On June 20, 2013, prisoners held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit in Oakland, CA announced their plan to embark upon nonviolent peaceful protest on July 8. According to the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSSC), a group committed to amplifying the voices of prisoners on strike, prisoners had maintained since January that they would be willing to starve themselves unless the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreed to negotiate honestly about prisoners' demands, "the heart of which mandates an end to long-term solitary confinement." |
This announcement came out in the wake of a mediation session held on June 19, 2013, regarding a class-action lawsuit against the corrections department that sprang from past strikes. In the summer of 2011, the same group of inmates that is protesting now, then led a three-week hunger strike calling for reforms to the Security Housing Unit (SHU) system. Now that the case has entered court-level mediation, the inmates do not feel that CDCR officials are agreeing to settle on acceptable terms, or otherwise believe that the corrections department is acting in good faith.
Prisoners' demands have been represented in five core points:
Demands can be read about more in-depth here.
- End group punishment and administrative abuse
- Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive, gang status criteria
- Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement
- Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food
- Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates
To shed some light on things, the debriefing system places prisoners in solitary confinement if, for example, it is determined that they are "gang members". Criteria considered in determining a subject's status as "gang member" include "acquisition or exchange of personal or state property amounting to more than $50. . . tattoo paraphernalia. . . possession of $5 or more without authorization. . . and refusal to work or participate in a program as assigned," among others. Moreover, refusal to submit to debriefing - interrogation of prisoners to get them to "snitch" - is reason to label someone a "gang member," and put them in solitary indefinitely. Prisoners call this "snitch, parole, or die." Both isolation and forced confessions are illegal forms of incarceration.
According to PHSSC, the California prison system holds more than 10,000 inmates in solitary confinement units, with dozens having spent over 20 years in isolation. Meanwhile, the United Nations deems extended solitary confinement to constitute torture.
In addition to 30,000 prisoners - which is nearly a quarter of California's estimated 120,000 prisoners - refusing meals on July 8, over 2,300 of those prisoners did not go to work or to their prison classes.
The inmates leading the hunger strike, housed in isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison, were moved during the first weeks of the protest to smaller, more isolated cells after having their belongings searched and files seized. Amnesty International responded by condemning prison authorities for breaching "international human rights obligations by taking punitive measures against prisoners on hunger strike over conditions for thousands held in solitary confinement in the state's prisons."
On July 17, California Prison Focus reported that nearly 2,500 prisoners in 15 prisons continued to strike.
Yesterday, with the hunger strike in its third week, CDCR and medical receiver officials agreed to meet with a mediation team working on behalf of hunger strikers. However, CDCR refused to negotiate in any way, both failing to address strikers' demands and barring strikers' family members from joining the discussions. The mediation team's meeting with the federal health receiver's office, though, did leave some assurances that strikers would receive due medical care.
Otherwise, CDCR has responded to prisoners by: developing conspiracy theories about their collective fast; barring their legal advocates from visiting; and blasting them with cold air, thereby putting them at risk of hypothermia.
CDCR has presented its conspiracy theories to various news organizations. State prison officials claim that "the whole thing was orchestrated by prison gangs in order to sell drugs and make money," as Fresno, California radio station KMJ News reported on Monday. The KMJ report also highlights a Los Angeles Times story, which relays state prison officials' claim that top tier members of the Black Guerilla Family, Nuestra Familia, and the Aryan Brotherhood began the strike.
While fabricating tales of Wicked drug lords of the West Coast, CDCR has simultaneously denied media access inside the prisons themselves.
Retaliation against prisoners further extends to torturing them by blasting cold air into their cells. A generally unpleasant experience in any case, this becomes life-threatening for prisoners who are low in body fat to begin with and in a particularly weakened state because of their fasting, given their heightened susceptibility to hypothermia. Anne Wells, a civil rights attorney who visited Pelican Bay State Prison earlier this week, reported that she could see the men shivering before her, and that despite wearing two sweaters, she was also freezing.
Not surprisingly, a spokesperson for CDCR, Terry Thornton, completely denied prisoners' allegations that cold air was being turned up, stating, "The cells in the security housing units and the administrative segregation unit at Pelican Bay State prison are 72 to 73 degrees." And, "cell-unit temperatures are not something guards or correctional peace officers control."
PHSSC reported on Monday:
"As the California prison hunger strike enters its 3rd week, reports of retaliation against strikers have increased. Last week it was reported that prison officials had moved at least 14 strikers from the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay to Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg), confiscated confidential legal documents, and forced cold air into their cells. Later in the week, legal advocate Marilyn McMahon and one of her paralegals were summarily banned from visiting any California prison. Reports that strikers have been moved to Ad-Seg or to entirely different facilities have also been coming from Corcoran State Prison. The denial of medical care to strikers, especially those with preexisting health conditions, remains a widespread concern for families and advocates.
More background and frequent updates can be read at the official Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website
California Prison Focus is an organization that stands up against the cruel and torturous conditions of the California prison system, especially advocating for the immediate shut down of all SHU cells and similar conditions of solitary confinement. CPF travels regularly to Pelican Bay and Corcoran state prisons to uncover and disseminate information on the current conditions prisoners must endure.
CPF hotline to TAKE ACTION in support of strikers by voicing comments and concerns: 916-324-3397