Life-and-Death Issues in California’s Prison Hunger Strike

“As people who have suffered under such a brutal, diabolical system, we realize that it is our responsibility to help change the course of violent prison systems that have made their way to our communities... We called for an end to hostilities to eliminate giving prison guards an excuse to kill prisoners.”

 

by Laura Magnani

About 30,000 prisoners went on a hunger strike on July 8, 2013, to protest the dehumanizing conditions of confinement in California prisons, especially the long-term isolation and sensory deprivation in security housing units.

According to research conducted by the American Friends Service Committee, more than 14,500 prisoners are held in some kind of solitary confinement in California, though it goes by several different names — security housing units, administrative segregation, protective custody, psychiatric services units, and adjustment centers on death row.

The current hunger strike has primarily focused on people in the security housing units (SHU), with an estimated 3600 prisoners; and people in administrative segregation (Ad Seg), where another 7600 people are confined.

As of this writing at the end of August, dozens of prisoners were in their 55th day of refusing solid food. We have heard reports of widespread dizziness, vomiting, vomiting blood and extreme dehydration.

In recent weeks, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has provided vitamins and electrolytes, in the form of Gatorade or Pedialyte, which has helped with hydration, but many have required intravenous hydration to keep fluids down. Organ failure and death are very real possibilities at this stage of starvation.

Why would so many people take such drastic measures? Conditions of confinement in these high-security, solitary cells are intolerable and more than 500 people have endured these conditions for over 10 years. Nearly 100 have been in these torturous conditions for more than 20 years.

People are living in cells that measure 8 feet by 11 feet (cells vary slightly from institution to institution). They are allowed no calls to family members except for emergencies. They have no contact visits.

At Pelican Bay State Prison, they have not seen the sun since being sent to the SHU. Their exercise time is spent in another cage, alone, inside the prison. Activities, to the extent that there are any, are all done alone, inside their cells.

This year’s hunger strike follows two earlier ones in 2011. The five core demands of the hunger strikers have received widespread support:

1. Individual Accountability

Prisoners demand an end to CDCR’s use of “group punishments” — the loss of privileges for entire yards, or for all prisoners of an ethnic group — for rule violations by a single prisoner, or a few.

2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify gang status criteria

Racial profiling via gang affiliation labels are imposed by CDCR staff, without judicial review. Such a “gang status” label will punish a prisoner in solitary for years, from which he can escape only by “debriefing” — snitching on other alleged gang members — or by dying or being paroled.

3. Comply with U.S. Commission recommendations on an end to long-term solitary confinement

This would require using isolation only as a last resort, and ensuring that prisoners have access to natural light and meaningful activities, and are free of physical deprivations that cause lasting harm.

4. Adequate health care and food

Provide constitutional levels of health care, as required by the courts. Cease the practice of denying adequate food, as a form of punishment. Make sure food is uncontaminated and unspoiled.

5. Provide constructive programs and privileges for SHU inmates

California SHUs are among the harshest punitive environments in the country. Strikers simply want their everyday lives to be put on par with other SHU units around the country.

 

New Policies Implemented in Pilot Project

 

A year after the second hunger strike in 2011, new policies were issued from CDCR to address the gang validation process, create a step-down program to give people a way out of the SHU without becoming informants for the Department of Corrections, and set up a case-by-case review process for people in the SHU. These policies are being rolled out as a “pilot project” which they hope eventually to translate into new regulations.

CDCR claims it is a behavior-based program that separates gang validation from referral to SHU, and that for people who are in solitary, the new norm will be four years, rather than the existing six years.

Over the past ten months, about 400 prisoners have had their case reviews — some in a SHU facility and others in Ad Seg. Of those receiving hearings, more than 60 percent have been authorized for transfer to general population and about 30 percent have been placed in one of the steps in the step-down program.

Never could we have imagined, when recommending creation of a step-down program, that it would be a four year process — especially when people have already spent many years in isolation.

Neither did we imagine that “behavior” would be interpreted as having a particular piece of art, a tattoo, or a book in one’s cell. Indeed, people who exhibit violent behavior receive fixed sentences, usually to Ad Seg, and are eventually released to general population. Indefinite sentences are still permitted for gang affiliation, whether or not it involves action.

The real disappointment in the new policies, besides the duration of the program, and the absence of any limitation on length of stay, is the discretionary way that policies can be applied.

The Department of Corrections says it has ended indefinite SHU sentences, but it retains the authority to hold people back, step by step, for having the wrong attitude, failure to “cooperate,” talking to the wrong people, indeed for participating in a hunger strike. Virtually anything can be considered “gang behavior,” especially if more than one person is involved.

What do the prisoners themselves say about what they are doing?

Sitawa Nantambu Jimaa, one of the four strike representatives at Pelican Bay, said recently, “As people who have suffered under such a brutal, diabolical system, we realize that it is our responsibility to help change the course of violent prison systems that have made their way to our communities…

“We called for an end to hostilities to eliminate giving prison guards an excuse to kill prisoners. We realize nothing productive can be done to change the current state of our situation, our prison environment, unless we end the hostilities between prisoners and end all racial and gang violence within the CDCR. We feel that prisoners are the victims of a systematic process that manipulates them through racial and gang violence in order to prevent greater unity.”

Rev. Theon Johnson III of Glide Memorial Church speaks out on the steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento, telling prison officials and legislators to meet the striking prisoners’ five demands, including an end to long-term solitary confinement.

 

The only way the strike can end without any more participants dying is if the Department of Corrections begins to see the prisoners as humans, not just as people who have committed crimes, usually decades earlier. Without this breakthrough there will be deaths.

On August 14, 2013, Arturo Castellanos, another prisoner confined in Pelican Bay, wrote: “I am one of the four principal volunteer representatives here at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) in the Security Housing Units (SHU). I have been here on indefinite SHU since I arrived in 1990.” Castellanos says that the CDCR, often with the cooperation of the FBI, is “now playing the old propaganda agenda by …  personally attacking the 20 named volunteer prisoner representatives from the PBSP SHU Short Corridor, especially the four groups — White, Black and Latino from the Northern and Southern parts of California — united in this common cause to radically change CDCR for prisoners, prisoners families and the overall true safety of our outside communities with our ‘Call to End all Hostilities’ paper, our Five Core Demands and 40 supplemental demands.”

“The same rationale, that the strike is simply a manifestation of gang control, was used when the medical receiver’s office, providing medical care for the state prison system, went to court in the fifth week of the strike to get an order allowing them to begin force feeding prisoners. They made the argument that some prisoners who had signed ‘do not resuscitate’ directives could have been coerced, therefore all such directives should be ruled invalid. It perpetuates the infantilizing of prisoners and reinforces the CDCR narrative that people are only on hunger strike because gangs are forcing them to be.”

As readers of Street Spirit are well aware, hunger strikes are a revered non-violence tactic used by Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, and many others to call attention to extreme hardships and injustices.

Experienced practitioners of nonviolence — such as Gandhi or Cesar Chavez — warned of the serious risks of potential long-term damage to the physical health of hunger strikers. When the opponent in a nonviolent struggle refuses or fails to acknowledge the humanity of the hunger strikers, all may be lost. It is sobering to remember that Cesar Chavez fasted to the point of permanently harming his own health, and died prematurely.

Will the Department of Corrections see the humanity of the prisoners and sit down with them to find a solution? Or will they add to the torture of long-term solitary confinement the additional torture of force feeding?

The demands of the strikers are not unreasonable. The Department says the tactics are unacceptable and can’t be “allowed.” What alternatives do these prisoners have? The grievance process within the system, known as the 602 process, is completely broken. The 602 forms are frequently lost, often disregarded, and always decided on internally.

On August 30, a joint press release was issued by Senator Lonnie Hancock, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, stating: “The issues raised by the hunger strike — concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons — are real and can no longer be ignored. The Courts have made clear that the hunger strikers have legitimate issues of policy and practice that must be reviewed. The Legislature has a critical role in considering and acting on their concerns. We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement and that statistics show has failed to increase public safety.”

“The strike is not over yet and it is still at a very dangerous moment, given that … people have gone [so many] days without eating,” said Marie Levin, whose brother is one of the four remaining strike representatives locked in Administrative Segregation at Pelican Bay. “We hope that the CDCR will not act to disrupt this potentially positive development by spreading false information to strikers or continuing to retaliate against their peaceful protest.”

The urgent plea of the American Friends Service Committee and the many partnering groups who have stood in solidarity with the strikers is for CDCR to agree to put a cap on sentences in security housing units. Our own time limit, which is backed by UN documents, would be 18 months. Beyond that, people must have access to outdoor time, regular calls to family members, interaction with at least a small group of other prisoners, meaningful activities, adequate food and health care.

In addition, there must be avenues for redressing grievances other than the 602 process. Many of the conditions in these units came about arbitrarily, as forms of group punishment over time. Many of them are still in place. Others were revised with previous hunger strikes. It shouldn’t take drastic measures like starvation to bring about simple changes. Regular, respectful communication is essential to achieving justice in these systems.

As Street Spirit was going to press, there were two late-breaking developments. One was the promise by legislators of a joint hearing on solitary confinement in the Fall, with a strong sense from Senator Hancock and Assemblymember Ammiano that there is a major problem that needs attention. The real question is whether state legislators will put laws in place to prevent the abusive conditions that led to the hunger strike.

The other development was a promised phone conversation immediately after Labor Day between the Mediation Team, on which I serve, the four representatives of the four ethnic groups at Pelican Bay, and Department of Corrections officials.

Although the Mediation Team has been meeting with the officials off and on throughout the strike (and before), it has been difficult to make progress because the Department of Corrections refuses to “negotiate.” The call was for “communicating, not negotiating.”

If the prisoners are satisfied with these steps and decide they can safely begin to eat again, there will still be a lot to do to bring the issues to light through the hearings and to make the needed changes.

Go to http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.workpress.com for the latest information. See also the www.afsc.org and www.NRCAT.org for in-depth materials.

Laura Magnani is Healing Justice Program Director for the American Friends Service Committee, San Francisco.

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