Monday marked the start of a wave of prisoners’ non-violent protests against what they see as inhumane conditions in prisons, and specifically against the increasingly common practice of long-term solitary confinement. Over 30,000 prisoners refused their meals beginning on Monday, according to the Los Angeles Times. Many also refused to go to scheduled work or classes.
This is only the latest phase in a series of strikes, which began in the Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU) in northern California two years ago, according to the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity blog. The organizing prisoners, who call themselves The Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor Collective, had and still have five “core demands” of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Pete Brook summarized their demands on his Prison Photography blog as follows (the full text of the demands can also be downloaded here):
1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities....” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).
The Short Corridor Collective organizers formalized these demands to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in April 2011, and when the prisoners did not feel that their concerns were being addressed, called the first strike on July 1, 2011. Dozens of prisoners in the SHU, and over 6,000 prisoners elsewhere refused to eat or work for almost four weeks; they stopped the strike when the CDCR agreed to negotiate. Then, when the changes promised during those negotiations were not made, a second phase resumed in September and October of 2011, and expanded to include over 12,000 prisoners across the state.
This third phase, which began on Monday, has spread across California to prisons in Washington state as well, and inspired a protest march in Seattle on Monday. Some of the prisoners’ groups also say that they are protesting in solidarity with hunger strikers at Guantanamo, where 106 detainees have refused food for several months.
The number of California inmates held in extended solitary confinement varies widely by source. The Los Angeles Times says 4,527 inmates are “being held in ‘segregation’ cells at four state prisons, including 1,180 at Pelican Bay,” citing CDCR figures. The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website says that the state currently has almost 12,000 people in “extreme isolation.” According to Brook, estimates of the number of prisoners in solitary confinement across the U.S. range from 20,000 to 70,000.
Regardless of the exact figure, it’s a fact that California’s rules for solitary confinement are harsher than most. If a prisoner is even suspected of being involved in a gang behind bars, he can be sent to solitary for an indefinite amount of time; some have been there for 20 years. And while they’re inside, they are denied any incredibly basic sources of mental stimulation and sanity, such as mirrors or photographs.
“Over the years, prison staff has outlawed everything from phone calls to colored pencils to wall calendars,” reports the Bakersfield Californian. “Pelican Bay even banned books written in Swahili, Celtic and Na’huatl [a Mexican dialect] on the grounds that the languages were being used as secret codes by gangs.”
The CDCR does not typically acknowledge a hunger strike inside its prisons until inmates have missed nine consecutive meals, which will occur on late Wednesday if the strike continues. Meanwhile, the protest continues to gain traction, and the Pelican Bay strike leaders are meeting with their lawyers on Tuesday to discuss their suit against the CDCR in federal court. There are also plans in the works for a demonstration outside Corcoran State Prison on Saturday, July 13, and over 15,000 people have signed a petition to Governor Jerry Brown urging him to intervene.