According to a report published Saturday by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), the Federal receiver’s office has indicated that “nearly 12,000 prisoners were on hunger strike, including California prisoners who are housed in out of state prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma.”
This is the second hunger strike in less than four months, with prisoners at the Supermax Pelican Bay Prison and other California state prisons protesting the use of long-term solitary confinement, in addition to four other main demands, including provision of adequate and nutritious food, an end to administrative abuses (such as group punishments), and expansion, and in some cases provision, of “Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates.”
But besides an end to state-sanctioned isolation, which amounts to torture, the most salient demand is an end to the hated “debriefing” system, which places inmates in solitary if prison officials determine they are “gang members.” As I noted in an article last July, determination of “gang” status includes “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. Indeed, even refusal to submit to “debriefing,” i.e., interrogation of prisoners to get them to “snitch,” or give names of other “gang” members, is reason to label someone a gang member and put them in solitary indefinitely. The prisoners call this “snitch, parole, or die.”
Both isolation and forced confessions are illegal forms of incarceration. The 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, co-chaired by former Chief Judge of U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, John Gibbons and former Attorney General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, called for an end to isolation in U.S. prisons. (See summary of findings and recommendations, PDF.)
A Fight for Dignity, Justice, and Humanity
California prisons are a stinking mess, a scandal of gigantic proportions. The health care component of the California prison system has been in federal receivership for years because of the awful, insufficient care provided to the sick and mentally ill. As reported in a McClatchy article last May, the U.S. Supreme Court “cited ‘serious constitutional violations’ in California’s overcrowded prisons and ordered the state to abide by aggressive plans to fix the problem.” The court rejected state pleas to put off the necessary changes, and ordered the prison system to lower its population by approximately 37,000. (A plan to implement the changes is meeting some skepticism.)
According to the McClatchy article:
One hundred and twelve California prison inmates died unnecessarily because of inadequate medical care in 2008 and 2009, analysts found. Acutely ill patients have been held in “cages, supply closets and laundry rooms” because of overcrowding, investigators found. Suicides by California inmates have been double the national average.
No wonder the prisoners’ hunger strike is gaining so much support in California prisons, where inmates are held like animals. The overcrowding is largely due to long-time incarceration for drug charges, including simple possession, and California’s onerous Three Strikes law.
The prisoners have indicated they will conduct “rolling” hunger strikes, allowing prisoners to come off strike to regain their strength. They indicated they have resumed their strike after changes promised after the July hunger strike by the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) failed to materialize, in particular “demands related to solitary confinement and gang validation.”
Meanwhile, CDCR has indicated they will punish strikers. Two attorneys representing prisoners in mediation talks with the CDCR have been “banned from all prisons pending an investigation into whether or not they had ‘jeopardized the safety and security of CDCR’ institutions.”
According to an article at the PHSS website, “The CDCR has delivered memos to prisoners at each state prison threatening that any participation or support for the hunger strike will result in disciplinary actions, such as placement in Ad-Seg/ASU [Administrative Segregation Unit] or SHUs [Security Housing Units] (for prisoners currently in General Population), increased destructive cell searches, removal of canteen items, and worse. We know that a number of prisoners lost their jobs as added punishment for supporting the strike in July.”
The renewed strike has gotten support from Palestinian hunger strikers protesting the use of isolation in the imprisonment of Palestinian leaders such as Ahmad Sa’adat. The use of isolation to punish and break prisoners is not limited to California or U.S. prisons, but cases involving American prisoners have made the news in recent months, including the incarceration of Bradley Manning, and the ongoing refusal to release the last British resident prisoner at Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, who is also on a hunger strike to protest the conditions he is held under.
As thousands muster at protests across the country, such as the Occupy Wall Street protests covered by The Dissenter, in the deepest, darkest holes of misery this country people are fighting with their lives for basic humanity and just treatment by a system that treats its victims — whether they are prisoners, or whether they are impoverished unemployed, thrown on the trash heap by financiers and indifferent politicians — with indifference at best, or sadistic animus at worst.
The prisoners cannot win their battle without public support. The public must see that the fate of the men and women thrown into American prisons is part of their own struggle, as the methods and attitudes fostered by the prison establishment are turned increasingly on the U.S. population as a whole, just as surveillance, mass round-ups, torture, and economic shock treatment has metastasized from imperialist foreign policy to a domestic program of immiserating working Americans to pay for Wall Street’s follies and the Pentagon’s wars.
Originally published at The Dissenter.
Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist living in Northern California and a regular contributor to Truthout and The Public Record, blogs about civil liberties and issues revolving around the US government’s torture program at The Dissenter. He can be reached at sfpsych at gmail dot com. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @Jeff_Kaye