Prisoners are rising above years of torment, torture and vilification to assert their humanity
As of this writing, thousands of prisoners remain on hunger strike across the state of California, with prisoners in other states also joining in. The hunger strike began on Monday, July 8, with 30,000 prisoners taking part in two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons. The New York Times reported that on Wednesday, the third day, 29,000 prisoners were still on hunger strike and that it could become “the largest in state history.” (The next day, California prison authorities claimed that the number of hunger strikers was 12,421.)
The prisoners are striking over five core demands, which the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has refused to meet—especially an end to long-term solitary confinement. Prisoners can be held for decades without phone calls, rehabilitation programs, time outside, or even access to fresh air or sunlight, in windowless cells without meaningful human contact. The United Nations condemns solitary confinement beyond 15 days as torture, yet many in California have been imprisoned in solitary for years and even decades.
Prisoners in California went on hunger strike in 2011 over these demands. They ended the strike when state authorities pledged to take steps to meet the demands. But the state has failed to take any significant steps. On July 5, Amnesty International stated that “rather than improving,” conditions in California prisons “have actually significantly deteriorated.”
Prisoner representatives at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) encouraged other prisoners to make their own additional demands, and so far prisoners from at least six other prisons have done so (Corcoran, Wasco, High Desert, Salinas Valley, Susanville, and New Folsom. See prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/demands-across-the-system).
On Monday night, prisoner representatives at Pelican Bay SHU issued the following statement:
“We are grateful for your support of our peaceful protest against the state-sanctioned torture that happens not only here at Pelican Bay but in prisons everywhere. We have taken up this hunger strike and work stoppage, which has included 30,000 prisoners in California 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. We encourage everyone to take action to support the strike wherever they live. Sign the petition demanding the California governor stop the torture, plan rolling solidarity fasts if you are able, use every means to spread the word and participate in non-violent direct action to put pressure on decision-makers. If it was not for your support, we would have died in 2011. Thank you everyone. We are confident we will prevail.”
This is a very important and inspiring call. Prisoners are rising above years of torment, torture and vilification to assert their humanity, raise their sights and fight, as they say, “not only to improve our own conditions but also as an act of solidarity with all prisoners and oppressed people around the world.”
In the face of this, prison authorities are continuing to lie and vilify the prisoners—even denying there is any solitary confinement in California. And there are very disturbing signs that they’re preparing to retaliate or allow prisoners to die rather than meet their just demands.
In a radio interview on July 11 (KALW), in the face of growing support for the hunger strike and amid shocking reports that the CDCR has been sterilizing women without their consent,* CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton denied that the SHU can even be considered “solitary” confinement because prisoners have contact with the guards who shove their trays of food through the slots on their doors, that the cell doors are made of metal that has holes, and that the halls outside the cells have skylights.
But as prisoner rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International clearly say, the SHU fits the definition of solitary confinement and is a form of torture. And the prisoners themselves, some of whom are on hunger strike as of this writing, tell of extreme psychological and physical suffering from years and sometimes decades of life in the SHU.
Terry Thornton has insisted that the only reason prisoners are going on hunger strike is because “There are subservient street gangs that are beholden to these gang leaders at Pelican Bay and other places that call the shots and order hits on other people, murders on other people.” This is an outrageous attack on the courageous prisoners—and a shameless denial of the fact that the prisoners are being subjected to conditions of torture and that they have gone on a hunger strike to demand to be treated as human beings.
Trying to pit prisoners against each other, the CDCR issued a press release today saying, “The mass hunger strike is organized by prison gangs and publicizing participation levels at specific prisons could put inmates who are not participating in extreme danger.” And the CDCR is threatening to put prisoners from the general population who go on hunger strike into what is called Ad Seg, usually another form of solitary. The press release also threatened cell searches of hunger strikers on the grounds that they might have food from the canteen in their cells.
The determined action of the prisoners in the face of all this urgently calls for broad, massive support around the country:
* The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solitary Coalition has called for a mass march and rally at the gates of Corcoran State Prison for this Saturday, July 13. Check here for details.
* The Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN) is calling for a National Day of Action to Support Prison Hunger Strikers on Friday, July 19.
* SMIN has also issued an urgent call for people to sign and contribute to the publication of the EMERGENCY CALL TO STOP TORTURE IN U.S. PRISONS! in the Los Angeles Times.
Check back at revcom.us for further coverage as the hunger strike continues.
* See article from Center for Investigative Reports, “Lawmakers call for investigation into sterilization of female inmates” [back]
The above article originally appeared on revcom.us on July 11, 2013.
30,000 California Prisoners Join Hunger Strike
The California prisoner hunger strike has gotten off to a very powerful and significant beginning. On July 8, California prison authorities admitted that over 30,000 prisoners had joined the hunger strike by refusing meals. The Los Angeles Times said this “could be the largest prison protest in state history.”
According to the LA Times, “Inmates in two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons, and at all four out-of-state private prisons, refused both breakfast and lunch on Monday, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. In addition, 2,300 prisoners failed to go to work or attend their prison classes, either refusing or in some cases saying they were sick.”
Prisoners from other states had announced their intention to join the fight with hunger strikes, work stoppages, and other actions. In some cases, prisoners in other states have already launched hunger strikes or other protests.
Nearly 4,000 prisoners in California are imprisoned in barbaric conditions in “Security Housing Units,” or SHUs, some for decades. Over 6,000 more California prisoners and some 70,000 nationwide face other forms of solitary confinement. Legal and human rights groups hold that long-term solitary confinement constitutes torture.
In a June 20 statement, prisoner representatives from the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor Collective Human Rights Movement had said that on July 8, “our nonviolent peaceful protest of our subjection to decades of indefinite state-sanctioned torture, via long-term solitary confinement will resume…consisting of a hunger strike/work stoppage of indefinite duration until CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] signs a legally binding agreement meeting our demands, the heart of which mandates an end to long-term solitary confinement (as well as additional major reforms).”
Rallies and protests supporting the prisoners’ hunger strike took place across California, from a dozen people outside the gates of Pelican Bay State Prison in the northwest corner of the state where the hunger strike began, to the San Francisco Bay Area where a number of actions were held by different groups including Stop Mass Incarceration Network-Bay Area and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, to Los Angeles where, among other actions, there was a rally of some 200 people, mostly families of the incarcerated. At UC Berkeley, a number of students—some of whom had served time in the SHU—launched a rolling fast in support of the hunger strikers.
The courageous prisoners on hunger strike are putting their lives on the line to fight for their humanity and for justice, and they need broad public support. Their action is a living demonstration of the potential of those the system has cast off—and declares to be the “worst of the worst”—to be the backbone of a revolution that overthrows the system responsible for horrible crimes around the world, including the barbaric prison conditions, and to emancipate all humanity.
Stay tuned to revcom.us for coverage of this extremely significant struggle.
For background, including the core demands of the prisoners, see:
- Revolution Interview: Carol Strickman, from Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Prisoners’ Struggle Against “Cruel and Unusual Punishment Amounting to Torture”
- Interview with Jules Lobel, Lead Attorney for California Lawsuit Against Solitary Confinement
This article originally appeared on revcom.uson July 9, 2013.