Revolution #246, September 25, 2011

6,000 Prisoners Resume Hunger Strike in CA

Prison Officials Threatening Retaliation…. Urgent Response Needed!

A very just, very significant and very courageous battle is spreading rapidly in California’s state prisons. On Monday, September 26, prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) resumed their hunger strike. These prisoners in solitary confinement face horrifically inhuman conditions and had been on a hunger strike from July 1-July 20. Now they are resuming their hunger strike in the face of threats of retaliation and an ongoing campaign of vilification of prisoners by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Thousands of prisoners in other prisons have already joined them. On September 28, lawyers and mediators of Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity’s mediation team reported that at least 6,000 prisoners throughout California were participating in the hunger strike.

In a Thursday, September 29 statement, the CDCR admitted, “As of today, 4,252 inmates in eight state prisons have missed nine consecutive meals since Monday, September 26, 2011,” and that state prisons at Calipatria, Centinela, Corcoran, Ironwood, Pelican Bay, San Quentin and Salinas Valley, as well as the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and state prison in Corcoran had all reported inmates on hunger strike.  (The CDCR doesn’t acknowledge that someone is on a hunger strike until they have refused nine straight meals.)

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website says: “We know that hundreds of prisoners in the general population at Calipatria are joining the hunger strike for one week in solidarity with 200 hunger strikers in Calipatria’s two Administrative Segregation Units (Ad-Seg & ASU), bringing Calipatria’s numbers up to 500-1,000 hunger strikers.

“Family members have also reported prisoners are striking at CCI Tehachapi’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), demanding that the five core demands written by hunger strikers at Pelican Bay be implemented for all SHU-status prisoners in CA. Prisoners at Centinela have also joined the hunger strike again in solidarity with SHU-status prisoners across the state.” (prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity)

There are also reports that the strike is spreading beyond state prisons to county jails. The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reported that 50 prisoners in the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, east of Los Angeles, are refusing to eat in support of the hunger strike in the prisons. (9/27/11)

Thousands of prisoners had joined the hunger strike between July 1-20—at the height, 6,500 were participating in some way. The prisoners at Pelican Bay suspended their strike when prison officials said they would meet some of the prisoners’ demands and address the main issues the prisoners were raising. But the prisoners say that the response of the prison authorities since then has been completely unacceptable. (See “Hunger Strike to Resume September 26—Support the Just Demands of the Pelican Bay Prisoners” in Revolution #246.)

Now these prisoners are again putting their lives on the line, demanding to be treated as human beings—demanding that the CDCR end the barbaric, inhumane conditions of imprisonment throughout California prisons, particularly in the “Security Housing Units” or SHUs, where thousands of prisoners are locked in solitary confinement for years, sometimes decades. More than 500 prisoners have been in the Pelican Bay SHU for more than 10 years. Seventy eight have been in the SHU for more than 20 years—locked in a small cells 22-and-a-half hours a day, unable to talk to anyone other than a prison guard who barks orders and subjects them to all sorts of brutality and humiliation.  

The prisoners’ demands include an end to group punishment, abolishing the CDCR’s gang status and “debriefing” policies, ending long-term solitary confinement, providing adequate food and expanding constructive programming and privileges. (To read the prisoners’ five demands go to:

No retaliation for engaging in the hunger strike!

Prison officials were deeply shaken by the breadth and strength of the July 1-20 hunger strike. This courageous action brought to light the horrific conditions of solitary confinement—which amount to torture—and there was broad support for the prisoners’ just demands. Now prison authorities are attempting to prevent this from happening again and threatening severe reprisals against hunger strike prisoners. Undersecretary of Operations for the CDCR, Scott Kernan said in a recent interview, “If there are other instances of hunger strikes, I don’t think the Department will approach it the same way this time around.”

The CDCR’s September 29 press release states that it “will not condone organized inmate disturbances. Participation in mass hunger strikes and other disturbances will result in CDCR taking the following action:

“Participation in a mass disturbance is a violation of state law, and any participating inmates will receive disciplinary action in accordance with the California Code of Regulations; and 

“Inmates identified as leading the disturbance will be subject to removal from the general population and be placed in an Administrative Segregation Unit."

Matthew Cate the Secretary of CDCR, interviewed by KPFA on September 27 threatened prisoners saying, “If they still want to be on a hunger strike then there will be some consequences to that, because you can’t shut down prison operations with no consequences.” Cate went on to repeatedly describe the hunger strike as a “mass disturbance” and compared it to a riot. In attempting to justify why the media are not allowed access to the prisoners on strike—who are risking their lives to demand an end to inhumane conditions—Cates said it was “the same reason that we don’t allow media to have access to Charles Manson.”

On September 27, CDCR issued a memo to all prisoners stating: “Information has been received that a number of inmates have engaged in behavior consistent with organizing a demonstration/hunger strike event. The Department will not condone organized inmate disturbances.” The letter said that “participation in mass disturbances, such as hunger strikes or work stoppage will result in the Department taking action.”

In particular, the memo threatened all participants in the hunger strike with “disciplinary action in accordance with the California Code of Regulation.” Such disciplinary actions are used to deny prisoners parole, privileges, or other forms of punishment. 

The letter said that those identified as “leading the disturbance” would be “removed from the general population and put in isolation in an Administrative Segregation Unit.” Administrative Segregation is another type of solitary confinement in California prisons. They have not stated what the punishment will be for prisoners who are already in the SHU.

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity reported that “a number of prisoners lost their jobs as added punishment for supporting the strike in July.”

Stop and think about what all this reveals: Who is defending crimes against humanity? Who is lying and justifying criminal violence against human beings? What does all this show about the utter illegitimacy of the California prison system—and brutal nature of mass incarceration in the USA? For prisoners subjected to the most isolating conditions, sitting in their cells and refusing to eat is labeled a “mass disturbance.” Their demands simply to be treated as human beings—are met with lies and threats of even more violence against them. This is completely outrageous and intolerable!

These threats of retaliation against the hunger strikers must be exposed and opposed immediately by people on the outside.

Carol Strickman, an attorney who recently visited Pelican Bay, told Revolution that there are other ramifications if prison officials declare the hunger strike a “mass disturbance”:

“They could do lockdowns. That would prevent family visits. That means everybody in the prison can't have visits. That would be another example of group punishment, and abolishing group punishment is one of the prisoners' demands. So what they would be doing in response to the prisoners’ demands is to crank up group punishment—the behavior that is being protested. It means people can't go to the law library, people can't get medical visits, can't do classes and programming. In women's facilities they can't go do their laundry. You can't go to canteen.  There are a lot of things that flow from a lockdown. That is a serious threat.”  (At this writing there are reports that many prisoners are now being denied family visits.)

Strickman said that prisoners are receiving serious disciplinary write-ups, usually reserved for serious rules violations, for things like talking in the library or not walking fast enough.  She said that some of the prisoners who have been negotiators are being singled out, threatened with transfers, and subjected to cell searches.

Summing up the retaliation and threats against the prisoners, Stickman said, "We're saying they are torturing the prisoners and we want them to stop the torture. The prisoners are so concerned about it that they are going to stop eating. If the response is to increase the torture, then they are just proving who they are and what their values are. This is a human rights issue and they are proving that they don't see the prisoners as human.”

* * * * *

Our brothers and sisters are locked up and facing the most horrible and inhumane conditions. Yet they have risen up—with great courage, unity and vision. They’re setting an example for everyone who hates injustice. They urgently need our support. Their struggle can—and must—reverberate and gain support across the U.S… and the world!

As Revolution has said: “People on the outside have the moral responsibility to act in a way commensurate with the justness of the prisoners’ demands and the urgency of the situation. What people on the outside do will be a big factor in what happens now that the prisoners resumed the hunger strike.”


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