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by Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or most people, it is nearly impossible to imagine what it is like to be held in permanent solitary confinement, with no contact with other prisoners, and only minimal contact with guards through a slot in the solid metal door of a prison cell.
Yet, in these conditions of extreme isolation, prisoners joined together to organize a hunger strike that spread from Pelican Bay State Prison to 13 other California prisons, ultimately inspiring more than 6,600 prisoners to join a hunger strike of historic magnitude.
Not only did prisoners at Pelican Bay “come together” to choose a nonviolent strategy and agree on concrete, reasonable demands, they also managed to work across all the racial identity groups within the prison system. They formed a leadership team that consisted of three Anglos, four New Afrikans, two people identified with the Norteños, and two identified with Sureños. These alleged gang members are considered sworn enemies.
It was unimaginable until I remembered an earlier experience with the prison grapevine. I had organized a one-man art show of the work of Jay Siripongs, a Thai national who was scheduled to be executed by the state of California. He did wonderful, life-affirming portraits that told the story of a talented, sensitive man, a human being who was much more than the single conviction that landed him on death row.
I had never met Jay, and only managed to gather his artwork through word of mouth among lawyers and other contacts. In the days leading up to the exhibit’s opening, I happened to be visiting another person on death row and Jay heard I was coming, even before I arrived. He was standing to greet me as I entered the room full of individual visiting cages. We slid our hands through an opening at the corner of his cage for our one and only encounter.
Concrete walls and iron bars cannot prevent all forms of human contact. The artistic creativity of Jay Siripongs — and the self-sacrificing commitment of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers — can sometimes scale the prison walls.
On July 1, 2011, prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif., went on an indefinite hunger strike to call attention to the conditions they live under in the “Security Housing Unit” (SHU). This SHU, and three others like it in the state, houses people in long-term isolation for years, often decades on end.
Buried alive in concrete
In individual cells dug into the hillside, 1200 people at Pelican Bay are literally buried alive in concrete tombs that measure eight feet by ten feet. Except for an hour of solitary exercise each day in a small cement yard, called a “dog run,” prisoners are held in such a stark condition of sensory deprivation that it amounts to torture under United Nations standards.
Prisoners are caged in windowless, concrete cells for 22.5 hours a day, with fluorescent lights on all day. They are denied natural sunlight for years on end, and are also deprived of human contact. The only sight a prisoner sees beyond the concrete walls of a cramped, claustrophobic cell is a view through a slot in the steel door at a nearby solid concrete wall.
A growing body of research has documented that prisoners sentenced to long-term stretches in these “supermax” prisons are deeply traumatized by the sensory deprivation and near-total isolation. Many experience depression, panic attacks, memory loss, anxiety, hallucinations and various kinds of mental illness.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Friends Service Committee, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture have denounced the inhumanity of prolonged solitary confinement and have called on people of faith to resist the oppressive conditions of Security Housing Units in the prison system.
Most prisoners are sent to the SHU because of alleged gang affiliation. The conditions under which they live and the issues surrounding these facilities is described in a publication of the AFSC, Buried Alive: Long Term Isolation in California’s Youth and Adult Prisons.
Revered nonviolent technique
Hunger strikes have a long and revered history among nonviolent activists. The fact that these alleged gang leaders chose a nonviolent action, and worked across all gang groups to reach agreement on the demands, should be cause for celebration, rather than the dismissive and disrespecting tone that has characterized responses from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
CDCR public affairs representative, Terry Thornton, was quoted in the New York Times on July 7 as saying: “That so many inmates in other prisons throughout the state are involved really demonstrates how these gangs can influence other inmates, which is one of the reasons we have security housing units in the first place.” Would they be respected if they made their voices heard ineffectively?
Whether we look at the Irish prisoners’ historic hunger strike in 1981 that took the life of Bobby Sands and nine other strikers seeking recognition as political prisoners, or the six-day strike of Nelson Mandela that resulted in visitation rights for prisoners’ children, or the hunger strikes carried out by jailed suffragettes fasting to demand the right to vote prior to World War I, prisoners have adopted this tactic to draw attention to their conditions. The challenge to a society facing these actions is how to respond.
Such icons of nonviolence as Mohandas Gandhi and Cesar Chavez regularly employed the hunger strike to dramatize their issues. It is widely believed that Chavez permanently compromised his health as a result, perhaps hastening his early death.
Although hunger strikers throughout history have differed in their theories about when this extremely serious and even life-threatening method was appropriate, the decision to take such action always revolves around its ability to animate the moral sensibilities of an opponent.
So we come again to the question of how state officials will respond. When the cooperation and commitment demonstrated by a hunger strike is perceived by state officials only as a “disturbance,” or a negative form of leadership, it is hard to imagine what paths are left to people trying to call attention to their plight.
The five demands issued by the prisoners were not unreasonable:
1. Individual Accountability
End CDCR’s use of “group punishments” — the loss of privileges for entire yards, or for all prisoners of an ethnic group — for rule violations by a single prisoner, or a few.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify gang status criteria
Racial profiling via gang affiliation labels are imposed by CDCR staff, without judicial review. Such a “gang status” label will punish a prisoner in solitary for years, from which he can escape only by “debriefing” — snitching on other alleged gang members — or by dying or paroling.
3. Comply with U.S. Commission recommendations on an end to long-term solitary confinement
This would require using isolation only as a last resort, ensuring prisoners have access to natural light and meaningful activities, and are free of physical deprivations that cause lasting harm.
4. Provide adequate food
Cease the practice of denying adequate food, as a form of punishment. Make sure food is uncontaminated and unspoiled.
5. Provide constructive programs and privileges for SHU inmates
Pelican Bay SHU is one of the harshest punitive environments in the country. Strikers simply want their everyday lives to be put on par with other SHU units around the country
Mediating the conflict
When the prisoners decided upon their action and the demands of their hunger strile, they immediately reached out to outside organizations for support — allowing months of lead time for solidarity to build. A robust coalition formed that involved groups that had followed issues of isolation for years: California Prison Focus (CPF). Prisoner Activist Resource Center (PARC) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), as well as close allies like Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, and newer activists who had recently protested gang injunctions in Oakland.
Regular visits to Pelican Bay were organized — no easy task since the prison is a seven-hour drive from the Bay Area, near the Oregon border. A press team was appointed. Demonstrations were organized, materials prepared, prisoner families and formerly incarcerated men and women were consulted and involved.
A mediation team was also selected, and presented to leaders of the strike for approval, so that once the strike began, certain people would take on the job of talking to the CDCR, making suggestions for ways to address the demands, and bringing information back to the strikers.
As a member of that team, I had a front-row seat on what could not really be characterized as “mediation,” but something more akin to union negotiations where ideas are floated. We did not feel it was our role to negotiate for the prisoners, but to take back to them “offers” that they could accept or reject.
Although the Department of Corrections reached out to the mediation team as soon as the strike began, they insisted that they would not “negotiate with prisoners.” Neither would they give the mediators access to the prisoners directly — other than the legal one-on-one visits that were already under way.
UN definition of torture
There was clear disagreement between the officials and us, especially around the issue of torture. Torture is clearly defined by the United Nations. Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment describes torture in this way:
“For the purposes of this Convention, the term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person… a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is indicated by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity…”
In addition, Article 2 states:
“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
The use of security housing units in Pelican Bay clearly violates this UN convention, because these units are largely a tool to intimidate, extract information, and discriminate — often for third party “offenses.” Despite this clear violation, we were unable to reach any agreement on these facts. Neither was there a shared understanding of the imbalance of power between the Department of Correction and the imprisoned hunger strikers.
Dorsey Nunn, a member of the mediation team and the executive director of Legal Service for Prisoners with Children, put it eloquently: “It was like having a 200-pound animal in the room and being expected to dance with it.”
Eventually, at our third session, CDCR officials began discussing the actual demands and hearing our ideas for ways to implement badly needed changes in the prison. The core issues were always seen as “group punishment,” gang identification, “debriefing” practices, and the conditions of confinement. But it became clear that no solid proposals would be forthcoming from the CDCR on these practices. Small concessions about knit caps and wall calendars were granted as good-faith gestures.
After the second week, telephone calls were allowed between attorneys on the team and four strike leaders — one from each of the ethnic groups. Eventually the prisoners did meet face to face with the department official and reached an agreement, which was later verified by our attorneys on another phone call.
For the prisoners’ rights movement it is a clear victory. The strike itself was historic in terms of the numbers of participants — estimated at 6,600 at its height, in approximately 13 prisons, and hundreds were still refusing food as the action reached its 21st day. Many prisoners in prisons around the world, and many people on the outside, fasted in solidarity. People who had never known that tens of thousands are held in permanent isolation, were reached. The movement to end long-term solitary confinement was revitalized.
Now the real work begins. The mediation team has been reconstituted as a monitoring team, at the request of the prisoners. Pelican Bay prisoners have been promised a follow-up meeting with the Department of Corrections in the near future. Legislators are planning to hold hearings on conditions and are promising to look into why previous studies on the same issues were never made public or implemented.
California, facing a multibillion-dollar deficit that is starving schools, people on fixed incomes, public parks and basic services, cannot afford its over-reliance on mass incarceration. This hunger strike has increased pressure on prison officials to change these costly and cruel practices.
Torture is practiced as a matter of policy in the prisons, and this must change. Using the only weapon they have — their nonviolent protest to prod the conscience of the public and the government — prisoners are showing the way.
Laura Magnani is interim regional director of the AFSC, Pacific Mountain Region and author, with Harmon Wray, of Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System and Buried Alive: Long Term Isolation in California’s Prisons.