On July 13, 2013 four hundred family members of hunger striking prisoners, formerly incarcerated activists, and allies converged in the town of Corcoran in California’s Central Valley 50 miles south of Fresno. The multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-class crowd braved the 100+ degree heat to rally at the gates of Corcoran State Prison to urge Governor Jerry Brown and state agents to meet the five demands of the striking prisoners, who had once again put their bodies on the line to end the state’s practice of long term solitary confinement.
Mainstream media outlets reported that more than 30,000 prisoners across the state of California had initiated peaceful, nonviolent hunger strikes five days prior, July 8. Collaborating across racial lines (adhering to an end to hostilities agreement issued in fall 2012 by the Pelican Bay State Prions Secure Housing Unit Short Corridor Representatives) prisoners aim to win their five demands for more humane treatment from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr): an end to long-term extreme isolation; abolish debriefing and change gang validation criteria; end group punishment; provide programs; and adequate nutritious food.
The state of California has more than 11,000 prisoners housed in long term solitary confinement, referred to as the SHU (Secure Housing Unit) or Ad-Seg (Administration Segregation). With no due process, prisoners can find themselves in the SHU for 10, 20, even 30 years, with only one way out (beyond death): debrief or inform on others. In the SHU prisoners spend 23 ½ hours each day in a cell 11 feet by 7 feet. While the United Nations has stated that a person should not spend more than 14 days at a time in solitary confinement, the state of California places many teens in SHUs for months at a time.
This was not the first hunger strike in California prisons by the Short Corridor Representatives. More than 12,000 prisoners across the state had participated in nonviolent actions in July and October 2011 to win the original five demands. Since October 2011 a mediation team representing this multi-racial body has sought to negotiate these five demands with CDCr. Over the past two years CDCr has failed to negotiate in good faith, and in fact instead implemented a plan to expand its web of gang or “Security Threat Groups” classifications, one of the most common ways folks are put into the SHU. The Short Corridor Representatives put out a call for hunger strikes and work stoppages to re-start on July 8, 2013.
Several events across the state brought attention to the new strike. Two hundred fifty people formed a caravan from the San Francisco Bay Area to travel three and a half hours one way to the rally. These people crossed four generations and included high percentages of African American, Chicano-Latino and other oppressed nationalities with many progressive whites and represented a broad variety of organizations including Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, CURB, and Stop Mass Incarceration. Along with more than 100 other organizations they act under the broad coalition Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. PHSS was formed in summer 2011 to amplify the voices of the prisoners who acted as the Short Corridor Representatives.
The northern California contingent met up with families and organizers from Los Angeles and advocates from as far away as Arcata. The two regions have found power in collaborating and see great power in coming together not only across racial/ethnic and class lines, but also across the family member-advocate divide. The two groups have partnered on several projects, including erecting a mock SHU in July 2012 in Oakland’s Mosswood Park.
The caravan and rally in the town of Corcoran fell on the first day of Ramadan, and a contingent of Bay Area Muslims marched among the crowd. Contingents convened at Cesar Chavez Park inside the town, where there was a brief program before the short march to the prison itself. Traditional Aztec dancers held a ceremony to honor the six directions, and then performed several dances; they also performed along the march route.
Both at the rally in the park and on the march oppressed nationalities, queer and trans folk, young people and elders, were visible. After a brief march to the prison this theme was made clear by the speakers, including Dorsey Nunn of All of us or None from San Francisco who declared, “We need to show ourselves. We need to feel our strength.” Formerly incarcerated student Steven Czifra also picked up this theme, stating “Long term isolation only works in isolation.”
The multi-racial crowd demonstrates one source of power of the united front type structure of PHSS, though operating principles remain elusive. The unity shown by the coalition has helped to push CDCr to near crisis point, not only advocating for the five core demands issued by the Short Corridor Representatives, but also sharing information statewide and nationwide about Valley Fever, forced sterilization, the state court’s mandate to decrease the population, and numerous pending lawsuits such as how long a person can be held in long term isolation before it is considered cruel and unusual punishment.
A statement was read by Pelican Bay State Prions Secure Housing Unit Short Corridor Representatives. This in part declared, “We have taken up this hunger strike and work stoppage which has included 30,000 prisoners in CA so far not only to improve our own conditions, but also as an act of solidarity with all prisoners and oppressed people around the world.” The Short Corridor Representatives—having signed an agreement to end hostilities across racial lines in fall 2012—urged supporters to sign petitions, engage in rolling solidarity fasts, and “participate in nonviolent direct action to put pressure on decision makers.”
Alex Sanchez of Homies Unidos in Los Angeles connected immigration to long term isolation. (Both All of Us or None and Homies Unidos work to integrate formerly incarcerated folk back into communities and families.) He noted that undocumented family members cannot visit their loved ones as they do not have the proper documents to go into facilities. He powerfully declared “We need to understand…when we stand up for our loved ones here…we got to stand up for immigrant brothers that are locked up as well!”
Formerly incarcerated student Danny Murillo who spent time in the SHU noted, “The validation process is at best is a flawed system with no judicial oversight that places people in solitary confinement, at worst it is part of racist and oppressive system that criminalizes the culture, ethnic and political identity of those who have been validated. CDCr has established a divide and conquer tactic that continues perpetuate the manufactured state violence that exist within the CSP system.”
As the final speaker of the day Danny clearly connected the ongoing hunger strike with the hunger strike taking place at Guantanamo Bay with “non-enemy combatants”. Just as the state inflicts similar torture on prisoners in both jurisdictions, so too does it seek to connect their criminality by way of security threat groups that span prisons. Family members and committed activists also seek to build these bridges of solidarity across prison walls through on going organizing, pen pal groups, and most immediately supporting the health and well-being of those currently on strike.
Mike Bishop is an Oakland resident and member of Prisoner Hunger Strike Coalition. For more information visit http://