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This spring, the news started going around that a hunger strike was being planned in the Security Housing Unit at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP). Prisoners at the SHU had apparently united across “racial” lines, and promised to hungerstrike to the death if need be, starting on July 1. Initially most of the attention paid to the planned strike came from a small collection of organizations, mostly based in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a clear mandate to support prisoners’ struggles and resist the prison-industrial complex. While much of the left ignores prison issues, or considers them at best a peripheral symptom of more fundamental social dysfunction, these groups recognized the potential importance of prisoner-led resistance in Pelican Bay’s SHU, California’s flagship torture unit.
Isolation Torture in the USA
Pelican Bay was built in 1989, on the remote northern edge of California, in the economically depressed town of Crescent City. One section of the new prison was designated the “Security Housing Unit” (SHU) – essentially a control unit, in which people are condemned to conditions of solitary confinement. The Pelican Bay SHU was just one of many such facilities built around this time, an indirect consequence of the United States’ ongoing mass incarceration policies.
As eloquently described by Michelle Alexander in her recent book The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration began as a ruling class response to the Black Liberation Movement in the 1960s, the result of the so-called “war on drugs”, crafted so as to replicate many of the effects of segregation but without the embarrassing bigoted rhetoric. Forty years later, the result is over two and a half million people in U.S. prisons, a majority of them people of color.
Units like the Pelican Bay SHU were partly a result of the “law and order” ideology that accompanied and supported mass incarceration, partly they were intended to neutralize any resistance from those who were now slated to spend their lives behind bars. As Manuel LaFontaine of All of Us or None and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition has explained, “The minute one becomes politically engaged inside, and you begin to challenge the conditions of confinement, or begin to organize others to look beyond themselves and to focus on the things that led to their incarceration, such as social, political and economic oppression here in America and throughout the world, it’s the minute you’re deemed a candidate for the SHU.”
People have spent years – in some cases decades – buried alive in the Pelican Bay SHU and similar facilities. Cells have no windows, just fluorescent lights which are never turned off. Prisoners spend 22-23 hours a day thus confined; when they are allowed out it is to be brought (alone) to what is euphemistically called an “exercise yard” – in fact, just a larger enclosed space with grating instead of a roof. Prisoners are fed substandard food, they are punished collectively for issues involving individuals, and their indefinite SHU sentences only end if they agree to “debrief”, that is to say, to snitch.
Violence from guards is commonplace; as detailed by Keramet Reiter,
"In Madrid v. Gomez, a federal court case evaluating the constitutionality of the conditions at Pelican Bay, Judge Thelton Henderson recorded myriad staff abuses of prisoners at the institution. The most memorable: Vaughn Dortch, a mentally ill African-American prisoner, whom guards forced to take a ‘bath’ in near-boiling water. One guard said, as he was holding Dortch down in the water: ‘Looks like we’re going to have a white boy before this is through.’ Dortch sustained third-degree burns over half of his body; guards waited more than an hour after the conclusion of the bath before taking Dortch to a hospital for burn treatment. Judge Henderson ordered numerous reforms to the policies and practices at the institution, including better staff training and diversion of mentally ill prisoners from the SHU. However, Judge Henderson stopped short of declaring the physical structure of long-term solitary confinement unconstitutional."
The main excuse used to send prisoners to the SHU is “gang ties”, and yet a majority have never been convicted of any such thing. Being “validated” as a gang member is an administrative decision, with no real possibility of appeal, even though the result can be years or even decades of solitary confinement. To give just one example: in the 2009 court ruling Lira vs. Cate, it was found that former prisoner Ernesto Lira had spent years in the SHU because of a sketch he had allegedly drawn, an anonymous tip, and a report from a prison guard that was mis-transcribed. The court found that as a result of his time in the SHU, Lira now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression, and that throughout his incarceration, despite his objections that he was not a gang member, he was never provided with any meaningful review of his “validation”. Lira’s case is far from being exceptional; sadly, it is typical of those who end up in America’s supermaxes.
Long-term isolation has been described as “clean torture”, for it is designed to inflict grave psychological and even physical harm, but without leaving any visible wounds. As Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz has noted, “there is not a single published study of solitary or supermax-like confinement in which nonvoluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days, where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will, that failed to result in negative psychological effects. The damaging effects ranged in severity and included such clinically significant symptoms as hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic depression, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.”
A family member of a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner describes conditions as follows:
“[T]he warden took calendars away in December 2010. Now they have to make calendars to keep track of which day it is. They lose touch with family as they are not allowed phone calls ever (unless they debrief), the trip by car from Southern California is about 14 hours each direction, by plane the cost to fly into Crescent City with plenty of advanced notice is $440 per person, the accommodations are $87 per night for the cheaper hotel and more for 3-4 people. The visiting is behind glass with one phone. […] They are deprived of all natural light, food, warmth – sweats and night caps are not allowed even though the prison is located on the coast in the mountains. They never turn on the heat so the concrete walls keep the cells cold as freezers. Milk will stay cold in a cell for days. The food looks like vomit, and when refused the guards will say I don't blame you.”
The prisoners live at the mercy of their captors. For instance, as part of a labor action in the midst of California’s perennial budget crisis, guards recently denied prisoners what little comforts they normally receive, and this for months on end. As the above writer noted:
“They were locked in the cells for almost 2 months straight no ‘yard’, no showers, no packages or books passed out. It was to say we will do nothing until we get the 3% raise. They did and 3,500 teachers were laid off but the guards did start pushing a button for showers ... yes a button.”
In these conditions, kept isolated from one another and tortured for years on end, some SHU prisoners managed to get word out about their strike. The organizers were all from D Corridor – known as the “short corridor”, this is where prisoners are subjected to the most restrictive conditions – and they became known as the Short Corridor Collective. They reached out to other prisoners, and there was talk that dozens would go on strike, perhaps as many as a hundred.
Their demands were detailed in a Formal Complaint, and summarized as follows:
1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities...” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).
The Short Corridor Collective requested people on the outside organize to amplify their voices and coordinate communication through the walls. In response to this call, a Prisoner Hungerstrike Support Coalition was set up in San Francisco, including a number of the key organizations working to support prisoners in California: All of Us or None, California Prison Focus, Critical Resistance, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the Prison Activist Resource Center, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the American Friends Service Committee, BarNone Arcata and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. A media team was established to make sure the prisoners’ voices would be heard in the public arena. Similarly, a mediation team was set up, with a mandate to support the prisoners in their dealings with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) once the strike began.
On July 1, news started coming in from throughout California that there were people in many prisons, not just Pelican Bay, refusing food. From PBSP itself, word arrived that not only was almost everyone in the SHU participating, but that those in general population were also on-board. It suddenly looked like the strike might have mobilized not hundreds but thousands – an order of magnitude greater than anyone had dreamed.
Indeed, although CDCR claimed at the time that less than two dozen were on strike, within a few days it admitted that in fact over 6,000 prisoners had joined in refusing meals on July 1. At least thirteen of California’s thirty-three prisons were affected. Some strikers were accepting liquid food, some were eating food from the canteen, but many were refusing any and all sustenance.
The Short Corridor Collective had called on other prisoners to strike in solidarity for as long as they felt comfortable, even if they were not willing to go to the death, and that is clearly what was happening, involving numbers that no one had anticipated. The thousands of striking prisoners were joined by individuals on the outside who also began fasting to support their demands. During the first week, solidarity demonstrations were held in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle and Montreal. Press coverage in this first period was mainly limited to California mainstream media, and various progressive blogs and news websites.
By definition, hungerstrikes are difficult on those who engage in them. Humane medical care is to be hoped for, but often prison doctors and nurses work not to protect the strikers’ health, but to help the administration break the protest. This is what happened in some California prisons; there were numerous reports in the first week of strikers simply not being monitored, and of doctors refusing them their prescription meds. While clearly punitive, CDCR framed this as the system being overwhelmed by the scope of the strike, and wary of the dangers of prescribing medication meant to be taken with food.
This medical neglect prompted forty healthcare providers from across North America to quickly sign an open letter expressing their “grave concern”. As they noted, “If it is true that CDCR medical staff are refusing prisoners their medications, either as punishment for being in the SHU or else as punishment for being on hunger strike, this is not only unethical, but also illegal under California Penal Code Section 673. This would be an act of deliberate indifference to a patient’s serious medical needs, and as such would constitute a violation of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment Constitutional rights.” The healthcare professionals called upon CDCR “to ensure that no prisoner on hunger strike be disciplined or threatened with the denial of medical care” and demanded that “all medical professionals uphold their code of ethics and maintain the highest standards of care for all their patients – be they incarcerated or not.”
Medical neglect was just one of the ways CDCR pressured strikers to resume eating. At Pelican Bay, prisoners were given an “Information Sheet” which – under guise of informing them of their rights – was essentially meant to impress upon them that there would no negotiations, and that there was only one possible final outcome if they persisted: “Since refusing food will eventually lead to increased illness and death, you will be asked to find a suitable person to ensure your wishes are followed once you cannot express them for yourself […] It is also encouraged that you consider your decision to refuse food may be very difficult for your close family and friends.”
In some facilities, prison officials sent general population strikers into segregation (i.e. solitary) and denied them the right to visit with family members. At others, they simply resorted to lies to break the strike. For instance, at Calipatria prison, located in the hot desert on the Mexican border, guards announced on July 7 that CDCR had agreed to all five demands, and that the strike was over. This worked, and everybody started eating again. (Several days later word was received that this had been a trick, and many prisoners resumed their fast.)
Despite these pressure tactics, two weeks into the strike, thousands were still refusing food. Such a show of solidarity, across “racial” lines, in prisons across California, had not been seen for generations. This alone constitutes a major achievement.
Meanwhile, on the outside, demonstrations were held in cities across California, and throughout the United States. While the numbers attending were small – the largest attracted less than 200, most brought out dozens, and some less than that – these were growing, as were the numbers of family members who were joining, and becoming increasingly prominent speaking to media and facilitating communication with those on the inside.
Why the small numbers? It is an automatic reflex when evaluating any disappointing lack of activity around any issue to point to the left’s ongoing weakness; this is obviously a (or even “the”) factor, but it’s not one that will be solved tomorrow, and it doesn’t explain why other issues attract more people. It makes more sense to see the poor turnout at these protests as a consequence of the fact that there has not been a strong movement inside the prisons for many years, and that the State’s perpetual propaganda offensive keeps many people – including people from oppressed communities – wary of supporting “criminals”. Furthermore, even those organizations that have been doing important work around prisons have a limited ability to mobilize on the streets and escalate quickly in a crisis, which is what an indefinite hungerstrike represents. There is no denying the importance of building capacity, putting down roots, and pursuing long-term community-oriented strategies; that said, conflicts are also decided by speed and initiative, and these are underdeveloped qualities even on the radical left.
Nobody had expected thousands to engage in this hungerstrike, and many of those organizations which should have been involved from day one were taken by surprise, left trying to catch up with events – and sadly, it must be said, some simply didn’t bother. Nevertheless, as the importance of what was taking place in California became clear, many groups did begin to orient themselves accordingly. As a sign of this, two weeks into the strike the San Francisco solidarity coalition held a mass-conference call, with over 140 people representing a variety of organizations participating. It is clear that every day the strike continued, new groups and new cities were getting involved. As already mentioned, more and more family members were participating in support activities, bringing their own capacities and experiences into the mix. Had the strike lasted longer, this growth could have led to a qualitatively different level of struggle on the outside.
The prisoncrats’ response was twofold. First, they continued to insist that there would be no negotiations; in the words of Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for Receiver Kelso (in charge of California prison healthcare), “They have the right to choose to die of starvation if they wish.” Second, officials argued that the strike’s very success proved the value of the SHU and other forms of long-term isolation. According to CDCR spin doctor Terry Thornton, “This goes to show the power, influence and reach of prison gangs. Some people are doing it because they want to do it, and some are being ordered to do it.”
Not surprisingly, health issues remained a serious concern for the duration of the strike. Prisoners were being advised to take multivitamins and salt tablets – and yet these were often not available. CDCR insisted that everyone was being monitored, but there were reports that this “monitoring” consisted of someone standing at a cell door asking if the prisoner was feeling alright. Prisoners were supposed to be weighed daily, but this was sometimes done while they wore chains, sometimes not, making the entire exercise somewhat pointless.
As stated by Dr. Corey Weinstein, a private correctional medical consultant and human rights investigator with forty years experience providing health care to California prisoners:
“Given my long history of working with California prisoners, I have grave doubts about the Department of Corrections’ ability to adequately carry out their own guidelines and protocols even during this urgent and public moment. Reports such as prisoners with very low blood sugar levels and lack of urination for 3 days should not be coming from the prison. These are men who require hospital care under prison protocols. We should ask why do they remain at the prison?”
On July 12, supporters became particularly alarmed, as they received reports that some prisoners were suffering from severe dehydration, had lost consciousness, and/or were on the verge of renal failure. Dehydration is a major risk when on hungerstrike, and it is imperative that one drink a lot of liquids when fasting. It remains unclear whether the dehydration was the result of some prisoners having escalated to a thirst strike, or if it was due to the guards having provided them with inadequate fluids. Severely weakened strikers had to be brought to the prison infirmary where they were rehydrated intravenously.
At about this time, rumors began circulating that a prisoner had died. This turned out to be false; partly the result of people misunderstanding a strongly worded letter from Corcoran prisoners where a striker losing consciousness was described as having “gone down”, and partly par for the course in a heavy life-or-death struggle where information was always so highly restricted by the prisoncrats. (One of the reasons the State developed isolation prisons was to cut prisoners off from their communities, and amongst other things, this is intended to make solidarity work more difficult. Luckily, the support coalition was able to confirm that this rumor was false before mobilizing around the claim, which would have constituted an embarrassing public relations setback.)
Negotiations and Pressure Tactics
In this dire situation, there was a breakthrough on Thursday, July 14, as CDCR announced that it was meeting with the hungerstrikers’ representatives. The prisoncrats – who had claimed just hours earlier that they would rather see people die than negotiate – were now agreeing to discuss their demands. In and of itself, this was an unprecedented victory.
Nevertheless, the next day, the Short Corridor Collective unanimously rejected CDCR’s initial offer, a vague promise to “effect a comprehensive assessment of its existing policy and procedure”. As prisoner negotiator George Franco has explained, “Mr. Scott Kernan was very demanding and disrespectful towards us therefore, the negotiators went ‘no where’ we explained to our mediation team what occurred and what to do as a result of this meeting.”
Support on the outside now accelerated. Along with weekly pickets in Oakland, there were daily protests in Los Angeles, and the first demonstration in Sacramento. In Montreal, there had been weekly pickets outside the U.S. consulate from week one, and now these were joined by regular events in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities across the United States. At the same time, plans were announced for two pickets in London, England, marking the first spread of protests overseas. By this point, close to a hundred organizations, from the ACLU to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, had come out in support of the prisoners demands. On July 17 the New York Times ran an op ed critical of CDCR and sympathetic to the strikers, which was followed the next day by a positive editorial in the San Jose Mercury News and the day after that by an editorial in the LA Times criticizing CDCR for not allowing journalists into Pelican Bay.
As a consequence of the prisoners’ refusal to end their strike on July 15, and keenly aware of the mounting support from the outside, CDCR attempted to buttress its position by threatening and further isolating the prisoner representatives. SHU prisoners are normally not permitted phone calls, but given the extraordinary circumstances, they had been allowed to phone the support coalition’s mediation team on the 15th to explain why they were refusing CDCR’s offer. As a result of this initial refusal, it was made known that there would be no more such calls. Then, at 5:30am on July 18, seventeen prisoners from Pelican Bay – including three members of the prisoners’ negotiating team – were transferred to Corcoran prison, apparently due to the severity of their condition and the fact that the Pelican Bay infirmary was now full beyond capacity.
That same day prison officials attempted to resume negotiations – but given that morning’s transfer to Corcoran, there were no New Afrikan prisoner negotiators left at Pelican Bay. It took another day for the warden to agree to allow another New Afrikan prisoner representative to join the negotiating team, and another two days after that for Scott Kernan to return to the table.
July 20, as negotiations resumed, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate announced that he would seek a court order allowing prison officials to force-feed striking prisoners – including those who had signed advance medical directives indicating that they did not wish to receive any such life-sustaining measures. While California is one of three states where the courts have ruled that prisoners can in some circumstances refuse medical care, nationally judges have more often ruled in favor of force-feeding hungerstriking prisoners. In some of these cases the courts specifically differentiate between individuals choosing to starve themselves for personal reasons (depression, sickness, etc.), and political hungerstrikes, i.e. those in which some kind of redress was being demanded. The latter, characterized as “manipulative hungerstrikes”, have been deemed “detrimental to the effective administration of the prison system,” and this might have provided the legal opening for Cate’s gambit.
Force-feeding is the state’s trump card when dealing with political hungerstrikes. It is intensely painful, especially when the patient resists, and is often an excuse for physical violence from guards and other staff. Indeed, force-feeding itself has been described as a form of violence. At the same time – despite the fact that prisoners have died while being force-fed, and that the World Medical Association prohibits the practice – in the public’s eye the procedure often reduces the urgency of a strike, because people incorrectly believe that the health of a person being force-fed is no longer at risk.
What Matthew Cate was doing, essentially, was threatening a new form of torture. It remains unclear whether this was used as a pressure tactic during the day’s negotiations, or if it was being prepared as a fall-back position lest negotiations continued to bear no fruit.
These were the circumstances in which CDCR renewed negotiations with the Short Corridor Collective. With hundreds of prisoners having gone almost three weeks without food, and with this new threat looming, CDCR offered to accede on a few small points right away. It was stated that this was simply meant as a tangible gesture of good faith in support of an assurance that all of the prisoners’ other issues would receive real attention, with meaningful changes being implemented over time. In fact, the impression the negotiators were left with was that CDCR had agreed to work towards meeting all five demands. CDCR promised to send representatives back to Pelican Bay within a few weeks to provide the prisoners with a progress report in this regard.
So it was that, on July 20th, the prisoners accepted CDCR’s offer, and the strike was suspended. Arrogantly, CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan contacted the support coalition and told them the strike was over, expecting them to then announce this on his say so. This would of course have been out of the question under any circumstances, but especially now given that prison officials had already been caught lying earlier in the strike.
In the end, Kernan had to allow the Short Corridor Collective a phone call to the outside mediators, to inform them that the strike had indeed ended. This call was placed on July 21st. This was just the beginning of the delays in communication, as the task at hand now became checking in with other prisoners across the state – most of whom had not been in direct contact with the support coalition, and many of whom were in segregation or other supermaxes. This process would have taken even longer if not for the initiative of family members, who arranged to get the word in that the strike had indeed been suspended. Nevertheless, it was several days before almost all prisoners had resumed eating, and there were reports of hold-outs as much as one week later.
There was an understandable reticence within the support coalition to declare the strike over in this situation, when it was known that other prisoners continued to refuse food. Nobody could be sure that the Short Corridor Collective’s decision would be accepted by prisoners across the state – it was unclear if those still fasting were doing so because they had not heard it was over, or if they intended to continue the strike on their own. As a result, even after the mediation team had been contacted, supporters around the world were unsure whether the strike had been called off or if this was one of CDCR’s tricks, and nobody on the outside seemed able to provide clarity on this question. This confusion was compounded by the fact that journalists had been denied access to the prisoners, and so news stories often recycled information from one another for days after the fact.
Eventually, though, it became clear that everyone who had been participating had indeed recommenced eating. California’s historic hungerstrike of July 2011 seemed to have come to an end, after having united thousands of prisoners, garnering support from organizations across America and internationally, and forcing CDCR to the negotiating table.
As prisoners transitioned back to eating, many of the issues that had arisen during the hungerstrike continued. Some family members found that they were being denied visits with their loved ones who had been on strike, many of whom received 128B forms, “informational chronos”, which go into their records permanently. These chronos threatened “progressive discipline ... in the future for any reoccurrence of this type of behavior.”
Even now that the strike had been suspended, medical protocol during this transitional period was in some cases simply not followed. For instance, on July 21st one visitor met with a prisoner who had gone three weeks without food, and yet as she explains:
“When the announcement of the end of strike was made on the day before, he tried to eat from the dinner tray, but could not keep it down. The following day’s breakfast he could not keep down either. When he became very week/dizzy during our interview and asked for water, the guard would not let us buy him water nor give him any, just offered ending the interview. […] He should have been offered a transition to solid food. I am not sure whether he did later, but not on the day we were there.”
Indeed, it was reported that the day after the strike ended one prisoner had had a heart attack while transitioning to food. This turned out to not be the case, but what had happened was that he had to be hospitalized after he started having major seizures which affected his heart’s ability to regulate its pulse. According to the prison medical staff, this was due to an electrolyte imbalance caused by the twenty days without food. After five days of treatment he was returned to the Pelican Bay SHU.
Reaction to the strike ending has been mixed. The Short Corridor Collective and many other prisoners see it as a large step forward, declaring it a provisional victory. Some prisoners, however, have expressed disappointment that an agreement was reached with CDCR committing itself to so little in return.
Commenting on the strike being suspended, the Prisoner Hungerstrike Support coalition noted that,
“While the concessions may seem too small to claim a victory, it’s important for people outside prison to understand the weight for prisoners who have been held in the SHU for decades of now being able to stay a little warmer, and to be able to keep track of time since they have no windows and the fluorescent lights are on 24 hours of every day. More so, worldwide support and momentous courage of thousands of prisoners to risk their lives effectively pressured the CDCR to sit at the same table and look prisoners in the face and offer a deal, after refusing to negotiate for weeks and insisting prisoners are less-than human.”
One thing everyone agrees on is that the strike must be seen as only the first step. Without ongoing pressure, CDCR will certainly refuse any meaningful changes. Early on, San Francisco Representative Tom Ammiano and the State Assembly’s Public Safety Committee agreed to hold hearings to examine conditions in the Pelican Bay SHU. These hearings are set for August 23rd, and in the weeks following the strike’s suspension the outside coalition focused on mobilizing for this date.
On the inside, prisoner representatives have stated that if progress is not quickly forthcoming, the struggle will continue: “We’ve drawn the line on this and should CDCR fail to carry out meaningful changes in a timely fashion, then we will initiate a class action suit and additional types of peaceful protest. We will not stop until the CDCR ends the illegal policies and practices at SHU!”
Indeed, prisoner representatives Mutope Duguma and George Franco have both stated that CDCR committed to meeting all five demands, and that if this is not done in a timely manner the strike will resume.
How It Came to Be
Just organizing a hungerstrike involving thousands is incredible – and more than most left groups on the outside could accomplish. Adding the fact that so many of the prisoners are in solitary confinement to the equation and have no easy way of communicating directly with one another, simply makes it all the more inspiring.
Security Housing Units are sites of frequent and regular abuse, and so it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between retaliation and business as usual. For instance, in the lead up to the strike some suspected strike organizers had their cells tossed, and there was at least one instance of the so-called “potty watch” being inflicted – an intentionally silly-sounding name for what is in fact a form of physical torture. As attorney Carol Strickman has explained,
“That's a very cruel procedure where people are restrained for three days, put in diapers and unable to move their arms sometimes, or forced to stand, or strapped down. The rationale is that the prisoner has swallowed contraband and we are going to see it. We're going to wait for three days and monitor their bowel movements and find the thing they've swallowed. But, it's used for other reasons. It's used as punishment even if they know that there is nothing there. This shouldn't be used even if they think that there is something that the prisoner has swallowed. It's painful, people can't sleep. They can't move their arms. I heard that sometimes their arms are put in a plastic pipe. It's really horrible. We heard of that happening to one or two people before the hunger strike started in Pelican Bay.”
Again, given the fact that such demeaning and cruel procedures are not unusual in the SHU, it is difficult to separate out preemptive retaliation from everyday abuse. Less ambiguously, announcements were made just prior to the strike that a special July 4th menu would include ice cream and strawberries – foods which many prisoners had not seen in all their years behind bars.
The actual mechanics of how prisoners communicated with one another and arranged to send out word regarding the strike remain unknown, but not unimaginable. Beyond this technical proficiency, the success of the July 2011 hungerstrike was facilitated by its location on an arc of increasing struggle within prisons in the United States. Specifically, two previous prisoner strikes during the preceding seven months had already helped prepare the ground the Short Corridor Collective’s July initiative: the December 2010 Georgia prisoners work strike, and the January 2011 Lucasville 5 hungerstrike.
In Georgia, for six days in December, thousands of prisoners had refused to work or leave their cells or buy anything at the prison store. A work strike constitutes a direct challenge to the prison system, for without prisoners’ labor the prison system cannot function. Prisoners clean the floors, cook the food, and perform every other task not related to custody – as well as being exploited by corporations which make superprofits from their labor.
The Georgia prisoners were demanding better educational opportunities, more nutritious food, access to their families, and most importantly some kind of payment for their jailhouse labor – in Georgia it is mandatory for prisoners to work for “Prison Industries”, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Department of Corrections, making prisoners the single largest workforce in the state. Furthermore, their labor is completely unpaid.
At least thirty prisons were affected, with thousands participating. The Georgia authorities retaliated by turning off the heat and hot water in the prisoners’ cells. Violence was used – guards beat several striking prisoners, one was so badly hurt he ended up in the ICU of a civilian hospital. This reign of terror continued even months after the strike had ended.
Nevertheless, and although none of the prisoner demands were met, the Georgia prisoners’ strike is widely considered an inspiration simply for having happened, and has been described as “a roadmap of what must come”.
The second example in this arc of protest occurred just weeks later, at the State Penitentiary in Youngstown, Ohio. On January 3rd, 2011, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Bomani Shakur, and Jason Robb went on hungerstrike to protest the severe isolation conditions they had suffered for eighteen years. The three men are part of the Lucasville 5 (the other two were not healthy enough to participate), who helped negotiate a peaceful resolution to the 1993 uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, but were subsequently framed for murder and sentenced to death. Since then, they have been subject to extreme isolation; the demand of their hungerstrike was simply to be granted the same living conditions as other death row prisoners.
After twelve days, the prison administration agreed to meet the demands of the Ohio hungerstrikers.
Besides these two previous inspiring acts of resistance, a third external factor worth keeping in mind is the decision rendered by the Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Plata in May. This confirmed an earlier court ruling that conditions in California’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by approximately 32,000 over the next two years. A lower court in the case had already found that it was “an uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies” – a fact that was cited in the Short Corridor Collective’s Formal Complaint.
How CDCR will comply with Plata is unclear – there are indications that governor Jerry Brown will try to transfer prisoners to the counties’ jurisdiction, which would simply shift the problem of overcrowding and potentially lead to people being held in even worse conditions. But in terms of the success of the July hungerstrike, Plata had already helped expose the horrendous conditions in CDCR’s prisons, and so the department was caught in a vulnerable position. It is difficult to measure what effect this had, but it does play into the overall circumstances surrounding the hungerstrike.
Regardless of these external factors, it is clear that the ones who really deserve the credit for the July success are the hungerstrikers themselves, those who put their lives on the line to resist torture. All the positive factors in the world may line up, but without people willing to seize the moment, these amount to naught.
Frantz Fanon wrote that, “In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression.” After decades of mass incarceration, the jailer has joined these “instituted go-betweens” as America’s dungeons have become central elements of class and national oppression. The delay with which most established left groups and talking heads responded to the hungerstrike is a measure of their own disconnect from these realities. Just as California built on advances in Ohio and Georgia, it is to be hoped that future struggles will build on this success, and that as part of this process new connections and relationships will emerge between those on the inside and those of us on the outside, allowing space for the movement to overcome these shortcomings.
As Bomani Shakur, one of the Lucasville 5, stated in an open letter to the California hungerstrikers: “The system as it currently exists must change, and this, what you all are doing right now, may very well be the catalyst to bring about that change. Remember that.”
Indeed, this is something that none of us should forget.