A special report from News and Letters Committees:
Vigil supporting Pelican Bay’s hunger strikers in Oakland on July 15. One of many demonstrations in support of the prisoners’ action
The hunger strike among California prisoners, consigned to perpetual solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHU), officially ended on July 20th but what persists are the conditions that drove many prisoners to severely endanger their health by not eating for three weeks. Prisoners we spoke to at the Pelican Bay SHU on July 21st were bewildered that the strike had been called off after prison officials made a few token gestures like granting a cap to help keep warm in their cold cells and the right to have a wall calendar while only agreeing to “consider” other issues. Prison officials admitted that at one point 6,600 inmates in at least 13 California prisons had joined the strike and, despite denials they were forced to negotiate with striking prisoners.
The success of the strike is that it drew widespread attention to the torturous isolation from which many prisoners have no exit, caught in a hell in which there is no way to overcome the designation “gang member” which put them in the SHU. An African American prisoner in the SHU for 17 years said all he has to do is to speak with another African American to be designated an active “gang member.” The only way out of the SHU is to go through a prison “debriefing” where one “snitches” or implicates someone else. He said, even if he would want to do such a thing, by now he would have to make things up because he doesn’t know anyone anymore. Prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation forced on prisoners by a “snitch or die in the SHU” policy, are in fact internationally recognized as torture.
An elderly prisoner we met, who has chronic heart failure and has been in the Pelican Bay SHU for 20 years, has been continuously imprisoned on a seven to life sentence he started serving in 1968. When he was up for review in ’96 he was told that a confidential source (someone debriefing) said he planned to blow up the California Department of Corrections in Sacramento from his prison cell! On a more recent evaluation day he said a guard testified he heard him say he was still in a gang–a “total fabrication” that was enough to keep him in the SHU six more years. The doctor who saw him last January ordered a transfer out to Folsom where they have facilities to care for his conditions but the hated Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Sayre denied the transfer.
A Latino prisoner, weighing 136 pounds after losing 27 pounds, came directly from the medical facility and was visibly very weak and unable to speak a few minutes into our visit because of a dry throat. We were not allowed to buy him a bottle of water nor would the guards make any water available to him. After a few minutes, this prisoner who has been in the Pelican Bay SHU for 26 years, continued despite the difficulties because he so wanted to tell his story. Though he tried eating after hearing the strike was over he hadn’t been able to keep any food down. He also had doubts about whether the strike was indeed over because he first heard about the end of the strike from an officer. He was, if necessary, determined to continue on saying, “We knew this would not be easy, that we would have to continue until some die.”
The SHU is the heart of an inhuman California prison system designated by federal courts as committing systemic medical abuse and now under orders to cut its population by 30,000 out of over 110,000. SHU torture is the “Lucifer effect” in the extreme, so named by Stanford psychologist Dr. Zimbardo who had to stop a two week experiment after six days when students, selected for being well-balanced individuals and assigned the role of prison guards, became sadistic while those assigned the role of prisoners displayed extreme stress.
The collective action of California prisoners challenges the foundations of a totally irrational prison system evident to anyone willing to make even the scantiest comparison to the way other countries, and even some other states, deal with crime. Prisoners also challenged the way the system, especially the guards union, holds state resources hostage at the cost of education and healthcare.
The African American, Latino and white prisoners, who united in the SHU, raised a fundamental human question with far deeper implications than political ones.
Prisoners are risking their lives against their torturous isolation in order to utter, as one prisoner put it, “a fundamental plea that our humanity and dignity be respected” (see below). This unifying thread was heard throughout the prison system and the outside as acts of solidarity and demonstrations were held across the country and internationally. It totally contradicted the official mantra, issued daily by CDC spokesperson, Terry Thornton, that the hunger strikers were gang members who had to be separated because of the threat they pose to society. The criminal justice system loves the designation “gang” in order to denigrate that most human attribute, becoming who we are through our freely chosen associations with others. While a gang may perceive most others as the enemy, the prisoners’ strike showed the opposite: that they considered all other prisoners a part of their “we.” The hunger strike–as an association by prisoners in total opposition the prison’s inhumanity, even risking their own death–was, at the same time, asserting a new beginning in human relations.
The prisoner’s demand for human dignity in the belly of the beast of the California prison system, the SHU, is at the core of our struggle for a new human society. Stop the torture in California prisons!
–Ron Kelch and Urszula Wislanka
Letter from a striker
July 4, 2011
Here in Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit (SHU), a number of us prisoners decided to launch a peaceful collective protest in the form of a hunger strike starting July 1, 2011. This action is necessary due to the anti-human, draconian institutional policies implemented by the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation governing the treatment of SHU prisoners.
As it stands now, according to the policies in place, our collective confinement and length of time in SHU are by no stretch of the imagination an extralegal death sentence. The use of the term “extralegal” is quite correct. The court ruling that established the active/inactive gang status review has amounted to a comic process that clearly undermines its original judicial intent. It was supposed to be an impartial review of a prisoner’s past and present institutional behavior in determining his alleged gang status. It has turned onto a re-designation of gang status, which landed one in the SHU in the first place.
The criterion that is supposed to govern the active/inactive review is criminal activity in furthering said gang’s interest. Since the Institutional Gang Investigators cannot find any kind of criminal activity in furthering the objectives of a gang, they use a boiler-plate term, such as “a threat to inmates, staff, and institutional security.” This serves to satisfy their claim of one’s still alleged gang involvement, and consequently another six years of SHU confinement. It is without a doubt their way of maintaining their forced interrogation policy: one has to debrief (snitch) or die in the SHU.
It is this issue, more than any other, that has galvanized the overwhelming support of us prisoners. The hunger strike is intended to bring about a process where we are judged on an impartial and individual basis in determining one’s alleged gang status, one that affords us a real opportunity of being released from the SHU to fully participate in whatever rehabilitation programs are still available to California prisoners.
We are not asking for anything special in our treatment, only the due process of law that has been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. What the hunger strike is about, in essence, is a fundamental plea that our humanity and dignity as men be respected.