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.

Click HERE to sign the petition of solidarity today! Go HERE to learn more about taking action.

Bruce Reilly is an anti-prison activist and artist. This story first appeared at


  1. So let me understand child molester and murderers are going hungry wow what a thought go figure. I am more concerned about law biding citizens and tax payers going hungry with the level of unemployment going around. The CDCR should make them pay for what the inmates do not eat very wasteful. I shall save my concern for the victims of these criminals and their hunger and damages caused by beasts behind bars. Actually if you libs are concerned about these folks when they parole can meet them at the gates and take them home and give them shelter and food and let them play with your children? What a thought what you mean no well then crack another beer and watch the 49ers loose and cry you marin- San francisco losers…

    • You obviously are an ignorant person that know snothing at all about what goes on in there. You are welcome to the nasty cold food that has no nutritional value that looks like throw up. I don't know of a person that would eat it; but it makes good pig food. Like I said you are welcome to it! Most of the guys in the SHU have been there for over 15 years and none are child molesters wrong area of the person. Those are the beasts that are getting good food and all day visits with extra privileges. I would rather take one of them home that you. At least they would be gracious and thankful. You sound like a heartless jerk. By the way I am a republican that pays a lot more taxes than you probably do. You are loser all the way around.

      • sorry about the misspellings-my nails are wet; I meant…that knows nothing at all, and ….the wrong area of the prison…..rather take one of them (from the SHU) home than you.

    • These are not all violent criminals. What crimes do you think they should have committed before they deserve to be tortured? You really should educate yourself before you open your big ignorant mouth and share useless information. Remember people, prison is the punishement and the majority of these guys have not had a single write up in decades. Some of the write ups they have gotten recently are for talking to other people. Wow that is soooo scarey! You should be glad they do stick up for themselves in a non violent manner. The reason they ARE doing it this way is so that they DO NOT have to resort to violence. Stupid people say stupid things. Until you research it and meet someone from inside you have no right to have an opinion at all; it is all a bunch of wasted hot air out of the side of your neck!

  2. Some of the comments made here reflect the disinformation those that wrote them have garnered from main-stream-media MSM about crime and criminal justice laws. Not all inmates are violent, sex-offenders or need to be placed in CM (close management). To begin with more than 50% of any facility is made up of non-violent offenders, usually serving long sentences for drug related charges. The criminal laws that put them there and keep them there as long as possible were created by lawmakers working on behalf of corporate interests, seeking profits off of privatization, sale of canteen products, providing medical and mental health services, food service and other peripheral services. All one has to do is visit the website of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and find out for yourself how laws have been created within their conference rooms and distributed to all the states as proposed laws, many becoming laws in various states. It's all about the money – and propaganda to allow citizens to sit back, feel sanctimonious about sending millions of their neighbors into prisons so others can profit. If you with the snide and harsh comments realized that today there are 325 full fledged prison industrial complexes across America where prisoners work for private corporations, doing jobs that you or your neighbors used to get paid well to do, you'd feel differently. Many of those sitting in solitary in prison SHU's are there because they refused to work for $.20 an hour for Boeing, Third Generation, IBM, HP or a hundred other corporations. Because they refuse to take part in stealing YOUR jobs, they suffer – and some continue to wish more suffering upon them. Be human for once, it could be you sitting behind those fences next…after all, many of those there now thought "not me" just like you're thinking now.

    Bob Sloan
    Prison Industry Investigative Consultant

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