SHU prisoners: We want to be treated like human beings!

From the new November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters:

SHU prisoners: We want to be treated like human beings!

Pelican Bay, Calif.–On Sept. 26 Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisoners resumed their hunger strike, suspended on July 20, to give California prison authorities a chance to make good on their promises to address the prisoners demands (see “Pelican Bay SHU struggle continues!” Sept.-Oct. N&L). Especially important to the prisoners was getting out of perpetual solitary confinement, starting with an objective review of their status as active/inactive gang member.

As one prisoner put it on our Oct. 11 visit,

“CDC (California Department of Corrections) has a history of breaking promises. Even when they put policies in writing, prisons violate them. We have no meaningful recourse to address those violations. This time, CDC was to make a good faith effort. They didn’t.”

“They only conceded to superficial concerns, such as watch caps, sweats, calendars and art supplies, which they will not be giving us anyway, since they have been giving write-ups to everybody (being write-up free was a condition for receiving these ‘privileges.’) The officers have too much discretion. Appeal process is a joke. Wardens always side with the guards, they sign off on denials of appeals without even reading them.”

The restarted strike again spread through the whole California prison system, with, according to the prisons’ own estimate, over 12,000 participants during the first week.

The prisoners’ passive resistance against internationally recognized torturous isolation which prisoners call an “extralegal death sentence” was met with a new level of inhumanity. Authorities meted out collective punishment–everyone participating in the strike received a write-up for participating in a “major disturbance,” language usually used to designate a riot. The prison canceled medical, visiting, yard time and canteen. Prisoners’ cells were searched, all canteen items confiscated and in some instances at least, personal property, especially legal files, maliciously destroyed.

Fifteen hunger strikers were placed in extremely cold Administrative Segregation Unit cells with nothing but a thin layer of clothes. A prisoner in ad-seg said, “This has been a very peaceful protest and we were stripped of everything; cold air is being pumped into already very cold rooms. It is a deliberate form of torture as cold temperatures affect metabolism, already off balance when you are not eating. They tell us, ‘if you don’t like the conditions, start eating.’

“We’ve been getting the shaft for 25 years. In my 10 years here I have never been written up. They have a bunch of comments from informants, but not a single incident. Some have been in the hole for 38 years, all on informants’ say-so, with no proof, no corroboration.

All we want is to be treated like human beings. But they are so far gone, they can’t see it…They want me to tell everything about my life. OK, I want to tell it. I am from Watts, I grew up fatherless, surrounded by violence. This is the story of many of us in here. I am happy to tell it all. But I am not going to go into a closed room and tell them things to use against someone else.”

The prisoner we saw in the last few minutes was extremely gaunt compared to when we saw him on July 20. The following is part of a crucial message he had for prison authorities from the prisoners’ representatives:

“As you are aware the peaceful hunger strike suspended July 20, resumed on Sept. 26. Your response to date has been to retaliate against the PBSP-SHU prisoners willing to engage in a respectful, reasonable dialog with you in July/Aug., in order to resolve issues prior to permanent damage/death.

“We acted in good faith when we agreed to suspend our hunger strike on July 20, and we assisted in getting the other prisoners to end their hunger strike as well. Your retaliatory acts have been to subject us to additional torture by ordering us moved to PBSP Ad-Seg Stand Alone Building on strip cell status, in ice box isolation cells, deprived of our property, including hygiene items, vitamins, beverage items, address books, writing and reading material, and legal material (on Oct. 6, we received some legal stuff, not all of it), as well as denying many of us at least one legal visit, personal visits, yard, TV, appliances, etc. etc. etc….

“Since arriving here on Sept. 29, Warden Lewis and others told us that you have been honoring your end of our July 20 and Aug. 19 agreements. Our position is you have not done so…the lack of any specifics regarding getting out of SHU is a big problem…”

It was hunger strikers own words seeing the light of day that precipitated new talks between prison officials, hunger strike representatives and their lawyers. The hunger strike was again suspended when prison officials promised to review the status of every SHU prisoner on a new basis starting at the beginning of next year.

Reflecting on both hunger strikes, one prisoner writes:

“There’s a struggle in finding meaning in our suffering. In this last strike…prisoners have been awakened in here in solitary and united to the point where they’re saying, how come we never protested this way in unity years ago, to let our voices be heard against the ongoing CDC abuse? You hear this talk a lot now, which is a good thing. In reality we add to our suffering in solitary when inmates don’t stand up for our rights, banding together as one, protesting peacefully. We hurt ourselves when inmates resort to do violence against one another; that doesn’t solve anything.”Human progress is measured in prison and outside when every person is treated with dignity and respect naturally, no less. I thought a lot about this during the strike.”

Once again prisoners demonstrate the power of their own thinking and demands to be treated like human beings in the darkest corners of a prison gulag of absolute control and arbitrary judgment.

Urszula Wislanka

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