDCR had “agreed to accede to a few small requests immediately, as a tangible good faith gesture in support of their assurance that all of our other issues will receive real attention, with meaningful changes being implemented over time.
“They made it clear: such changes would not happen over night, nor would they be made in response to a hunger strike going on.”
They explained that the hunger strike at Pelican Bay may be over, but the struggle to end torturous SHU conditions is only beginning! It is clear to everyone involved that, although the hunger strikers did win some gains and managed to increase international scrutiny into America’s dungeons, the CDCR did not admit to committing acts of torture, and it will take an army of activists to force real change.
At the time of this writing, the hunger strikers are beginning to recover. Many cannot eat on their own, and supporters are learning of possible serious illnesses brought on by the severe malnutrition, dramatic weight loss, and dehydration. Further, supporters around the state are unclear on whether or not prisoners are continuing the strike at other prisons. There has been some mention of prisoners at Corcoran and Tehachapi, but supporters do not have confirmation.
With direction from the hunger-strike leaders, the coalition and supporters around the country are focusing on the next step, which will be to mobilize forces for Aug. 23, where a hearing on the SHU at Pelican Bay will be held by the Public Safety Committee of the CA State Assembly in Sacramento. Many supporters are focusing on coordinating (inter)national days of action leading up to the legislative hearing periodically throughout the next few weeks.
Those who are interested in coordinating an action in their own city should contact the coalition, who can help to put you in touch with other supporters. The coalition can be reached at email@example.com or (510) 444-0484, http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.
> The article above was written by Rebecca Doran, and first appeared in the August 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.