[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 
California’s 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 California’s 
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 
California’s 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 what’s 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 CDCR’s 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 
<http://kiilunyasha.blogspot.com/>Kiilu Nyasha, 
Pinell explained why he was fasting:
I have to get with it because it’s 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! It’s been too 
long since I’ve touched my Mom and all of my 
loved ones
I wasn’t prepared for a hunger strike, 
so I don’t know how well or how long I can hold 
on, but I had to participate
I don’t 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 California’s 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 California’s 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 
and the 
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 Bay’s 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 California’s 
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 Bay’s 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 
Strike Solidarity 
for more information.

A3N:In recent months, CURB has organized 
statewide mass protests against California prison 
politics. In response to the use of California’s 
budget crisis as an excuse to cut state programs 
serving low-income residents, CURB presented a 
<http://curbprisonspending.org/?p=529>“Budget for 
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 CURB’s 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 Bay’s 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 CURB’s 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 CURB’s work with prisoner strike 
solidarity, along with community struggles 
against gang injunctions, police violence, ICE 
raids, and more. So I think CURB’s 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 can’t 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?

<http://curbprisonspending.org/?p=672>even right 
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 
<http://curbprisonspending.org/?p=552>an open 
letter to Gov Brown) has there been any response from the state government?

IO:Unfortunately, but maybe not surprisingly, 
Gov. Brown and the CDCR’s 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 
CDCR’s 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.

What’s 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 I’d 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.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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