By the time you read this article, prisoners across California will have embarked on their second hunger strike in just a few months. Rising up against conditions of torture, the first hunger strike lasted three weeks in July, with thousands coming together in an unprecedented show of unity and force. The second hunger strike may not be as large as the first, but it promises to be more brutal, and there is a real risk that prisoners could die. If you’re on the outside, there are many ways you can support those on the inside in their struggle – indeed, your involvement and action are crucial.
The second hunger strike will necessarily build on lessons learned in July. While prisoners in many facilities were struggling against their own conditions, that strike was initiated by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), a solitary isolation facility located in the remote edge of northern California by the Oregon border.
It is not surprising that the largest prisoner protest in years, one that brought together people from different nationalities and organizations, kicked off in the Pelican Bay-SHU, for this unit embodies key aspects of the State’s most ambitious, and destructive, policies.
Cells in the SHU have no windows, just fluorescent lights which are never turned off. Prisoners spend 22-23 hours a day thus confined; when they are allowed out it is to be brought (alone) to what is euphemistically called an “exercise yard” – in fact, just a larger enclosed space with grating instead of a roof. There are no contact visits with loved ones, ever. Violence from guards is commonplace. Merely shouting out to another prisoner through your cell door can be considered a disciplinary infraction. Prisoners are fed substandard food, they are punished collectively for issues involving individuals – generally on a “racial” basis – and their indefinite SHU sentences end only if they agree to “debrief,” that is to say, to snitch.
These are the conditions in which people have spent years, even decades, of their lives – often with no prospect of ever getting out.
The SHU is best understood as a long-term behavior modification program. This kind of treatment was developed in the 20th century, under the auspices of both sides during the Cold War, with the goal of destroying people without breaking the rules of Geneva Convention. The result was yet another new weapon in the hands of the ruling class. In America the first experiments in this vein were the Marion and Lexington Control Units, specifically aimed at political prisoners and prisoners of war. Today, close to 100,000 people suffer in such units, which sprouted like a plague across the country in the late 1980s.
If the SHU is a ruling class weapon, who is it aimed at? The answer to this is two-fold. On the one hand, control units are aimed at “security threats” within the prison system, a category that includes anyone organizing against oppression: jailhouse lawyers, revolutionaries, and other “troublemakers.” People have ended up in the SHU for having a book by George Jackson, or a tattoo of a Huelga bird. More broadly, though, the SHU is aimed at all prisoners. Throughout the system, the threat is, if you step out of line you’ll be put in “segregation.” Even those who are not sent to the SHU are subjected to isolation conditions that have been perfected in institutions like Pelican Bay.
For the democratic State, every weapon of oppression must be accompanied by a propaganda attack. This is the way in which the ruling class enjoys what US political prisoner George Jackson referred to as the State’s prestige, or what Italian political prisoner Antonio Gramsci referred to as hegemony. So what could be termed psychological or ideological warfare is the necessary companion of every assault on the oppressed. In the case of the SHU, this psychological warfare takes the form of the gang label.
Accusing people of belonging to a “gang” has become a convenient way to deprive those people of the ability to communicate, to develop politically/intellectually/culturally, and to pursue what are supposed to be their rights under the system’s laws. Many people are understandably fearful of the violence and mayhem associated with many criminal organizations, and these fears are exploited by bodies such as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in order to justify clamping down on any collective activity, accusing those they don’t like of being members of “gangs” whether or not this is true. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this works to isolate these people from their communities, further eroding the ties of solidarity that exist between poor and oppressed people, leading to an increase in atomization and antisocial violence which in turn makes these communities all the more vulnerable to actual criminal organizations and oppressors operating on both sides of the law.
In other words, repression of “gangs” serves as a fig leaf for the repression of any collective action or organization by the oppressed that does not suit the plans of the oppressor. This dynamic exists in communities throughout the United States, but like most oppressive dynamics it appears in its most concentrated form within the prison system.
As recently explained on the California Correctional Crisis blog, produced by faculty and students at University of California Hastings College of the Law: “To curb criminal gang activity, we have adopted special sentencing rules and uniquely oppressive correctional practices. This special treatment goes beyond the mere development of special investigation practices, evidentiary rules and penal technologies; it includes the development of a new body of knowledge that regards gang members as special, their lives and behavior beyond the reach of ordinary human common sense. But we have done more: By examining gang practices as special and unique, through the lens of clinical expertise, we have relegated gang members to the status of incorrigible specimens, who can only be studied, controlled, governed, and suppressed through special, dehumanizing technologies.”
The SHU is itself one such dehumanizing technology.
The July Hunger Strike: Round One
Predictably, a major concern in July was that many prisoners suffered a marked deterioration of their health, a situation the prisoncrats exploited in an attempt to break the strike. Strikers were advised to take multivitamins and salt tablets – and yet these were often not available. CDCR insisted that everyone was being monitored, but there were reports that this “monitoring” consisted of someone standing at a cell door asking if the prisoner was feeling alright. Prisoners were supposed to be weighed daily, but this was sometimes done while they wore chains, sometimes not, making the entire exercise somewhat pointless.
When it became clear that some prisoners were willing to continue regardless of the consequences, the State started exploring other options. On July 20, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate announced that he would seek a court order allowing prison officials to force-feed striking prisoners – including those who had signed advance medical directives indicating that they did not wish to receive any such life-sustaining measures.
Force-feeding is the State’s trump card when dealing with hunger strikes. It is intensely painful, especially when the patient resists, and is often used as an excuse for physical violence from guards and other staff. Indeed, force-feeding has itself been described as a form of violence. At the same time – despite the fact that prisoners have died while being force-fed, and that the World Medical Association prohibits the practice – in the public’s eye the procedure often reduces the urgency of a strike, because people incorrectly believe that the health of a person being force-fed is no longer at risk.
Nevertheless, the State never ended up playing that hand. On July 22, CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan met with prisoner representatives, and an agreement was reached whereby the strike would be suspended, in exchange for which the CDCR would begin making significant changes to address each of the prisoners’ five demands. Specifically, Kernan promised that the hated debriefing policy would be replaced by a step-down program based on behavior, not purported “gang” affiliation.
While CDCR did make some minor concessions on the spot – allowing prisoners to purchase warm clothes and art materials, for instance – as days turned to weeks, many of the prisoner representatives began to feel they were being played. Meanwhile, CDCR put out the word that the prisoners had settled for these token concessions, denying that there had been any promise for more significant structural changes. It was an intolerable situation: CDCR was aiming to undo the July hunger strikers’ most important accomplishment – their unity and moral prestige at having resisted torture – and was trying to make it look as if people had settled for crumbs, as if the whole struggle had been over “beanies and calendars”.
In this situation, it was soon decided to resume the hunger strike.
Round Two: Thoughts on the Eve of a Storm
This article is being written exactly two months after the end of the first hunger strike – and less than 72 hours before the start of the next one. Writing beforehand but knowing that this will be read during – or even after – the second strike, poses certain challenges. Nevertheless, the experiences over the summer point to some clear lessons that people would do well to keep in mind.
1) In resisting conditions of torture in the SHU, the prisoners are challenging an important ruling class institution. The SHU, the prison system in general, and specific “anti-gang” policies, are central to how the government controls oppressed people in the United States. The State will do all it can to hold on to these weapons. It will exploit the difficulties prisoners face when communicating with each other and the outside movement. It will exploit fears about gangs and criminality. It will exploit prisoners’ medical conditions. It will exploit every advantage it has – which is why it is all the more important that each and every one of us who opposes this system support the prisoners’ struggle.
3) The struggle to support the prisoners is hampered by a lack of resources. The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition is strapped for cash. California Prison Focus did not have sufficient funds to publish its Prison Focus newsletter prior to the second strike. A very small number of people have been doing most of the work. If the second hunger strike persists, a lack of outside support will translate into dead prisoners. More people and organizations need to get involved.
5) Autonomous action seems to be on the agenda. While the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition has done an excellent job, its mandate is to amplify the voices of the prisoners, not to provide leadership. As for the hunger strikers, the prison system as a whole is designed to prevent easy communication with the outside – and nowhere is this more true than in the SHU. It is not realistic to expect people in isolation cells to micromanage an outside solidarity campaign. People need to think about how to intervene, because nobody’s going to come up with a grand plan for us.
7) Escalation will occur, whether we can match it or not. CDCR has already stated that the response to a second hunger strike will be harsher than what occurred over the summer. As possible preparation for this, prisoners received disciplinary warnings after the first strike, informing them that they had broken prison rules, that this was being entered into their file, and that they would be punished if this happened again. Action on the outside has to be imaginative and inspiring, more than just phoning politicians. The prisoners have made a point of framing their struggle as a nonviolent one, but even with that limitation there are a wide range of options that should be explored and pursued.
9) The prisoners don’t come from outer space, they come from communities. They have family members and loved ones. These are the people who will have to take the lead in developing a strong movement on the outside, one that threatens the State so that it comes to see ending its SHU torture program as the lesser of two evils.
To get involved with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, contact email@example.com or call: 510.444.0484
To keep up to date with activity around the hunger strike, visit the blog at http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com or subscribe to Hungerstrike News by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
To connect with other people working around the hunger strike, including many family members of prisoners, check out the Pelican Bay- California Hunger Strike Solidarity! group on facebook.
HUNGER STRIKE DEMANDS:
1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).