Day 20: Support The California Prisoners' Hunger Strike
(Note: This is my third essay in support of the California prisoners on hunger strike. The first is here. The second is here. OPOL’s wonderful treatment of the situation is here. The take away: California prisoners on hunger strike for almost 3 weeks have requested your support in their struggle to end long term, 23 hour a day solitary confinement in California’s Special Housing Units. I urge you to support their struggle to be free from torture.)
Today is day 20 of the prison hunger strike. This may be the most significant act of prisoner resistance in 40 years, since the Attica Uprising in 1971.
This morning’s LA Times Editorial calls for an end to the embargo the State has imposed on news of the strike:
Conditions in California prisons are so bad that a panel of federal judges ruled that they violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, but until recently the ensuing protests came mainly from lawyers rather than the inmates themselves. That changed on July 1, when thousands of inmates at one-third of the state's prisons started a hunger strike.
A core group of at least 400 inmates in four prisons continues to refuse food, protesting the way the state treats prisoners deemed to be gang members. The strike began in the Special Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, where 1,100 inmates are isolated in soundproof cells for 22 1/2 hours a day. Their sole reprieve: one hour a day outside in a small area with high concrete walls.
Prison officials say this treatment is necessary to discourage membership in prison gangs, to obtain information on gang activity and to prevent "shot-calling" — the passing of orders from gang leaders to members in other prisons or out on the streets. Moreover, they say the hunger strike is being organized by gang leaders, and some strikers who would rather not participate are being coerced. Prisoner advocates, meanwhile, say such prolonged isolation leads to mental illness and is tantamount to torture.
So who's right? We might have a better handle on that if prison officials weren't refusing requests by The Times to interview striking inmates. Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told Times staff writer Jack Dolan that media weren't being allowed into Pelican Bay "due to security and safety issues." We'd be more inclined to believe that, and not that prison officials were trying to avoid adverse publicity, if California's prisons didn't have such an extraordinary history of shoddy medical care and inhumane conditions. As it is, we think the public has a right to firsthand accounts of what goes on behind the barbed wire.
That’s where you come in. The walls are keeping the prisoners in, yes, but they are also keeping you, your eyes, your ears, your nose, your heart and most important, your conscience out. This puts the prisoners at even greater risk because it fosters prison officials’ ability to act with impunity to break the strike however they choose, to force feed prisoners in secret and to impose even more excessive, even more punitive conditions to break the strike.
Permitting prison officials to control all of the information about the strike encourages further abuse by a prison system that the Supreme Court has already held imposes cruel and unusual punishment on its prisoners.
There is a story that when Oscar Wilde was first transported to prison, he looked out the train window and said, “Well, if that’s how the queen treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any.” How true of California. A rightwing, conservative, ideologically driven Supreme Court ruled that conditions in California’s prisons denied the prisoners freedom from cruel and inhuman punishment. Conditions were that horrible. But the Court did not focus on California’s widespread use of long term solitary confinement. Or its insane policy of holding alleged gang members in solitary confinement for six years or longer if they did not snitch and/or renounce gang membership. And it did not consider the damage to prisoners’ bodies, minds and souls from unremitting isolation from other people. No. The prisoners themselves had to bring that to our attention. And they did so in the only way they possibly could: by starving themselves. This reminds of Bobby Sands. The prisoners had no other choice. And they knew when they began that they had little chance of forcing changes in the barbaric conditions of their confinement unless you, that’s right, you get involved and stand with them and support their struggle to be free from barbaric treatment.
In recognition of this, prisoners at Corcoran have specifically requested your assistance:
“Our indefinite isolation here is both inhumane and illegal and the proponents of the prison industrial complex are hoping that their campaign to dehumanize us has succeeded to the degree that you don’t care and will allow the torture to continue in your name. It is our belief that they have woefully underestimated the decency, principles and humanity of the people. Join us in opposing this injustice without end. Thank you for your time and support”
This is not about whether prisoners should be released. It is not about whether prisoners should remain in confinement. It is not about frivolous demands for country club treatment. this is not a general debate about correctional policy. This is about the torture of brutal, long term, unremitting solitary confinement. We could understand that when we opposed it in Gitmo. We could understand that when we opposed it in “Black Sites” and Bagram. We could understand it when we opposed it for Bradley Manning. The task now is to recognize that these prisoners, too, deserve to be free from the torture of long term solitary confinement. And to take whatever steps we can to oppose it in California, just as we would anywhere else in the world.
The core demands of the prisoners are here with a petition in support of the strikers. I urge you to read the demands, all of which are designed solely to protect prisoners’ from being harmed by abusive solitary confinement, and to sign the petition.
Please call and/or write the Governor and the Commissioner to support the striking prisoners:
Secretary Matthew Cate, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 1515 S Street, Sacramento, CA 95814, Telephone: (916) 323-6001
Governor Jerry Brown, State Capitol, Suite 1173, Sacramento, CA 95814, Telephone: (916) 445-2841
Please speak up for the striking prisoners. Put their struggle on your blog. Put their struggle on facebook. Tweet it. Tell others about the strike. You, if you are reading this, understand the magic of the Internet and its ability to spread important information far and wide. The striking prisoners need you to do that for them. They need you to open your eyes and hearts and mouths and stand against domestic torture. They need your compassion.
Only your support can bring their struggle to a safe and humane solution.