by Donna Willmott
“This is the third anniversary since we began using peaceful actions collectively to push for an end to the use of long-term solitary confinement. If we look back and remember before July 2011, we prisoners were alone, isolated, not being heard. We wrote newspapers and nothing was printed. We wrote lawmakers and never heard back. Few people knew how many of us were locked away in windowless cells for 23 hours a day (often more) here in California. Few understood how many others are kept in various forms of isolation here in our state in other SHUs, Ad Seg cells, mental health cells, including women and juveniles. Almost no one understood California’s place as the state that uses solitary confinement the most of anywhere … Today we celebrate our movement. We do not rely on the legislature or the courts alone. Only by a strong growing movement of those of us inside and our supporters outside do we have any hope to make all the changes that we need. You keep CDCR’s feet to the fire. We are grateful that you stand with us.” – Statement from Pelican Bay representatives, July 2014
One year ago on July 8, 30,000 California prisoners refused meals and work assignments, beginning a 60-day hunger strike with the core demand of ending the state’s use of indefinite solitary confinement. This was the largest hunger strike in U.S. history, and it presented the deepest challenge yet to solitary by bringing national and international attention to a practice that has long been condemned by human rights groups as torture.
To commemorate the historic strike and its ongoing significance to the struggle against solitary, statewide actions throughout California took place on its one year anniversary:
- Over 100 community members held a rally and press conference in LA, including a statement in solidarity read by Danny Glover;
- in San Bernardino, around 40 people composed mainly of prisoners’ friends and family members organized a vigil and spoke out about their loved ones inside;
- Oakland witnessed events throughout the day beginning with a noontime rally led by family members, followed by a community gathering procession and vigil in the evening;
- prisoners’ loved ones and supporters gathered in Santa Cruz to read out statements by prisoners, and set up a model Security Housing Unit (SHU) cell to continue shedding light on the torturous conditions of solitary.
Solidarity demonstrations were also planned nationally and internationally in cities like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and London.
During last year’s hunger strike, both national and international media reported favorably about the prisoners’ peaceful action in spite of the California Department of Corrections’ (CDCR) attempts to discredit the strikers as “the worst of the worst, gang leaders” organizing a strike solely to expand their power within the prison. Hundreds of articles appeared in the press over the course of the strike, bringing an awareness of the cruelty of solitary to the public in unprecedented ways.
The call for the hunger strike was issued by a collective of prisoner representatives who had found common ground through their confinement in Pelican Bay. Their dialogue through adjacent cells led them to put aside their disputes and unite to challenge the worsening conditions in the prison system, especially to prevent more young people from being consigned to draconian sentences of indefinite solitary.
In 2012, these representatives issued the Agreement to End Hostilities, which called for an end to all violence between different groups of prisoners throughout the state. These representatives also issued the call for three hunger strikes between 2011 and 2013, articulated their demands, and sought to negotiate a resolution with the CDCR. The call for the third strike was met with an unprecedented response, with almost a quarter of California’s prison population participating in the beginning.
This strike was history-making in other ways as it fueled ongoing human rights struggles among prisoners in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Virginia as well as among immigration detainees in Washington state and Texas. Led by hundreds in Pelican Bay who have spent decades in isolation in violation of all international standards of confinement, their demands became the basis of a renewed call from behind the bars for the public to recognize the humanity of imprisoned people and to call for an end to mass imprisonment.
Many families of prisoners became public spokespeople for the first time, realizing that the lives of their loved ones were in their hands. They organized rolling solidarity fasts, held numerous vigils, and marched in 105-degree heat to a Central Valley prison to show their support for their loved ones on strike. They met with prison officials to demand a response from the CDCR, which refused to negotiate with the strikers. They broadened the international perspective by hosting events with U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez.
The courage and determination of the hunger strikers ignited a new level of solidarity among imprisoned people in California. As strikers faced intense repression by the CDCR – in the form of medical neglect, confiscation of medicine, threats of force-feeding (sanctioned by a federal judge) – prisoners shared their own limited resources, kept each other’s loved ones informed, and demanded medical care for those who were becoming increasingly ill.
After 60 days and one death, the strikers suspended their strike after California legislators committed to hold public hearings. In their statement suspending the strike, they said:
“To be clear, our peaceful protest of resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system’s solitary confinement units is far from over. Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met – despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable. The core group of prisoners has been, and remains 100 percent committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice.”
The 2013 hunger strike represented the highest level of self-organization, empowerment and solidarity among prisoners that the California prison system had seen in decades, since the height of the prisoner rights movement led by George Jackson in the 1970s. The CDCR reacted as any government entity facing a serious threat to its power reacts, with an iron fist. Every prisoner who refused nine or more consecutive meals was issued a write-up charging them with participation in a gang-related activity, subject to progressive levels of discipline.
The 2013 hunger strike represented the highest level of self-organization, empowerment and solidarity among prisoners that the California prison system had seen in decades, since the height of the prisoner rights movement led by George Jackson in the 1970s.
After the strike, CDCR extended its repressive tactics to include the community outside by proposing a new level of censorship, banning any materials coming into or going out of the prison that “indicate an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society.” These measures are designed to keep prisoners from writing about intolerable conditions, criminalize their attempts to organize, and destroy the connections and support from the community – lifelines for those who are living in extreme isolation.
From the courage and determination of the strikers, a new and vibrant movement for the human rights of prisoners is taking root. It forces us to ask ourselves what place solitary confinement could possibly have in a civilized society and more, what we are prepared to do to end it.
Donna Willmott is a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, which can be reached at email@example.com and at http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/.