[Ppnews] Who Are the Hunger Strikers?

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jul 18 10:33:34 EDT 2011

Who Are the Hunger Strikers? How Prisoners Land in Pelican Bay’s SHUs

July 18, 2011
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

Sympathy for the prisoners on hunger strike in 
the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State 
Prisons is limited by the widely held impression 
that these men (and indeed, most supermax 
prisoners) are the “worst of the worst.” 
According to conventional wisdom, in order to 
land in the most secure units in the prison 
system, these men must have committed terrible 
crimes in the first place, and then compounded 
them by committing further violent acts while in 
prison. How else could they end up in long-term 
solitary confinement, locked up 22 1/2 hours a 
day in 8 x 10 cells for years or even decades?

In fact, as we’ve 
many times before, solitary confinement is now a 
disciplinary measure of first resort, rather than 
last resort, in most state prison systems. Any 
prisoner, regardless of his original crime, can 
end up in solitary. And he can be placed there 
for a wide variety of reasons–some of them quite 
heinous, and some of them fairly innocuous. In a 
on the new Firedoglake blog “The Dissenter,” 
anti-torture activist Jeff Kaye investigates the 
criteria under which California’s prisoners can be placed in the SHU:

According to the California Code of Regulations, 
Title 15, Section 3315, there are 23 “serious 
rule violations” that can send an inmate to an 
SHU for a determinate time. These 
“acquisition or exchange of personal or state 
property amounting to more than $50
. tattooing 
or possession of tattoo paraphenalia
. possession 
of $5 or more without authorization
. [and] 
refusal to work or participate in a program as 
assigned,” among others. Certainly violence or 
“mass disruptive conduct” is included in these 
codes, but so are “acts of disobedience or 
disrespect” or the perceived “threat to commit” a 
disruption or breach of security, including the 
“threat” to “possess a controlled substance.”

Beyond this, prisoners can end up in the SHU for 
doing nothing at all, provided they are 
“validated” as gang members. Gang validation can 
be done on the basis of a tattoo or a stray 
comment. Most often it depends upon information 
extracted from other prisoners. According to an 
article by 
Corey Weinstein in Prison Legal News:

More than 50% of the men in SHU are assigned 
indeterminate terms there because of alleged gang 
membership or activity. The only program that the 
California Department of Corrections and 
Rehabilitation (CDCr) offers to them is to 
debrief. The single way offered to earn their way 
out of SHU is to tell departmental gang 
investigators everything they know about gang 
membership and activities including describing 
crimes they have committed. The Department calls 
it debriefing. The prisoners call it “snitch, 
parole or die.” The only ways out are to snitch, 
finish the prison term or die. The protection 
against self-incrimination is collapsed in the 
service of anti-gang investigation.

CDCr asserts that the lockdown and snitch policy 
are required for the safety and security of the 
institution. Having legitimate penalogical 
purpose, the SHU program is deemed worth any harm 
done to the prisoners. California prisons 
continue to have a high rate of assaultive 
incidents among prisoners and from prisoners to 
staff. There is no proof or even any study that 
demonstrates that these measures are effective 
anti-gang measures. They appear to be no more useful than previous brutalities

Despite SHU confinement without end to attempt to 
control gangs, prison gangs thrive in 
California’s prisons. The gang leadership 
predictably uses the snitch sessions to falsely 
target their rivals, or just recruit new members. 
Just as we have seen in US anti-terror 
investigations, information derived from coercion is often unreliable.

In his post, Jeff Kaye writes that “the 
‘debriefing’ process is set up by statute 
It is a long-term process, whereby the prisoner 
‘volunteers’ to ‘debrief,’ i.e., to snitch upon 
other prisoners and identify them as ‘gang’ 
members.” Prisoners debrief under conditions of 
coercion, “segregated in their own unit for many 
months, often more than a year. If they fail to 
finish the ‘debriefing’ process, they lose 
whatever credits towards good behavior and 
release they may have accumulated during the 
debriefing process.” To demonstrate how the 
debriefing process works, Kaye provides a 
compelling example from a recent case in the 
California Court of Appeals, in which a 
prisoner’s “refusal to engage in the debriefing 
process supposedly proved he was a gang member, 
and worthy of administrative segregation” in the 
SHU. The court’s conclusions confirm, as Kaye 
describes it, that “if you don’t participate in 
their snitch program, you must, by the logic of 
the prison authorities, be an active gang member. 
Review of possible ‘inactive gang status’ takes 
place ‘after six years’ of solitary confinement, 
assuming the prison authorities determine you to 
have been ‘inactive’ during this time. But 
meanwhile, there’s a long ‘list’ of debriefing or 
debriefed prisoners, any of whom, after many, 
many months of interrogation by prison officials, 
may have fingered you as gang member.”

It is through this process that inmates are 
trapped indefinitely in solitary 
confinement–which is why the hunger strikers have 
included, among their 
demands, that the CDCR “eliminate group 
punishment” and instead ”practice individual 
accountability” in relegating prisoners to the 
SHU, and that it ”abolish the debriefing policy 
and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.”

Even if the prisoners’ demands were met, and CDCR 
looked only at “individual accountability” in 
assigning SHU terms, inmates could not expect 
anything like due process. As 
Pillar has reported in the 
Bee, California’s prisons “use the officers who 
guard and manage inmates to pass judgment over 
alleged rule  violations.” In other words, when 
it comes to disciplinary proceedings, prison 
officials simultaneously serve as police, 
prosecutor, judge, and jury, and inmates can be 
placed in solitary–or even have their prison 
terms extended–based on the say-so of a guard. 
Pillar’s investigations found “a pattern
suggests widespread suppression of inmates’ 
rights to contest allegations by guards or pursue 
claims of mistreatment. Current and retired 
officers, prisoners and parolees allege that 
correctional officers and their superiors 
routinely file bogus or misleading reports, 
destroy or falsify documentation of abuses, and 
intimidate colleagues or inmates who push back.”

Against this backdrop, it’s easier to understand 
the desperate measures being taken by the hunger 
strikers in California’s SHUs–especially those 
who have been in solitary confinement for 
decades, with little hope of ever getting out. As 
Ashker, one of the Pelican Bay strike organizers, 
put it: “We believe our only option of ever 
trying to make some kind of positive change here 
is through this peaceful hunger strike. And there 
is a core group of us who are committed to taking 
this all the way to the death if necessary.”

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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