California Hunger Strikers: Support Urgently Called For!

by Larry Everest | July 19, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


As of July 18, day 11 of the California prisoner hunger strike, the Department of Corrections (CDCR) is reporting that 1,457 inmates in 15 state prisons continue to refuse food, and 48 inmates in three state prisons refused to participate in their work assignments.

On July 8, prisoners across the state of California went on hunger strike for their basic rights and humanity—in particular an end to long-term solitary confinement and other basic demands. For the next several days nearly 30,000 prisoners across the state took part—nearly three times the number as 2011. The hunger strike has deep support within the prisons. On July 11, the CDCR reported that 12,421 prisoners were refusing food; on July 13, 6,370 prisoners were hunger striking and 714 refused to go to work; the next day 4,487 were on hunger strike and 731 refused to go to work.
The CDCR only counts prisoners as being on hunger strike if they miss 9 consecutive meals, so prisoners going on and off fasts are not being counted. Nor do these numbers count the prisoners in County facilities across the state who are striking.

Deeply stung by the 2011 hunger strikes, the CDCR is retaliating more viciously this time around.

"The Department of Corrections has declared this a mass disturbance," Michael Montgomery of the Center for Investigative Reporting told an audience at Revolution Books in Berkeley on July 17. "So anyone participating in it can get written up for a rules violation." This can add time to prisoners' sentences and take away basic necessities which prison authorities label "privileges."

The CDCR has singled out prisoners they have identified as leaders, seeking to break and further isolate them. On the fourth day of the strike they removed 14 prisoners, all of whom are signers of last summer's Agreement to End Hostilities Among Racial Groups—and put them in Ad Seg (the hole), without access to their legal papers, television or radio. "All but one are on hunger strike; the other—Louis Powell—is fasting as a Ramadan practice (not eating during daylight hours) but not completely fasting," Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity reports. This is clearly an attempt to prevent these men from knowing what is happening in the outside world, and denying them news of the strike itself. Their legal papers relate to a federal class action lawsuit against the state of California that contends solitary confinement is a violation of prisoners' Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

"They [the CDCR] have also said that the leaders of the hunger strike, that this is a gang action," Montgomery added, "because these are gang leaders, and they could face very serious disciplinary actions. Ironically, participation in this strike could be considered gang activity and could be used to prolong an inmate's time in these special units."

But prisoner representatives say they "remain strong and united!" in the face of this brutality. In a July 16 message, the Pelican Bay State Prison—PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Representatives stated:

"Specifically, on July 11, 2013, we were placed in Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg), where we are subjected to more torturous conditions than in the SHU. Despite this diabolical act on the part of the CDCR intended to break our resolve and hasten our deaths, we remain strong and united! We are 100% committed to our cause and will end our peaceful action when CDCR signs a legally binding agreement to our demands."

On July 18, the Los Angeles Times reported that four prisoners were being treated for medical problems. Also, Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus, who is on the mediation team between prisoners and prison authorities, was informed July 17 by fax from CDCR that she was banned from visiting the striking prisoners and banned from all California State Prisons. The letter included a check mark next to the words "The person's presence in the institution/facility presents a serious threat to security." McMahon told the Los Angeles Times, "I am a target because I do help them communicate with the outside world. We are a way of prisoners breaking through the black box."

Attorney Carol Strickman wrote on July 18:

"Our legal team is reporting that hunger strikers at Pelican Bay are being frozen. The prisoners who have been moved to Ad-Seg, as well as prisoners still in SHU, reported yesterday that it is 'freezing cold' in their cells. The prison is pumping in cold air and keeping doors to the outside open. It was very cold in the Crescent City area yesterday. The visiting room was also cold, though not as cold as the cells. People who are fasting are already cold. SHU prisoners have very thin clothes and thin blankets. [You may recall that their incidental demands back in 2011 were for 'watch caps' and for the right to purchase thermal underwear, because of how cold their concrete cells are.] Extreme temperatures are a torture method."

The families of hunger-striking prisoners are extremely worried for the health and lives of their loved ones. One family member told the Stop Mass Incarceration Network that she worried that even Friday's National Day of Solidarity with Prisoners might be "too late" for her brother, and that she felt like marching onto a freeway and blocking traffic like protestors had done in Oakland and Los Angeles after the George Zimmerman verdict. Former prisoners have also told SMIN they're worried that the CDCR could cut water off to the cells under the pretext there was contraband in the cells.

Dolores Canales, mother of a striking prisoner, told Democracy Now! (July 17),

"My son is housed maybe in a cell where the prisoner there before him might have took his own life or went mad. You know, my son is housed in a cell that, just as Jules Lobel was saying, there is no window. You don't know when day transitions into night. You just go by the food tray that they slide you, if it's a breakfast tray or a dinner tray. And to know that even their yard, it just exists of another cell. They bring them out, and they put them in another cell surrounded by 20-feet brick walls and the sky covering covered in Plexiglas. And I think, for me, that is just the most troubling, that I feel myself at times as if I'm buried alive, as I feel myself that I wake up in the night and I can't breathe and I have anxiety, because I just imagine what it's like to be entombed day in and day out in a cement cell like that."

She also said that she pleaded with her son not to go on hunger strike and he said to her, "Can you tell us another option? Can you tell us what we can do that would make a difference, you know, to change things? Because if you have a better solution, I'd love to hear it."

Mediation team member Laura Magnani, of the American Friends Service Committee, says "she has been in weekly contact with corrections officials, but that the officials have expressed no willingness to open discussions about the current strike." (Los Angeles Times, July 18)

The California prison authorities' cruel retaliation against nonviolent hunger strikers, and their refusal to seriously consider their just and basic demands, points to the reality that U.S. "democracy" rests on a whole system of mass incarceration and systematic abuse and torture in prisons in California and across the country. The power of those who rule rests on systematically suppressing and incarcerating millions of oppressed people and it's not something they'll back off of unless very broad and powerful support for the prisoners is built, and the crimes of the system are exposed throughout society.

The prisoners want to eat, they do not want to die, but they refuse to live "buried alive" and "entombed" in isolation units. Their hunger strike is the only means they have to take action. People on the outside must stand with these courageous people and do all we can to fight for their demands and for an end to solitary confinement and mass incarceration.

Go to: to get involved and support the prisoner hunger strikers.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.