[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 
State Prison 
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.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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