Largest hunger strike in history: California prisoners speak out on first anniversary

This is from the SF BayView, July 7th 2014.
[Note by CAPW: Not only do we commemorate the first anniversary of the largest hunger strike, but also the third anniversary of the first hungerstrike in 2011, that commenced on July 1st 2011]

One year ago, on July 8, 2013, 30,000 California prisoners initiated the largest hunger strike the world has ever seen. Sixty days later, 40 prisoners, who had eaten nothing in all that time, agreed to suspend the strike when state legislators promised to hold hearings on ending solitary confinement, the heart of their demands.

Hundreds braved blistering heat to rally outside Corcoran State Prison, where hundreds were on hunger strike, on July 13, 2013. Spirits were lifted as the supporters shouted loud enough to be heard inside. The 2013 strike made headlines around the world, and support rallies were held as far away as Philadelphia, Mexico City and Berlin. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

Hundreds braved blistering heat to rally outside Corcoran State Prison, where hundreds were on hunger strike, on July 13, 2013. Spirits were lifted as the supporters shouted loud enough to be heard inside. The 2013 strike made headlines around the world, and support rallies were held as far away as Philadelphia, Mexico City and Berlin. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

The 2013 hunger strike followed two in 2011 in which participation peaked at 6,600 and 12,000. In the interim, effective October 2012, the hunger strike leaders, representing all racial groups, issued the historic Agreement to End Hostilities, which has held with few exceptions throughout the California prison system ever since.

These statements, most by hunger strike participants, arrived in time for the July 8 anniversary, and more will be added as they arrive.

We the people

by Mutope Duguma (James Crawford)
What we learned this far in our protracted struggle is that We the People are the vanguard. We the People have to demand what we want for ourselves. No government, no power, no authority and no one should be able to trample over the People without the People rising up and saying, “Under no circumstances do We the People accept this in our home.”
We the People reject torture of human beings,
We the People reject mass incarceration of our sons and daughters,
We the People reject police brutality,
We the People reject poverty,
We the People reject solitary confinement,
We the People reject Security Threat Groups and Step Down Programs,
We the People reject oppressive prison conditions
In solidarity.

We the People reject violence

Incarcerated artists rose to the occasion, encouraging participation inside and support outside. – Art: Michael D. Russell, C-90473, PBSP SHU, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532

Incarcerated artists rose to the occasion, encouraging participation inside and support outside. – Art: Michael D. Russell, C-90473, PBSP SHU, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532

Our unity is our strength. If we learn to cultivate our unity, we can begin to reshape this world – back into a world that reflects our humanity – because there is too much pain and suffering in the world today that only our unity will end. We’ve got to be unapologetic and always be dedicated and serious about the revolutionary change we seek.

Violence only perpetuates more violence inside of the vortex of violence, the senseless taking of lives, like a timeless hour clock that never ends, feeding on the very lives of our families and friends.
An end to all hostilities means peace amongst the oppressed, where our children can focus on school and living their lives peacefully, while they develop into strong young men and women.

An end to all hostilities means peace for the elderly and worrisome minds, where they can take peaceful walks during any time of day or night, sit out on their porches and watch the moon and stars in the sky.
An end to all hostilities means peace where young men and women can go into any neighborhood to socialize with fellow human beings without fear of being attacked or murdered.
An end to all hostilities means peace where all races in the free society can coexist without worrying that their race or class will be a hazard to them.

During our strikes to end all hostilities – July 1 to July 20, 2011; Sept. 26 to Oct. 14, 2011; and July 8 to Sept. 4, 2013 – we men and women got together and said enough already!
An end to all hostilities is solidarity.

Send our brother some love and light: Mutope Duguma, s/n James Crawford, D-05996, PBSP SHU, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.

Weighing sacrifices against successes, the price was too high, but the struggle moves forward

by Antonio Guillen
Greetings to one and all,
It has been three years since the commencement of the first hunger strike.
As I look back over that time to weigh our sacrifices against our successes, I have to admit that the accomplishments we’ve achieved thus far do allow me to be somewhat optimistic about the future. I cannot help, however, but remain angered at the cost of human life and damaged health we suffered simply to enact change – the price was way too high!

Hunger strike street altar feat. Christian Gomez at 40th & Clarke, Oakland by Molly Batchelder

The hunger strikes claimed at least two lives, both at Corcoran State Prison: Christian Gomez in 2011 and Billy Sell in 2013. These memorials were set up at a street festival in Oakland. – Photos: Molly Batchelder
Hunger strike street altar feat. Billy Sell at 40th & Clarke, Oakland by Molly Batchelder

And, although our accomplishments appear promising, in no way am I suggesting that we’ve succeeded in our overall struggle, which is to end long term solitary confinement and to better the living conditions of all SHU facilities – we are on our path, though!

As always, it’s of the upmost importance to acknowledge family and friends on the outside, who through your unwavering support have made it possible for us to be who we are today. Each of you, through your contributions and sacrifices, be they personal or collective, have helped pave the way for this struggle to move forward. And we on the inside will forever be grateful!
Power to the people.
Strength and respect,
Antonio Guillen

Send our brother some love and light: Antonio Guillen, P-81948, PBSP SHU, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.

Work together to keep the pressure on

by Phil Fortman
July 8th is a date that made history around the world last year – 30,000 prisoners began a hunger strike in the state of California due to the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement.
The strike did not come about as a spur of the moment idea. No, these inhumane conditions have been worsening year after year, decade after decade until the outside and inside finally joined together in a movement for change.

This drawing, the icon for all three California hunger strikes recognized around the world, was contributed by the renowned prison artist Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, then held in solitary confinement in Virginia, now in Texas. – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, 1859887, Clements Unit, 9601 Spur 591, Amarillo TX 79107

This drawing, the icon for all three California hunger strikes recognized around the world, was contributed by the renowned prison artist Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, then held in solitary confinement in Virginia, now in Texas. – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, 1859887, Clements Unit, 9601 Spur 591, Amarillo TX 79107

The change started on July 1, 2011, and Sept. 26 of the same year, which set the course for the Big One – the one that got the attention of the world to show how prisoners are being treated, not only in California, but in most states of this country.

Speaking as one of the four main representatives for the prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU, I applaud us all, prisoners and advocates alike, those who participated in the hunger strike and worked so hard for our case.
Looking back on this year, I see progress being made toward closing these holes – not as fast as we’d like, but the crack has been formed. The light is now beginning to seep in upon these dark, dreary walls for once.
In order to widen the crack until these walls come crashing down, we need to work together to keep the pressure on and on. We, as prisoners inside these places, have been advocating an end to hostilities among us. This attitude, along with the continued help and support of you good folks out there, will hopefully bring about a more civilized society and for us to live in peace and harmony.
I thank us all.

Send our brother some love and light: Phil Fortman, B-03557, PBSP SHU, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.

Women prisoners speak out on solitary and hunger strike anniversary

Solitary is torture. It humiliated me. They strip you of everything – I was only given a mumu and half a mattress. You are locked away with no answer. I was cold, tired and hungry. The other ladies in Ad Seg helped me out and also the ones on Death Row, which is right nearby, gave me stuff to survive.
The hunger strike last year was amazing. The guys went through hell, but it was so good for them to come together!
Send our sister some love and light: Alicia Zaragoza, X-07564, CCWF, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA  93610.

Solitary confinement in all ways is cruel. If it is a form of abuse to keep a child locked away in a closet for long periods of time, then why is it not abuse to keep that same child, who is now a man, locked in a cell for years? Put yourself in their shoes! I supported the hunger strike.

Send our sister some love and light: Natalie De Mola, X-12907, CCWF, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA 93610.

Letter to the Editor by Antonio Guillen

From: Del Norte Triplicate
Aug. 8, 2013

Prison series misrepresented inmates, reasons for strike

I write this letter in response to the four-part series about Pelican Bay State (“Inside the SHU,” June 22–29). I participated in the interviews because I was told that it was a story about the hunger strike from a “humanist” standpoint. As it turned out, it was, yet again, another unbalanced piece that plays off the fears of the public and furthers the CDCR propaganda campaign against the SHU population.

There was very little about the lengthy conversation regarding the hunger strike movement, validation process, the abuses conducted by the Institutional Gang Investigation Unit (IGI) and the Investigative Services Unit (ISU), the suffering caused by long-term solitary confinement of prisoners and their families, or the end-hostilities agreement. It appears that many of my words were selectively chosen and carefully placed in a way to paint a very different picture than that which was conversed.

I know that there are those who will not agree or understand our struggle. But, to be clear, our fight is against the abusive policies and practices that are routinely manipulated by the IGI and ISU to justify long-term solitary confinement and inhumane living conditions.

All we are asking is that CDCR incorporate rules and regulations that cannot be manipulated by the IGI and ISU to keep people in solitary confinement indefinitely, and more humane living conditions for these SHU facilities.

CDCR has stated, several times, that our five core demands are “reasonable,” and to be fair, CDCR is making some changes. However, these changes still fall way short than of what CDCR originally deemed reasonable, and that’s why we have engaged on this third round of hunger strikes.

Antonio Guillen,

Pelican Bay State Prison

Editor’s note: Antonio Guillen is one of four members of the Short Corridor Collective that has organized the hunger strikes.

Updates from Pelican Bay State Prison SHU and Corcoran SHU hunger strikers

California Prison Focus News Digest – July 25, 2013
From Pelican Bay SHU prisoner in Ad Seg and HS rep 7/21/13
Arturo Castellanos
I hope this short note finds you and all our supporters in high spirits.  Myself and the rest of the Reps are doing ok in ASU although they do have cold air blasting through the vents.  We covered them but as time goes by on this HS the lack of warm air circulating in these cells will cause adverse effects.
Also you must remember that some or most of the Reps are over 50 and are considered high risk for medical complications because of their chronic illnesses like high blood pressure.  And what adds to the risk is that Doc. Sayers *again* discontinued all medications, even the baby 81 mg aspirins… Even though he is no longer head medical official, it is obvious he still contains some power here among medical staff who distain him.
However, our spirits are high and our determination is solid and we will see this through until CDCR officials settle our Demands in our favor.  And our strength and positive attitude is even greater with all the news on how our outside supporters, including those in other countries, are putting pressure on Gov. Brown and Secretary Beard to bring a settlement offer that we can accept for real changes to long term confinement, which destroys one’s mind and health and relations.  So all our love and respect goes out to all our supporters.
And, even though the numbers go down—last count was 1200—we are not discouraged, we have broken the record and put another wake-up call where general population also see the STG-SDP as a threat to them once it gets placed in the CCR Title 15.
————————————————————-
[from prisoner at PBSP SHU, 7/20/13]

He was moved from Corcoran SHU to PBSP and does not know why.  Not put in PB SHU, but rather in ASU—with hunger strikers.  If someone takes a tray, he’s moved out of ASU.
_____________________________________
[from prisoner in CCI SHU, 7/17/13]
Staff in 4B of CCI SHU are still using sandbags about 5’ long and 6” wide to seal people in their cells. Also, cells are ransacked every time a prisoner leaves, e.g. for showers, medical, or visits.
Some prisoners are doing rolling HS: a week on, a few days off, back on.
Prisoners have received no incoming mail in the last week, and visitors have said they have received nothing from inside. (He thinks legal mail is unaffected but is not certain.)
Some guards are “threatening to pepper-spray any cells  caught passing food through open tray slots.”
_____________________________________
[from prisoner in PBSP SHU, short corridor]
An officer threatened today that whoever doesn’t eat will be moved to AdSeg or to C12—where debriefers and informants are housed. 
The ombudsman Jean Weiss visited, but he got no information of value from his 20-minute talk with her. 
He said that “the Mediation Team reported” on ch. 9 “that [prison staff] were reading all our legal mail.”
_____________________________________
[from prisoner in PBSP SHU, 7/18/13]
A C/O said as of 7/18 there were 200 inmates on HS in the SHU.  The letter writer gave these numbers:  In D1: 13 or 14.   In D5: 25.   In D6: 7.  In D9: 20.
“Sergeant came around this evening telling staff plans were underway to move inmates still participating to C-12 (Debriefing Block – three or four pods are supposedly regular SHU inmates).  Inmates believe this is a tactic to get inmates to stop their fast.  No one wants to be associated with a block of debriefers.  It may also be an attempt to incite violence as many inmates would resist such a move.  Please ensure that this is addressed.  I figure it is a bluff.  There are many inmates hanging on.  Don’t  know about general population or Ad Seg.  I know CDCR is having daily conferences between Sacramento and 4 prsions with SHUs.”
—————– 
Here are some updates from hunger strike prisoners in California SHU’s:

[from Corcoran SHU prisoner 7/21/13]

“Here’s an update on the hunger strike here in Corcoran.  Since our last letter the following has occurred:

*The RN has been making daily rounds and checking all inmates’ vitals.  Also weigh-ins started on the 15th.

*Showers started for all on July 17th

*Still not yard or law library.  Solely paging service is being run for PLU inmates

*Medical runs to 4B clinic is operative, however, one inmate at a time into clinic, so no communication among inmates.  So this does slow the use of the clinic down.

*This week they (CDCR) have been shipping inmates to new Folsom SHU from 4B yard here.  Reason unknown!  We assume to break up the spirit of the protest.  C.O.’s have actually come to our cells and asked us if we want to go voluntarily, if not they will pick and you must go.  Many of us have declined to move.

*Also we are being issued write-ups (115s) for the hunger strike.”
[from prisoner in Corcoran SHU via lawyer visit 7/25/13]

A phone call from a lawyer who met with his client on Thursday morning (July 25) reports that his client had counted at least 10 times when they heard calls for “man down” which required men to be taken out for hospitalization.  Showers were denied at Corcoran for ten days straight, but were recently reinstated, though without hot water.  Most of the water pressure comes from the hot water, however, so it’s only a small amount of cold water that is available.  At other times not during a hunger strike, hot water is available.

The air venting system is problematic.  It is blowing air, but not cold air.  The current temperature in the prison is hotter now than it was during the extreme heat wave in June.  It is also hotter than it normally is.  Prisoners are still being denied law library, and only started to get yard against last Saturday after being denied.

Prisoners on hunger strike had all food out of their cells confiscated [as per the regulations].  As of July 24, no one in 3R is being weighed.

Prisoners are being informed that they have a 115 [Serious Rules Violation] without going through the stipulated process of asking for a investigative officers and being able to respond to the charge.  Apparently the officer is simply stopping at the door, informing the prisoner that they are receiving a 115 and finding them guilty immediately.
—- 
[from Corcoran SHU prisoner 7/21/13]

“Since the resistance of the hunger strike has begun, various tactics to break, disarm, dismantle the spirit of the struggle has been a consistent theme conjured up by the officials as a combative movement against a peaceful protest.
“Allow me to fill you in.  To disrupt the peaceful protest the officials have resorted with false propaganda saying so-and-so in such-and-such building are eating so you all should as well.  They (officials) have become confrontational and verbally combative to all those participating as if those participating in the peaceful protest have offended them (officials) personally behind it all.  The officials continue to utilize the (non-program) of not receiving yard, lack of a shower program and even passing out of canteen to those who are not participating in the peaceful protest allowing (five to seven) days to pass before even passing it out.
“If you complain they always project the bad program out to the hunger strikers rather than them just taking the responsibility for not doing their job.
“Those who began the hunger strike but couldn’t fulfill the longevity due to medical reasons were still written up for a 115 (serious) rules violation, stripped of yard and canteen privileges without the due process of the 115 even being process.  The officials stress that per captain’s orders even if you participated in the peaceful resistance for one day you will be issued a 115, not allowed showers, no yard, no canteen until the peaceful resistance is over…”
— 
[from Corcoran SHU prisoner 7/16/13]

A prisoner reports that they are not being evaluated except that they weighed them once after the 8th day.  He reports they have not received showers
—- 
[from Corcoran SHU 7/19/13]

At first hunger strikers were told they could request to see the doctor, but then they were told that was changed and that they would only be seeing prisoners every seven days.  They were told “We might do Monday, 7/22.”

He also reported receiving a 115 through their slot and being told that they would not be assigned an investigative officer or have a chance to respond.  He notes the 115 have language on them that he suspects will be used for further validation as it says that “..ordered by STG1 [Security Threat Group 1] members housed in PBSP and Corcoran,” “Gang related activity,” etc.  The administration also wants to confiscate televisions as retaliation for the hunger strike and single cell protests.  The staff are constantly repeating the rumor that the “Director” and “Sacramento” are not going to “negotiate.”  “Every time we go to medical the Commanding officers are putting this in our ears.”
——– 
[from Corcoran SHU prisoner 7/15/13]

“Hello, very tired and very weak on the 7th day.  Today a bus full of inmates were taken from their cells and sent to Sacramento (Folsom).  I can only assume the bus was full of inmates Corcoran believes instigated and are probably switching them with inmates in Sacramento.  What CDCR does not understand is that this is not a gang issue.  This is a human rights issue and we are a collective of all races who will not rest, will not stop, until we have put an end to long term isolation and false validation procedures.”
They transferred the prisoners without their property, which usually is shipped to the new institution within 14 or 15 days, but often some property gets broken or goes missing in the process.  The first time he was offered to be weighed was July 15.

Update – July 16.  They took another bus of inmates today and offered to weigh us again.
“We appreciate all the help and concern.  I’m very tired and extremely dizzy.  I’m not sure how long my body can go, but I will not eat.  I know some have stopped.  We will go until they find us unresponsive.  Just so future inmates don’t have to suffer a never ending isolated torture…. (that is against the law to being with.”

To date:  staff/C.O.’s have:

1)      thrown away personal property

2)      denied showers, yard

3)      shipped inmates to other prisoner without their personal property

4)      taken pain medications:  so that inmates with chronic pain have no reprieve.  This is equivalent to beating inmates—deliberately putting inmates in pain.

5)      Shut down property: I have been waiting for a book for almost three months.

6)      Write ups threatening the hunger strike as gang activity.
##

California prison hunger strike is call for justice

Alleged gang members in the California prison system are forced into ‘living graves’. It’s inhumane and without review

Taken over from: The Guardian, July 17, 2013

Sadhbh Walshe

California houses alleged gang inmates in 7 by 11ft cells. Photograph: Creative Commons

Shortly after two statewide hunger strikes rocked the California prison system in 2011, I began corresponding with several of the men who had participated in the protests. They were mostly alleged prison gang members who have been sentenced to indefinite terms in California’s Secure Housing Units, known as SHUs. They spend 22.5 hours of every day in 7 by 11ft windowless cells. If they’re lucky, the remaining 1.5 hours are spent alone in a barren exercise yard with 15 foot high concrete walls and a covered ceiling that prevents them from catching a proper glimpse of the sky.

They are allowed no phone calls, no contact visits with loved ones and their only physical interactions with fellow humans is when they are handcuffed or strip searched by guards. The worst part of this intolerable existence, they say, is that because of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR)’s gang policy, once a prisoner is sent to the SHU, it’s next to impossible for him to get out again. One of my correspondents, Patrick, explained his motivation for going on hunger strike:

I have been in the SHU for 14 years, I’ve been in the short corridor here since its opening. I am validated (as a gang member) and have an indefinite SHU term. I have a life sentence. If the gang policy doesn’t change, I will die in this unit. I am 41 years old.

The first two hunger strikes both eventually ended after approximately three weeks when the CDCR agreed to make some changes to the policies that keep men like Patrick in the SHU for decades. Two years later, however, it seems that little meaningful reform has taken place and so, on 8 July, nearly 30,000 prisoners across the state began a third hunger strike, which may end up being the largest and longest in California’s history.

Despite the gravity of the situation and the prisoners’ evident desperation, so far the CDCR has shown little willingness to cede any ground.

At the heart of the protest is the CDCR’s policy of taking validated gang members and associates out of the mainline prison population and handing them a one way ticket to the SHU. This policy was borne out of an effort to curb gang control of prison yards and to keep other inmates safe from violence.

There is no external review of the validation process, however, and many prisoners, and their legal representatives, claim to have been falsely validated on flimsy evidence such as possessing the wrong kind of book or the wrong kind of tattoo or simply greeting a known gang member. The CDCR’s own former under-secretary, Scott Kernan, (who retired after the first two hunger strikes), admitted in an interview that the department was guilty of “over-validating” inmates, and that their SHU policies had “gone too far”. Yet, once a validated prisoner ends up in the SHU, his only way out is to become a state informant debrief), or in prison parlance, to snitch on other inmates.

This is something of a non-option for SHU prisoners who have no valuable information to offer the authorities in exchange for their release. It’s also a non-option for most gang members who do happen to have valuable information, because becoming an informant will almost certainly put their lives and the lives of innocent family members in serious danger. So SHU prisoners who may have long since dropped any gang affiliations and simply want to serve out their time are faced with an impossible choice: debrief and risk death, don’t debrief and remain buried alive.

I raised this Catch-22 with Pelican Bay’s Warden Greg Lewis when I visited the prison’s notorious SHU last year. Lewis acknowledged the dangers associated with debriefing but said, “the men who choose to debrief tend to recognize that they put their families at risk by joining the gang in the first place”. A fair point, I suppose, but hardly a constructive one. Lewis also emphasized that debriefing was a vital component of the prison’s overall gang management strategy and would remain so, regardless of that risk.

After the first round of hunger strikes, the CDCR did make some concessions to prisoners, however, promising to use new criteria for placing inmates in the SHU and to institute a step down program that would allow inmates an opportunity to get out of isolation that didn’t necessarily involve debriefing. Since these changes were implemented, vorrections officials say they have reviewed nearly 400 cases and around half of those have been returned to the general population. That is welcome news for those lucky few but has had no impact on the vast majority of long term SHU inmates.

According to Alexis Agathocleous of the Center for Constitutional Reform, which has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay “not a single one of our clients has experienced any change in their situation whatsoever”. Even more disturbing is the fact noted by Shane Bauer in the Los Angeles Times recently, that in the past year, despite the reforms (or possibly because of them) the overall SHU population has actually increased by 15% to a total of 4,257 statewide.

Read the rest here.

Solidarity with the 30,000 from across the world

Solidarity with the hunger strikers from across the world: 

“The policy of isolation exposes the ugly face of these false democracies that are guilty of occupation, tyranny and social repression…
I fought in a hunger strike for 66 consecutive days against the policy of administrative detention, my detention without charge or trial. I announce my full solidarity with my 30,000 oppressed brothers in the American prisons…” – Khader Adnan

From Ohio:
7-1-13 For Distribution:

Why should a prisoner in Ohio or Minnesota, or New Mexico, support California prisoners as they move into a crucial stage of struggle for their just do?

My humble opinion is: how could any prisoner think that these apartheid-style policies being used in California won’t come knocking in Florida, WV, Illinois, or any prison system, at any given time? Remember California is said to be a liberal (in terms of political policy) state. How many conservative governors are envious of such harsh prison policies right now?!

I urge all of you in every prison and your able-bodied supporters (each of you can ask one of your friends, supporters outside who are in good health) to support this July 8th hunger strike in some form, but don’t wait till this kind of policy pays you a visit…

Remember Lucasville

Greg Curry (Ohio State Penitentiary)
————-
Nora’s blog – Electronic Intifada
Prisoner solidarity from Palestine to Pelican Bay
Via: ElectronicIntifada, July 8 2013

Persons incarcerated in Pelican Bay prison in northern California are preparing to go on a mass hunger strike starting today, 8 July, demanding the end of human rights violations including long-term solitary confinement.
Palestine activism groups are also launching days of action in support of the US hunger strikers in California, strengthening solidarity between Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons who are calling for an end to the similar methods of mass incarceration, abuse and torture inflicted upon them.

This is not the first time prisoners inside California’s Pelican Bay will go on hunger strike to demand the end of abuses. In July 2011, approximately 6,000 prisoners across twelve prisons in California took part in a three-week mass hunger strike that was launched by persons imprisoned inside Pelican Bay. The California Department of Corrections (CDC) pledged to implement reforms, and the hunger strike ended.

But later that year — after the CDC failed to change their treatment of prisoners — another hunger strike was launched by prisoners across the state. This time, 12,000 persons took part in the mass hunger strike, which lasted from 26 September to 13 October 2011. Again, prisoners in Pelican Bay say that the state promised but ultimately failed to change their policies.

Today, Truthout published a testimonial by Richard Wembe Johnson, who is imprisoned in long-term solitary confinement at Pelican Bay. Johnson is a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights to challenge such practices.

Persons inside solitary confinement units are isolated for at least 22.5 hours a day “in cramped, concrete, windowless cells,” Truthout writes. “They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, any kind of programming, adequate food and, often, medical care. Nearly 750 of these men have been held under these conditions for more than a decade, dozens for over 20 years.”

In his brief testimonial, Richard Wembe Johnson writes that being in long-term solitary confinement has made him feel he could “descend into madness.” He adds:

It is a challenge each day just to remain sane. I experience a wide and shifting range of emotions, including depression, hopelessness, antipathy, anxiety and humiliation, and I have chronic insomnia. It is difficult even to concentrate from moment to moment; my thoughts are mixed and perplexing, even in my sleep (when I am able to sleep at all).
Under no circumstance should anyone be treated like this. We are human and should not forfeit basic human rights because we are in prison.  Of course everyone should be held accountable for their actions. However, punishment for a crime should never amount to torture. What’s more, [security housing unit] confinement is additional punishment, on top of imprisonment, not for any crime or violation of prison rules, but for unsubstantiated claims that we have associated with gang members.

Core demands

Representatives from inside Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) have initiated this latest call for a mass hunger strike and have notified California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, that such a protest will take place beginning today.
The prisoners’ core demands include:

  1. End group punishment & administrative abuse
  2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria
  3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement
  4. Provide adequate and nutritious food
  5. Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for those living in the SHU

In addition to the five core demands as laid out in the original 2011 protest, the prisoners have also presented forty supplemental demands that “are part of and/or related to our five core demands.”
They state in a press release posted on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website:

Governor Jerry Brown; CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard; and all other parties of interest,

In response to CDCR’s failure to meet our 2011 Five (5) Core Demands, the [Pelican Bay Stae Prison – Security Housing Unit] Short Corridor Representatives respectfully present this notice of, and basis for, our individualized, collectively agreed upon, decision to resume our nonviolent peaceful protest action on July 08, 2013.

The upcoming peaceful protest will be a combined Hunger Strike – Work Stoppage action. Once initiated, this protest will continue indefinitely—until all Five (5) Core Demands are fully met.

From Pelican Bay to Palestine

Samidoun Palestinian Prisoners’ Solidarity Network issued a call of solidarity with the US prisoners in Pelican Bay, and offered ways to take action.
Samidoun states:

[W]ithout progress over almost two years, the prisoners in California are launching their strike again. Prisoners continue to be sentenced to lifetimes in solitary confinement because they are labelled “gang affiliated” over such matters as tattoos, cultural art, or reading material. Youth prisoners in Washington have also announced their intention to join the strike.

Over 2 million people are imprisoned in the US and over 60 percent of those people are people of color, subject to a distinctly racialized system that routinely criminalizes youth of color, in sharp contrast to the crime rate, which has fallen while imprisonment has risen. Mass incarceration is deeply racialized, as 1/3 of young Black men are in the criminal justice system. The US holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners with 5 percent of the world’s population, and prisoner resistance and political action has been sharply repressed.

As we stand against apartheid, racism, and Zionism in Palestine, we stand against racism and oppression in the US and around the world. Solitary confinement is a mechanism of torture, from Palestine to Pelican Bay to Guantanamo, and we stand in solidarity with the courageous prisoners who challenge isolation and oppression. The US is Israel’s key international supporter, ally, and economic/military supplier, and maintains regimes of mass imprisonment for social control both in occupied Palestine and in its own prisons.
Take action and sign the Pledge of Resistance with the California Hunger Strikers.

The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) also issued a call of support and solidarity with hunger strikers from California to Palestine.
IJAN states:

Members of IJAN have been following and supporting the organizing of California prisoners, who are prepared to go on indefinite hunger strike starting July 8 to demand an end to long–term solitary confinement and other abuses.

Both Israel and the US use policing, imprisonment (and especially solitary confinement), and surveillance as tools of political repression—often sharing technology and training. In the US, the prison industrial complex plays a central role in American racism—harassing and incarcerating Black and Brown youth, brutalizing Black and Brown bodies, and devastating communities of color.

Israel plays a significant role in the training of police forces in the United States and elsewhere in population control and Israel and the US share technologies and strategies of surveillance and repression across borders (for more information on Israel’s Worldwide Role in Repression follow this link).

As people who support the liberation of all peoples, and oppose all forms of racism, it is imperative that we stand behind striking prisoners, who are willing to risk their lives organizing for their rights and dignity.

… People who stand up to organize events on the Day of Action (or any other date) are asked to act in true solidarity by following these guidelines from the Coalition based on communication with the prisoners:

  1. Support the prisoners by advocating for the Five Core Demands rather than agitating for other goals or our own demands
  2. Remember that the prisoners chose a “nonviolent peaceful protest” and plan your solidarity actions with that spirit in mind
  3. Honor the strikers, their loved ones, supporters, and the larger community of prisoner-rights and anti-prison organizations by refusing to claim leadership of the solidarity campaign

Palestinian prisoners still on hunger strike

Addameer, the Palestinian prisoners’ advocacy organization based in the occupied West Bank, reported on 18 June that:

Individual hunger strikes of Palestinian political prisoners have escalated dramatically since the beginning of 2013, with over 33 prisoners engaging in hunger strikes for various reasons.
This week, Addameer has confirmed that four new prisoners have started hunger strikes. Currently, there are 13 prisoners on hunger strike in the Occupation’s prisons, the highest number of individual hunger strikers in over a year.

In a summary of their latest quarterly report, which came out last week, Addameer stated that:

Key issues this quarter were the Israel Prison Services’ (IPS) continued medical negligence, use of isolation, increase in raids, the military court’s use of Article 186 of Military Order 1651, detention and torture of child prisoners under the age of 16 and increased detention of journalists, Jerusalemites and human rights defenders.

Addameer maintains that increased international pressure and forceful actions must be taken to oblige Israel to act within international law parameters until the imminent abolition of the military prison system.

Yasiin Bey demonstrates Guantanamo force-feeding

In related news, more than 100 detainees languishing inside the Guantanamo Bay prison continue their hunger strike protest against the Obama administration’s ongoing policies of indefinite detention, the UK Guardian reports, adding:

More than 40 of them are being force-fed. A leaked document sets out the military instructions, or standard operating procedure, for force-feeding detainees.

Hip hop artist and activist Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, recently elected to experience force-feeding under the same conditions in which detainees at Guantanamo are being subjected. He filmed the shocking procedure in a four-minute video produced by the human rights organization Reprieve.
The Guardian adds in a related article:

The four-minute video, directed by Bafta award-winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia, seeks to reconstruct the specific force-feeding instructions set out in standard operating guidelines from Guantánamo leaked to al-Jazeera. It shows a plastic tube being inserted through Bey’s nostril into his stomach. The “Medical Management Standard Operating Procedure” document leaked from the detention camp defines a hunger striker as a detainee who has missed at least nine consecutive meals or whose weight has fallen to less than 85 percent of his ideal body weight.

You can watch the incredibly disturbing — but important — video here.

Support the Pelican Bay hunger strike

Support the Pelican Bay hunger strike

SF Bay View, July 3rd 2013

by Shaka At-thinnin

In their ongoing plea for justice and humane treatment, the inmates confined in the Security Housing Unit program at Pelican Bay State Prison must continue to use the only peaceful means available that will draw proper attention to their plight, a hunger strike. Going through a long term hunger strike involves every aspect of your being, physical, mental and emotional.

'Black August' by Rashid Johnson
“Black August” by Kevin Rashid Johnson

It requires a very strong will, determination and a true purpose as a driving force. The driving force in this is showing the world what actually goes on within the concentration camps outside the view of those this forced treatment would purportedly serve and bring an end to this cruel and inhumane reality once and for all.

Read the rest here

Hungry for reform | SF Bay Guardian

Hungry for reform | SF Bay Guardian

California prisoners prepare for another hunger strike to protest persistently deplorable conditions

Sitawa Jamaa is among the thousands of California inmates who, two years ago this summer, took part in the largest prison hunger strike in US history to protest harsh conditions and their invisibility to those outside prison walls.

Now, Jamaa and other prisoners are about to launch another hunger strike to highlight the system’s unfulfilled promises and the persistence of inhumane conditions.

Read the rest here

July 8th: Peaceful Protests of refusing food in CA SHU’s and elsewhere will resume if demands are not met!

Please spread this flyer, thank you! Also follow NCTTCOrSHU.org, Californiaprisonwatch.org (this site), Stopmassincarceration.org, SFBayview.com, Prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com, and other sites with updates.
Also actions of solidarity are planned in other states (Louisiana for one, Ohio may follow). CDCR should at least hear and talk with the prisoners and their representatives!

Latest on CDCR’s proposed new ” STG” program is that NONE of the prisoners in the units in at least Corcoran-SHU 4B 1L have signed a “contract” that CDCR has installed to push prisoners to comply with their new solitary confinement punishment rules.

Sacramento hearing exposes CDCR’s hidden agenda

From: SF Bay View, March 5th 2013

by Denise Mewbourne
Almost two years later, the ripple effect of the 2011 hunger strike organized by the Short Corridor Collective in Pelican Bay prison continues to reverberate throughout California. In protest of solitary confinement torture in California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs), 12,000 people in prisons throughout the state participated in the hunger strike.

Assembly hearing on SHUs Daletha Hayden speaks at rally 022513 by Denise Mewbourne, web
At the rally outside the Capitol in Sacramento before the Assembly Public Safety Committee’s hearing on solitary confinement Feb. 25, Daletha Hayden, one of many prisoners’ loved ones who came, spoke passionately about her son in the Tehachapi SHU. He has not been able to see or touch his 15-year-old son since he was 3. “This is painful, and it tears families apart,” she said. “We have to fight so our loved ones can be treated as well as animals! My son needs medical treatment, and SHU officials refuse for him to have it.” – Photo: Denise Mewbourne

California currently holds 12,000 people in some form of isolation and around 4,000 in long-term solitary confinement. Around 100 people have spent 20 years or more in these hellholes, including many who are activists against prison abuses, political thinkers and jailhouse lawyers. People imprisoned in the SHU have described it as “soul-crushing,” “hellish,” a “constant challenge to keep yourself from being broken” and “a concrete tomb.”

As a result of the strike, the first legislative hearing in Sacramento occurred in August 2011, and at the grassroots level family members of those inside formed California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC) to continue the work they had done during the strike. The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) began strategizing how best to provide support well in advance of the hunger strike and continues its mission of amplifying the voices of people in the SHUs.

The strikers’ five core demands around abolishing group punishment, eliminating debriefing, ending long term solitary confinement, adequate and nutritious food, and constructive programming are still far from being met, although the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) claims to be implementing new policies on how people are sentenced to the SHU as well as how they can exit.

The hearing in Sacramento on Feb. 25, 2013, provided an opportunity for legislators in the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee to hear representatives of CDCR present their new policies and weigh the truth of their claims. The occasion also featured a report back from the Office of the Inspector General about onsite inspections conducted at Pelican Bay, as well as a panel of advocates.

Chaired by Tom Ammiano, the committee had a chance to question the panelists, and at the end there was a scant 20 minutes for public input. Attendance of grassroots activists, including family members and formerly incarcerated people, was organized by California United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). The CURB coalition focuses on reducing the number of people in prison as well as the number of prisons throughout California.

The rally

Beginning with a rally held on the capitol steps, it was an emotional day for many, especially for family members of those suffering in the SHUs and prison survivors. The voices of those in the SHU were powerfully present, both in stories told by family members as well as statements they had sent for the occasion.

Assembly hearing on SHUs rally crowd 022513 by Urszula Wislanka
Prisoners’ families and advocates turned out for a rally followed by the Assembly hearing Feb. 25. The next opportunity to persuade state lawmakers to “stop the torture” is bound to draw far more of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners’ rights supporters from around California. – Photo: Urszula Wislanka

The opening of the letter Gilbert Pacheco read from his brother Daniel in Corcoran Prison summed up the solidarity of the day: “Allow me to expend my utmost respects along with my utmost gratitude and appreciation to all of you who are out here supporting this struggle and allowing mine along with thousands of other voices to be heard! Gracias/Thank you.”

Family members from all over California spoke about loved ones who were being unjustly held for 10, 15, even 25 years or more in solitary confinement, how they were entrapped into solitary and the conditions they face. Marilyn Austin-Smith of All of Us or None, an organization working for human rights of formerly incarcerated people, read a statement from Hugo Pinell, surviving and resisting solitary confinement for 42 years.

Daletha Hayden from Victorville, Calif., spoke about her son who has been in SHU in Tehachapi for four years. He has missed 12 years of his 15-year-old son’s life, having not been able to see or touch him since he was 3. She said, “This is painful, and it tears families apart. We have to fight so our loved ones can be treated as well as animals! My son needs medical treatment, and SHU officials refuse for him to have it.”
Karen Mejia’s fiancé has been in SHU for six years. She stated that to her knowledge, the CDCR never got input from anyone imprisoned in the SHUs regarding their new policies. She went on to say that “if they followed their own policies, the SHU would be half empty, and they don’t want that because of their salaries and budget.”

Recently, they subjected her fiancé to particularly humiliating treatment. After she visited him, they punished him for being “sexually disorderly” with her. She said, “They painted his cell yellow and forced him to wear a yellow suit, which they do for sex offenders. In general population, he could have been killed for that.”

Assembly hearing on SHUs rally Sundiata Tate, Marilyn Austin-Smith reading letter from Hugo Pinell, Bato Talamantez 022513 by Azadeh Zohrabi
Marilyn Austin-Smith of All of Us or None, flanked by Sundiata Tate and Bato Talamantez of the San Quentin 6, read from a letter by Hugo Pinell, recognized internationally as a political prisoner and the only member of the San Quentin 6 still in prison – now for over 42 years in solitary confinement, most of it in the dreaded Pelican Bay SHU. His name was raised repeatedly in public testimony at the hearing. – Photo: Azadeh Zohrabi

Looking at the hypocrisy in the U.S. around torture and human rights, Dolores Canales from CFASC angrily noted that in a recent case, “All it took was a federal order to stop chimpanzees from being held in solitary confinement. It has been determined it’s detrimental to their mental and physical health, because they are social animals and have a need to see, hear and touch each other. Aren’t humans also social beings?!”

Luis “Bato” Talamantez, one of the San Quentin 6, said, “Sending your love to the people inside and helping them to stay connected and spiritually alive is the most important thing you can do with your life right now.”

The rally ended on a positive note with Luis “Bato” Talamantez, one of the San Quentin 6, saying, “Sending your love to the people inside and helping them to stay connected and spiritually alive is the most important thing you can do with your life right now.”

The crowd then filed into the hearing room, which filled up quickly, so around 40 people viewed it in an overflow area. For the next three hours, a few of the legislators, the human rights-focused panelists and the public in attendance did their best to sort through the obfuscations, omissions, misrepresentations and outright lies told by the CDCR and colleagues.

The lies from CDCR

One mistaken idea the hearing quickly cleared up was that any real oversight might come from the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board (CROB) in the Office of the Inspector General.

Speaking from CROB was Renee Hansen, who became executive director of the board in 2011, after 20 years of working for CDCR. Perhaps that explains the board’s less than thorough attempt at a real investigation of conditions in the SHUs and the glowing report she gave. When asked by Ammiano if they had conducted any surprise visits, she replied they had not.

Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing on SHUs 022513 by Sheila Pinkel, web
Every seat was filled for the California Assembly Public Safety Committee’s historic hearing on SHUs Feb. 25, and dozens more watched on TV in an overflow area. Besides the legislators in the hearing room, many more watched in their offices and said they were aghast at what they heard. – Photo: Sheila Pinkel

One of the myths the CDCR uses to justify SHUs is that they house the “worst of the worst,” and this hearing was no exception. Michael Stainer, CDCR deputy director of facility operations, testified: “The offenders in the SHU are 3 percent of the entire population. They have an inability to be integrated because of violence, and are affiliates of dangerous prison gangs. It’s necessary to isolate them to protect the other 97 percent.”

But Canales said: “My son is in there, and he has certificates in paralegal studies and civil litigation. At Corcoran he was Men’s Advisory Council representative, when one person from each ethnic group gets voted in by their peers, and others go to them for help with prison issues.” And it’s not just her son who doesn’t fit the “ultra-violent” profile. “A lot of the guys in there have all kinds of education and are helping others with legal work. Many of them have been using their time to educate themselves.”

Hansen testified they found no evidence of retaliation for the hunger strike. Yet Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights lawyer who testified on the panel, said, “Make no mistake about it: Participating in a hunger strike can get you in the SHU.”

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell asked, “How can participation in an act of peaceful civil disobedience like a hunger strike be construed as gang activity?” Ominously, Kelly Harrington, associate director of high security transitional programming (STP) for CDCR, said, “Hunger strikes can be viewed as violating institutional security.”

Marilyn McMahon with California Prison Focus reports letters from people in SHUs about food quality going down and portion sizes shrinking, especially after the administration heard of the potential resumption this summer of the hunger strike. “I suspect,” she said, “they may be trying to get them very hungry before the strike, so they will have less desire to do it.”

Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing on SHUs panel, legislators 022513 by Sheila Pinkel, web
Assembly Public Safety Committee members Nancy Skinner, Holly Mitchell and Reggie Jones-Sawyer listen to Charles Carbone, Laura Magnani and Irene Huerta (Marie Levin, also on the panel, is out of view) on the prisoners’ advocates panel. Assemblywoman Mitchell’s understanding of the prisoners’ situation and tough questions for CDCR were a highlight of the hearing. – Photo: Sheila Pinkel

In another bold mockery, CDCR claimed their new policies include substantial changes in the process of “gang validations,” the categorizing of people as “gang members or associates,” resulting in SHU placement for indeterminate sentences. In the past, the validation process has been based on points given for tattoos, possession of books or articles the CDCR deems gang-related, having your name on a roster, and/or the confidential evidence of a “debriefer,” another desperate soul who has identified you as a gang member to get out of the SHU himself. Three points is enough to send you to the SHU. According to many reports from SHUs around the state, it often happens that people get sent to there for things that are purely associational and in complete lack of any actual criminal behavior.

In point of fact, items given points toward validated gang status are often related to cultural identity and/or political beliefs. Some examples are books by George Jackson or Malcolm X, Black Panther Party books or articles, materials about Black August commemorations, the Mexican flag, the eagle of the United Farm Workers, articles on Black liberation, political cartoons critical of the prisons, Kwanzaa cards and Puerto Rican flags, just to name a few.

The CDCR gave a list of their own officials when asked who was doing the gang classifications, and Ammiano noted they were all internal to CDCR, with no independent verification. Family members at the rally spoke of many unfair instances of gang validation points given to their family members. Irene Huerta’s husband was validated for a “gang memo” that was never found!

Carbone confirmed in his testimony that there was no real change in the source items given points, that still only one of your point items even needs to be recent and the other two can be 20 years old, and that “the new program actually expands rather than restricts who can be validated, by the addition of two categories. Initially we just had gang ‘members’ and ‘associates,’ but now we also have ‘suspects’ and ‘to be monitored.’” He went on to say “only the CDCR could call expansion reform.”

Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights lawyer who testified on the panel, said, “Make no mistake about it: Participating in a hunger strike can get you in the SHU.”

As Pacheco says from Corcoran Prison: “This validation process is not about evidence gathering that contains facts. It’s hearsay, corruption and punishment to the point of execution. It’s close to impossible to beat these false accusations on appeal. They know how to block every avenue. In other words, there is no pretense that rights are respected. Shackled and chained we remain.”

The centerpiece of the CDCRs deceptive “reform” is the “Step Down Program,” in theory a phased program for people to get out of the SHU. The program would take four years to complete, although they said it could potentially be done in three. It involves journaling, self-reflection and, in years three and four, small group therapies.

In a statement issued for the event by the NARN (New Afrikan Revolutionary Nation) Collective Think Tank or NCTT at Corcoran SHU, the writers roundly condemned the program, saying that CDCR “has, in true Orwellian fashion, introduced a mandatory behavior modification and brainwashing process in the proposed step down program.”

Abdul Shakur, who is at Pelican Bay and has been in solitary confinement for 30 years, calls it the “equivalent to scripting the demise of our humanity” in his article “Sensory Deprivation: An Unnatural Death.”

Assembly hearing on SHUs Marie Levin, Irene Huerta 022513 by Becky Padi-Garcia, web
The passionate testimony of Marie Levin and Irene Huerta will help bring an end to the torturous entombment of their loved ones in the Pelican Bay SHU. – Photo: Becky Padi-Garcia

At the hearing, Laura Magnani from the Friends Service Committee strongly agreed. Magnani pointed out that only in the third and fourth year does very limited social interaction start to happen, that having contact with one’s family continuing to be seen as a privilege instead of a right is fundamentally wrong and that the curricula itself is “blame and shame” based, an approach proven to be damaging. To add insult to injury, she said that what you write in the notebooks can be used against you.

Marie Levin with the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition spoke about her brother Sitawa N. Jamaa at Pelican Bay, a New Afrikan Short Corridor Collective representative and a political thinker. He told her his concerns about the step down program: “The workbooks are demeaning and inappropriate. No one with a gang label will be reviewed for two years of the program, and no phone calls for two more years is far too long.” He’s concerned about CDCR evaluative power over journals, fearing they won’t allow progression if they don’t like the answers, or that they will accuse people of insincerity.

Sundiata Tate, one of the San Quentin 6 and a member of All of Us or None, said: “In terms of CDC, it seems like they’re trying to put a cover on what they’re actually doing. If you take someone who’s been in the SHU for years or even decades and say they have to go into a step down program that will take four years, that’s really just adding cruelty to cruelty. It’s actually more torture.”

In an attempt to deflect blame from the destructiveness of their own policies, Kelly Harrington, associate director for high security transitional programming, admitted that some people did not want to participate in the step down program. When asked why, he said, “We have intelligence that people are being instructed not to participate in the program by leaders.”

Canales noted that CDCR is trying to cast blame on the leaders, when in reality the program itself forces people to sign a contract agreeing to become an informant.

Assembly hearing on SHUs overflow 'room' in hallway 022513 by Dolores Canales
About 40 people who couldn’t be seated in the hearing room watched in the hallway, the closest thing the capitol could come to an “overflow” room. The activists agreed that prisoners’ families should have first priority for the hearing room. – Photo: Dolores Canales

The contract is arguably the most insidious part of the step down program. In order to complete the program, people would be forced to sign it in Step 5. It includes the stipulation that the signer become an informant on gang – or, in the new language, “security threat group” (STG) – activities, making it in effect no different at all from debriefing and putting the informant in danger of retaliation.

In the CDCR’s defense, there’s one lie they didn’t tell – that they care about people in the SHUs being able to have a supportive relationship with their family members. It’s very clear they don’t. One of the more frightening elements in this expansion disguised as reform for families with loved ones in the SHU is that the new STG classification is no longer for just inside the prisons.

Family members are wondering if they will at some point be “validated” as gang members on the streets. If that happened, they could be barred from visiting or writing to their loved ones in the SHU, even more completely isolating people in solitary confinement and cutting them off from an important source of support in case of hunger strike.

Of watching the CDCR representatives speak at the hearing, Manuel La Fontaine of All of Us or None said it was “so infuriating and very hard to watch. Honestly, it was re-traumatizing for me. Although comparisons can be dangerous, I began to imagine the feelings of a survivor of the holocaust watching the Nazi regime justify their actions.”

Jerry Elster, also of All of Us or None, said: “They pretty much showed who the worst of the worst really are. The guys inside are calling for peace and an end to hostilities between races, and the guys (at CDCR) have complete disregard for human suffering.”

Jerry Elster, also of All of Us or None, said: “They pretty much showed who the worst of the worst really are. The guys inside are calling for peace and an end to hostilities between races, and the guys (at CDCR) have complete disregard for human suffering.”

The most powerful moment of the public comment portion of the hearing came when Cynthia Machado spoke of her late brother Alex. Formerly a bright and articulate man who helped others with legal work, he was driven to suicide after years of paranoia, degrading conditions and mental deterioration. She said: “We received letters from him indicating he was afraid. He reported seeing demons. Although they knew he was allergic to peanuts, they gave him peanut butter to eat.

“He wrote the family a suicide letter in February 2011 and attempted it in June. On Oct. 24, after screaming for 24 hours, he was found hanging in his cell.” Looking at the legislators, she demanded to know, “Where is the rehabilitation in that? Where is it?”

The missing framework of torture

Sundiata Tate said after the hearing that “some of the assembly members asked good questions and the CDC tried to say they were changing. But they aren’t even addressing the question of torture! That really stood out for me. They aren’t recognizing it as such. The only way they will is if their hands are forced, by the courts or the legislature or the people. I really think the CDC should be forced to release all those people and pay them damages.”

Assembly hearing on SHUs 'Stop the Torture' poster 022513 by Bami Iroko
“Stop the torture” was the topic around the Capitol during the hearing on Feb. 25 and Lobby Day on Feb. 26. – Photo: Bami Iroko

People imprisoned in the SHUs and those who advocate for them have a deep understanding that solitary confinement is a horrific form of torture with long-lasting and highly detrimental emotional and physical effects and as such needs to be abolished. Their family members also have a bone-deep knowledge of this, feeling keenly as they do the pain that comes when loved ones are suffering unjustly.

In addition, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, the U.N. Human Rights Committee and Amnesty International, among others, all recognize solitary confinement as a form of torture whose use should be extremely limited if used at all. The U.N. Special Rapporteur has state 15 days should be the maximum.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, the U.N. Human Rights Committee and Amnesty International, among others, all recognize solitary confinement as a form of torture whose use should be extremely limited if used at all.

So the question many are left with after the hearing in Sacramento is what will it take for the California legislature to catch up with this knowledge? And, more than that, what will it take for them to act to create some genuine accountability for the CDCR officials who are perpetuating the torture? And to act eventually to abolish the practice?

Lobby Day

The following day around 40 people remained to lobby the legislators in teams, speaking to them about solitary confinement as well as upcoming legislation relevant to organizations within CURB. All of Us or None in particular was supporting AB 218, another version of the Ban the Box bill that would take the “Have you ever committed a felony” checkbox off initial job applications, and AB 149, mandating when people are released from incarceration they be informed of their voting rights and given a voter registration card. Senate bills supported included SB 61, limiting the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, and SB 283, restoring CalWORKS and CalFresh to those released after serving time for drug-related felonies.

Lobby Day after Assembly SHU hearing 022613 by Emily Harris, web
Activists from all over California who attended the Feb. 25 hearing on solitary confinement joined with women from the Center for Young Women’s Development who came for lobbying day. Back row: Dolores Canales, Margaret Laffan, Milton Rudge, Marilyn Austin-Smith, Denise Mewbourne, Sundiata Tate, Andrés Abarra, Jerry Elster, Acacia Ainsworth, Elizabeth Evans, Daletha Hayden. Middle row: Sheila Pinkel, Penny Schoner, Margaret Ramos, Kenya Taylor, Paula Robles, Nicole Powell, Keithia Martin, Brittany Jones. Front: Emily Harris, Elvira Zayas, Marlene Sanchez, Diana Zuniga

One of the highlights of the day was the attendance of a group of young women from the Center for Young Women’s Development in San Francisco, an organization working “to empower young women who have been involved with the juvenile justice system and/or underground street economy to create positive change in their lives and communities.” They got their first experience that day of talking to legislators.

At the end of the day many of the teams reported lots of talk around the capital about the hearing the previous day and that many of the legislative aides they had spoken to said they honestly had not known what kind of abuses were happening with solitary confinement in California.

Where do we go from here?

Ammiano has promised there will be more hearings, and Mitchell added she would like to see the next one delve more deeply into conditions inside the SHU. Attorney Carol Strickman from Legal Services for Prisoners with Children informed those at the rally that the class action lawsuit on behalf of those in solitary confinement for longer than 10 years at Pelican Bay – over 500 people – will have a hearing on March 14, 2 p.m., at the Federal Building in Oakland, 1301 Clay St. A rally will begin at 12, and the hearing is at 1:30.

“We need to let the world know that California is torturing their prisoners.”

CDCR will be arguing for a dismissal, and trial dates will be set. She encouraged people to attend if possible, to let them know the interest level of the public

Lobby Day after Assembly SHU hearing 022613 by Sheila Pinkel, web
The day after the hearing was Lobby Day. Dolores Canales of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement reports: “CFASC had a very productive day lobbying with CURB and bringing up the hearing and the issue of solitary confinement. It was surprising to hear how many legislators were in their offices watching the hearing. Sen. Ron Calderon said they have ‘never seen a hearing like the one yesterday’ and ‘it was the talk of the offices; everyone was talking about it.’ ‘A lot of light was shed.’” – Photo: Sheila Pinkel

Many are calling for an independent review of the gang validation process, used as a rationale to place people in solitary confinement as well as to hold them there indefinitely. La Fontaine said: “This review needs to be placed in more objective hands. Dr. James Austin, for example, is a renowned corrections expert with a more impartial analysis – he would be a better consultant on this.”

To underscore the impossibility of an independent review internal to the CDCR, he said: “The prisons and the military have a lot of shared best practices. There are lots of CDCR goon squads, including the Institutional Gang Investigation guys, who are truly scary people. They’ve been hired into the system because they have military experience working against international so-called terrorists.”

Regarding further organizing, Marilyn Austin-Smith of All of Us or None said: “I do wish more people were there. It would be great to fill the whole lawn and take over the capitol for one day, so we can make them understand how many people care about this. We need to do community outreach to those most affected and encourage people to come out and support their loved ones. And we need to let the world know that California is torturing their prisoners.”

“What was most inspiring to me was the unity, the way everyone, all ethnicities, came together,” said Canales. “If the men in there have agreed to end hostilities, how can we not do our best to come together out here? As long as we can stay together, we can have victory. It’s especially important for Black and Brown communities to work together more closely around this and realize we do play a part in our own oppression.”

And if the prisoners’ five core demands remain unmet, people still suffering and continuing their resistance inside the SHUs will begin another hunger strike this coming July.

As the NCTT Corcoran SHU writers say in their statement for the event: “Will you allow them to erect this new bureaucracy and extort an ever greater portion of your tax dollars to enrich themselves and expand their influence in your daily lives? If freedom, justice, equality and human rights are truly values you hold dear, let it be reflected in the actions of your legislators. Each of your voices, when raised together, can tumble walls of stone. Remember Jericho. Thank you for your time, and our prayers and solidarity are with you all.”

“What was most inspiring to me was the unity, the way everyone, all ethnicities, came together,” said Canales. “If the men in there have agreed to end hostilities, how can we not do our best to come together out here? As long as we can stay together, we can have victory. It’s especially important for Black and Brown communities to work together more closely around this and realize we do play a part in our own oppression.”

Denise Mewbourne is a proud member of All of Us or None and Occupy 4 Prisoners (O4P) and is currently launching a Human Rights Pen Pal group for O4P, based on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Committee’s model. She feels blessed to be part of a passionately dedicated Bay Area community working for racial justice and an end to mass incarceration with all its myriad evils. Denise can be reached at deniselynn777@gmail.com.

Prisoners’ families and advocates to speak out at legislative hearing Feb. 25 on solitary confinement and plan to renew hunger strike

From: SF Bay View

Feb 22nd 2013
Rally starts 11:30 Capitol West Side, Assembly Hearing on Security Housing Units in Room 126 at 1:30
by Isaac Ontiveros, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition
[Prisoners’ families and advocates rallied, lobbied and testified frequently during the 2011 hunger strikes. This march was held Oct. 15, as the second hunger strike was concluding after CDCR promised it would meet the prisoners’ demands. That year-and-a-half-old promise has not been kept. – Photo: Bill Hackwell]
Family members, advocates, lawyers, activists and others from across California will travel to Sacramento on Monday to speak out against the state prison system’s continued use of solitary confinement. Hundreds are expected to gather for a rally outside the Capitol Building and will then attend a California State Assembly Public Safety Committee oversight hearing, convened to review the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) “revised regulations” of its notorious Security Housing Units (SHU). The Capitol is located at 1315 10th St. at L Street, Sacramento.
“I went to Pelican Bay earlier this month. Officials presented their case for how the prisoners are being treated, but some questions about conditions remain,” said Public Safety Committee Chair Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco.
The hearing follows up on a 2011 hearing triggered by a prisoner hunger strike to protest conditions. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation promised to study the situation and implemented policy changes in 2012.
Hundreds are expected to gather for a rally outside the Capitol Building and will then attend a California State Assembly Public Safety Committee oversight hearing, convened to review the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) “revised regulations” of its notorious Security Housing Units (SHU).
“As chair of Public Safety, I want to know whether conditions are humane, but I also want to know whether the stringent policies of CDCR are effective,” Ammiano said. “What are the goals and what are the effects? The taxpayers should have this information.”
The hearing will include three panels with the following panelists:
Renee Hanson, California Deputy Inspector General
Michael Stainer, Deputy Director, Division of Adult Institutions, CDCR
Kelly Harrington, Associate Director, High Security/Transitional Programming, CDCR
Michael Ruff, Special Agent in Charge, Office of Correctional Safety, CDCR
Charles Carbone, J.D., Prisoner Rights Attorney
Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee
Two family members of current SHU prisoners
This rally preceded the last hearing called by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, held Aug. 23, 2011. Prior to this upcoming hearing Ammiano visited Pelican Bay State Prison to see for himself what prisoners are subjected to. – Photo: Revolution
The hearing will be held at 1:30 p.m. in Room 126 of the State Capitol. It can be seen online and on cable on the California Channel.While the CDCR has claimed to have made reforms to its SHU system – how a prisoner ends up in the solitary units, for how long and how they can go about getting released into the general population – prisoners’ rights advocates point out that the CDCR has potentially broadened the use of solitary confinement and that conditions in the SHUs continue to constitute grave human rights violations.
The California prison system currently holds over 10,000 prisoners in solitary confinement units, with dozens having spent more than 20 years each in isolation. Conditions in Pelican Bay State Prison’s SHU sparked massive waves of hunger strikes in 2011 that saw the participation of 12,000 prisoners in at least a third of California’s 33 prisons.
This rally, held outside CDCR headquarters in Sacramento on July 18, 2011, when 6,600 prisoners had joined the hunger strike begun July 1, amplified striking prisoners’ Five Core Demands. Days later, CDCR prompted suspension of the strike by promising the prisoners their demands would be met. By then, many striking prisoners had lost more than 40 pounds. – Photo: Grant Slater, KPCC
“Prisoners themselves, their loved ones, legal advocates and social justice organizations have done so much in the past couple of years to help people understand that California’s current use of prolonged and indefinite isolation is a form of torture,” says Azadeh Zohrabi of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a lead organization in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

“While prisoners and their supporters have forced the CDCR to address the crisis it has created, at the end of the day, their new regulations still allow for prisoners to be confined in extreme isolation for decades. We are converging on the Capitol to continue to push for fundamental changes to this horrendous system.”

Prisoners themselves have vowed to renew a hunger strike along with a work stoppage this summer if their demands from 2011 continue to go unmet by the CDCR. In a statement issued last week, prisoners in Pelican Bay’s SHU said, “It is clear to us that the CDCR has no intention of implementing the substantive policy changes that were agreed to 15 or 16 months ago.”

The statement continues:

“We presently have no available alternative avenues to obtain the long overdue changes, in a timely manner, other than giving the CDCR until July 8, 2013 – as a deadline – to meet our stated demands. Failure to come to a legally enforceable agreement will be deemed as just cause for us to resume our indefinite, nonviolent, peaceful protest action(s) until the changes are made.”

Prisoners themselves have vowed to renew a hunger strike along with a work stoppage this summer if their demands from 2011 continue to go unmet by the CDCR.
Meanwhile, a landmark class action lawsuit against the state of California will continue in federal court on March 14. Filed in May 2012 by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus and other organizations on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay, the suit alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates prisoners’ right to due process.
Family members and supporters of prisoners held in solitary confinement will be traveling to Sacramento from Los Angeles, the Bay Area and the Central Valley. Monday’s 11:30 a.m. rally will feature signs, banners and lively speakers – former prisoners, their families, prisoners’ rights advocates and others. Expert testimony will also be given during the 1:30 p.m. Public Safety Committee hearing.
In Oakland, carpools will leave the MacArthur BART Station at 8:30 and 9 a.m. In San Francisco, visit Megabus.com right away for bus tickets leaving the Caltrain Station at Fourth Street and King at 8:30 a.m., returning at 5:50 p.m., for less than $5 each way. For more information, visit https://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/.
Isaac Ontiveros of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization working to abolish the prison industrial complex, is a spokesperson for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. He can be reached at (510) 444-0484 or isaac@criticalresistance.org. Bay View staff contributed to this story.