Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Prisoners' struggles spread in California

Today's Los Angeles Times reports that inmates in at least a third of California's prisons are refusing meals. This spreading action is in solidarity with inmates of in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay state prison, where the hunger strike began in opposition to "inhumane conditions of confinement." The initial action was itself courageous, and the significance of the spreading solidarity cannot be underestimated.

The website Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity lists the inmates five core demands;
1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse – This is in response to PBSP’s application of “group punishment” as a means to address individual inmates rule violations. This includes the administration’s abusive, pretextual use of “safety and concern” to justify what are unnecessary punitive acts. This policy has been applied in the context of justifying indefinite SHU status, and progressively restricting our programming and privileges.

2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria -
  • Perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement.
  • The practice of “debriefing,” or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Debriefing puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as “snitches.”
  • The validation procedure used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employs such criteria as tattoos, readings materials, and associations with other prisoners (which can amount to as little as greeting) to identify gang members.
  • Many prisoners report that they are validated as gang members with evidence that is clearly false or using procedures that do not follow the Castillo v. Alameida settlement which restricted the use of photographs to prove association.
3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement – CDCR shall implement the findings and recommendations of the US commission on safety and abuse in America’s prisons final 2006 report regarding CDCR SHU facilities as follows:
  • End Conditions of Isolation (p. 14) Ensure that prisoners in SHU and Ad-Seg (Administrative Segregation) have regular meaningful contact and freedom from extreme physical deprivations that are known to cause lasting harm. (pp. 52-57)
  • Make Segregation a Last Resort (p. 14). Create a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities relating to having a sense of being a part of the community.
  • End Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Release inmates to general prison population who have been warehoused indefinitely in SHU for the last 10 to 40 years (and counting).
  • Provide SHU Inmates Immediate Meaningful Access to: i) adequate natural sunlight ii) quality health care and treatment, including the mandate of transferring all PBSP- SHU inmates with chronic health care problems to the New Folsom Medical SHU facility.
4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food – cease the practice of denying adequate food, and provide a wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals, and allow inmates to purchase additional vitamin supplements.
  • PBSP staff must cease their use of food as a tool to punish SHU inmates.
  • Provide a sergeant/lieutenant to independently observe the serving of each meal, and ensure each tray has the complete issue of food on it.
  • Feed the inmates whose job it is to serve SHU meals with meals that are separate from the pans of food sent from kitchen for SHU meals.
5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates.

Examples include:
  • Expand visiting regarding amount of time and adding one day per week.
  • Allow one photo per year.
  • Allow a weekly phone call.
  • Allow Two (2) annual packages per year. A 30 lb. package based on “item” weight and not packaging and box weight.
  • Expand canteen and package items allowed. Allow us to have the items in their original packaging [the cost for cosmetics, stationary, envelopes, should not count towards the max draw limit]
  • More TV channels.
  • Allow TV/Radio combinations, or TV and small battery operated radio
  • Allow Hobby Craft Items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.
  • Allow sweat suits and watch caps.
  • Allow wall calendars.
  • Install pull-up/dip bars on SHU yards.
  • Allow correspondence courses that require proctored exams.
NOTE: The above examples of programs/privileges are all similar to what is allowed in other Supermax prisons (eg, Federal Florence, Colorado, and Ohio), which supports our position that CDCR-PBSP staff claims that such are a threat to safety and security are exaggerations.
These demands are hardly revolutionary in the modern prison system, and yet for countless people they will make life so much less unbearable. A longer article written by inmate Mutop DuGuya (a/k/a Bow Low) details in greater depth the kind of abuses that they face, often amounting to torture, as well as the harassment and victimisation that their families face from the state.

These are not new problems, and nor are they new. Back in 2009, the LA Times reported that federal judges had "accused the state [of California] of fostering “criminogenic” conditions, compelling former prisoners to commit more crimes and feed a cycle of recidivism." Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger described it as a "powder keg." If "the prison system in the U.S. is the most expansive and sophisticated prison system in world history," then California is "just the worst," as one commentator put it.

But simply being aware of these problems isn't enough. As Bow Low put it, "power concedes nothing without demand."

For the prisoners themselves, that demand comes in the form of "put[ting] our fate in our own hands" so that "if one is to die, it will be on our own terms." The same is true of those in other institutions who are refusing meals in solidarity.

For supporters and loved ones on the outside, there have been a number of demonstrations and actions across the US and Canada. Upcoming events can be found here. There is also an online petition, which people are urged to sign, and people can contact elected state officials to voice their support for the hunger strike and urge them to give in to the inmates' demands.

This action follows on from the prison strike in Georgia, when inmates refused to leave their cells or perform their jobs until their demands were met. A similar strike began on 28th June at the Collins Bay Federal Penetentiary in Kingston, Ontario, which supporters are already linking to the Pelican Bay struggle. This is a good sign, as especially in the prison environment rebellions are much easier to kill off if they remain isolated. Building up a strong network of support - both inside and outside the penal system - is essential to any hope of victory.

Moreover, it helps to raise consciousness that the conditions these people are fighting are not aberrations or excesses. They are the inevitable reality of incarceration. As I said when commenting on the Georgia strike, "Prison - and the police force that puts people there - exists to contain all manifestations of the discontent that results, positive and negative, without addressing their root causes. The prison system is essential to maintaining the social order of capitalism." It needs to be challenged.

The key people in that challenge are not concerned activists, and they certainly aren't lawmakers who might propose largely tokenistic reforms. It is the prisoners themselves, challenging the injustice of the justice system by struggling from within it. Long may they continue to do so.