Prisoners on strike for dignity

July 18, 2013

Alex Schmaus reports on a prison hunger strike in California against inhumane conditions that is involving tens of thousands of inmates.

THE LARGEST prison strike in California history was entering the middle of its second week as this article was being written.

It began July 8, when 30,000 prisoners refused meals and 2,300 refused work or educational assignments in 24 of 33 state prisons and all four private, out-of-state facilities where California sends prisoners.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials claim that the number of hunger strikers fell to 2,493 by July 16. But this is probably an underestimation because CDCR includes only those prisoners who have refused nine consecutive meals as on hunger strike.

This strike, and an earlier pair of three-week strikes that preceded it in 2011, are directed against the torturous conditions endured by prisoners in solitary confinement.

"About 80,000 people in the United States are put in solitary," Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said to Democracy Now! "But in California, they go to an extreme by placing people without any windows, without any phone calls, trying to totally isolate them."

Solidarity activists march outside Corcoran prison to support thousands of prisoners on hunger strike
Solidarity activists march outside Corcoran prison to support thousands of prisoners on hunger strike (Steve Rhodes)

More than 3,000 California prisoners are confined in isolation cells known as security housing units (SHU).

TODD ASHKER is one of them. Transferred in 1990 to the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, a Supermax facility just south of the Oregon border, he likened his conditions to being "buried alive" in a letter to "Staff told me that I would be here until I paroled, died or debriefed," Ashker explained. ("Debriefing" is a euphemism for a CDCR policy that compels SHU inmates to inform, or snitch, on other prisoners.)

He continued: "One of the first things gang unit staff ask a debriefer is, 'Do you want to call your wife and family and tell them that you're done and let them know they may be in danger?' This threat is well established--many debriefers and their family members outside prison have been seriously assaulted and killed."

Ashker is a member of the Short Corridor Collective (SCC), a group of four Pelican Bay SHU inmates who have played a leading role in the recent strike movement. The SCC advanced five demands during the 2011 strikes; more nutritious food and more constructive programming, and abolition of long-term solitary confinement, group punishment and the debriefing policy.

What you can do

Call the office of Gov. Jerry Brown at 510-628-0202 or 916-445-2841 and demand an end to repression against California prisoners.

A year after the first strikes, SCC member Antonio Guillen said that "change has been minimal at best. "And in February 2013, the SCC called for a third hunger strike to begin July 8.

This third strike currently taking place is likely to be a long one. The SCC statement affirms the prisoners' commitment to hunger strike "to the point of our starvation resulting in serious permanent injury and/or death."

For its part, CDCR is punishing the strike leadership. At least 14 Pelican Bay SHU inmates, including all four members of the SCC, were forcibly removed from their cells and placed in even more punitive isolation last week.

A San Francisco Bay View report explains the sort of fiendish conditions CDCR officials have imposed on the strike leadership. Strike representatives said in a statement:

[O]n July 11...we were placed in Administrative Segregation, where we are subjected to more torturous conditions than in the SHU. Despite this diabolical act on the part of the CDCR, intended to break our resolve and hasten our deaths, we remain strong and united! We are 100 percent committed to our cause and will end our peaceful action when the CDCR signs a legally binding agreement meeting our demands.

THE STRIKING prisoners aren't fighting alone. Over 400 people braved intense heat on July 13 outside Corcoran State Prison in the Central Valley to demonstrate solidarity with the prison hunger strike.

Danny Murillo, a UC Berkeley student and former SHU inmate, said he supports the hunger strike because:

It is an act of resistance by those that the system has cast off as less than human and unworthy of human dignity...I have witnessed numerous individuals, primarily Latino and Black inmates, being targeted because they hold in their possession drawings of Aztec, Mayan and other indigenous cultures, or for having books by Malcolm X and George Jackson.

What this policy says to me is that the culture, the heritage, the memory of your ancestors, and your political identity are a violation of CDCR regulations--and because of this violation, you can be placed in solitary confinement in a cell for 22.5 hours per day for the duration of your sentence, which could range from a couple months to the rest of your life.

Mindy Stone of the Prison Activist Resource Center in Oakland spoke about her concern about the fast-growing population of prisoners: women. "What happens to the children when a woman goes to prison? Children are separated from their mothers and fathers, breaking families apart, there are few social supports to bring families back together," Stone said.

Elena Astilleros particiapted in the protest because her brother, Hector Joseph Michael Madina, died at Corcoran four years ago. Confined to the Corcoran SHU on and off for over 10 years, Madina was less than 50 years old when he died.

Astilleros and her family were not notified when her brother died. They only found out when they could not contact him. The family held a service with only a picture of Madina, because they were unable to recover his body. "You know, we get to handle the pain managed by the prison system and it takes a lot of love, hope and leadership," Astilleros said. "There are people trying to get transformative justice of prisons and the state of California needs to change that."

The Corcoran protest was organized in part by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), a coalition of social justice organizations and community members based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

PHSS has launched a campaign to flood the office of California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, with phone calls in support of the hunger strike. Brown, who has been completely silent on the hunger strike, is scheduled to take a European vacation, visiting among other places, Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

Just six months ago, Brown declared that "the prison crisis is over in California." CDCR is, however, wracked by a multi-layered crisis.

The federal courts have demanded the release of 10,000 prisoners due to overcrowding and the transfer of 2,600 others at risk of contracting deadly Valley Fever. A federal judge ruled recently that prisoners were not receiving adequate medical care. State legislators also have called for an investigation into a report that over 150 women prisoners were coerced into being sterilized over the last decade.

This strike should give hope to all of us who fight for social justice. The incredible resolve and dignity displayed by the striking prisoners provides a model of ethics. If we all acted more like these so-called "criminals," the world would be a better place.

David Judd and Kim Sloan contributed to this article.

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