California prisoners resume hunger strike today

by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity

Today, prisoners at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) and Calipatria’s Administrative Segregation Unit (Ad-Seg or ASU) resume their hunger strike.

Community members and prisoners’ families are holding a press conference outside UC Hastings School of Law in San Francisco at 2 p.m. A panel discussion featuring legal experts, activists, advocates and prisoners’ family members will follow at UC Hastings, highlighting the prisoners’ conditions and reasons for their renewed strike.

The strike this past July exposed the conditions and practices of Pelican Bay’s SHU. Referring to the first round of the hunger strike, Mutope Duguma (s/n James Crawford), a strike representative in Pelican Bay’s SHU, writes, “This is far from over and once again, hopefully for the last time, we will be risking our lives via a peaceful hunger strike on Sept. 26, 2011, to force positive changes. For 21 1/2 years we have been quietly held in Pelican Bay State Prison solitary confinement under some of the most horrible conditions known to man. So we continue to struggle to be treated like decent human beings.”

“What other avenues do prisoners have? As with the first hunger strike, the demands of the strikers are reasonable and long overdue,” says Laura Magnani, a member of the prisoner’s mediation team and a representative of the American Friends Service Committee. “We call on the state of California to move quickly to address the problems of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons.”

The initial hunger strike started July 1 at Pelican Bay lasted nearly the entire month of July and swept across the state, with at least 6,660 prisoners in a third of California’s prisons participating. Despite claims to the contrary, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has yet to fully address what the prisoners feel are the most substantive changes outlined in their demands.

CDCR statistics show that of the 1,111 prisoners held in the Pelican Bay SHU, 513 have been in solitary confinement for 10 or more years and, of those, 78 have been held for 20 or more years. Meanwhile, an estimated 400 prisoners held in Calipatria’s ASU have been validated by the CDCR as gang members and are awaiting transfer to one of the state’s four SHUs.

“The CDCR’s gang validation process is a sham. They are using supposed gang membership as an excuse to torture people,” says Dolores Canales, the mother of one of the hunger strikers. “Holding people in tiny cells for years on end without any real possibility to get out, without natural sunlight or human contact, is a clear violation of human rights.” The only way to exit the SHU is to debrief, or disclose all knowledge of gang activity, potentially putting the prisoner and their families in danger because they are then viewed as “snitches.”

Now over 100 hunger strikers at Calipatria State Prison, in solidarity with the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay, are risking their lives to expose the conditions of the ASU at Calipatria. According to Calipatria ASU prisoners, roughly 80 percent of the prisoners in the ASU have been given indefinite SHU terms. They are placed in this isolation unit to await transfer to one of California’s three other SHU’s for men. Most of the prisoners currently in Calipatria’s ASU have been awaiting transfer for three to four years.

ASU prisoners at Calipatria have also reported that prison officials have not been implementing the changes addressed by the five core demands written by the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay even though the demands refer to all SHU-status prisoners throughout California, not just at Pelican Bay. The prisoners at Calipatria are furthering the struggle to stop the torture and mistreatment of SHU prisoners by insisting the five core demands be effectively implemented for all SHU-status prisoners no matter what prison they are located in. Since many of the programs and privileges for prisoners varies from prison to prison, Calipatria hunger strikers have amended Demand No. 5 to include TV and radios as well as PIA soft shoes, privileges not already in place at Calipatria’s ASU.

In preparation for the hunger strike, Calipatria ASU prisoners have sent in medical requests for liquids while on strike, after having been denied liquids during the first round of the hunger strike in July. ASU prisoners have also prepared by sending Calipatria’s warden their five core demands with their amendment to the fifth demand. According to letters from Calipatria ASU hunger strike participants, who prefer to remain unnamed, the strike is “a peaceful protest against CDCR’s inhumane solitary confinement and their insufficient and abusive [gang] validation process.”

In preparation for the hunger strike, Calipatria ASU prisoners have sent in medical requests for liquids while on strike, after having been denied liquids during the first round of the hunger strike in July.

In recent interviews, CDCR Undersecretary for Operations Scott Kernan suggested that the department might expand SHU imprisonment to include some unnamed “security threat groups” – reportedly adding prisoners who were members of street gangs before their incarceration to “validated” prison gang members – and that the current realignment process the CDCR has undertaken to relieve extreme overcrowding, as ordered by the Supreme Court, might open up the possibility for more SHU cells.

“This is exactly the opposite of what the prisoners have asked for in their very reasonable demands,” says Manuel LaFontaine, an organizer with All of Us or None. “It is this kind of manipulative gerrymandering that has brought us to a crisis point in terms of conditions in California prisons.”

CDCR’s response to the July hunger strike was inadequate to say the least, giving prisoners and their families false hope of timely substantial change and an end to torture. For a detailed summary of the CDCR’s response to the strike and why Pelican Bay prisoners are resuming it, read “Tortured SHU prisoners speak out: The struggle continues, hunger strike resumes Sept. 26.”

CDCR officials seemed to be preemptively cracking down on prisoners in anticipation of resumption of the strike and have publicly said they were preparing to take harsh actions against strikers. Illustrating the CDCR’s hard-line stance, Undersecretary Scott Kernan said in a recent interview, “If there are other instances of hunger strikes, I don’t think the department will approach it the same way this time around.”

Lawyers who have recently visited Pelican Bay have taken testimony from SHU prisoners who have been retaliated against by prison officials for their participation in this summer’s strike. “Prisoners are receiving serious disciplinary write-ups, usually reserved for serious rules violations, for things like talking in the library or not walking fast enough,” says Carol Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “It’s clear that prison officials are trying to intimidate these men and to make them ineligible for any privileges or changes that may be forced by the strike.”

It’s these sorts of responses and retaliation by the CDCR that show us prisoners are not recognized and treated as human beings, are constantly abused and tortured by the CDCR, and that the CDCR has no intention of stopping this. The prisoners clearly have no other recourse but to risk their lives again.

Broad international support for the strikers continues to grow as the hunger strike enters its next phase. For more information and updates, visit www.prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.

This story combines information from four Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity releases, two of them written by Isaac Ontiveros, and contributions by Bay View staff. The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition can be reached at prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity@gmail.com and Isaac Ontiveros can be reached directly at isaac@criticalresistance.org.