by Bruce Reilly
What exactly is a hunger strike? It is when someone, or a group of people, will choose death over their current living conditions. But not an unknown pointless death; instead, they will commit a long, grueling, public death designed to create change – if not for themselves, then for those who live on in the horrid conditions, or those who are transported into that torture chamber sometime in the future.
In picturesque Crescent City, California, a coastal town six hours north of San Francisco, roughly one in five “residents” are prisoners. Several cell blocks of these isolated men began their hunger strike on Friday, July 1. After decades of living in some of the most deplorably inhuman conditions in America, they have organized themselves to say “Enough!” Pelican Bay State Prison is in many ways the prototypical American prison, illustrating the historical gap betweem “haves” vs. “have nots,” and is quixotically surrounded by the peaceful beauty of Klamath National Forest, Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Tolawa Dunes, Lake Earl and Pelican Bay.
A petition of solidarity directed towards Gov. Jerry Brown, the head of the California Department of Corrections and the prison warden has gained nearly 4,000 signatures without a single piece of mainstream media. The petition lists their core demands, including a letter sent by these men to the prison administration.
A website has been set up as a base of community support for the hunger strike. With 2.4 million people in American cages, every prison administration will certainly be on full alert to crush solidarity efforts elsewhere, with the First and Eighth Amendments being of little obstacle in these mini-fiefdoms run by wardens in every jurisdiction. This action comes seven months after Georgia prisoners organized a massive work stoppage. The need for “order” and control will likely override any violations of human rights … for now.
The famous Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevski once stated, “If you want to understand the humanity of a society, go to its prisons.” His book, “House of Death,” is not as celebrated as “Crime and Punishment,” but it is his true account of life in the gulags, where he got seven years worth of 19th century Tsarist “humanity.”
Have we progressed in the Western world? Have the Age of Enlightenment and liberal values created a more humane and civil approach to the problems of violence, poverty, mental illness and addiction? It is easy to argue we have not. The American penal system is as barbaric as any in the history of governments who choose to build such warehouses of mass cages.
This hunger strike cannot be taken out of context, as prisons have always been a place for self-advocacy. Throughout the 20th century, names like Attica, San Quentin, Pontiac and Lucasville – where a recent hunger strike won concessions – are known for prisoners fighting back against overcrowding, lack of food, absence of medical treatment, lack of education and guard brutality, among other issues.
This is another chapter in the American encyclopedia of anti-oppression, to be added with Watts, L.A., Stonewall, Cincinnati, and Harper’s Ferry. Nat Turner’s Rebellion may have seemed “savage” to some, who can’t grasp the full nature of slavery; but keep in mind that John Brown’s uprising was just a few months before the Civil War resulted in the deaths of millions.
And so what can we glean by the latest chapter? For that, the uninitiated must learn about the conditions inside prisons.
The Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) was created, as all supermax prisons are, to house the “worst of the worst.” During the challenge to build it, at considerable cost, California prison guards upped the ante on their own violence and the so-called need for this dungeon along the coast. Their notorious “shoot to kill” policy from the ominous guard towers was supposed to be precipitated by a warning shot. Most witnesses claimed the string of dead came with no such warnings, and at times the guards – now known as “correctional officers” – would set up a prisoner by using a lackey to start a fight.
This prison holds 1,100 of its 3,500 people in SHU, a sensory deprivation unit with 24-hour fluorescent lighting, no windows and a place where food is withheld as a weapon of control. It is a torture chamber well documented, with an average of over 15 people per month being released from these conditions to the free world. The average SHU stay is about two years, which is about 23 months longer than the typical prison punishment for a basic infraction within American prisons.
Pelican Bay is more than 150 percent over capacity, so it remains to be seen what the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that orders California to stop overcrowding will mean to this piece of the gulag.
I spent about two years in segregation, often with no books, left to my paper and pen. My longest single stretch was about 90 days, and it started to wear upon my mind. I saw no light and could only keep track of the day by what meal came. After a few weeks, I would constantly wonder if I had already put a mark on the wall representing the day. Friends of mine spent years in isolation, “buried” in seg (segregation), we would say.
Those who emerged were often a little different, clearly having post-traumatic stress disorder, yet with nowhere to get help. I believe only a small percentage ever overcome such trauma. And I can hardly imagine the scale of brutality, over decades, the Pelican Bay prisoners have been enduring.
Why are people in the SHU? Various reasons involving violation of internal institutional rules, but sometimes it is merely due to a label: “Gang affiliated” is the leading cause of long term segregation in America.
And how might someone ever un-affiliate? Or prove he is not actually in a gang? This is a leading source of problems, as overzealous gang task force investigators have sprung up in every prison. They need to prove their value, and yet they merely identify people.
If they truly sought to decrease factions and violence associated with rivalry – prison violence is often a continuation of street violence – they would be trained and working in a peacemaking manner. Instead they choose tactical violence to suppress violence. But as many tacticians recognize, suppression in one area only results in a bulge at another.
In Pelican Bay, someone labeled as a gang member must “debrief” in order to get out of the SHU and be placed back in general population. To do this, they need to “name names” of other gang members. Those who are truly not affiliated would need to fabricate names to gain freedom.
This causes problems, as one can imagine. If one truly debriefs as intended, some would consider that a death sentence. This person could never safely serve his time in general population, and for some, they could never return to their home communities after prison.
Has American culture bent far enough towards justice to support true reforms to our brutal punishment process? Judges need to understand what people may be subjected to when sentenced to two, 10 or 50 years. Juries need to recognize what they are punishing people with: They need to understand their role in the infliction of late night beatings and sensory deprivation.
They and the prosecutors, police and defense attorneys need to face their complicity in creating this hunger strike. America needs to see how possession of drugs as a teenager can result in something like this within a few years of being tossed to the gladiator pit of prison.
We on the outside of prisons, regardless of how direct our connection is to prisoners, must unite to create a massive movement away from this “violence begets violence” method of social control. We know how to create healthy and sustainable communities; we know what justice and equity are; we know what inhumanity looks like.
We just need to open our eyes and hold our public officials’ feet to the fire. Whereas we have historically sent troops abroad to install “democracy and freedom” in other lands, and to stop brutal regimes, we should not require Americans to die for such a cause within America.
Bruce Reilly is an anti-prison activist and artist. This story first appeared at http://unprison.com/2011/06/30/dying-for-human-rights-prisoners-begin-hunger-strike-tomorrow/.