Revolution Online, October 10, 2011

Los Angeles Press Conference: Support the Unprecedented CA Prisoner Hunger Strike

The invitation to the press conference at West Hollywood City Hall put it like this:

"Unprecedented CA Prisoner Hunger Strike! Support the Unprecedented CA Prisoner Hunger Strike—Stop Torture in the CA SHU's and Stop Retaliation on the Prisoners and the Targeting of Legal Advocates

"…Torture is unequivocally unacceptable under any circumstances. But what has been unfolding in the SHU's is a systematic use of torture by the state for years and decades: torture of both the minds and bodies of many thousands of prisoners to 'break them' and to either have them die in long term solitary confinement or be driven insane through the psychological torture of years and decades of isolation. Such torture is an affront to human dignity. 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 do on the outside of prison will be a big factor in what happens now that the prisoners resumed their hunger strike…"

A significant array of organizations and people accepted the invitation, spread the word, and built for the press conference. Speakers (and participants) included: Mayor Pro Tem, West Hollywood, Jeffrey Prang; ACLU of Southern California; Peter Eliasberg, Legal Director; National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT); Virginia Classick, Member, Board of Directors, NRCAT; Progressive Christians Uniting; Peter Laarman, Executive Director; Edward Asner, actor (sent a statement); Wayne Kramer, Jail Guitar Doors USA, Co-Founder; Blasé Bonpane, director and founder of the Office of the Americas; Clyde Young, revolutionary communist and former prisoner (sent a statement); Family members with loved ones in CA SHU's and isolation units, including Kendra Casteneda, Terese and Richard Amen, Daletha Hayden. The press conference was moderated by Michael Slate, KPFK radio host and writer for Revolution newspaper. Support at the press conference included Eisha Mason, Interim Regional Director, Pacific Southwest Region, AFSC; Rev. Rick Reed and Rev. John Cager. Press/Media included Associated Press (AP), La Opinion, Univision, Press TV, USC TV and Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

The press conference took place on October 5, the 10th day of the resumption of the CA prisoner hunger strike. The following are transcripts of statements given/read:


Michael Slate:

The first round of the prison strike had a little more that 6,000 people participating. And now, a little bit more than a week and a half since it resumed, there are almost 12,000 prisoners participating in about a dozen prisons. If people have the press release they can see the five core demands which are nothing less than or more than demanding that they be treated as human beings, and standing up against this barbaric, savage torture that's been brought down on them by the state…. And when they've raise their voices, there's been severe recriminations. As people have heard, there's been attacks on the legal advocates; a number of families have been denied visits. They've been labeled "security threats" to the department of corrections. There's been petty recriminations as well as very heavy recriminations against people.

Their voices can't be heard, but at this point we on the outside, people who recognize what's going on here and see the common bond we have, even with people who are buried deep down in the darkest holes in the prisons of this country, we have a common bond and we have a responsibility. This is the spot where epistemology meets morality. It's an extremely important point, and this is the spot where we recognize that we have a moral responsibility to stand up and help to amplify the voices of these prisoners. That's what we're hoping to do today with this press conference and with the press coverage that comes out with this, and in the future, as long as this strike is going on, to help amplify and to bust through the walls of silence that have been built even bigger and heavier around the striking prisoners.

Statement from Edward Asner, Actor:

As people throughout the country, nay the entire world rise up to protest the harsh unjust conditions of life, it is fitting & wonderful that those who have less voice than the free, band together to protest the harsh conditions of their daily & yearly lives. And they do this at the risk of even harsher punishments. Unlike their free countrymen, they can enumerate the means to lessen their burden:

- abolition of group punishment
- using manufactured evidence for greater punishment & suffering
- offering the carrot of 'squealing' on their fellows
- employing the recommendations of the US Commission regarding long-term solitary confinement
- more and better food, schooling, phone calls, warmer clothing akin to that provided in federal prisons and other states.

Controlling law breakers is no easy task but it need not entail cowardly, craven tactics to perform it. It is beneath the dignity of our state to do so. May your protest not fall on deaf ears or hard hearts."

Wayne Kramer, guitarist and co-founder of Jail Guitar Doors USA:

Good morning. My name is Wayne Kramer and I am here this morning to talk about the hunger strike in California's prisons. I am co-founder of Jail Guitar Doors USA. We are a 501c3 non-profit group based here in Los Angeles. We are the United States arm of an international independent initiative with our co-founder, Billy Bragg, in the United Kingdom. We are musician-founded and musician-operated.

What we do is simple. We find people who work in prisons who are willing to use music as rehabilitation and we provide them with guitars. We also work for justice reform and prison reform. And that is why I am here today.

I am known mainly as a guitarist, but for a couple of years, I was known as 00180-190. I am also an ex-prisoner.

I can speak for all of the musicians, actors. artists and activists we know, when I say that we stand behind this historic hunger strike and we support the prisoners' courageous efforts.

When Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich and their colleagues on the far Right line up with prisoners, progressives and hard-core Lefties, you know something is out of kilter in America. There is a disconnect between who we say we are, and how the reality of our policies play out.

But leave it to the lowest of the low, the prisoners of America, to step up and show us the contradiction.

Change always starts from the bottom up and there are no people that our society casts lower than those sentenced to live and die in our prisons. They are disproportionately people of color and of limited economic means. And they are showing us who we are. To paraphrase Senator Jim Webb, "'We are either the most evil people on the face of the earth, or we're doing something wrong about locking people up."

Here in the Golden State we have incarcerated our fellow citizens in a frenzy for the last 30 years because it was politically expedient. Mass incarceration served the career goals of politicians and the powerful prison guards union.

But now something has to give.

The drug war, the death penalty, the extraordinarily severe sentences have combined to create a perfect storm of misery and defeat for over 2.5 million of our fellow citizens now in prison. These aren't the eyeball-tattooed freaks on TV's "Locked-Up". These are our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands, sons, daughters, cousins and friends. They are us. We are them.

There is an emerging lower caste of felons that will have more difficulty fitting into the mainstream of American society that has ever happened in our history. We have locked people up for decades in institutions that inculcate them into a world of fear, violence, racism and defeat. For decades now. the entire focus of America's prisons has been on punitive incapacitation.

But 95% of the people we lock up are one day released back into our communities and they will live next door to you and me. And what good did their time in state custody do them or us? They are now worse, not better, for the experience. We have supported these policies at our own peril.

In the final analysis, the Left and Right agree, we cannot afford it, neither fiscally nor ethically.

We spend 200 billion yearly on locking people up. The federal government is broke. California is broke. Some states have already begun reforming incarceration policies. But we can't afford it on a deeper, more important level.

The hunger strikers are not starving themselves to protest their convictions, or the drug laws, or the sentences the courts have given them. They are reaching out for civil rights and most importantly, human rights. The right to human dignity.

To not be denied health care. To not be tortured, isolated, intimidated. starved and cut off from contact with their families and friends inside and outside of the fence.

One is sentenced to prison as punishment, not for punishment.

The least powerful among us are giving us—and we hope giving to the most powerful among us—a lesson in what it means to be civilized. For that, we should thank them and we should carry the message that human rights must come to California's prisons along with justice for all Americans.

Jeffrey Prang, Mayor Pro Tem, City of West Hollywood:

I'm really proud that West Hollywood is the host of this press conference this morning. People throughout California, throughout the United States and the world look to West Hollywood as a leader on issues of civil rights and social justice. So it's appropriate that we have this press conference here today in City Hall. You're going to hear from a lot of very important speakers who have a great deal of knowledge and information to convey that I hope we will all take to heart and help convey this message to the people of California.

I just wanted to say, as a public policy leader in California, how concerned I am about the challenges the State of California has with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, one of the challenges that we have in California that has led to the problems of torture and abuse in the criminal justice system. We essentially have a revenge-based criminal justice system in the State of California. We have a State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation where the "R" is not really a part of their mission. The department is under siege under a consent decree from the federal government, and the stories that we read in the newspaper about medical care, about abuse, indicates that this department is broken, and is in desperate need of a fix. And the fact that we can stand here in America in this day and identify that there are conditions of torture existing in the California criminal justice system is just egregious and calls out for an immediate response by the community.

I'd like to call upon the governor and the legislature to move with all deliberate speed to address these serious issues in the California corrections system.

Peter Laarman, Executive Director, Progressive Christians Uniting:

I'm pleased to be here with an array of religious leaders. I won't introduce all of them but I hope that you will speak to them about their deep-rooted concern for this crisis that we face.

In our religious traditions we believe that nothing that is done in secret will not be brought to light. We are here on a dark day to bring some light to this grim, unspeakable horror of mass incarceration, including human rights abuse in the state of California. I think that many Californians simply tune this out and say, "Well, it's bad, but those are bad people and that's how the world has always been."

What's going on in our prisons now and what the hunger strikers are lifting up for all of us, as our sisters and brothers, is the fact that this is not about law enforcement, it's not about public safety, it's certainly not about rehabilitation. It is about abuse. And every time a prisoner's put into these circumstances, whether it's in Pelican Bay or in Guantanamo or in Bagram Prison or any place, all of us are diminished. All of us are diminished. We cannot separate the excruciating torture of our fellow human beings, we can't do that without being diminished and losing part of our spirit and part of the god that is in us.

So my plea today is that we will understand that people who are incarcerated, the principle there but for the grace of god, god's light and god's goodness shines in every human being. It's just that simple. And it's embarrassing. It really is embarrassing in 21st Century America to have to go through this, to have to explain how foundational that is. We're saying this morning that we may be on the outside but a part of us is on the inside, too. And we're not going away until we're all together. The principle of one of the main prison reform groups, All Of Us Or None, applies here. It applies this morning. So I'm very grateful to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture for stepping into this situation. For the most part that movement began with a concern about U.S. torture abroad. But there's absolutely no reason not to bring the same perspective right here, right here to these prisons. We absolutely must let the governor and our legislators know that we will not tolerate this great evil hiding in plain sight.

So that's it. It's about visibility. It's about solidarity. And frankly, it's about struggle. Tearing down these walls is going to be a struggle. It's not going to be over when this particular hunger strike is over. We have a long way to go.

I hope that our message gets out there. And we're determined, not to let this simply slip out of sight. Because it's never out of mind, and it's never out of god's mind. Thank you.

Peter Eliasberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Southern California:

I'm here today to express on behalf of the ACLU our solidarity with and support for the hunger strikers and what they are standing for. In a just society, and a just society can and does sometimes take away people's liberty, although lord knows, in California, we're doing far too much of that to far too many people. But the issue here is not whether there is a basis to put somebody in prison. The question is, how do you treat them when they're there? And in prison or not, and no matter what crime you're convicted for, everyone is entitled to a certain basic level of human dignity, and not to be tortured, and not to be abused.

Malcolm X was a prisoner. Jesus was a prisoner, and many others. Most of the prisoners in the California prison system today will come back to our communities, to our families, and they are us. Long-term isolation, solitary confinement, is a form of torture, and it is inconsistent with the principles of a just society. Also the kind of group punishment that we regularly see imposed upon prisoners where many are punished for the act of one: whole cell blocks and modules are basically punished for one person acting out or doing something wrong. That is inconsistent with our basic notions of due process. We don't do group punishments in this society, but somehow or other the California prison system seems to believe that it is OK to behave in this manner.

So we are here today on behalf of the ACLU to speak out, say that it is time for the governor and for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to stop these policies and to recognize that they are inhuman, and they are also counter-productive. Because in the end, so many of the people in our prison system will be back in our communities, and treating them in this way and dehumanizing and treating them without any dignity will not serve or benefit the society and it will not help those of us who are outside welcome these people into our communities when they come back.

Blasé Bonpane, director and founder of the Office of the Americas:

We're very proud of the prisoners that are in the SHU today that are on their hunger strike. We're in solidarity with them. They're giving a great example to all of us, calling attention to a mean-spirited system. As you know if you look at it, it's very closely connected with the war system. Both systems are systems of cruelty. Both systems include torture. Both systems include the humiliation of people. And that's why we see prisoners around the world now in solidarity with them. The prisoners in Palestine are in solidarity with the prisoners in the SHU, as of this morning.

There are structural problems and solitary is one of many, and it certainly can be categorized as torture. Together with that we have the situation of the plea bargain whereby someone is accused and states that they would like to give a plea of innocent, and they're threatened immediately: If you do that, we're going to throw five charges at you. However, if you give a guilty plea, we'll only throw two. So if you go to jail innocent for a couple of years, then you won't have to go to jail for twenty years. So you have your choice. This is literally unbelievable. This will be studied years from now as an absence of justice of any kind. The way the plea bargain is used has give the prosecutor far more power than the judge. And that's the situation we're in today. You will give a guilty plea, or we are going to punish you. So that is certainly not an acceptable thing.

Any sociologist can see that we have a clear system of class punishment and class justice. We do not have liberty and justice for all. We could say that as a prayer, and of course, I don't believe in state-sponsored prayer, so the Pledge of Allegiance for me is a state-sponsored prayer that some day we might have liberty and justice for all. We do not. We have one system of justice for the poor and for people of color, another system of justice for those who have private attorneys and who are most often Caucasian. This is not liberty and justice for all. And this is what we're dealing with at this time and it's not acceptable any more than the war system is acceptable.

I'd like to say a word about my sister, Sister Mary Anne of the Sisters of Social Service. She's been rehabilitating delinquent children for over a half century. She's had enormous success. She takes them from the courts and the court gives them a chance not to be locked up, but to go to her assistance. She has had enormous success, no recidivism to speak of. Someone called my mother and said, "How is it that Sister Mary Anne is running the most effective children's rehabilitation system in the state of California?" And my mother said, "She treats them as human beings." That is the answer. She treats people as human beings. And we just don't seem to get it.

So we're here today to make these demands, together with the people at City Hall, together with the people at Wall Street, together with the people who will begin marching tomorrow in Washington, DC. This is an international cry for humanity instead of cruelty, instead of fear, as the glue of a corrupt political system.

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