Left Coasting : Hunger for Justice

California’s prison inmates go on hunger strike for better conditions

by Rosalea Barker

In Article 1 of the California Constitution—the Declaration of Rights—Section 17 states explicitly: “Cruel or unusual punishment may not be inflicted or excessive fines imposed.” Is it cruel to confine prison inmates to solitary confinement? How about for years on end, sent there perhaps solely on the basis of someone saying you have gang associations? (A statement they might have made just to get out of solitary confinement themselves.)

Back in 2008, the American Friends Service Committee posted this short video about the effects of solitary confinement, which is a commonly used tool in US prisons, with 200,000 prisoners in solitary on any given day:

Link: http://youtu.be/qEs3BQ0znAs

It is part of the Friends campaign “to stop torture in prison”, which you can read about at www.stopmax.org. Not surprisingly, when prisoners at California’s Pelican Bay supermax went on a hunger strike in July, the AFSC was one of the organizations providing support. The hunger strike expanded to more than 6,600 prisoners at 13 prisons across the state, and created a lot of media interest. A couple of weeks into the hunger strike, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation administrators said the strike was over, declaring in a July 21 press release that:

“They stopped the strike on July 20 after they better understood CDCR’s plans, developed since January, to review and change some policies regarding SHU housing and gang management. These changes, to date, include providing cold-weather caps, wall calendars and some educational opportunities for SHU inmates.” (SHU stands for Secure Housing Unit, one of the many names solitary confinement cellblocks go by in the United States.)

The prisoners’ representatives had a different view of the matter. They were just suspending the strike to give the CDCR time to come back with the details of how it would address their five core demands. A month later, the administrators met with the prisoners’ representatives again, but didn’t provide anything on paper. In the meantime, the CDCR invited media to tour Pelican Bay, a visit that is described in the last segment of this August 19 episode of KQED’s This Week in Northern California. (Begins at about 8:40.) The reporter who describes that visit, Michael Montgomery, also filed a radio report of the media tour here. Media weren’t given access to anyone participating in the hunger strike.

On August 23, at a California Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing, Scott Kernan, CDCR Undersecretary, Operations, stated: “We believe that the current process, which targets six prison gangs, needs to be modified, and what we really need to do is identify security threat groups. I do admit that our policies target just the prison gangs today, and we’re not capturing the inmates that perhaps should be segregated from our population…”

The prisoners’ representatives were naturally alarmed that instead of reducing the SHU population, the CDCR was intent on increasing it, especially since “security threat groups” could be construed to mean anyone in the general prison population who is on hunger strike. All the CDCR has to do is classify the strike as the security threat known as “disruptive behavior”, which—in the regulations that govern California’s prisons—is defined, in part, as “behavior which might disrupt orderly operations within the institutions,” and further defines that behavior to include a failure to obey “all laws, regulations, and local procedures,” or assisting “any gang as defined in section 3000.”

If you’ll bear with the regs and the definitions for a moment, you’ll see what a neat little snake-swallowing-its-tail ploy that would be.

Section 3000 defines “gang” as “any ongoing formal or informal organization, association or group of three or more persons which has a common name or identifying sign or symbol whose members and/or associates, individually or collectively, engage or have engaged, on behalf of that organization, association or group, in two or more acts which include, planning, organizing threatening, financing, soliciting, or committing unlawful acts or acts of misconduct classified as serious pursuant to section 3315.” And section 3315 includes “A serious disruption of facility operations.”

So, the hunger strikers have no common name or identifying sign. And they are back on hunger strike, as of September 26.

In an article posted on October 7, New York Times reporter Ian Lovett says that “the corrections department has cracked down, trying to isolate the strike leaders, some of whom say they no longer trust the department and are hoping to push the governor to enact reforms.” Further, he writes, the department has introduced new guidelines for dealing with mass hunger strikes:

“The new protocols seek to isolate inmates participating in the strike from those in the general population and potentially subject them to disciplinary measures, while prisoners identified as strike leaders could potentially be denied contact with visitors and even lawyers.

“In addition, two lawyers who had helped mediate talks were temporarily barred from state prisons last week because ‘their presence in the institution/facility presents a security threat.’ ”

An October 11 press release posted on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website states that some hunger strikers might be close to death because of their refusal to drink water, one was taken from Pelican Bay to a hospital in Oregon after he suffered a heart attack, and others are being denied their medications. Another CDCR ploy is use the air conditioning system to freeze the strikers into giving up. And there are concerns that the department will resort to force feeding.

Footnote : two good resources for background on California’s supermax prisons and the effects of solitary confinement are:

Parole, Snitch, or Die, by Keramet Reiter, and Buried Alive, by Laura Magnani.