California Prison Crisis Sparks Statewide Hunger Strike

An interview with Isaac Ontiveros of Critical Resistance

On July 20, hunger strikers at California’s infamous Supermax, Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (PBSP-SHU), declared victory and ended their nearly three-week fast for human rights. The strike had been announced several months beforehand and when it began on July 1, the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay were joined in the fast by thousands of other prisoners across the state. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), at least 6,600 prisoners in at least one third of California’s 33 prisons participated in the hunger strike.

In response to the hunger strike, Assembly member Tom Ammiano and the Public Safety Committee in the State Assembly of California will hold an informational hearing on August 23 regarding conditions and policies of the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay. Activists have initiated a statewide mobilization around this hearing, in order to pressure state legislators and the CDCR to make substantial changes.

A statement written by the Short Corridor Collective, composed of some Pelican Bay hunger strike leaders, explains that on July 1:

A collective group of PBSP-SHU inmates composed of all races began an indefinite hunger strike as a means of peacefully protesting 20-40 years of human rights violations…. The decision to strike was not made on a whim. It came about in response to years of subjection to progressively more primitive conditions and decades of isolation, sensory deprivation and total lack of normal human contact, with no end in sight. This reality, coupled with our prior ineffective collective filing of thousands of inmate grievances and hundreds of court actions to challenge such blatantly illegal policies and practices (as more fully detailed and supported by case law, in our formal complaint available online here) led to our conclusion that a peaceful protest via hunger strike was our only available avenue to expose what’s really been going on here in CDCR-SHU prisons and to force meaningful change…. We ended the hunger strike the evening of July 20, 2011, on the basis of CDCR’s top level administrators’ interactions with our team of mediators, as well as with us directly, wherein they agreed to accede to a few small requests immediately, as a tangible good faith gesture in support of their assurance that all of our other issues will receive real attention, with meaningful changes being implemented over time.

On August 3, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition announced that it had just received a letter from the hunger strike leaders at Pelican Bay, dated July 24, explaining that strikers have given the California Department of Corrections and Reform (CDCR) a deadline of two to three weeks from July 20 to come up with some substantive changes in response to their five core demands. Todd Ashker, one of the leaders of the hunger strike, explains that if the CDCR does not follow through, prisoners at Pelican Bay plan to go back on hunger strike:

It’s very important that our supporters know where we stand, and that CDCR knows that we’re not going to go for any B.S. We remain as serious about our stand now as we were at the start, and mean what we said regarding an indefinite hunger strike peaceful protest until our demands are met. I repeat ? we’re simply giving CDCR a brief grace period in response to their request for the opportunity to get [it] right in a timely fashion!

Hugo Pinell, one of the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay State Prison, has now been held in continuous solitary confinement for over 40 years—longer than any other US prisoner known to date. In a letter written during the strike to journalist Kiilu Nyasha, Pinell explained why he was fasting:

I have to get with it because it’s for a great cause and if good changes come about, I could get a break too. At this point, a move to a mainline would be great, being that my keepers are determined to keep me until I die. On a mainline, we could have contact visits again! It’s been too long since I’ve touched my Mom and all of my loved ones…I wasn’t prepared for a hunger strike, so I don’t know how well or how long I can hold on, but I had to participate…I don’t even think in terms of doing or saying something wrong, for that would strike against everything I live for: freedom, becoming a new man and the New World. So, Sis, this hunger strike provides me with an opportunity for change while also allowing me to be in concert with, and in support of, all those willing to risk their precious and valuable health.

Our previous interview with Solitary Watch about the Pelican Bay hunger strike examined the broader issue of solitary confinement in prisons throughout the US. In this follow-up report, we place the strike in context, alongside a statewide grassroots movement calling for cuts in prison spending to address California’s budget crisis, and a recent US Supreme Court ruling that calls for the reduction of California state prisoners by at least 30,000, in response to overcrowding.

We interviewed Isaac Ontiveros for an inside look from within California’s anti-prison movement. Ontiveros is the Communications Director for Critical Resistance, a national organization that is working to abolish the prison-industrial complex and is a member of the Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) alliance and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

Angola 3 News:  What is the latest news from the hunger strikers?

Isaac Ontiveros: As far as we know, the leaders of the strike at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit have called an end to the strike—based on what they see as some movement on the part of the CDCR beginning to address some of their demands.

At the peak of the strike at least 6,600 prisoners across at least a third of California’s 33 prisons participated.  These are official CDCR numbers, so we can confidently assume actual numbers were higher.  Right now, our struggle is to determine how many other prisoners, in what prisons, are continuing to strike.  Given how isolated prisoners are throughout the system, this is a challenge, to say the least.

A3N: Why have the Pelican Bay hunger strikers declared victory?

IO: The prisoners made very important, historic gains.  That the strikers were able to move the CDCR at all was no small feat, especially when working under some the most horrendous conditions possible.  The fact that they were able to coordinate among themselves despite extreme isolation is also impressive.  Furthermore, solidarity was able to spread throughout the California system. This solidarity crossed the racial and geographic lines that we are taught are uncrossable; and strike leaders were able to incite strong support of people outside of prison on an international level. This is all very important when we think about victories, especially if we understand victories as being stepping-stones to further and greater victories.

As far as the specific concessions made by the prison administration, the details are still coming, but it seems that CDCR has moved a bit on the prisoners demands around providing and expanding some of the privileges and programs they have access to in the SHU.  These gains—for example, some around cold weather clothing and access to calendars—may seem modest, but for people in such extremely oppressive conditions, these things take on a different weight.   Also, it seems like there could be some movement on some of their other demands, perhaps some review of the “debriefing” process.

A3N: How can our readers support the next phase of this struggle?

IO: The next phase is to hold the CDCR to good faith negotiations, and to continue our push for all of the strikers’ demands to get met.  It is very important for supporters to continue their solidarity work on the outside, with particular attention toward defending strike leaders from retaliation from the prison administration.

Many people are coordinating actions all over the US and in other parts of the world.  A potentially important legislative hearing on conditions in Pelican Bay’s SHU is happening on August 23rd in Sacramento—there is lots of talk about that being a big point of mobilization.

Folks should stay tuned to the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity web site for more information.

A3N: In recent months, CURB has organized statewide mass protests against California prison politics. In response to the use of California’s budget crisis as an excuse to cut state programs serving low-income residents, CURB presented a “Budget for Humanity” that called for dramatic reductions in prison spending and the number of prisoners. How does this campaign support the recent hunger strike?

IO:  I think CURB’s fight is absolutely related to the strike because more prisons mean more torture, more SHUs, more people be locked up, more communities devastated economically and socially—all of it.

The demands of the strikers were particular to the conditions of Pelican Bay’s SHU, and the SHU has a very specific function, but the fact that solidarity spread throughout the California system also speaks to how common the conditions the strike leaders were talking about are to all prisoners—deadly lack of health care, poor food, torture, overcrowding, breaking up of political organizing, and more.  These conditions are also connected to those on the outside, primarily in Black and Brown communities.

Right now CURB’s main platform, as outlined in the Budget for Humanity, is demanding an end to all prison and jail construction; an immediate reduction of prison and jail overcrowding; the releasing of tax dollars from the grip of imprisonment; and an end to cuts to the most vital services, along with a reprioritization of  how California uses it resources to create what and for whom.  These demands feed and are fed by each other.  Ending prison and jail construction frees tens of thousands of people along with billions of dollars.  Ending the attack on basic resources like education, health care, meaningful employment, creates strong communities for people to come home to and to thrive in.

We also have to understand that this is not just a matter of fiscal sense-making and balancing the budget. This is also about political power. This is about capitalism and white supremacy. We need to understand that SHUs, the prison system in general, and police are tools of repression used to thwart peoples’ efforts and abilities to fight back, build up their communities, and build self-determination.

This also links CURB’s work with prisoner strike solidarity, along with community struggles against gang injunctions, police violence, ICE raids, and more. So I think CURB’s work—along with the work of so many other organizations and coalitions—is a step toward building larger and stronger grassroots movements that will make larger, stronger, and more thoroughgoing economic and social changes.

A3N: Can you give a history of California’s “budget crisis”? How far back does this go? How does it relate, if at all, to the accelerated incarceration rates in the US that began in the 1970s, where the number of prisoners increased from 300,000 to over 2 million today?

IO: The best answer to this question is the wonderful and very important book “Golden Gulag” by Ruth Wilson Gilmore.  The book explores these questions in great detail and I really can’t recommend it enough.

But, roughly, we can understand that in the late 60s and early 70s, the powers-that-be in the US responded to social uprisings against racism, social and economic inequality, and other forms of oppression in the US — linked to anti-imperialist struggles happening all over the planet at the time — by making war primarily on communities of color in a variety ways, including the expansion and further militarization of policing and the expansion of imprisonment.  This is intertwined with a crisis in the capitalist system occurring at the same time.  So we saw an assault on organized labor and social services and programs that was basically the rise of neoliberal economic models—creating a deepening in the divide between the haves and have-nots (already pretty deep for those marginalized to begin with).

Into the 1980s we saw the war on drugs—which we should understand as a war on Black and Brown communities—go into full gear with the passing of thousands of laws, tougher and longer sentences, and the activation of all sorts of media stories and images that aggressively criminalize and dehumanize poor people and people of color, especially Black people.

Even though the so-called crime rate started dropping steadily in the early 80s, the economy, this fear-mongering, increased policing, mixed with the proliferation of anti-social ideas that social services are a waste, created the perfect storm for a gigantic increase in imprisonment.  And the cycle perpetuated itself from there with harsher probation and parole conditions that made it easier to deny essential services and to land more people back in cages for longer amounts of time. Tying it back to the 60s and 70s, this cycle makes it more difficult for social movements to change the oppressive social and economic relationships the system is predicated on.

So California, with one of the largest economies in the world, is situated in this history.  The gutting of social services, the attack on labor, the loss of jobs, tax revolts, the abandonment of certain industries, financial speculation, the disuse of farmland, housing bubbles, energy speculation, “dot-com bubbles”, the criminalization of people of color, anti-immigrant hysteria, the passage of the three strikes law, etc., leads to one the largest prison expansions in world history.

Between 1982 and 2000, California’s prison population grew 500%.  Between 1984 and 2005, at least 20 prisons were built. In this period, only one university was built.  And right now, these prisons are close to 200% of their holding capacity.

Obviously this history is cursory, simplistic, and leaves out a lot, but in engaging with any crisis there are questions we need ask, patterns we need to identify, and actions we need to take. In thinking about budget crisis, we need to ask ourselves: why does everything (education, health care and services, wages, jobs, etc.) except corrections get cut?  What does this mean for the health of our communities? How does this relate to further economic crisis?  How are we prepared to organize around this crisis?  What are our opportunities?

A3N: Have there been any examples of other states reducing their prison populations as a response to budget issues?

IO: Yes,  even right now, states are reducing prison spending, closing facilities and releasing people in response to the economic havoc caused by prisons.   Now to be clear, much of this reduction is not based on progressive or humanitarian politics, or even an opposition to imprisonment.  But, in the past year, New York, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, and Connecticut have all implemented a variety of schemes to shrink imprisonment.  Some of them have to do with sentencing reforms and parole and probation reforms, some schemes involve outright prison closure.

I think the key here is for organizations and individuals that want to see longer-term and deeper changes to organize around making these shrinkages permanent, and then to battle to have funds no longer wasted on prison spending be put towards repairing and building up the communities imprisonment has devastated—so that people coming home can stay home.

A3N: Further influencing California prison politics is a recent US Supreme Court ruling that calls for the reduction of California state prisoners by at least 30,000, in response to overcrowding. How significant is this ruling?

IO: This ruling is very significant.  It says even the Supreme Court—which is far from a politically progressive entity—recognizes that the California prison system is scandalous, devastating, and deadly.  It says change needs to happen immediately.

The Supreme Court decision gives us a chance to address the human rights crisis in California prisons, and to change the system itself, hopefully so that we can avoid further crisis.

Acting strongly here also positions us to take steps to address human rights crises happening outside the prisons, in the communities from which these thousands and thousands of prisoners are taken.

A3N: Since the CDCR released their proposal responding to the US Supreme Court ruling (that has been criticized by CURB in an open letter to Gov Brown) has there been any response from the state government?

IO: Unfortunately, but maybe not surprisingly, Gov. Brown and the CDCR’s plan is to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.  They came up with a scheme called realignment where, rather than let people out of cages, reforming parole conditions, and using the tens of millions of dollars that would free up to support these prisoners return to their communities. they have decided to shift these 33-40,000 prisoners to the county level; ie., jails.  Brown and the CDCR are responding to one crisis by creating the conditions for 58 crises.

For example, Los Angeles County is 33% of the entire California prison system.  Its jails are already overcrowded and have been the subject of human and civil rights abuse scandals.  Brown and CDCR’s realignment scheme would add at least an extra 11,000 to that system.  Their scheme does nothing to address sentencing guidelines, and there seems to be a not-so-hidden construction scheme bubbling away on the side burner already.  So, they propose more disaster.

What’s hopeful is that, luckily, people all over the state are more imaginative and humane than Brown and Co. and are ready for some serious changes.  A recent poll shows a vast majority of Californians oppose cutting key state services and increasing taxes to pay for more prisons and jails: 80% of Californians favor paroling people who are terminally ill or medically incapacitated, and 60% support reducing life sentences for third strike prisoners.

People are ready for changes, and I’d wager they are ready to think about even greater changes.  If Brown and the CDCR want to shift the burden to the county level, then, with some strong organizing, residents, organization, and coalitions like CURB can meet them on their own turf, and say, “the only solution is to bring our friends, family members, and neighbors all the way home.”  And we can move forward from there.

• This article was first published in Alternet.

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