By CLAY WADENA
— OAKLAND, Calif. — An unprecedented protest against the deplorable conditions in California’s prisons has erupted from within the prison walls, as an initial 30,000 inmates went on hunger strike on July 8 for basic human rights such as ending indefinite solitary confinement. Estimates place this protest at three times the size of similar protests in 2011, and the largest in California’s history, with participation in two-thirds of California’s prisons. Three weeks into the strike one inmate associated with the hunger strike is dead; according to prisoner advocates he had been requesting medical aid for days prior to his death.
“[Governor Jerry Brown and prison officials] had a chance to negotiate, but have refused to discuss the situation at all,” a mediator on behalf of the prisoners said. “Obviously, the longer the strike continues, the chances increased that something like this was going to happen.”
The prisoners have issued “Five Core Demands” that include ending “group punishment” for rule violations by individuals; modifying the extremely broad criteria used to validate membership of prison and street organizations; ending long-term solitary confinement; adequate and nutritious food; and very modestly increasing the quality of life for inmates in indefinite solitary confinement (a fuller description can be viewed at prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com).
For the prisoners to organize this show of unity and solidarity in defense of their most basic needs and human rights, from inside the “belly of the beast” no less, is nothing short of miraculous and amazing. Prison administration ultimately relies on racism and prison organization affiliations to keep the prisoners divided; the prison body is easier to control for outnumbered prison personnel who are tasked with administering what amounts to modern-day slavery.
To address rampant racial division, prisoners at the notoriously horrible Pelican Bay prison issued a statement in late 2012 that called for racial unity in California prisons. In their “Agreement to End Hostilities” these inmate representatives stated, “All racial group hostilities need to be at an end.” Conscious that authority figures have historically undermined efforts toward peace in the streets and prisons, the statement notes that informants will attempt to “create chaos and reignite hostilities between our racial groups,” adding that “we can no longer play into … old manipulative divide and conquer tactics!!!”
Moments like this, of prisoner unity across racial or organizational lines, including Attica in 1971, Walpole in 1973, the Georgia inmate work strike in 2010, and hunger strikes in California in 2011 (among others) are very difficult for inmate organizers to achieve. These are special historical moments within prisoners’ attempts to grapple with the mighty beast of American racism in an environment that breeds prejudice, desperation, fear, and aggression.
The historic level of participation in the current California prisoner hunger strike is likely in part due to the statement and agreement made by inmates at Pelican Bay.
Gov. Brown’s blatant disregard of the issues presented by the prisoners—some of which are similar to those presented by the current hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay—was demonstrated when the governor took a vacation in the midst of the hunger strike. Authorities have totally refused to negotiate with the hunger strikers, instead issuing a memo to wardens to review the cases of 4500 inmates in isolation. According to Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton, that is only a clarification of current policy, not a negotiation or change in policy.
The demonization of the inmates in the press, and harassment, intimidation, and outright abuse all began as soon as the hunger strike began and continues for those inmates still participating today. This includes singling out strike leaders for increased punishment and pumping cold air onto hunger strikers.
According to officials like state corrections commissioner Jeffrey Beard (quoted in The New York Times), the hunger strike is only a demonstration by “prison gangs” of their power. The authorities would prefer to ignore the issues of human rights and indefinite solitary confinement. Amazingly, Beard even implied that the inmates were to blame for the lack of change in policy, saying that implementation of new policies on solitary confinement could be delayed by the hunger strike.
Despite prison officials and politicians’ routine enthusiasm for the California prison system and pending changes, including Governor Brown’s misinformed claim that the “prison crisis is over” months ago, one need not dig very deep to discover the system is an abhorrent failure by any measure. The state is essentially in defiance of a Supreme Court order to reduce the state prison population to 137% of capacity (as if 137% of capacity were somehow acceptable), after fighting the case tooth-and-nail before losing it.
Additionally, over 2600 inmates must be moved by court order in 90 days due to being housed in conditions that put them at risk for sickness and death from a fungal infection known as Valley Fever (18 have died already while hundreds are sick).
On top of over-crowding and deplorable health conditions, between 5000 and 14,000 inmates are held in conditions of “extreme isolation” across the state. United Nations expert on torture Juan Méndez stated in October 2011 that solitary confinement past 15 days should be absolutely banned, citing scientific studies that lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of isolation. Meanwhile some California prisoners have exceeded 30 years of what Méndez stated amounts to torture.
Even compromised judges in the capitalist courts have been exasperated when confronted with California’s refusal to confront the prison crisis. The New York Times reported that when requested by the state to dismiss a case related to unconstitutional conditions in the prison-based mental health facilities, federal judge Lawrence Karlton wrote that the state’s motion “takes on the character of a condition in which the defendants [the state of California] have simply divorced themselves from reality.”
Certainly, very little can be expected of a state administration that has been so resistant to change. But for California’s prison inmates, who have seen the reforms they were promised after protests in 2011 basically evaporate, there were few other options. It is no wonder, and no mark against the inmates’ determination, that participation in the third week has dwindled to less than 2000 inmates. It was announced early on that the penalty for participation would be disciplinary violations that would threaten parole in the future, a very heavy price to pay for a non-violent protest against human rights violations.
The Corrections Department will punish hunger strikers because “mass hunger strikes, work stoppages, and other disruptions have the potential to impact programs, operations, staffing, safety, and security,” according to a statement from them. It seems that prison officials would prefer that in the face of such cruel and inhumane punishment the prisoners do nothing at all, or that which didn’t dare to cause “disruptions.”
Activists and concerned people everywhere are being asked by prisoners and advocates to hold events in solidarity with the prisoners, as has already been done in several cities. At the website noted above there is a list of upcoming protest actions. It is important that prisoners’ efforts at creating racial unity and fighting the extreme conditions within mass incarceration be supported by individuals on “the outside.”
Few sectors of the population are in as disadvantaged a position to get their message out and have their voice heard as inmates. Supporting prisoner-initiated protest actions is vital to increasing the links between prison inmates and the community that are necessary to building a movement capable of ending mass incarceration.
California prison hunger strikers issued the following statement on July 23:
Greetings of solidarity and respect to all of our supporters, all people of conscience around the world, and all similarly situated prisoners. You should know that once again our peaceful protest is making history, bringing international attention to our collective efforts to bring an end, once and for all, to the inhumane conditions and torture of indefinite solitary confinement.
We are being tortured each day by state officials (Governor Brown, his appointee CDCR Secretary Beard, and all his underlings). Increased retaliation has been perpetuated upon defenseless and starving prisoners who only seek what any human being strives for humane treatment, dignity, equality, and justice for our families, loved ones, and ourselves. These are the fundamental rights of all people, including those incarcerated by the state.
We are doing all we can, together with our outside supporters, to bring about a positive changes. Gov. Brown is not above the will of the people of California, and if he refuses to recognize the legitimacy of our human and civil rights struggle against the practices of this prison system, then it is the responsibility of the federal government and President Obama to use their powers to stop the harm being done to thousands of prisoners being held in solitary confinement.
CDCR officials are attempting to undermine the voluntary actions of prisoners who truly want better treatment and living conditions by wrongfully accusing us of forcing tens-of-thousands of prisoners across California, along with our supporters in the free world, to participate in our protest. Prisoners across the state are participating because of the inhumane conditions they are being subjected to.
As HUMAN BEINGS, prisoners are collectively resisting such treatment, and they are doing so peacefully. The attempted repression of our protest has not broken our spirits. In fact it has only helped to strengthen each of us—individually and collectively.
Despite CDCR’s retaliations and propaganda, we remain steadfast in our commitment. We will see our peaceful hunger strike through to victory, even if this requires us to endure the torture of force-feeding. We believe at this point in our struggle we are prepared to do what is necessary in order for Gov. Brown and the CDCR to realize how serious we are, and how far and long we are willing to go to have our reasonable demands implemented.
We are hopeful that all those brave men and women across the state who are participating in this strike—all who are able health-wise—will be encouraged to issue public statements of their own, via media outlets across the country, letting the world know why they have taken part in this historic, collective struggle.
In closing, we want to inform the world that this hunger strike is far from over. We are in it for the long haul. Thus, we strongly urge Gov. Brown to return from his “get-away” vacation overseas and deal urgently with this crisis before more prisoners suffer serious health damage or death. If any deaths do occur, the responsibility for them will fall squarely on Brown and the CDCR in their callousness and inaction.
We believe that we will prevail.
PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Representatives:
• Todd Ashker, C-58191, PBSP-SHU, D4-121
• Arturo Castellanos, C-17275, PBSP-SHU, D1-121
• Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671, PBSP-SHU,D1-117
• Antonio Guillen, P-81948, PBSP-SHU, D2-106