by Laura Magnani
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n estimated 30,000 prisoners throughout the California prison system joined the statewide hunger strike to protest the conditions of solitary confinement. The hunger strike stretched into 60 days, ending on September 5, 2013, with about 40 prisoners having gone without solid food for the duration, and tens of thousands more refusing to eat some meals in resistance to inhumane prison conditons. It was the third such hunger strike since 2011.
The “representatives” of the four prisoner groups at Pelican Bay State Prison issued a statement about their decision to suspend the strike on September 5, 2013, during its ninth week. The prisoners declared that even though their strike was being suspended for the time being, their nonviolent protest to the torturous conditions of indefinite solitary confinement in California’s prisons would continue.
The Pelican Bay State Prison Short Corridor Collective stated:
“To be clear, our Peaceful Protest of Resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system’s solitary confinement units is far from over. Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met (despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable). The core group of prisoners has been, and remains 100% committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice. With that said, we clarify this point by stating prisoner deaths are not the objective, we recognize such sacrifice is at times the only means to an end of fascist oppression…”
The prisoners announced that they were proceeding with their class action lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and expressed gratitude to State Senator Loni Hancock and Assembly Member Tom Ammiano “for their courageous decision to challenge Governor Brown and the CDCR for their policies of prolonged solitary confinement and inhumane conditions.”
The prisoners concluded their statement by pledging their ongoing commitment to the struggle ahead: “Our resistance will continue to build and grow until we have won our human rights.”
Mediation Team speaks out
Similarly, the Mediation Team that had been working with the prisoners and attempting to keep communications open between the prisoners and the Department of Corrections, issued its own statement at the end of the strike.
“This hunger strike is historic on many levels: the number of prisoners who went without food; the international media attention; and the impressive mobilization of groups on the outside who published in-depth analyses, organized demonstrations, worked with the media, and promoted the prisoners’ demands and their Agreement to End Hostilities. Coupled with the lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights and other attorneys, this peaceful protest was a tremendously courageous effort that has the potential of securing real change in California’s practices related to solitary confinement.”
As one of the members of the Mediation Team, I want to add to this sense of history that all three hunger strikes represented. Not only were the numbers unprecedented, but it is truly amazing that prisoners who have been isolated for decades, and labeled “the worst of the worst,” found a way to agree on a profound nonviolent strategy, worked across four of the so-called “gang groups” to reach consensus, and then willingly accepted the suffering that refusing food for such a long period requires.
During the last days of the strike, the Mediation Team was able to organize a phone call between the four “representatives” at Pelican Bay State Prison, top CDCR officials, and the mediators, to see if agreement could be found. Even then, CDCR officials continued to refuse to negotiate, and persisted in saying that the four prisoner representatives were the “shot callers,” and they were just telling all other prisoners what to do.
But the prisoners themselves, in trying to decide what course of action to take, asked for an opportunity to meet with the broader group of reps to talk about resolution. One such meeting happened at Pelican Bay itself, and then a call was arranged between the four reps and five others who had been transferred to New Folsom Prison for medical reasons. In both meetings there was push back and disagreement. Michael Stainer, Director of Adult Institutions, was able to observe the exchanges and the way that they reached agreement.
Then, on the week of September 23, as promised, Stainer went to Pelican Bay to sit down with these men and talk about all of their demands. All of these actions are unprecedented, and could be encouraging signs of change. Certainly, they testify to the courage of the prisoners, their creativity and their commitment to a cause much larger than themselves.
In addition to the talks between prisoners and state officials, the first Joint Legislative Hearing on solitary confinement was held on October 9, 2013, in Sacramento. Strong testimony was presented by experts, formerly incarcerated people, and family members about the effects of solitary confinement. The committee room was full to capacity and many legislative staff members also listened by radio. To see a five-minute version of what took place, go to Youtube at: “SACRAMENTO: ABOLISH THE SHU TODAY!” (CA legislative hearing). Or see the entire hearing at the California channel at Calchannel.com/recent-archive.
The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition has formed a legislative subcommittee which is following up with legislators, and helping to organize future hearings and proposing new legislation.
UN Rapporteur on Torture
On October 18, 2013, Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, visited California and spoke in Los Angeles and at UC Berkeley about his concerns about California’s use of solitary confinement. Both events were well attended and allowed Professor Mendez an opportunity to hear the stories of survivors of solitary and their family members. Mendez has asked the U.S. State Department to invite him into California prisons so he can investigate the issue, but is still awaiting an answer.
The underlying issues that the Department of Corrections cites as the primary justification for these isolation units — namely, the widespread existence of gangs in prisons and on the streets — was also addressed by the prisoners themselves in their Call to End Hostilities in 2012. [See the October, 2012, issue of Street Spirit at www.thestreetspirit.net.]
It is difficult to know what the impact of this call has been, and the CDCR seems to be determined not to publicize it or give it any credit for reducing violence, which mimics law enforcement responses to other gang truce efforts. But we believe it has made a difference and could do more if opportunities opened up for real communication between these groups.
The biggest concern in the aftermath of the strike is retaliation at the hands of the Department of Corrections. We have heard many reports of individual guards making life miserable for people who went on hunger strike and we know that the system is issuing disciplinary write-ups (115s) to everyone who participated, which could result in longer periods of isolation and postponed parole dates for people eligible for release.
This will cost the state millions of dollars to carry out this punishment for a nonviolent action which literally is the only option available to people held in these conditions. Readers are urged to write to their legislators and demand that these write-ups be rescinded and that nonviolent action not be treated as a “disturbance” by prison officials.
Prisoners’ eloquent message on human rights and dignity
On October 9, 2013, the prisoners released a “Message to the Legislators and Our Supporters.” The message declared, in uncompromising words of continued resistance, that they would not retreat from their historic struggle for human rights, dignity and justice.
The message was eloquent and deeply moving and bears quoting at length:
“No matter how often the Department of Corrections repeats the lie that solitary confinement is not used in California, our decades of existence in these concrete tombs, isolated and alone, will stand as a testament to the truth. No matter how many times the Department of Corrections tries to justify our suffering and dehumanization through character assassination and dirty political games, the whole world will watch and bear witness as we continue to show our unity by fighting for human rights in the most virtuous and honorable ways possible.
“This next phase of the struggle will require the power of the people more than ever. We have to work with, and urge our representatives in the legislature to ensure that the following changes are made in the interest of imprisoned people, their loved ones, their communities — in the interests of humanity.
“We must put an end to solitary confinement. There is no place for indefinite solitary confinement in a civilized society. Human beings should not be treated like this. Isolation and Administrative Segregation must only be used as a last resort. Right now we have thousands of people who are isolated in California prisons as a first resort to any problem; from lack of appropriate bed space, to mental health issues, to misconduct, to alleged gang affiliation. These practices have been damaging and destructive to the people who have had to endure them (us prisoners) as well as the entire prison system, the communities outside these prison walls and the state’s economy. Enough is enough.
“We must also ensure that all prisoners, including those who are in isolation, have regular and meaningful contact with their families and loved ones. Allowing prisoners to maintain healthy relationships with other human beings is essential for safer prisons and a better world. It is undisputed that prisoners who have regular contact with their families and loved ones in a way that fosters meaningful relationships do better while they are in prison and recidivate less often. Preventing fathers and mothers from hugging their children or sons and daughters from speaking with their parents and loved ones does not serve any legitimate purpose.”
“We cannot allow the Department of Corrections to continue treating human beings this way. We need our legislative leaders to take a moral and political stand for human rights and let the Department of Corrections know that torture will not be tolerated here. Take a stand right now. Don’t wait. There have been multiple internal policy reforms within the Department of Corrections, but no substantive changes to our conditions. Many of us suffer now just as we did in 1989 when Pelican Bay first opened and just as we did in 2002 when the first Pelican Bay Hunger Strike happened. That strike was only called off when legislators vowed to get involved. And here we are again in 2013.
“We cannot ignore the urgency of this moment. Let there be no illusions about the difficulty of making these changes, but they are necessary and inevitable. The opportunity is here, it is up to us to seize it so that we and those that come after us do not end up here again.”
The Pelican Bay Short Corridor Representatives