From the new September-October 2011 issue of News & Letters:
Pelican Bay, Calif.–The hunger strike among California prisoners, consigned to perpetual solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHU), was suspended on July 20. The conditions that drove many prisoners to severely endanger their health by not eating for three weeks persist. According to prison officials themselves, at one point 6,600 inmates in at least 13 California prisons had joined the strike.
The hunger strikers discovered their own power when the authorities did something they said they would never do, that is, openly negotiate across the table with the prisoners’ strike committee.
Rally at the Sacramento capitol on Aug. 23 before legislative hearings on Pelican Bay SHU
The prison authorities begged the prisoners to give up their strike, privately promising them they would address some of the core issues, while publicy claiming they would offer prisoners some tokens they had no right to take away in the first place like a hat to help them keep warm in their cold cells and the right to have a wall calendar.
The prisoners decided to give the prison officials a few weeks to show their good faith out of concern for some, including those on solidarity hunger strikes in other prisons, who were at the point of doing real damage to their health. None believe the prison administrators will deliver. If they don’t, after prisoners rebuild their strength they plan to continue the strike.
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 “validated” as an active gang member. The only way out of the SHU is to go through a “debriefing” where one implicates someone else. He said, even if he wanted to do such a thing, 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. Dorsey Nunn, an ex-prisoner who testified in Sacramento on Aug. 23 before a specially called legislative hearing on the Pelican Bay SHU, caught the essence of the multi-racial, non-violent strike when he said prisoners were demanding to be “validated” as human beings.
An elderly SHU prisoner we visited on July 21 has been in the Pelican Bay SHU for 20 years. He has been continuously imprisoned on a seven-to-life sentence he started serving in 1968. When he was up for review in 1996, he was revalidated by a confidential source (a debriefer) who supposedly 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 him transferred out to the Folsom Prison medical facility, where they can care for his chronic heart failure, but the hated Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Sayre, denied the transfer.
A Latino prisoner, who lost 27 pounds in the strike, came directly from the medical facility and was 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 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 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 of over 160,000 by 30,000. Guards’ power over prisoners with no real oversight re-creates 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, assigned the role of prison guards and selected for being well-balanced individuals, 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, which is evident to anyone willing to make even the scantiest comparison to the way other countries, and even 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 anti-SHU action 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 “Hunger striker speaks,” this page). 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 prison administration 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 to the prison’s inhumanity, even risking their own death–was, at the same time, asserting a new beginning in human relations.
The prisoners’ 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!
–Urszula Wislanka and Ron Kelch