[Ppnews] California Prison Crisis Sparks Statewide Hunger Strike - What Now?
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 10 12:14:15 EDT 2011
California Prison Crisis Sparks Statewide Hunger Strike -What Now?
by Angola 3 News
Tuesday Aug 9th, 2011 4:01 PM
Angola 3 News interviews Critical Resistance, a
national prison abolitionist organization based
in Oakland, about the recent statewide hunger
strike initiated by prisoners at Pelican Bay
State Prison. The strike is put in context,
alongside a statewide grassroots movement calling
for cuts in prison spending to address
Californias budget crisis, and a recent US
Supreme Court ruling that calls for the reduction
of California state prisoners by at least 30,000, in response to overcrowding.
California Prison Crisis Sparks Statewide Hunger
Strike --An interview with Isaac Ontiveros of Critical Resistance
By Angola 3 News
On July 20, hunger strikers at Californias
infamous Supermax, Pelican Bay State Prison
Secure Housing Unit (PBSP-SHU), declared victory
and ended their nearly three-week fast for human
rights. The strike had been announced several
months beforehand and when it began on July 1,
the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay were joined in
the fast by thousands of other prisoners across
the state. According to the California Department
of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), at
least 6,600 prisoners in at least one third of
Californias 33 prisons participated in the hunger strike.
In response to the hunger strike, Assemblymember
Tom Ammiano and the Public Safety Committee in
the State Assembly of California will hold an
informational hearing on August 23 regarding
conditions and policies of the Security Housing
Units at Pelican Bay. Activists have initiated
statewide mobilization around this hearing, in
order to pressure state legislators and the CDCR to make substantial changes.
written by the Short Corridor Collective,
composed of some Pelican Bay hunger strike leaders, explains that on July 1:
a collective group of PBSP-SHU inmates composed
of all races began an indefinite hunger strike as
a means of peacefully protesting 20-40 years of
human rights violations.... The decision to
strike was not made on a whim. It came about in
response to years of subjection to progressively
more primitive conditions and decades of
isolation, sensory deprivation and total lack of
normal human contact, with no end in sight. This
reality, coupled with our prior ineffective
collective filing of thousands of inmate
grievances and hundreds of court actions to
challenge such blatantly illegal policies and
practices (as more fully detailed and supported
by case law, in our formal complaint available
led to our conclusion that a peaceful protest via
hunger strike was our only available avenue to
expose whats really been going on here in
CDCR-SHU prisons and to force meaningful
change.... We ended the hunger strike the evening
of July 20, 2011, on the basis of CDCRs top
level administrators interactions with our team
of mediators, as well as with us directly,
wherein they agreed to accede to a few small
requests immediately, as a tangible good faith
gesture in support of their assurance that all of
our other issues will receive real attention,
with meaningful changes being implemented over time."
On August 3, the Prisoner Hunger Strike
Solidarity Coalition announced that it had just
a letter from the hunger strike leaders at
Pelican Bay, dated July 24, explaining that
strikers have given the California Department of
Corrections and Reform (CDCR) a deadline of two
to three weeks from July 20 to come up with some
substantive changes in response to
five core demands. Todd Ashker, one of the
leaders of the hunger strike, explains that if
the CDCR does not follow through, prisoners at
Pelican Bay plan to go back on hunger strike:
It's very important that our supporters know
where we stand, and that CDCR knows that we're
not going to go for any B.S. We remain as serious
about our stand now as we were at the start, and
mean what we said regarding an indefinite hunger
strike peaceful protest until our demands are
met. I repeat we're simply giving CDCR a brief
grace period in response to their request for the
opportunity to get [it] right in a timely fashion!
<http://www.hugopinell.com>Hugo Pinell, one of
the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay State Prison,
has now been held in continuous solitary
confinement for over 40 yearslonger than any
other US prisoner known to date. In
letter written during the strike to journalist
Pinell explained why he was fasting:
I have to get with it because its for a great
cause and if good changes come about, I could get
a break too. At this point, a move to a mainline
would be great, being that my keepers are
determined to keep me until I die. On a mainline,
we could have contact visits again! Its been too
long since Ive touched my Mom and all of my
I wasnt prepared for a hunger strike,
so I dont know how well or how long I can hold
on, but I had to participate
I dont even think
in terms of doing or saying something wrong, for
that would strike against everything I live for:
freedom, becoming a new man and the New World.
So, Sis, this hunger strike provides me with an
opportunity for change while also allowing me to
be in concert with, and in support of, all those
willing to risk their precious and valuable health.
interview with Solitary Watch about the Pelican
Bay hunger strike examined the broader issue of
solitary confinement in prisons throughout the
US. In this follow-up report, we place the strike
in context, alongside a statewide grassroots
movement calling for cuts in prison spending to
address Californias budget crisis, and a recent
US Supreme Court ruling that calls for the
reduction of California state prisoners by at
least 30,000, in response to overcrowding.
We interviewed Isaac Ontiveros for an inside look
from within Californias anti-prison movement.
Ontiveros is the Communications Director for
Critical Resistance, a national organization that
is working to abolish the prison-industrial
complex and is a member of the
United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) alliance
Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.
Angola 3 News:What is the latest news from the hunger strikers?
Isaac Ontiveros:As far as we know, the leaders of
the strike at Pelican Bays Security Housing Unit
have called an end to the strikebased on what
they see as some movement on the part of the CDCR
beginning to address some of their demands.
At the peak of the strike at least 6,600
prisoners across at least a third of Californias
33 prisons participated. These are official CDCR
numbers, so we can confidently assume actual
numbers were higher. Right now, our struggle is
to determine how many other prisoners, in what
prisons, are continuing to strike. Given how
isolated prisoners are throughout the system,
this is a challenge, to say the least.
A3N:Why have the Pelican Bay hunger strikers declared victory?
IO:The prisoners made very important, historic
gains. That the strikers were able to move the
CDCR at all was no small feat, especially when
working under some the most horrendous conditions
possible. The fact that they were able to
coordinate among themselves despite extreme
isolation is also impressive. Furthermore,
solidarity was able to spread throughout the
California system. This solidarity crossed the
racial and geographic lines that we are taught
are uncrossable; and strike leaders were able to
incite strong support of people outside of prison
on an international level. This is all very
important when we think about victories,
especially if we understand victories as being
stepping-stones to further and greater victories.
As far as the specific concessions made by the
prison administration, the details are still
coming, but it seems that CDCR has moved a bit on
the prisoners demands around providing and
expanding some of the privileges and programs
they have access to in the SHU. These gainsfor
example, some around cold weather clothing and
access to calendarsmay seem modest, but for
people in such extremely oppressive conditions,
these things take on a different weight. Also, it
seems like there could be some movement on some
of their other demands, perhaps some review of the debriefing process.
A3N:How can our readers support the next phase of this struggle?
IO:The next phase is to hold the CDCR to good
faith negotiations, and to continue our push for
all of the strikers demands to get met. It is
very important for supporters to continue their
solidarity work on the outside, with particular
attention toward defending strike leaders from
retaliation from the prison administration.
Many people are coordinating actions all over the
US and in other parts of the world. A potentially
important legislative hearing on conditions in
Pelican Bays SHU is happening on August 23rd in
Sacramentothere is lots of talk about that being a big point of mobilization.
Folks should stay tuned to the Prisoner Hunger
for more information.
A3N:In recent months, CURB has organized
statewide mass protests against California prison
politics. In response to the use of Californias
budget crisis as an excuse to cut state programs
serving low-income residents, CURB presented a
Humanity that called for dramatic reductions in
prison spending and the number of prisoners. How
does this campaign support the recent hunger strike?
IO:I think CURBs fight is absolutely related to
the strike because more prisons mean more
torture, more SHUs, more people be locked up,
more communities devastated economically and sociallyall of it.
The demands of the strikers were particular to
the conditions of Pelican Bays SHU, and the SHU
has a very specific function-- but the fact that
solidarity spread throughout the California
system also speaks to how common the conditions
the strike leaders were talking about are to all
prisonersdeadly lack of healthcare, poor food,
torture, overcrowding, breaking up of political
organizing, and more. These conditions are also
connected to those on the outside, primarily in Black and Brown communities.
Right now CURBs main platform, as outlined in
the Budget for Humanity, is demanding an end to
all prison and jail construction; an immediate
reduction of prison and jail overcrowding; the
releasing of tax dollars from the grip of
imprisonment; and an end to cuts to the most
vital services, along with a reprioritization of
how California uses it resources, to create what,
and for whom. These demands feed and are fed by
each other. Ending prison and jail construction
frees tens of thousands of people along with
billions of dollars. Ending the attack on basic
resources like education, healthcare, meaningful
employment, creates strong communities for people
to come home to and to thrive in.
We also have to understand that this is not just
a matter of fiscal sense-making and balancing the
budget. This is also about political power. This
is about capitalism and white supremacy. We need
to understand that SHUs, the prison system in
general, and police are tools of repression used
to thwart peoples efforts and abilities to fight
back, build up their communities, and build self-determination.
This also links CURBs work with prisoner strike
solidarity, along with community struggles
against gang injunctions, police violence, ICE
raids, and more. So I think CURBs workalong
with the work of so many other organizations and
coalitionsis a step toward building larger and
stronger grassroots movements that will make
larger, stronger, and more thoroughgoing economic and social changes.
A3N:Can you give a history of California's
"budget crisis"? How far back does this go? How
does it relate, if at all, to the accelerated
incarceration rates in the US that began in the
1970s, where the number of prisoners increased
from 300,000 to over 2 million today?
IO:The best answer to this question is the
wonderful and very important book
Gulag by Ruth Wilson Gilmore. The book explores
these questions in great detail and I really cant recommend it enough.
But roughly, we can understand that in the late
60s and early 70s, the powers-that-be in the US
responded to social uprisings against racism,
social and economic inequality, and other forms
of oppression in the US linked to
anti-imperialist struggles happening all over the
planet at the timeby making war primarily on
communities of color in a variety ways, including
the expansion and further militarization of
policing and the expansion of imprisonment. This
is intertwined with a crisis in the capitalist
system occurring at the same time. So we saw an
assault on organized labor and social services
and programs that was basically the rise of
neoliberal economic modelscreating a deepening
in the divide between the haves and have-nots
(already pretty deep for those marginalized to begin with).
Into the 1980s we saw the war on drugswhich we
should understand as a war on Black and Brown
communitiesgo into full gear with the passing of
thousands of laws, tougher and longer sentences,
and the activation of all sorts of media stories
and images that aggressively criminalize and
dehumanize poor people and people of color, especially Black people.
Even though the so-called crime rate started
dropping steadily in the early 80s, the economy,
this fear-mongering, increased policing, mixed
with the proliferation of anti-social ideas that
social services are a waste, created the perfect
storm for a gigantic increase in imprisonment.
And the cycle perpetuated itself from there with
harsher probation and parole conditions that made
it easier to deny essential services and to land
more people back in cages for longer amounts of
time. Tying it back to the 60s and 70s, this
cycle makes it more difficult for social
movements to change the oppressive social and
economic relationships the system is predicated on.
So, California, with one of the largest economies
in the world, is situated in this history. The
gutting of social services, the attack on labor,
the loss of jobs, tax revolts , the abandonment
of certain industries, financial speculation, the
disuse of farmland, housing bubbles, energy
speculation, dot-com bubbles, the
criminalization of people of color,
anti-immigrant hysteria, the passage of the three
strikes law, etc., leads to one the largest
prison expansions in world history.
Between 1982 and 2000, California's prison
population grew 500%. Between 1984 and 2005, at
least 20 prisons were built. In this period, only
one university was built. And right now, these
prisons are close to 200% of their holding capacity.
Obviously this history is cursory, simplistic,
and leaves out a lot, but in engaging with any
crisis there are questions we need ask, patterns
we need to identify, and actions we need to take.
In thinking about budget crisis, we need to ask
ourselves: why does everything (education,
healthcare and services, wages, jobs, etc.)
except corrections get cut? What does this mean
for the health of our communities? How does this
relate to further economic crisis? How are we
prepared to organize around this crisis? What are our opportunities?
A3N:Have there been any examples of other states
reducing their prison populations as a response to budget issues?
now, states are reducing prison spending, closing
facilities and releasing people in response to
the economic havoc caused by prisons. To be
clear, much of this reduction is not based on
progressive or humanitarian politics, or even an
opposition to imprisonment. But, in the past
year, New York, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma,
Florida, and Connecticut have all implemented a
variety of schemes to shrink imprisonment. Some
of them have to do with sentencing reforms and
parole and probation reforms, some schemes involve outright prison closure.
I think the key here is for organizations and
individuals that want to see longer-term and
deeper changes to organize around making these
shrinkages permanent, and then to battle to have
funds no longer wasted on prison spending be put
towards repairing and building up the communities
imprisonment has devastatedso that people coming home can stay home.
A3N:Further influencing California prison
politics is a recent US Supreme Court ruling that
calls for the reduction of California state
prisoners by at least 30,000, in response to
overcrowding. How significant is this ruling?
IO:This ruling is very significant. It says even
the Supreme Courtwhich is far from a politically
progressive entityrecognizes that the California
prison system is scandalous, devastating, and
deadly. It says change needs to happen immediately.
The Supreme Court decision gives us a chance to
address the human rights crisis in California
prisons, and to change the system itself,
hopefully so that we can avoid further crisis.
Acting strongly here also positions us to take
steps to address human rights crises happening
outside the prisons, in the communities from
which these thousands and thousand of prisoners are taken.
A3N:Since the CDCR released their proposal
responding to the US Supreme Court ruling (that
has been criticized by CURB in
letter to Gov Brown) has there been any response from the state government?
IO:Unfortunately, but maybe not surprisingly,
Gov. Brown and the CDCRs plan is to rearrange
the deck chairs on the Titanic. They came up with
a scheme called realignment where--rather than
let people out of cages, reforming parole
conditions, and using the tens of millions of
dollars that would free up to support these
prisoners return to their communitiesthey have
decided to shift these 33-40,000 prisoners to the
county level, ie. jails. Brown and the CDCR are
responding to one crisis by creating the conditions for 58 crises.
For example, Los Angeles County is 33% of the
entire California prison system. Its jails are
already overcrowded and have been the subject of
human and civil rights abuse scandals. Brown and
CDCRs realignment scheme would add at least an
extra 11,000 to that system. Their scheme does
nothing to address sentencing guidelines, and
there seems to be a not-so-hidden construction
scheme bubbling away on the side burner already.
So, they propose more disaster.
Whats hopeful is that, luckily, people all over
the state are more imaginative and humane than
Brown and Co. and are ready for some serious
changes. A recent poll shows a vast majority of
Californians oppose cutting key state services
and increasing taxes to pay for more prisons and
jails: 80% of Californians favor paroling people
who are terminally ill or medically
incapacitated, and 60% support reducing life
sentences for third strike prisoners.
People are ready for changes, and Id wager they
are ready to think about even greater changes. If
Brown and the CDCR want to shift the burden to
the county-level, then, with some strong
organizing, residents, organization, and
coalitions like CURB can meet them on their own
turf, and say, the only solution is to bring our
friends, family member, and neighbors all the way
home. And we can move forward from there.
(This article was first published by
Permission is granted to reprint if Alternet is cited as the original source.)
--Angola 3 News is a project of the International
Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is
where we provide the latest news about the Angola
3. We are also creating our own media projects,
which spotlight the issues central to the story
of the Angola 3, like racism, repression,
prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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