More on California’s prisoner hunger strike

Update: The article below, written last week, was scheduled for publication here just as we learned that the hunger strike has been suspended as of September 5. We are still publishing this article to help share information about this important strike and the unfinihsed struggle of California prisoners. For more about the suspension of the strike, read this post from Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.

Rally at San Quentin State Prison, August 3.

Rally at San Quentin State Prison, August 3.

August 26, 2013

Today marks day 50 of a nonviolent peaceful hunger strike among California prisoners to protest the inhumane conditions of their solitary confinement. The strike maintains its leadership on the inside, as well as wide-spread support on the outside led by prisoners’ loved ones, former prisoners, grassroots organizations, legal workers, and others. On July 8, 2013 more than 30,000 prisoners across the state of California resumed their nonviolent protest of their conditions after California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDC) failed to make good on promises it made after two similar actions in 2011.

As of Monday August 19, 2013 more than 75 individuals in at least 5 prisons had continually refused food since July 8. Reports from facilities such as Corcoran State Prison lead us to believe that the number is likely much higher. Strike supporters have also learned that prisoners at Pelican Bay State prison—and perhaps other facilities—have rejoined the strike in the past week. Whatever the count or form of participation, this protest remains an historic event given that well-known hunger strikes such as that of Bobby Sands in Ireland involved 10 committed prisoners!

In California more than 12,000 adults and juveniles are housed in grim living conditions, confined 22-23 hours each day in windowless 12 foot by 7 foot rooms. At least 500 prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years; 80 for more than 20 years; and 2 for over 40 years. Prisoners have issued 5 demands to the CDC and Governor Jerry Brown and these remain central to this continuing action:

  1. Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse.
  2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
  3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons and end long-term solitary confinement.
  4. Provide adequate and nutritious food and healthcare.
  5. Create and expand constructive programming.

The “Agreement to End Hostilities” remains an important document even in the face of aggression on the part of CDC. The powerful agreement issued in October 2012 has been the basis for an attempt to encourage unity among prisoners across racial lines throughout the California system in resolving their problems and disputes peacefully in order to avoid group antagonism, diminish violence, and decrease crack downs by prison officials; there have been no instances of violence on the part of striking prisoners. In fact, and as anticipated by representatives of these groupings (the “Short Corridor Collective” at Pelican Bay State Prison), prison guards have used a series of violent retaliatory methods against prisoners.


These methods include physically assaulting prisoners, attempting to provoke others to violence through taunting. CDC’s institutional response has been to bar prisoner attorneys from visiting their clients, moving strike leaders to even harsher isolation, confiscating prisoners ‘privileged legal documents, and blasting air conditioning on thinly clothed strikers. CDC has prohibited non-nutritive liquids such as coffee, tea, or juice pushing hunger striking prisoners needlessly toward greater dehydration, more rapid organ failure, and even death.

To add an Orwellian twist CDC has issued notifications of “serious rules violations” to thousands of prisoners for participating in this peaceful nonviolent action. CDC has spread the lie that prisoners were coerced to participate in the hunger strike through gang orders by the Pelican Bay representatives. Then last week CDC used this lie to obtain a legal order to force-feed any prisoner on the hunger strike, including those who have willfully and consciously signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. This speculated “coercion” (with no actual evidence” serving as justification. So effectively the receiver is falling-in with CDC’s propaganda. Most see force-feeding as a human-rights violation, so CDC is responding to the protest of their human rights violations by further violating their human rights!

It is important to understand this allegation by CDC—that this action is a grab for power by prison gangs—as a lie that illuminates the state’s fear of people coming together across race, class, and geographical lines and its tactical ploy of playing on the fear perpetuated by the corporate media. The “Agreement” cited above provides the actual intention of these prisoners. This CDC argument can be refuted logically: if this were a gang-coerced hunger strike, then wouldn’t thousands of inmates still be on hunger strike for fear of retaliation? There have been no reports of prisoners harassing others who have not joined the protest. If strikers are violent “terrorists” as CDC mouthpieces repeat, why have there been no reports of inmate violence for all these weeks of nonviolent protest? The only violence reported has been guard-on-prisoner, with guards harassing some prisoners who were not on hunger strike.

But these facts are embedded within a stronger influence, an emotional appeal (fear) whose power is more difficult to confront. The corporate media has failed to print letters from dozens of prisoners who have explained clearly and coherently in their own words why they have willfully taken on this extreme form of protest—to reclaim their humanity. The mainstream media has also refused to print letters to the editor from prisoner advocates seeking to provide a competing narrative—to humanize prisoners on hunger strike—to the state line from CDC.

Instead media outlets have given space to CDC Director Beard, who openly stated that the Secure Housing Units do not constitute solitary confinement, clearly demarcating the line between US and international law on this issue. Beard is a licensed psychologist who doesn’t believe the SHU is torture, even though academic colleagues and international human rights groups have said it is so. The states’ legal order allowing force feeding and disregarding prisoners’ advance medical directives represents a serious violation of a person’s right to make their own life choices.

Much of CDC’s actions and motives are contrary to internationally accepted standards of human dignity. Last week the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez reminded the California state authorities that “it is not acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike.” In Mr. Méndez’s view, “Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture.”

Family members, organizations, and allies through the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition have sought to amplify the prisoners’ struggle for human dignity and against state sanctioned torture. By continuing to gather support from the international community, family members, people of faith, frontline healthcare professionals, and artists and celebrities, PHSS has brought its forces together both physically and virtually.

Leadership on the inside anticipated that the state would act in this manner, and by not allowing themselves to be provoked they have further cemented their resolve and inspired family members and supporters. Supporters have called for an emergency meeting with CDC while continuing outreach to organized labor including the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance which recently issued a resolution to support the strike. (At the same time, the prison guard’s California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has convinced Governor Brown and his larger political ambitions to propose $400million to further privatize the prison industry with Geo Corporation, previously incarnated as Wackenhut, with union guards.)

Strike supporters are continuing to put pressure on California politicians, demanding action from the state public safety committees. This tactic become more urgent as the Governor remains silent and the CDC refuses to negotiate. Democrats sit in leadership positions on these committees, including Lonnie Hancock in the State Senate and Tom Ammiano in the State Assembly. The question becomes, “Who runs the State?” Can the legislature hold its agencies accountable? At the same time appeals at the national level to Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations—hailed a “long-time champion of human rights and dignity” by President Barack Obama—opens up a possible new pressure point at the federal level.

PHSS continues to coalesce event after event, from art shows to marches to vigils outside prisons including San Quentin on August 8, 2013. It is supporting active outreach to family members at prisons during visiting hours by tabling outside. The coalition has prioritized outreach to religious clergy and leaders and mental health professionals through its “Religious Call for a Just and Humane End to the Hunger Strike in California Prisons” and “Mental Health Organizations and Professionals Statement 2013-06-26”. The latter letter by Mental Health Practitioners in Solidarity contradicts Beard states, “Society depends on mental health professionals to recognize mental torture and speak to the impacts of solitary confinement on prisoners and their loved ones. The psychological deterioration caused by long-term solitary confinement is profoundly negative and long-lasting, even for people who are otherwise mentally resilient.”

Virtually, the PHSS Emergency Response Network sends email alerts to over 2,000 people on its list urging action, most recently to the medical receiver who is falling in with the political repression of these peaceful protesters. Together with supporters the prisoners are strong. One of the attorneys for the prisoners recently stated after a visit, “Although some prisoners have lost around 30 pounds and are getting significantly weaker, they are still very sharp intellectually and are still deeply united in their struggle for a life with dignity. They are very much committed to their demands and are waiting for Governor Brown to send someone to Pelican Bay to negotiate about those demands.” Rather than approving force-feeding directives, the state refuses to understand one simple point: this suffering is avoidable by its own action.

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