Lives on the line at Pelican Bay

July 18, 2011

Karen Stewart reports on a hunger strike by California prisoners that has been going on for more than two weeks--and the inhumane conditions that prompted it.

EIGHTEEN DAYS into a hunger strike that began on July 1, prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison and elsewhere in California are putting their lives on the line to protest cruel prison conditions.

On July 1, some 400 residents of Pelican Bay State Prison's SHU began an indefinite hunger strike to draw attention to the repressive conditions and near-total isolation that many have been forced to endure for months--and in some cases, years. After years of court battles over the notoriously inhumane practices in the SHU, prisoners who have endured long-term isolation opted for a hunger strike to challenge their abusive treatment.

Within a week, they were joined by as many as 6,600 hunger strikers at Pelican Bay and at least 11 other California prisons.

While that number has decreased in the days since the strike began, an undetermined number of prisoners--reportedly more than 1,000 as this article went to press--remain on hunger strike.

A July 12 report from the Prison Reform Movement website detailed the growing medical crisis and deterioration in the health of Pelican Bay prisoners:

Solidarity activists rally in support of hunger strikers at Pelican Bay and other California prisons
Solidarity activists rally in support of hunger strikers at Pelican Bay and other California prisons

According to an SHU nurse, things are bad at Pelican Bay. The prisoners have not been drinking water, and there have been rapid and severe consequences. Nurses are crying. All of the medical staff has been ordered to work overtime to follow and treat the hunger strikers.

As of Monday, there were about 50 on C-SHU and 150 on D-SHU. They are not drinking water and have decompensated rapidly. Some are in renal failure and have been unable to make urine for three days. Some are having measured blood sugars in the 30 range, which can be fatal if not treated...

As of Monday, no one has been force-fed with a nasogastric tube. A few have tried to sip water, but are so sick that they are vomiting it back up. Some of the medical staff is freaked out because clearly, some of these guys seem determined to die. Not taking the water is crushing the staff because the prisoners are progressing rapidly to the organ-damaging consequences of dehydration.

PELICAN BAY hunger strikers have listed five main demands: an end to group punishment; ending the "debriefing" policy and modifying the prison's gang status criteria; better food; expanded programs and privileges for long-term SHU residents; and compliance by the prison with the 2006 recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons.

The commission calls for freedom from "extreme physical deprivation known to cause lasting harm," improved medical care, access to sunlight and an end to long-term SHU confinement. It also recommended access to meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious and other activities that keep people connected to the broader community.

On July 16, the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Coalition reported that the strikers had rejected a halfhearted offer from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for some vague reforms. The determination of the hunger strikers is now reportedly leading some inmates to join the hunger strike for the first time, or to rejoin the hunger strike after previously having gone off of it.

According to the report:

[On July 16], leaders of the Pelican Bay hunger strike unanimously rejected a proposal from the CDCR to end the strike. In response to the prisoners' five straightforward demands, the CDCR distributed a vaguely worded document stating that it would "effect a comprehensive assessment of its existing policy and procedure" about the secure housing units (SHUs). The document gave no indication if any changes would be made at all...

The hunger strike is now in its third week and shows no signs of weakening. In fact, the settlement document distributed last night to all hunger strikers at Pelican Bay prison, resulted in some people who have gone off the strike to resume refusing food. Hundreds of prisoners at Pelican Bay remain on strike, with thousands more participating throughout the California's 33 prisons.

THE MOST politically charged demand by the hunger strikers is for an end to the prison's "debriefing" policy and gang status validation criteria.

Currently, a prisoner can be detained in the SHU simply because he is accused of gang activity, whether the accusation is true or not. Correctional administrators determine who goes into the SHU. It's not part of any court sentence requiring due process and the term can be fixed or indeterminate. If a prisoner's sentence is indeterminate, the only way out is through "debriefing."

In "debriefing," prisoners are forced to implicate themselves and others as gang members. "Non-debriefers" who refuse to be coerced face unconscionably long-term isolation and are told by guards that they "will die in the SHU." Others break under the intense pressure and invent false accusations to secure release. Hunger strikers claim that 95 percent of "debriefers" lie to get out, and go on to be lifelong "stoolies" for the cops.

The most insidious aspect of "debriefing" is that it is used to punish political activity. The fear-mongering related to gang activity is used to cover what is actually political persecution. Anyone deemed to be political can be labeled a gang member and placed in the SHU, where activists and jailhouse lawyers are disproportionately represented.

Steve Champion, writing from San Quentin's death row, calls the CDCR procedure for gang validation "the new inquisition." When someone is "validated" as a gang member, that designation stays with him throughout his prison term and even during parole. Although gang "validation" cannot legally extend for more than six years, the gang unit inevitably finds "new information," often through "debriefing."

Criteria like tattoos or an association (even a casual greeting) with another prisoner deemed to be a gang affiliate can be used as a means of "validation." Most alarmingly, "validation" can be based on a person's reading matter, especially leftist and revolutionary books magazines or newspapers. Books by authors like George Jackson, Franz Fannon, Che Guevara, Bobby Sands, Nelson Mandela, Paulo Freire and Malcolm X can be used to "validate" gang status.

A recent California appeals court explicitly condoned the practice, stating that: "Assigning an inmate to secure housing based on his possession of constitutionally protected materials linking him to a gang [does] not violate his first amendment rights."

This is more than a first amendment issue, however. According to Champion, "What cannot be questioned is the truth that the only route from an apolitical gangster mentality to a socio-politically conscious prisoner is through education. This is the fundamental message to all prison writers and activists."

The strategy of "debriefing," "validation" and equating radical political writing with gang literature exposes the government's fear of a new radical prison movement.

It's noteworthy that the hunger strike has transcended gang affiliations and racial differences to include African American, white and Latino strikers. In spite of racial tensions that are often deliberately aggravated by guards, prisoners have demonstrated the ability to organize multiracially behind bars under the most repressive conditions.

Hunger strikers have been without food for more than two weeks and for some, medical conditions have become critical. After years in isolation and with poor nutrition and medical care many strikers already had health problems. For them, the effects of the hunger strike are taking hold rapidly.

Strikers have vowed to continue the strike until death if meaningful negotiations do not begin. It remains to be seen whether California authorities will meet with the prisoner's mediation team. Meanwhile, outside strike support may be literally a matter of life or death.

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