[Ppnews] Why California's prisoners are starving for solitary change
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 11 17:16:22 EST 2012
Why California's prisoners are starving for solitary change
Californian prisoners have repeatedly gone on
hunger strike over the solitary confinement in which some spend decades
Wednesday 11 January 2012 16.27 EST
On 19 December 2011, three prisoners at Corcoran
a letter to the California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) threatening
to go on hunger strike if improvements were not
made to their living conditions. Evidently, they
received no response from the CDCR: the hunger strike began on 28 December.
This latest hunger strike, the third in less than
six months, is small potatoes compared to the
previous two, which were state-wide and involved
thousands of inmates. According to Terry
Thornton, a CDCR spokeswoman, it may already be
over. But the fact that Californian prisoners
have once again resorted to starving themselves
to protest the conditions of their confinement
does suggest that something is rotten in the Golden State's penal system.
The first hunger strike began on 1 July 2011, and
ended three weeks later when the CDCR agreed, in
theory at least, to address the participants'
five core demands, which amounted to better
living conditions, adequate food and clothing, an
end to group punishments and most importantly, an
end to the gang validation policy that sentences
inmates to endless terms in solitary confinement cells, known as SHUs.
One of my correspondents, Anthony, who has an
indeterminate SHU sentence (meaning, there's no
end in sight), described to me in a letter what
it is about the SHU environment he and his fellow
inmates find hard to tolerate.
"We're entitled to receive 10 hours of 'outdoor
exercise' a week, but lucky if we get half that.
At times, we're cooped up an entire week in our
cells before the opportunity of expanding our
lungs with fresh air. 'Outdoor exercise' consists
of being placed in a dog kennel-like cage, no
bigger than our cells. We're prohibited from all
recreational and exercise equipment, compelling
most to pace idly back and forth.
"Blinding bright lights remain on 24 hours a day
within our (windowless 8ft x 10ft) cells as we
have been denied control over them. Our
lavatories are electronically installed,
allotting each cell two flushes every 15 minutes."
The SHU residents are not alone in finding these
conditions intolerable. On 18 October 2011, after
inspecting such facilities,
Mendez, a United Nations expert on torture,
called for all countries to ban the use of
solitary confinement except in exceptional
circumstances, and even then, for no longer than 15 days.
Personally, I don't think I'd get through 15
hours locked up in a concrete box, with no
window, bright lights glaring 24/7 and a toilet
that won't stop flushing, but 15 days would
certainly be an improvement on 15 years, which is
about the average length of time the men who have
been writing to me from
SHUs have been locked up in these sensory deprivation units.
The CDCR's Thornton confirmed that many inmates
have spent several decades in the SHU (the record
so far that I know of is 35 years), but made the
point that most inmates earned their stay for
acts of violence from which prisoners in the
general population deserve to be protected. A
valid argument, certainly, but how can you tell
if an inmate is still a threat to the mainline
population after he's been locked in a box by himself for 20 plus years?
The problem for SHU inmates is that once they get
sent to the box, it's almost impossible to work
their way out of it. Their options are to either
"debrief, parole or die", which as it turns out
are non-options. Debriefing, or "snitching", on
other prisoners can provoke retaliation; parole
is rarely granted and dying
well, suicides are
certainly not rare in solitary confinement, but
it turns out many SHU inmates still have the will to live.
The first hunger strike, which involved more than
6,000 inmates, brought little meaningful reform.
After three weeks of starvation, the prisoners
found that what they had gained amounted to
little more than the right to purchase sweatpants
and coloring pencils. Less than two months later,
of disciplinary action by the CDCR (pdf),
hunger strike resumed with almost double the
number of original participants (pdf). It all got
a bit ugly for a while: mail and visiting
privileges were suspended; attorneys for the
hunger strikers were banned from entering the
prison; participants received behavior violation
write-ups; and according to several testimonies,
the alleged leaders of the hunger strike were
placed in freezing cold cells without proper
clothing and forced to remain there for 15 days.
Eventually, a deal was reached, with promises
from the CDCR to address the prisoners' demands
and to set about instigating a "step down"
program, which would allow alleged gang members
to earn their release from the SHU without
having to debrief. Laura Magnani, a member of the
mediation team representing the prisoners, says
the CDCR appear to be negotiating in good faith and progress is being made.
If this turns out to be the case, it's good news.
If not, more hunger strikes seem inevitable as
does the possibility that deaths will occur. One
would hope it will not take the creation of
martyrs to bring about the changes that anyone
with a conscience knows are overdue.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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