A Pelican Bay hunger striker’s journal, Parts 1 and 2


Richard Wembe Johnson, a prisoner who recently suffered a heart attack due to a blocked artery in his heart, is among the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay. Since the beginning of the strike, he has been taken off three of his daily meds; medical staff say they may be adverse to his health when taken on an empty stomach. He is submitting a series of articles throughout his time on strike to educate potential supporters about the prison experience. The first, “The Psychology of Prisoners,” is dated July 5, 2011; the second, “Aging in prison,” is dated July 6.

The psychology of prisoners

by Richard Wembe Johnson

The multitude of prisoners who find themselves locked away in a perceptible world of perpetual and perplexing discriminatory wretchedness can look only inward for redress. Their only resolve is to attempt to figure out, with some form of insight that would give them some direction, how best to accurately function in an entrenched environment that isn’t transient but is beseiged in physical and mental violence of a destructive nature.

For anyone to come to grips with this situation, the mind must be able to assimilate all the disconnected parts, placing each in its allotted positional purpose.

Without the ability to organize these incompatible moving parts, the mind will undoubtedly be left in an incidental momentum of powerlessness that will further shake the already unstable foundation needed to prevail in the world of confinement. Unlike in society where people can find available aversions to escape the realities that confront them with some success, prisoners are limited in this regard. They can either grow from the experience or descend further in a highly documented atmosphere of self doubt, terror and hostilities.

Quite naturally, some prisoners can fool themselves in make believe, giving them false relief from truth, but in the final analysis the mental carnage will soon engulf them, bringing down those fictitious intrinsic facades used by some prisoners as a form of escapism, be it sports, gambling, drugs, sex or violence – a host of appeasing empty diversions.

The emotional, psychological rollercoaster is very unsettling in terms of a prisoner having a solid, undisruptive, strong balance between oppression and freedom of the mind. There is no dispute that life in general is complicated, demanding and painful, especially for certain segments of society. In the prison microcosm that enervates prisoners’ ability to engender certain powers, this oppression is enhanced tenfold, dispensing unmitigating pressure and trauma within the prison vortex that exists in numerous individuals entrapped in their psychotic turmoil – mostly as a direct result of being imprisoned and sometimes due to arriving in prison in an already lunatic state that only worsened with time.

When ordinary people think of inmates in prison, their focus is primarily on the physical restraint of those locked up. This reasoning, unfortunately, is misplaced because the mind allows the body to persevere, but if the mind goes, in time, so will the body. How else can people walk on fire, perform dangerous feats or educate themselves well beyond their particular circumstance? It’s all about the ability and tenacity of the human mind.

In prison, the main objective is to control the prisoners’ minds, for they’ve already enslaved the body. It’s the last line of defense that the prisoners have to defend themselves against appalling and frightening events that challenge the mind at every turn. By utilizing hard work and inexhaustible resolve, prisoners can step outside the pitfalls associated with doing time and not allow themselves to be victimized by the intensity of prison life.

The mental state of prisoners is also used by prison administrators as a political pawn to garner politicians’ support and funds, earmarked for prison commerce. Each prison generally has a building in which those suffering from obvious and acute mental imbalances are held and given psychiatric medication to help them adapt and exist in the extremes of prison culture. The fact is that most of them shouldn’t be in prison, but rather, in a mental institution in order to receive some quality psychological help – not simply being pumped with mind-altering drugs since it’s less costly or more convenient.

When ordinary people think of inmates in prison, their focus is primarily on the physical restraint of those locked up. This reasoningis misplaced because the mind allows the body to persevere, but if the mind goes, so will the body. In prison, the main objective is to control the prisoners’ minds, for they’ve already enslaved the body.

Whenever anyone resorts to eating feces or hurting themselves in any form, they need serious help. Whenever grown folk sit up in their cell and hold one-on-one conversations with themselves, something is innately wrong. Just like in society, mental health is of the upmost importance in prison, because you can’t have people running around noticeably unhinged, or a heartbeat away from doing the unthinkable.

This rationale should equally apply for prisoners who can’t cure themselves properly because of the overwhelming effects of damage done to their thinking process brought on intentionally, in some cases, by the controlling forces at hand.

You may think that it’s not a problem, at least in your world, but the truth is that prisoners’ mental well-being should concern everyone everywhere for the simple fact that exposure to someone released from a prison facility who hasn’t received the necessary treatment for his problems jeopardizes all, putting at risk the safety of many. Let’s be real clear: Not everyone in prison is suffering from mental depravity, but even if one goes without the psychiatric treatment needed to substantially mitigate the possibility of a complete psychological breakdown, then all are at risk.

Situations in some exceptional and defiant norms have caused such irreparable damage that long-term treatment must be used to lessen the injury. There can be no fostering of nonchalant attitudes toward this problem. Simply put, if people in society don’t care, why then should the afflicted not feel the same? With the U.S. locking up so many of its people, it should be criminal not to think and assume that mass imprisonment will have a grave and lasting effect on at least some.

When you tamper with the natural order of life, you put at risk the inherent and pure procession in life that constitutes normality. Prisons are essential to some, who typically think they are there to house the bad while protecting the good. It’s a nice concept.

The fact is penitentiaries are like zoos; their objectives – however admirable – are a complete failure. How do you justify caging human beings without some inkling of moral, humanitarian compassion regardless of their crimes, despicable as they may be? When is torture, physical or mental, acceptable for anyone?

If it’s all right to demonstrate unrelenting pain, then who can complain when it is reciprocal in the same manner? This pain is not right or deserved, but it certainly happens repeatedly and the help needed isn’t forthcoming when it really counts.

We’re all creatures of habit connected to what we discern as right and wrong, often accepting the holy scripture as the words of proper conduct. Too often it’s taken literally, causing some to go to areas of extraordinary disconnect in the name of “God.”

How do you justify caging human beings without some inkling of moral, humanitarian compassion regardless of their crimes, despicable as they may be? When is torture, physical or mental, acceptable for anyone?

The bottom line is we are our brother’s keeper. However, we are biased, prejudiced and vengeful and then don’t expect the consequences of failure not to revisit, which is wishful thinking.

Prisoners are people too. They deserve to be treated as such in spite of any transgression, for only God can judge and pass judgment on morality, not people who also suffer from lapses of proper choice and virtue themselves.

Aging in prison

By Richard Wembe Johnson

For some I suspect that prison life can be a truly horrific and demanding experience under any condition that undermines the ability to stay above the fray. There’s one inevitable fact that will haunt your every move regardless of any attempt at deferring the truth: With each passing day, your age becomes a real factor. This is illustrated even more profoundly if you’re doing a life sentence with less than a promising chance of any release – other than in a body bag.

Being hopeful and optimistic can only suffice for so long, and with time it diminishes as the years pass you by. As life creeps along, your mind constantly toils in retrospect. The future is too gloomy to ponder, so glimpses of the past serve to entertain and bring a margin of relief to cloud the wait for death.

Prison certainly isn’t the place to be on any occasion, under any circumstance, but what is even worse is being old and surrounded by elements that are inherently in opposition to age. This is an entirely different crisis within itself. Health concerns worsen increasingly while waiting to die. One shouldn’t be concerned with debilitating health problems involving complications related to growing old. Our mind tells us that we’re OK and everything is the same, yet our bodies remind us that we’re in a serious battle being physically fought daily. You awaken every day just like the day before, greeting it with a forced smile on an aging face and a failing body.

Life is measured on a day by day basis. You count your blessings and accomplishments based on what you did that day, because to focus too far ahead could prove to be an erroneous delusion. However, to say that every aging prisoner will die in prison is incorrect. Some most certainly will find themselves eventually being released at some point, be it in their 70s or 80s. But to keep a person locked up for 40-50 years then turn them out with nothing to go out to can be equally fatal for them.

The future is too gloomy to ponder, so glimpses of the past serve to entertain and bring a margin of relief to cloud the wait for death. You awaken every day just like the day before, greeting it with a forced smile on an aging face and a failing body.

Normally, aging prisoners are segregated with other prisoners of similar age, but with overcrowding, violence and lack of medical care, the chances of the process of aging getting any respect dwindles with each failure associated with prisons. Moreover, as the prisons become more and more a business interest, prisoners are viewed as a plain commodity, serving as a new source of profit. It doesn’t matter if that commodity is ailing, mentally unbalanced, young or old; as long as it’s breathing, it is a viable investment.

There used to be a time when clear distinctions were made in terms of designating prisoners; it was by age, temperament, health – both mental and physical – and work propensity, among other things. Now all that is irrelevant. The death rate for the aging in prison has spiraled drastically over the years. A lot of them just gave in and resigned themselves to a fate looked upon by some as befitting in comparison to the rigors of daily prison experience and survival.

Often prisoners outlive their immediate relatives and find themselves trying to get by without any outside help. Friends forget them. Their children ignore them. Wives divorce them. Society completely abandons them. This happens more often than not. To live life on the installment plan, you can’t help but reflect on who is better off, those sentenced to a certain time with the prospect of eventual death in prison or those of us sentenced to life?

Both scenarios have a reservation with destiny, but which one is more human or barbaric? We come to prison in spite of our sentences. We try to better ourselves through education by absorbing all useful educational material that we can get our hands on, or at least some of us do. We try as best as we possibly can to stay in shape by exercising and paying attention to our health issues. We try to avoid the emotional backlash of living in a toilet for decades.

We go out of our way in an attempt to stay connected to some features of the outside world. Yet after doing all of this, the ultimate question arises: To what end? We lose our teeth, our hair, our bodies, our objectivity and for some of us we lose our minds all in the process of growing old in prison. Is it sensible for us to want to cling to empty dreams, forgotten passions and the remote possibility of freedom?

Personally, I am of the opinion that life, regardless of its woes, should be lived in spite of the difficulties. I think that the only certainty in life is to help you to command some rule over your existence and not be dominated by it, take charge with impressive persistency. Durability comes with age, and if we allow time to demoralize our struggle, then we lose!

Send our brutha some love and light: Richard Johnson, K-53293, SHU D2-218, PO Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532



  1. I noticed something. All of these claims are from prisoners. Prisoners said this, prisoners said that. So we are to take their word for it? If they said the guards were pulling them out of their cells every hour and beating them for being on a hunger strike would this be taken as gospel? I have yet to see an article from a non- prisoner who has seen the prison conditions for themselves. These individuals are not in prison for being honest, kind, gentle, moral, etc. If being in a cell with meals brought to your door, free television, the best medical money can buy, the best psychological help money can buy, social interaction with at least 6 other people you are housed with, if that is what we call torture now, then most of the world is being MORE than tortured. Our military does not eat as well as these prisoners. If homeless people on the street knew how well they would be taken care of in prison they would commit a crime just to get there. Should I live on the street going through dumpsters or should I go to prison with a roof over my head, and meals brought to me? Probably 50% of the world live in worse conditions than these prisoners, and most people in America cannot have surgery for a $5 copay. Most people in America do not have the luxury of having a psychologist standing by to be able to talk to. Most people do not have guards standing by to protect them (even if it is from themselves). Inside prison you do not hear the cries of ones being "tortured" you hear laughter and lively banter in the pods. You hear cheering as their sports team score on the television. You hear conversations of life on the streets etc. Most people in the world would say, "If this is torture, sign me up!"

    • Prisoners in the SHU, as Richard Johnson is, do not interact with anybody other than the people who handcuff them. Their medical issues are often neglected. Their meals are lacking in any nutritional value. They do not have psychological help of any kind! Indeed, even those with mental illnesses are being housed in prisons, without any treatment to speak of.

      You may try to source what prison guards are saying about it … but why should that be any more reliable than what the prisoners have said? Wardens have been known to committ harsher crimes than many of those who are in the prisons in the first place.

      And as for individuals in prison not being honest, kind, gental or moral … would you say that somebody who wrote a bad cheque, unintentionally, was dishonest, unkind or immoral? What about the political prisoners who are in prison because they were heroes of community and for no other reason?

  2. Poor people go to prison–white,black or other–and the poor people with any intelligence mysteriously end up in Califoria's SHU. I know where you're at bros. I paroled from 4A-4L on August 15, 2010. My prayers go out to all of you in that hell. I'm 60 yrs and white all over and poor as hell. I have witnessed first hand the racist society in California's prisons. How can I help? What can I do? I ask myself these questions each and every day. Somehow these draconian laws that bury people for years on end must change.

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