Week Four:

Prison Officials Refuse to End Torture—Hunger Strikers Fight On

by Larry Everest | August 2, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Friday, August 2, 2013. It's day 26 of California prisoners' historic hunger strike to end the torture of solitary confinement and for their basic rights and humanity. Over 500 prisoners remain on hunger strike—more than 300 of whom have gone 26 days without any food! (Los Angeles Times, August 1). The focus of the prisoners' struggle is to end indefinite, long-term solitary confinement. Under this form of torture, some 10,000 prisoners in California are held in small—8' by 10'—windowless cells. They never see the sun, are never outdoors, and are without any meaningful human contact for years, even decades. The prisoners are demanding: eliminate group punishments; abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria; comply with the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; provide adequate and nutritious food; and expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite Security Housing Unit [SHU] inmates.

30,000 prisoners launched this hunger strike on July 8. Initiated by prisoners in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU and then taken up at 22 other prisons statewide, this is the third California prisoner hunger strike in three years, and the largest prisoner action in California history. On the first day 2,300 prisoners refused to go to work. For the first week of the strike, thousands refused food. On July 11, for example, 12,421 prisoners refused food, and 4,487 prisoners refused food for a full week.

Even now, thousands continue to support the struggle in various ways in the face of harsh repression, including going on and off hunger strike, taking only liquids, refusing to work or buy canteen food, and with other actions, including writing letters to get news outside prison walls. Upon being sent back to prison in Illinois, revolutionary communist political prisoner Gregory Koger immediately went on hunger strike in solidarity with California prisoners. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [CDCR] has refused to negotiate, insisting to the San Francisco Chronicle July 27 "they have no intention of implementing changes." Governor Jerry Brown hasn't uttered a word about the strike and defends the horrific conditions in California prisons, which Amnesty International calls an "affront to human rights." Billy 'Guero' Sell, a hunger striker at Corcoran State Prison, died July 22.

Meanwhile, there are protests against California's cruel prison conditions and growing support for the prisoners nationally and internationally. "Support for the hunger strikers and pressure on Governor Brown and the CDCR has continued to grow, with demonstrations happening nearly daily in cities across the country and the world," Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity reports. Very importantly, prominent figures including Jay Leno, Susan Sarandon, Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Noam Chomsky, and others signed an open letter to Governor Jerry Brown "to end torture at Pelican Bay and all California Prisons immediately." (See "Prominent Voices Speak Out in Support of Prisoners' Hunger Strike".)

Today, for the first time, CDCR head Jeffrey Beard met with mediators working on behalf of hunger striking prisoners. Afterward the hunger strike mediators stated, "We gave [Secretary Beard] ideas that would help bring the prisoners' hunger strike to a just end in short order.... Our revisions are intended to create more humane conditions and circumstances." Mediators called for ending "harsh and long term isolation practices."

The CDCR claimed it wasn't a negotiation—just a "discussion." They did not meet the prisoners' just demands. "Lives hang in the balance, and honest negotiations and a legally binding agreement are the only things that can prevent further loss of life," said Kamau Walton, a spokesperson for Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.

Prison Authorities Punish and Retaliate Against Hunger Strikers

The State of California claims prisoners are not being mistreated. Yet it bars the media and independent investigators from having unimpeded access to the prisons to verify these assertions or to investigate prisoners' charges of abuse and retaliation. The prisons often suspend or bar visits by prisoners' families. And the contact that prisoners have been able to have with people on the outside has revealed that prison authorities are not only viciously mistreating prisoners, but singling out some of the leaders for especially harsh punishment.

Prisoners' letters and visits by family members, lawyers, and advocates for the prisoners paint a clear picture of punishment and retaliation against hunger strikers: greater isolation, reprimands and added jail time, denial of reading materials and even medicines, confiscation of food and liquids. In other words, cruelty piled on top of cruelty.

One particularly vicious twist: some prisoners on strike want to drink Kool-Aid to have fluids and some bit of nourishment—but the prison tells them they won't be counted on hunger strike if they do so. So they're forced to forego Kool-Aid, further jeopardizing their health—or not be counted as being on strike thus (at least in the public view) weakening the struggle!

One prisoner in the Pelican Bay SHU wrote a prison supporter who circulated his comments on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity list:

"Repression here has reached unbelievable levels. The first week there was no activity, it was as if nobody was on strike. Even up to the second week nobody was weighed and "medical" staff accompanied with the pig simply did a walk by our cells as fast as they could. Prisoners began to fall out of consciousness, two men in my pod alone had to be taken out to medical because they began to vomit water which they could no longer keep down. While being escorted to medical men were told things like 'Why are you doing this? No one else is striking' or men were erroneously told 'Everyone is eating already.' But we quickly found out this was disinformation. Our cells have had the AC cranked up to freezing temperatures and as a capper on 7-24-13 we were given a 115 write up and told we will all be given a 90 day time add to our sentence for hunger striking! What's more is this write up—which is for participating in a 'mass disturbance,' it is a mass disturbance but a mass disturbance against injustice, against torture and against national oppression. By prisoners uniting to ask for dignity and refuse to remain silent it disturbs state repression."

Another prisoner wrote to San Francisco Bayview that he had lost over 40 pounds and was "getting smaller every day.... There are several who already fell out from [the] effects of the hunger strike and we have some who have been placed in the hospital and the prison specialty clinic. But there are many of us who will see this out to the end. We are still strong." There are also reports from Pelican Bay that a 70-year-old prisoner was pepper-sprayed by guards searching his cell for food.

"All strikers are to have received by now 'written information about advance directives and a Physician Order for Life Sustaining Treatment,'" Solitary Watch writes, "and a document informing them 'You may die, even after you start to eat again,' and that 'Now is the time for you to think about what medical care you want when you are no longer able to talk to health care staff.'" (Sal Rodriquez, "Hundreds Still on Hunger Strike in California Prisons As Situation Becomes Increasingly Dire," August 1)

There are also numerous reports of general medical abuse and neglect inside the prisons, as well as abuse in relation to the hunger strikers specifically. Court-appointed medical monitors have been dispatched to some prisons to investigate the situation. Los Angeles radio station KPCC reported July 30, "Independent court investigators have found medical care at Corcoran State Prison to be sorely lacking.... In a report filed in Federal Court, three independent investigators found an array of problems that they say threaten the health and safety of inmates at the ... prison."

More than 100 health care providers have signed an open letter demanding the CDCR provide all prisoners, including those on hunger strike, with all needed medical care, and that "all medical professionals uphold their code of ethics and maintain the highest standards of care for all their patients—be they incarcerated or not." This is another very important expression of broader social support for the prisoners.

The letter raises concerns that "appropriate medical care is being denied the hunger striking prisoners.... Medications are being withheld in an attempt to coerce prisoners into abandoning their protest. According to attorney Marilyn McMahon, pain relief medication in particular is being withheld, 'even if it's medicine that should not be cut abruptly, but instead tapered off.' In one case a patient with heart failure has had his medications discontinued on the dubious assertion that he doesn't need them because he's on a hunger strike.... Some prisoners have told the prison authorities that they are refusing solid foods only, but CDCR refuses to provide them with liquid sustenance other than water, and guards have even confiscated any such liquids that they had in their cells."

CDCR's Obscene Denial of Responsibility for Billy 'Guero' Sell's Death

Obscenely, the CDCR claims hunger striker Billy Sell's death had nothing to do with the hunger strike—even though they've confirmed Sell refused food from July 11 to July 21, the day before his death. They claim he'd been closely monitored as are all prisoners, that the coroner's report stated he died of strangulation, and then went on to vilify Sell by reporting on the crimes he'd allegedly committed that sent him to prison—as if that justified the torture prisoners are subjected to.

"I find that absurd," Ron Ahnen of California Prison Focus told The Nation August 3. "We know that Sell was in solitary confinement for at least five years, which can create a sense of despair. If you've been in solitary confinement for half a decade and you go on hunger strike thinking that you can help change things and nothing happens, then you ask for medical help and you don't receive it, you feel even more despair. These conditions of despair have been created by the CDCR. If the demands of the prisoners had been negotiated before the hunger strike—and, remember, these demands were made public months ago—I firmly believe that Billy Sell would be here with us today."

State Senator Tom Ammiano also questioned the CDCR's claims: "The death of a prisoner who had participated in the hunger strike has been ruled a suicide, I can't be comforted by the knowledge that conditions in taxpayer funded institutions have led to unusual rates of suicide instead of reasonable rates of rehabilitation."

Amnesty International is calling for an impartial investigation into Sell's death.

The Heroism of the Prisoners Up Against the Barbarism of U.S. Prisons

Prisoners' Families Raise Their Voices

At protests in the last week, people with relatives in the SHU have raised their voices. They are fiercely proud of what the hunger strikers are doing, an unselfish and courageous act. At a July 30 demonstration in Sacramento, Revolution talked with a number of family members with loved ones in prison. One Latina had asked her brother not to go on strike, she said she would try to help him with his case herself and he told her no, that this had to be for everybody. "He sees that there's youngsters, 18 years old, that are going in there [to the SHU]. And he doesn't want them to go through what he's been through for 23 years. So, it needs to stop. And that's how strong they are in there, sticking by each other."

Families deeply appreciate the potential power of the Call to End Hostilities. A woman with a brother in Pelican Bay SHU stood with her arm around a Latina woman whose son is in there too. "This is a public display outside, of what is happening inside." "We could be at odds, but we are standing together in unity. All the races."

But the families are also aware that the hunger strikers are in danger of losing their lives, and are suffering. Some have lost 30 or 40 pounds. There is fear mixed with pride. A niece of a prisoner said at a rally, "I looked up [on the internet] how long does a body last without food, they've lasted 23 days. They're strong."

A white woman said she was being retaliated against for asking questions and speaking out: she showed us a letter denying her future visits with her son. The letter from the CDCR, citing no particulars, said that she was being investigated for being a gang affiliate and so she was denied visiting. The woman was crying angrily, "I ain't in a gang, I'm his mother, damnit. I asked questions. Now I get this letter." Another woman said her relative told her that no one is getting enough sleep, because they're waking them up all the time. "They're calling it security checks, but it's sleep deprivation to try to wear them down. The checks are per the warden's orders. So every half hour they're walking and clanking down the corridor, 24 hours a day."

But the families know that the prisoners are very determined. "My brother has been in Pelican Bay SHU for over seven years. Today is day 23 that he has gone without food. We knew long before it happened. We were all prepared mentally. It is hard. The way he told me was he said, 'this is the last visit till the strike is over. Don't come up there because it will be bad and I don't want you to see me that way.' He said, 'We are going to take it all the way.' It was like, oh my god, it's confirming everything that's being said: They're willing to die. And they're going to take it as far as they have to get this done because you are either going to die physically or they are going to bury you alive in the SHU. Which is what is happening now. It's heartbreaking. What angers me the most is Jerry Brown. His actions tell me that he doesn't care. And for me, he's got blood on is hands because now somebody has died in this strike, regardless of how it happened, he was participating in the strike."

Prison authorities have tried to highlight the fact that the numbers being counted on hunger strike have declined over the 26 days of the strike. But the fact that 331 prisoners have refused food for 26 days is an astonishing number and extremely significant. These courageous prisoners are risking their health—even their lives—and are vowing to continue!

And many others are going on and off hunger strike as the CDCR's own numbers confirm.

On July 30-31, attorney and National Lawyers Guild Bay Area board member Caitlin Kelly Henry visited 17 prisoners at Pelican Bay. She reported:

"Overall spirits are very high. People are dedicated to the fight for the 5 demands, and are maintaining or resuming various forms of support, whether boycotting canteen, continuing to fast, resuming a fast, refusing work (there do not seem to be any porters that have resumed work), or doing other symbolic actions. They have been receiving little mail or TV or radio reports, but any bit of supportive news coverage has been very meaningful for them. They feel they have been receiving misleading information from staff, so facts in media reports, whether favorable or unfavorable, have served to inform and inspire them. In particular, the actions of high profile people and celebrities make them want to continue in their struggle. Overall they are extremely grateful and thankful and moved by supporters on the outside. Each person I visited spent a good deal of time expressing deep and sincere thanks for this, over and over."

The CDCR's Outrageous Lies and the Battle for Public Opinion

In the face of all this, the State of California continues to churn out lies and absurd propaganda justifying their system of solitary confinement and torture, and they continue to vilify the prisoners—essentially denying their humanity and basic rights. For example, CDCR (@CACorrections) tweeted: "No 'solitary confinement' n CA prisons. SHU inmates have visitation, cell mates, education/religious programs, cable TV/radio and more."

In reality, more than 10,000 prisoners in California are in SHUs or Administrative Segregation—forms of solitary confinement and many have been denied any meaningful human contact for years, even decades.

On Facebook the CDCR posted, "Did you know that Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU) is the only one of its kind in CA? All other SHUs are regular housing units that have windows, dayrooms, and yards. Pelican Bay's SHU houses some of the most serious/violent inmates in the state." As if SHUs and Administrative Segregation are practically like having your own home—and as if prisoners the state claims are "violent" can have their basic rights and humanity stripped away.

Prison authorities claim the hunger strike has been "organized by violent prison gangs seeking greater ability to operate within the state's sprawling penal system." (Los Angeles Times, August 1). This is particularly outrageous because the prisoners' demands are for basic rights—and they have signed an agreement to END hostilities, which marks a historic turning point in relations among prisoners which has lessened violence and is a direct challenge to the system's racist, divide-and-conquer practices in prisons (and society at large).

California's refusal to meet the prisoners' demands, but instead to retaliate against and lie about the prisoners points to the reality that the system of mass incarceration—including racial profiling, police brutality and murder, the criminalization and imprisonment of millions is a key means of suppressing and controlling the millions of oppressed for whom capitalism-imperialism has no life and no future. This is an indictment of the entire system that the U.S. rulers tout as "the greatest" in the world. And it's a challenge to all those who value humanity and basic justice to step up our efforts to support the courageous prisoners on hunger strike—and to expose the lies, cruelty, and criminality of the U.S. prison system and the whole system it is an integral part of.


For more coverage see prisoners letters, interviews with prominent activists, and updates about the strike at "Stand Up for the Courageous California Prisoner Hunger Strikers!"


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