California Hunger Strikers Keep Fighting

As we enter week five of the hunger strike over 400 prisoners in seven prisons are still refusing to eat. This is the longest hunger strike in California’s history and is provoking a predictably savage response from prison authorities. Prisoners are being denied medical attention, prisoners accused of being reps are put in Administrative Segregation to further isolate them, many are being denied their mail. The tragic death of hunger striker Billy Sell, who had been asking for medical care for several days prior to his death, reveals the cruel and inhumane nature of the prison authorities who appear indifferent to the fate of those in their charge.

Last Monday seven protestors locked themselves to the main entrance of the State building in downtown Oakland for several hours and then moved inside the building where they were arrested by police.

“Solitary confinement is widely and internationally recognized as torture,” Said the protesters. “The hunger strikers and their family members are making a powerful and inspiring stand for dignity in the face of this inhumane treatment. We stand with them. Governor Brown and the CDCR, negotiate immediately to meet their five demands.”

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times Jeffrey Beard claimed that conditions for men in Secure Housing Units were fine and that they were not kept in solitary confinement. He made the outrageous claim that the hunger strike was being organized by prison gangs who were using violence and intimidation to keep the protest going. He completed his propaganda piece by saying, “Brutal killers should not be glorified. This hunger strike is dangerous, disruptive and needs to end.”

However, Jeffrey Beard’s claims are contradicted by investigations carried out by Amnesty International which points out that rather than improving conditions for prisoners in solitary confinement conditions have, “significantly deteriorated.” Angela Wright who is Amnesty’s expert on US supermax prison’s said on5 July that, “These prisoners are already being held in dire and inhumane conditions, and these new night-time checks appear punitive, and may result in severe sleep deprivation. They should be stopped immediately.”

Thousands of prisoners have been kept in solitary confinement with no hope of being released into the general prison population. Take Pelican Bay State prison as one example. More than 500 prisoners had spent over ten years in solitary confinement and 78 men had spent more than 20 years in isolation units. Many men are to left to waste way with no attempt at rehabilitation. In November 2011 out of 1,000 prisoners held at Pelican Bay Secure Housing Units only 59 were in any kind of educational programme. Between 1997 and 2007 over 900 men were released on parole from Pelican Bay and Corcoran SHU’s with no transitional programming to prepare them for life outside.

Prisoners in Secure Housing Units are held in isolation cells which are less than eight square metres in size, have doors made of heavy gauge perforated metal that significantly blocks light, vision and fresh air. They are confined for 22 and half hours a day with no work or meaningful rehabilitation programmes or group activities of any kind. In Pelican Bay prisoners are allowed to exercise alone for one and half hours in a bare concrete yard. They are allowed to correspond with lawyers, family and friends subject to restrictions and are allowed no physical contact with visitors.

Once in solitary confinement prisoners are left to their own devices and allowed to waste away with no concern for their physical and mental well being.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has said that solitary confinement longer than 14 days should be avoided as it can cause serious psychological damage to prisoners. He recommended that countries should avoid the use of solitary confinement yet California holds over 3,000 prisoners in solitary confinement out of a national US total of 25,000 prisoners kept in solitary confinement.

Action must be stepped up to force Governor Brown to intervene and pressure the prison authorities to enter serious and meaningful negotiations that meet the 5 demands of the hunger strikers.Only mass action in the previous two hunger strikes brought the authorities to the negotiating table for serious and meaningful talks.

You can contact Governor Brown at:
Phone: (916) 445-2841, (510) 289-0336, (510) 628-0202
Fax: (916) 558-3160

Ordinary people can support the hunger strikers fight for justice by signing the petition to Governor Brown, and more importantly, attend the demonstrations and protests held in their support.

For more information on the hunger strike and how to support the prisoners visit the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity website.

Dylan Murphy is a historian and trade union activist. Read other articles by Dylan.