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Few prisoners strike at San Quentin

October 4, 2018

by Kevin D. Sawyer

Few prisoners, if any, at San Quentin State Prison participated in what was reported to be the largest prisoner-led strike in United States history. There are many reasons for these prisoners’ lack of involvement.

Most of the men imprisoned at San Quentin were unaware of the strike and the groups involved with it like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the Bay Area National Prison Strike Solidarity Committee.

Civil rights lawyer Stephen Bingham speaks to the crowd of National Prison Strike protestors outside San Quentin State Prison Aug. 25, 2018. – Photo: Sarah Hossaini, KQED

“It’s hard to know exactly how many prisoners are taking part in the strike; prisons are closed environments, sealed off from the outside world,” David C. Fathi wrote in The Washington Post. “But state prison officials in Indiana, Nevada and North Carolina have already acknowledged strike activity, and there are credible reports of actions in several other states.”

Prisoners are cut off from the world and social media. Because of that, they rely on the mainstream corporate media to get information on what happens in the free world. That ordinarily means television. A small number of prisoners at San Quentin said they watched coverage of the prison strike on public broadcasting stations.

“I wasn’t aware of it until I read the paper” (after the strike) said inmate John Vernacchio, 66. “I’m admitting my ignorance on that one.” He’s serving a determinate term and has been incarcerated for 11 years.

Unless a prisoner reads newspapers such as San Francisco Bay View, California Prison Focus, Revolutionary Communists’ paper, Abolitionist, Turning the Tide or similar publications, deemed “subversive” by some prison officials, they remain out of touch on certain issues about prison.

Most of the men imprisoned at San Quentin were unaware of the strike and the groups involved with it like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the Bay Area National Prison Strike Solidarity Committee.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” was a typical response about the strike. “What are they trying to accomplish?” was a common question. Many prisoners at San Quentin were, and still are, unaware of what “they” the strikers’ list of national demands are – one of which is a decent wage for their labor.

“It has been my experience that most prisoners want to work – they want to do something productive with their time,” Fathi wrote. “But given the vast power disparity between prisoners and their employers, there is also a real potential for exploitation and abuse.”

In late August, the Marin Independent Journal reported “a crowd of about 300” gathered outside San Quentin to support prisoners around the nation. Steve Bingham was reported to be one of the supporters. Who is he? He was George Jackson’s attorney when Jackson was assassinated at the prison in 1971. When a prisoner asks who Jackson was, to some, it’s like he was murdered again.

This time last year, some of the same organizations spearheading the strike also helped to organize the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March on Washington, D.C. And like this year, not many stories about it appeared in the mainstream media, so the men at San Quentin were uninformed. A three week lockdown at the prison last year in August didn’t help, but everyone saw what happened in Charlottesville with the alt-right.

Erika Hidalgo of San Francisco says she understands not everyone shares her sympathy for incarcerated people, but the lack of compassion is indicative of a “sick society that drives people to do what is legally criminal just to survive.” – Photo: Sara Hossaini, KQED

As it stands with many prisoners at San Quentin, not much then or now is known about such organizations as I Am We, Support Prisoners Resistance, Restorative Justice Project-Green Party of New Jersey-Black Caucus (GPNJ-BC), Industrial Workers of the World, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, U.S. Human Rights Network, National Jericho Movement, RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison), California Families Against Solitary Confinement, Community Legal and Advocacy Services Project (CLASP), Human Rights Coalition Fed-Up, George Jackson University, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, Prison Families Aftercare or The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC). They’re all stakeholders in ending mass incarceration at some level.

The MIJ also reported, “Strikers are also demanding increased funding for rehabilitation services and better treatment for mentally-ill prisoners.”

What most strike participants around the country probably don’t know is that San Quentin is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) flagship prison for rehabilitation. If a prisoner is motivated here, he can earn a college degree or learn anything from construction technology to computer coding. And if he’s proficient at the latter, he can earn a prevailing wage in the prison’s Joint Venture Program. It’s a unique place.

“This is not a prison,” said Dewayne Jiles, 58. He’s been incarcerated more than 20 years, serving a sentence of 60 years to life for burglary under California’s Three Strikes law. “I can’t find words to describe what it is.”

What strikers around the country are asking for is already available to many prisoners at San Quentin, sort of. “This isn’t your grandfather’s prison,” a prisoner who goes by Rashaid said when he transferred here in 2011 under AB 109 “Realignment,” a law passed as an effort to reduce California’s bourgeoning prison population.

Today San Quentin is four prisons in one: Death Row, Adjustment Center, Reception Center and general population. The men in GP don’t come into direct contact with the first three groups, which make up about half the population, 700-plus of which are on Death Row.

What most strike participants around the country probably don’t know is that San Quentin is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) flagship prison for rehabilitation.

In September, the San Quentin News reported the prison’s population to be 4,425 men. Looking back at back issues of the newspaper online reveals steady growth in recent months.

Talk to any prisoner at San Quentin and they’ll tell you how overcrowded it is in the state’s oldest prison. Established in 1852, its cells were designed to house one man. All cells except Death Row and some segregation units have two men. In 2011, the CDCR was ordered by the federal court to bring its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity. This ostensibly was to allow the CDCR to deliver better mental health and medical services to its prisoners.

“San Quentin’s prison population will never ever, ever stand up for their human rights or to be respected as a man,” said Jiles. “And I’m speaking about the Black population.” He said prisoners would not have acted this way during Jackson’s era.

The nationwide prison strike started on Aug. 21 and ended Sept. 9. The two dates mark the 47th anniversary of Jackson’s assassination at San Quentin and of the rebellion at Attica State Prison in New York, where 33 prisoners and 10 corrections officers were murdered by the state’s national guard.

For many of the uninformed prisoners at San Quentin, though, this is a “go-home” prison. Those serving life sentences here have a chance to parole because they’re able to take advantage of what many of the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States have demanded by striking. Some say it’s a weak excuse to not participate. Maybe, but momentum is building.

Lest we forget, the hunger strikes to end long-term isolation in California prison SHUs (security housing units) took three attempts over a course of nearly four years before receiving international support and legal intervention by a federal court. The Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March of 2017 and Nationwide Prison Strike this year were the first two rounds. Perhaps in the coming year, round three will be the charm, because as some have said, “It ain’t over.”

About the author

Kevin D. Sawyer is an African American native of San Francisco, California, born in 1963. He has written numerous unpublished short stories, memoirs, essays, poems and journals on incarceration and other subjects. Some of his work has appeared in The Oakland Post (Post News Group), California Prison Focus, San Francisco Chronicle, The Life of the Law, San Francisco Bay View, The Pioneer (CSUEB), Brothers in Pen anthologies, Iron City Magazine, 580 Split, Wall City and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons.

Sawyer is the associate editor for San Quentin News (www.sanquentinnews.com). He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. He was also on the San Quentin News team that won the 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the SPJ.

Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked 14 successive years in the telecommunications industry for several corporations. He is a certified electrician through the National Center for Construction Education and Research and a practiced guitar and piano player. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in mass communication with a special broadcasting option from California State University, Hayward, and a diploma as a paralegal and legal assistant from Blackstone Career Institute. He is currently working on a novel.

Send our brother some love and light: Kevin Sawyer, P-22673, San Quentin State Prison, 1-W-08-U, San Quentin CA 94974.

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