Broken Promises: Prisoners on strike (again)

This week at least 30,000 incarcerated men and women restarted their hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of California’s prison system.  Inside 2/3s of its 33 prisons (yes there are 33), along with all of its out-of-state facilities, prisoners have resumed their hunger strike that began some 2 years ago.

According to Abby Ohlheiser, “While the California prison system has a less than stellar reputation on a handful of issues — many of which trace back to its astonishing overcrowding — the striking prisoners are focusing their message on improving conditions for those locked in solitary confinement.”

This decision is especially powerful because it speaks to their collective concern (a sense of community and demand for justice for those within the community) for the horrific conditions within solidarity confinement.  Horrific might be an understatement. Shane Bauer, who spent 7 months in an Iranian prison, documented the unfathomable conditions of California prisons in his recent piece, “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”  Writing about his own experience in Iran, he concludes that Iran has nothing on California when it comes to abuse, violence, and dehumanizing conditions:

IT’S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS since I’ve been inside a prison cell. Now I’m back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man’s cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I’m taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can’t get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I’ve ever inhabited. You can’t pace in it.… What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?

His experiences are that of all too many in California prisons and elsewhere; in his estimation Pelican Bay and other prisons are worse.  It is no wonder that 30,000 people are refusing to eat.

Their demands (see below; they remain virtually the same) are for basic human rights. Yet, two years after this strike began, little has changed.  As a result the intransigence of the California Department of Corrections and the societal acceptance of abuse and torture directed at prisoners, the conditions remain abysmal. Broken promises; national acceptance of abuse and torture.  So the strike continues.

In a week where Yasiin Bey made visible the horrific practice of forced feeding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, where it was announced that “Force Feeding At Gitmo Will ‘Synchronize’ With Ramadan,” the ongoing protest in California (ground zero of America’s prison nation) is a sobering reminder of the injustices within and beyond our borders.

What appears below is from a piece in 2011, which sadly demonstrates that in almost two years, despite promises, the conditions facing California prisoners and those in Guantanamo Bay remain just as horrific and just as inhumane.

On July 1, 2011, hundreds of prisoners initiated a hunger strike in California. While the strike began inside of the Special Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, where human beings are locked away inside of soundproof cells for 22 1/2 hours each and every day, the strike has spread to prisons throughout the state, reaching as many as 6,600 prisoners in 13 locations. Their protest sought to “draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, twenty-five years of torture via [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation]‘s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices.” More specifically, the strike began as an effort to change the inhumane treatment facing prisoners in California (and elsewhere). Colorlines Magazine succinctly summarizes the demands as follows (the demands remain the same):

  •  “End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse” would end group punishment as a means to address an individual inmates rule violations.
  • “Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria” The practice of “debriefing,” or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Prisoners demand the end to debriefing because it puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as “snitches.”
  • Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement” Prisoners demand a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities. This demand includes access to adequate natural sunlight and health care treatment.
  • “Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food” Prisoners’ demands include the end to the practice of denying adequate food as a means of punishment, asking for wholesome nutritional meals
  • “Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates” demands include a weekly phone call, permission to keep wall calendars and craft items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.

The courageous stance of these incarcerated individuals, and the widespread support from those outside the prison walls did not lead to fruitful negotiations, with 400 individuals surpassing 20 days without food. According to reports in The Los Angeles Times, 49 people lost more than 10 pounds with one individual having lost almost 30 pounds during the 2011 hunger strike. Dorsey Nunn, an activist who co-founded All of us or None of us, described the situation as dire:

Prisoners in Pelican Bay have not eaten in 18 days. I have been told that the prison hospital is full with prisoners who are being hydrated intravenously because some have started to refuse water. Others are having a problem just keeping their water down at this point. Members of the prisoner negotiation team have lost between 20 and 35 pounds. It is truly a matter of luck and or untiring spirit that nobody has died so far.

The dire circumstances facing these hungers strikers symbolizes the daily mistreatment endured by prisoners throughout the United States. From neglect, abuse and sexual violence, to abysmal living conditions and unimaginable health “care,” prisons are spaces of obscene denied humanity. In California, at Kern Valley State prison, prisoners have long been forced to drink water contaminated with arsenic. In Georgia, prisoners “report . . . harsh conditions and inadequate nutrition and health care. Prisoners were constantly hit with fines ranging from $5 to $20 . . . sometimes for even just ‘looking at a guard.’” In Arizona, those in incarcerated in Sherriff Joe Arpaio’s jails have routinely been served rotten food and denied basic health care. In Louisiana, at Angola State Prison, America’s largest prison, reports have documented abuse, violence, politically motivated punishments, and a culture of accepted torture.

On May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Plata, affirmed “the constitutional right of prisoners to be free of cruel and unusual conditions of confinement and the government’s responsibility to provide a remedy for violations of that right.” In this case, the Court upheld a three-judge panel ruling that California’s mental health care and medical care fell beneath the constitutional standard required under the law. Yet, the conditions of abuse and cruel and unusual punishment continue to this day. One has to wonder if the legal decision coupled with the moral spotlight shining from hundreds of prisoners will lead to humane treatment of America’s prisoners.

The conditions that have led to hunger strike are commonplace throughout the United States and the acceptance of these human rights violence illustrates the power of race and class in America. Do we really think that abuse, sexual violence, rotten food, denied health care and a culture of torture would be acceptable if directed at the sons and daughters of white suburban America? The reaction to the Pelican Bay Hunger strike provides us with the sad answer [The reaction to the Hunger Strike in 2013, from California to Guantanamo Bay provides us with yet another sad answer].

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