Revolution #247, October 9, 2011

Revolution received the following statement:

October 2, 2011
Support the Hunger Strike and Just Demands of Prisoners at Pelican Bay and All California Prisons

Once again, with tremendous courage and determination, prisoners at Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU) resumed their hunger strike on September 26. The strike has now spread to twelve California prisons and to prisoners from California who are incarcerated in prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. The strike now encompasses an estimated 12,000 prisoners.

The initial hunger strike started at the Pelican Bay SHU on July 1 and subsequently, over a three-week period, spread to prisons throughout the state of California, involving more than 6,000 prisoners at its height. The strike ended on July 20 with promises from correctional officials to make changes consistent with the just demands of the prisoners, "faithful" promises which were not kept.

Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is a super-maximum security prison located in an isolated part of northern California, twenty miles from the Oregon border. There are more than 3,000 prisoners confined at this prison. More than a thousand prisoners are locked down in the SHU at Pelican Bay, where they are subjected to isolation, maximum sensory deprivation, and brutality.

Imagine being confined to a tiny, bare, tomb-like, windowless cell for 23 hours a day, robbed of sensory stimulation and human contact. Imagine being "locked down in cells where the senses are deprived, with nothing to see, no one to touch and nothing to do." Imagine being in a cell hardly larger than a small bathroom, containing only a toilet, a sink and a slab of concrete protruding from the wall serving as a bed. Imagine guards cavity-searching you and cuffing you before you can get out of your cell for a shower or for exercise in a bare concrete space; and imagine guards violently extracting you from your cell for a minor offense, such as refusing to return your meal tray. Imagine being denied exposure to sunlight and to music.

Long-term isolation can and does have a devastating effect, destroying the body and, especially, the mind. This kind of treatment is barbaric and is nothing less than torture. Many prisoners are driven insane as a result of long-term isolation, and it is especially cruel when prisoners who are already suffering from mental illness are subjected to such confinement. In California, approximately 5% of the total prison population is locked down in isolation—but 69% of prisoner suicides occurred in these units in 2005. Tens of thousands of prisoners are confined to isolation units throughout the country. Isolation over long periods of time and sensory deprivation violates international anti-torture laws.

The following core demands are being circulated in a "final notice from prisoners on D-Corridor" at Pelican Bay:

1) End "group punishment" where an individual prisoner breaks a rule and prison officials punish a whole group of prisoners of the same race.

2) Abolish "debriefing" and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. False and/or highly questionable "evidence" is used to accuse prisoners of being active/inactive members of prison gangs who are then sent to the SHU [Security Housing Unit] where they are subjected to long-term isolation and torturous conditions. One of the only ways these prisoners can get out of the SHU is if they "debrief"—that is, give prison officials information on gang activity.

3) Comply with recommendations from a 2006 U.S. commission to "make segregation a last resort" and "end conditions of isolation."

4) Provide Adequate Food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food. They want adequate food, wholesome nutritional meals, including special diet meals and an end to the use of food as a way to punish prisoners in the SHU.

5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates—including the opportunity to "engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities..." which are routinely denied. Demands include one phone call per week, more visiting time, permission to have wall calendars, sweat suits and watch caps (warm clothing is often denied even though cells and the exercise cage can be bitterly cold).

Prisoners who are locked down in solitary across this country are considered by prison officials to be the "worst of the worst" and correctional officials "justify" the barbarous and inhumane treatment of prisoners on that basis. Such attempts to justify torturing prisoners demonstrates the utter illegitimacy of this system. As the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) put out by the Revolutionary Communist Party makes clear: things do not have to be this way; in a radically new and different (socialist) society, prisoners will be treated humanely and will not be subject to torture or cruel and unusual punishment.

Contrary to the vilification of prisoners as the "worst of the worst," prisoners, even those who have done bad things, can transform and can make profound contributions to bringing forward a qualitatively different and better society. As Bob Avakian has written in BAsics: "Masses of different strata, including the basic masses—we cannot have the idea that they are capable of less than they are capable of. They are capable of terrible things, yes; some do terrible things, too, as a result of what this system has done to them; but that doesn't mean that this is somehow their 'essence' and all that they are capable of. Speaking of the broad masses, including some who have gotten caught up in terrible things, they are also capable of great things...It is the responsibility of those who are the vanguard to lead the masses to realize this potential...And, yes, that means struggling with the masses to, first of all, recognize their own revolutionary potential, their potential to become the emancipators of humanity, and then to act in accordance with that potential." (BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, "The Revolutionary Potential of the Masses and the Responsibility of the Vanguard")

There is a profound difference between what is said here and the "worst of the worst" "justification" for torturing people. During the upsurge of the 1960s, hundreds and thousands of prisoners turned their lives around, getting out of a life of crime and getting into the revolution. I am an example of someone who made that kind of transformation while imprisoned during that period. There was a back and forth between the struggles in prison and the revolutionary upsurge in U.S. society.

The inhumane and dehumanizing treatment of prisoners in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison is totally unacceptable and the prisoners there are showing a lot of courage and determination in standing up and demanding to be treated like human beings. Their example of standing up in this way has the potential to inspire millions.

They are risking their health and their lives in going on an indefinite hunger strike, and they are raising demands that are entirely just and legitimate.

The prisoners are shining a spotlight on the horrific and unacceptable conditions existing inside the corridors of solitary confinement units in California; thousands of prisoners of all nationalities have now joined the renewed hunger strike.

The California Department of "Corrections and Rehabilitation" (more accurately, the California Department of Punishment, Torture, and Dehumanization) is showing its true colors in response to what prisoners have made clear is a peaceful hunger strike; correctional officials, surprised and stung by the hunger strike in July, have characterized the strike as a "mass disturbance" and are lashing out in mean-spirited fashion, retaliating against the prisoners, denying family visits for prisoners and banning two legal representatives from communicating with the prisoners and from entering the prison. Correctional officials are doing all this in response to the just and legitimate demands of the prisoners, who are courageously resisting years and decades of torture and dehumanization.

The hunger strike must become a major focus of resistance in society, drawing forward widespread support, both domestically and internationally. There is an urgent need for people of conscience, students, academics, youth, ex-prisoners, civil and human rights advocates, family members of prisoners, and countless others to join this struggle in support of the just and legitimate demands of the prisoners.

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