Victoria Law's Blog

Strike Zone: Hungering for Justice in the Crime-and-Punishment System

By Victoria Law

“This is what democracy looks like!” These days, when you hear those words at a protest, whether officially permitted or not, you know that the police are seconds away from pulling out their plastic handcuffs and pepperspray and getting ready to pack their paddywagons.

On October 5th, near the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, I heard that chant as the police closed in on a group of protesters attempting to breach the barricades blocking Wall Street. Knowing that arrests and violence were soon to follow, my daughter and I turned and left. We circled around to Zuccotti Park where we stayed for an hour and a half until police arrived on horseback and motor scooters and began closing the protesters in with metal barricades.

If this is what democracy looks like, at least there are numerous cameras to record the ways that the police and the city treat the 8,000 to 12,000 exercising their democratic right to protest.

Across the country, on that same day, prisoner rights activists and prisoners’ families converged on the headquarters of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in Sacramento and its regional offices in Los Angeles. Their aim? To draw attention to the less-seen side of democracy—the Security Housing Units and extreme solitary confinement endured by about 80,000 people imprisoned in the United States and to the hunger strike launched by prisoners across California to challenge this reality.

The strike, which began on July 1, 2011, was called by men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The SHU is explicitly designed to keep prisoners in long-term solitary confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. Men are locked into their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door.

Prison administrators place men in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term because they were “validated” as prison gang members. Prisoners who have been “validated” as gang members are released from the SHU into the general prison population only if they “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefs and his family on the outside. In addition, prisoners are often falsely identified as gang members by others who debrief in order to escape the SHU. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member to be sent to the SHU: jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU.

Yes, this is also what democracy looks like. We just don’t see it on our street corners or on our tv screens.

The hunger strikers have five core demands:

1)      Eliminate group punishments for individual rule violations;

2)      Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;

3)      Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long term solitary confinement;

4)      Provide adequate food;

5)      Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

After several negotiations with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), prisoner representatives called a temporarily halt to the strike. By then, it had lasted three weeks, spread to thirteen other state prisons and involved approximately 6,600 prisoners.

Unlike the Wall Street demonstrations, no cameras were allowed to record the prisoners’ actions. The CDCR refused to grant media access during the strike; on August 13, it allowed media to tour the SHU, but not speak with hunger strike participants.

However, family members, advocates and concerned community members have acted to draw attention to the hunger strike. In Oakland, supporters held a weekly vigil on Thursday evenings. On July 9th, supporters organized demonstrations in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. On July 18th, 200 family members, lawyers and outside supporters from across California converged upon CDCR headquarters in Sacramento, delivered a petition of over 7,500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers, and then marched to Governor Brown’s office to demand answers. That same day, supporters in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York City and Philadelphia also held solidarity rallies.

Compelled by the hunger strike, its ensuing publicity, and community pressure on legislators, the California Assembly’s Public Safety Commission held a hearing on SHU conditions on August 23. Former SHU prisoners, family members, attorneys, advocates and psychiatrists testified about the need for substantial changes to SHU policies and practices. CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan, who was a negotiator with the hunger strike representatives, also testified, indicating that the CDCR would expand SHU placement to prisoners not involved with gangs but whose behavior is considered disruptive to prison operations. This could, and most likely would, include those who participate in mass hunger strikes.

On August 31, staff at SHU issued memos stating that prisoners would be allowed to have handballs on the yard and the ability to purchase sweatsuits. If they remained free of disciplinary violations for one year and gained committee approval, they would be allowed to have a yearly photo taken and to purchase art pens and drawing paper from the prison canteen. None of the core demands were addressed.

In addition, staff issued many of the hunger strikers a disciplinary memo which stated, “Your behavior and actions were out of compliance with the Director’s Rules, and this documentation is intended to record your actions, and advise that progressive discipline will be taken in the future for any reoccurrence of this type of behavior.”

Prison officials have retaliated against the hunger strikers in other ways. According to Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, “Prisones are receiving serious disciplinary write-ups, usually reserved for serious rules violations, for things like talking in the library or not walking fast enough. It’s clear that prison officials are trying to intimidate these men and to make them ineligible for any privileges or changes that may be forced by the strike.”

Prison officials have also retaliated against outside supporters: Both Strickman and Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus, had been involved in extensive discussions with corrections officials and leaders of the strike. On September 29th, the Department of Corrections placed them under investigation, alleging that they “violated the laws and policies governing the safe operations of institutions within the CDCR.” Both are banned from all California prisons until the investigation is concluded. Family members attempting to visit hunger strikers were turned away and told that no visits would be permitted until the strike ends.

With their human rights still denied, prisoners throughout California resumed their hunger strike on September 26th. By the third day, nearly 12,000 were participating. The strike spread not only to 12 prisons inside California, but also to prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma that are housing California prisoners.

“No one wants to die,” Mutop DuGuya, one of the hunger strike representatives, wrote in the original announcement for the hunger strike. “Yet under this current system of what amounts to immense torture, what choice do we have? If one is to die, it will be on our own terms.”

Outside support is crucial. The hunger strikers have clear ideas about how people can support their struggles:

  • Contact Governor Brown and California legislators (including members of the Public Safety Commission) to voice your concern about SHU conditions. Urge them to meet the hunger strikers’ demands. See below for contact information.
  • Make sure that the struggle stays in the media eye and that the prisoners’ demands are clearly communicated.
  • Continue to hold rallies and demonstrations to bring public awareness to the reality of extreme isolation in prisons.
  • Become informed about prison conditions in general and what can be done to change them.
  • Subscribe to publications that cover prison conditions and news about crime-and-punishment legislation.
  • Support prisoners’ advocacy groups and their families to bring positive change to their lives.
  • Make contact with a person in prison.
  • Become proactive in making changes to the legal system and stopping mass incarceration.

Update, as of 10/13/11: The hunger strikers at Pelican Bay have ended their hunger strike. HOWEVER, the hunger strike is still going on at other prisons in (and perhaps out of) California with the 5 core demands for all prisoners in California. According to the Prisoner Hunger Strike blog:

The prisoners have cited a memo from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) detailing a comprehensive review of every Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisoner in California whose SHU sentence is related to gang validation. The review will evaluate the prisoners’ gang validation under new criteria and could start as early as the beginning of next year. “This is something the prisoners have been asking for and it is the first significant step we’ve seen from the CDCR to address the hunger strikers’ demands,” says Carol Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, “But as you know, the proof is in the pudding. We’ll see if the CDCR keeps its word regarding this new process.”

Let’s not allow the strikers’ demands to fade away! In 2002, prisoners at Pelican Bay’s SHU held a 3-week hunger strike. The CDCR agreed to review their debriefing process and then did nothing to change it. Let’s not let that happen again!

Contact information for California state officials:

Governor Jerry Brown: (916) 445-2841, or via his website (which takes 90 days for a reply):

The California legislature is not in session right now, so please call your legislators at their district offices.

District phone numbers for the members of the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee:

Tom Ammiano: (415) 557-3013
Steve Knight: (661) 267-7636 or (760) 843-8045
Gilbert Cedillo: (323) 225-4545
Curt Hagman: (909) 627-7021
Jerry Hill: (650) 349-1900
Holly J Mitchell: (310) 342-1070
Nancy Skinner: (510) 286-1400

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