by Kendra Castaneda
When the California prisoner hunger strike began on July 8, 2013, CDCR officials were repeatedly quoted in the mainstream media telling the world that CDCR does not negotiate with prisoners. CDCR portrays the organizers as gang leaders – terrorists whose demands are unworthy of consideration.
But on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, the warden at Calipatria State Prison did negotiate with prisoners in the Administration Segregation Unit (ASU), a form of solitary confinement similar to the notorious SHUs (Security Housing Units). Those prisoners were hunger striking to have their own demands – unique to that institution – met while in solidarity with the five core demands made in 2011 and still to be negotiated.
On Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, the warden at Calipatria State Prison did negotiate with prisoners in the Administration Segregation Unit.
The warden promised that day that the agreement they worked out would be put into writing and implemented. On Sunday, Aug. 18, the Calipatria ASU prisoners resumed eating on the condition that if the state did not negotiate with the main reps from Pelican Bay State Prison who wrote the five core demands for some type of change to end perpetual isolation, then the men at Calipatria ASU were going to resume their peaceful hunger strike on Monday, Aug. 26.
Below is a letter from the Calipatria ASU hunger strikers written Aug. 20, shortly after they temporarily ended their hunger strike on the 41st day:
“Greetings to all in solidarity,
“High salutes, best wishes to all of the men and women who supported this historic peaceful movement for human rights, hunger strike 2013!
“Here at Calipatria we are counted and remain determined to bring humane treatment even if it takes sacrifice. Our personal demands have been promised to be met within a month, by the start of September: expansion of canteen; SHU privileges: pictures, sweaters and shoes; pull-up bars; two packages a year; and installation of phones in ASU.
“For these reasons we have stopped after over a month – 41 days – of hunger striking in high hopes the five core demands will be met soon along with all the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective’s demands. Most important, if we see no attention is being given to the five core demands, the majority of like minds will resume hunger striking in solidarity.
“We men are ready to jump back into the hunger strike full throttle to stop the torture to all men and women through peaceful demonstration. Just because our own personal, superficial demands are being met does not mean we lose focus on the five core demands. All five are just, reasonable and most important.
“In the meantime, the real ‘worst of the worst,’ CDCR officials, have shown their true colors, calling this peaceful hunger strike a hostage situation. Also, CDCR’s notice they will not negotiate – does that mean they’d rather see humans die? Only because we won’t sit back and be tortured in silence? Let alone Short Corridor prisoners have been tortured for decades upon decades – all because we want human contact with our love ones?
“Who is really the ‘worst of the worst’ [a phrase officials often use to describe the people they condemn to solitary confinement torture]? Under CDCR, California is in violation of international laws and treaties and with United Nation agreements.
We men are ready to jump back into the hunger strike full throttle to stop the torture to all men and women through peaceful demonstration. Just because our own personal, superficial demands are being met does not mean we lose focus on the five core demands.
“Where is Jerry Brown? Is he another bought politician under the belt of CCPOA (California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the guards’ union, often called the most influential lobby in the state) for the money they donate to his campaign? They do donate millions to protect their job security by keeping governors in their pockets.
“CDCR wastes double or even more taxpayer money to warehouse humans in torture chambers called SHUs and ASUs rather than in general population. The purpose of solitary confinement is big profit only! No type of rehabilitation is provided, period!
“Therefore, we remain steadfast in solidarity for the end to long term isolation. Si se puede is our motivation chant!
“Thanks to all the loved ones, activists, gente at rallies and protests in the rain or sunshine. All that support carried and fed bodies while we hunger struck. Muchisimas gracias! Si se puede! We thank you all.
“Humbly in solidarity,
On Monday, Aug. 26, Calipatria ASU voluntarily resumed their peaceful hunger strike in solidarity, refusing meals due to CDCR Sacramento’s failure to keep their word to negotiate the five core demands. Resuming their hunger strike debunked what CDCR officials had told the press: that the main reps forced others to starve. Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “Hunger strike in California prisons is a gang power play”: “Don’t be fooled. Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.”
Beard goes on to state: “Many say they want to resume eating but are afraid of the retaliation they will suffer at the hands of other inmates acting on orders from their gang leaders.”
On Monday, Aug. 26, Calipatria ASU voluntarily resumed their peaceful hunger strike in solidarity, refusing meals due to CDCR Sacramento’s failure to keep their word to negotiate the five core demands.
Calipatria ASU prisoners know the inhumane conditions those in the SHUs endure because they too live in horrific conditions daily with no rehabilitation in solitary confinement, and Calipatria is known for corruption at the hands of the prison guards, so why would these men have to be forced to starve themselves when they are being tortured too?
How is it that 30,000 prisoners – men, women and youth – throughout the state of California at numerous prisons refused meals on July 8, 2013, in peaceful protest to stop their inhumane conditions and torture in solitary confinement under CDCR, but on Sept. 5, when the strike was suspended, it was CDCR stating that only fewer than 100 prisoners were hunger striking?
That would mean what Beard told the Los Angeles Times about this hunger strike being a “gang power play” is not accurate, and Beard stating, “Many say they want to resume eating but are afraid of the retaliation they will suffer at the hands of other inmates acting on orders from their gang leaders,” is inaccurate as well. If the hunger strike was a gang power play that started with 30,000 participants and was suspended when fewer than 100 were still starving themselves, what happened to the other 29,900 prisoners throughout the state who resumed eating? How come they were not retaliated against as Beard predicted?
Why would these men have to be forced to starve themselves when they are being tortured too?
What Beard told the Los Angeles Times was a way to cover up the inhumane conditions these prisoners face daily for years, for decades upon decades, entombed within concrete walls in a dungeon. The only way for these human beings’ voices to be heard was to starve themselves to expose these CDCR officials, who claim rehabilitation but practice torture.
In the Aug. 19 Los Angeles Times article by Paige St. John, “Calipatria prison hunger strikers resume eating, get more calls, cable,” CDCR put its spin on the successful negotiations between the Calipatria warden and the ASU prisoners: “California prison officials insisted the expanded privileges at Calipatria State Prison, near the Mexico border, did not signal a willingness to negotiate with inmates.
“’The warden at CAL did not “reach an agreement” with the hunger strikers,’ said department spokesman Jeffrey Callison. ‘The warden simply informed the inmates that local issues would be discussed only after they ceased their involvement in this disturbance.’”
Contrary to what Callison told the LA Times, the Calipatria warden did negotiate with the men in ASU and verbally met their demands BEFORE they suspended their hunger strike. The demands were not met as a reward for abandoning the strike. Once their own unique demands had been promised, the men chose to temporarily suspend their strike to regain some of their strength but promised to resume it on Aug. 26 if the five core demands had not also been negotiated. They made good on that promise.
On Sept. 3, while the men in Calipatria ASU were again on hunger strike, an official memo was issued regarding Calipatria ASU living conditions in response to the ASU hunger strikers humane demands:
Note: A5 is another segregation unit.
While CDCR officials publicly deny that the prisoners were hunger striking for better conditions, the warden at Calipatria issued and signed a memo during the hunger strike stating they are addressing the concerns about such issues as the cleanliness of their pods and showers. That memo confirms that Calipatria State Prison ASU prisoners have issues concerning cleanliness.
The fact that Calipatria ASU prisoners were indeed hunger striking on Sept. 3, the date of the memo, is proven by the medical receiver’s office daily updates reporting that some of those prisoners were receiving IV fluids due to starvation.
One statement in the memo, however, needs to be addressed and corrected: The Security Threat Group (STG) Pilot Program does not satisfy the five core demands, as the second paragraph implies. The warden’s statement, which must have been approved by CDCR, repeats similar assertions made throughout the strike. Here are the five core demands; compare them to the Security Threat Group (STG) Pilot Program and decide for yourself.
The original five core demands:
- Replace group punishment with individual accountability.
- Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
- Comply with the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
- Provide adequate and nutritious food.
- Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.
The fact is that 30,000 men, women and youth of all races went on a peaceful hunger strike in unity for all or part of 60 days, risking their lives to make their voices heard protesting their inhumane conditions. Why wouldn’t society believe them over state officials who repeatedly prove they are not credible?
If Calipatria State Prison can peacefully negotiate humane demands with prisoners in segregation, then I believe ALL California prisoners, especially those in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU, need to be negotiated with, and CDCR needs to meet the prisoners’ demands – the five core demands – once and for all. These are human beings held in a system that’s supposed to rehabilitate. Let’s not forgot that.
Kendra Castaneda is a writer and prisoner human rights activist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.