by Denise Mewbourne
For a little over a year I’ve had the great good fortune to be a participant in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition’s Human Rights Pen Pal program. Through this program I’ve been corresponding with several activists inside the SHUs, including several in the New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalist Think Tanks. It’s changed my outlook on life in a big way, to say the least.
As a hunger strike supporter on the outside (since 2011) who has never been incarcerated, I had very little understanding of the ongoing cruelty, dehumanization and torture that goes on in the California prison system. I know I will never fully understand what it means to endure that – unless I’m forced to – and I’m still regularly shocked when I hear of new and different atrocities from both incarcerated people and prison survivors.
What I do know is how much respect and admiration I have for the people I write to, the organizers and participants in the peaceful protests, whose very bodies are the battlefield – and who have the strength and strategic intelligence to meet the oppressors on that battlefield with a series of hunger strikes.
As a hunger strike supporter, I’ve spent some time feeling fearful, angry and grief-stricken when I was afraid one of my pen pals could die during the last extended hunger strike – until I got that next letter, and felt the warrior strength, dignity and self-determination emanating from it.
I’m honored that I’ve gotten to know several well enough to consider them friends, and will admit I’ve spent some time feeling fearful, angry and grief-stricken when I was afraid one of them could die during the last extended protest – until I got that next letter, and felt the warrior strength, dignity and self-determination emanating from it.
My correspondents have inspired me to develop courage and become a stronger person, emotionally and physically, so that I can try to be as strong on the outside as they are on the inside. Another thing I know with my whole heart – I want this torture stopped, not just for those I know but for everyone. No one should ever be treated that way.
So I’ve been following the legislative hearings on solitary confinement with great interest and attending them when I can. I go to share the words of my pen pals and also to pay attention to how the California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation (CDCr) is responding to the increasing pressure from both sides of the walls.
Thanks to the incredible courage and perseverance of the hunger strikers and several years of hunger strikes, the CDCr and their brutal practice of solitary confinement is under more scrutiny than ever before from the public, the California Legislature and international organizations like Amnesty International.
But after the most recent Public Safety Committee hearing, when CDCr presented their proposed new policy “reforms” around SHU confinement, I found myself thinking of that classic Audre Lourde quote: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It seems more and more apparent that CDCr is unlikely ever to end their domestic torture program purely through internal reforms.
When CDCr presented their proposed new policy “reforms” around SHU confinement, I found myself thinking of that classic Audre Lourde quote: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
The master’s tools CDCr specializes in are window-dressing, deception and stealth, and this hearing showed them in fine form. They are making a show of reviewing and releasing some people, yet meanwhile are removing the SHU exit possibility of the six-year inactive review and inserting mandatory cognitive restructuring into the Step Down Program.
(Behavior modification of any kind under situations of coercion is prohibited by the Nuremburg Code, as discussed by the NARN Collective Think Tank, Corcoran SHU, in the last issue of the Bay View.)
And amidst these so-called “reforms,” some deadly features stubbornly remain. They say once again they’re moving to a more behavior-based classification system, and yet leading or participating in a hunger strike continues to be classified as a serious rules violation. They confirmed they will continue to use “confidential informants.”
Tattoos, books, articles and other things of this nature that should be protected by the First Amendment continue to be a way for them to give points to people leading to a “Security Threat Group (STG)” classification. There is still no independent oversight for STG validation.
Given the enormous amount of taxpayer money they are raking in by keeping the isolation dungeons going – and even expanding – what could possibly motivate them to stop doing it? Although legislators will ultimately propose the law to stop it, they will not act alone.
In writings and messages to outside supporters, some activists inside the SHUs have said that the ultimate goal was to bring about a shift in public opinion, and that once public consciousness had gotten to the point where the general public in California knew that solitary confinement was torture and had to stop, the balance of power would finally tip.
I believe that we are gathering momentum and approaching that time!
Since the protests began in 2011, there has been a dramatic increase in public awareness, and with this last hearing, I saw a shift in the mood. It was the most well-attended hearing yet, with four overflow rooms! Many of the signs said “Abolish solitary confinement,” and people also voiced that demand, passionately, during public comment.
Some activists inside the SHUs have said that the ultimate goal was to bring about a shift in public opinion, and that once public consciousness had gotten to the point where the general public in California knew that solitary confinement was torture and had to stop, the balance of power would finally tip. I believe that we are gathering momentum and approaching that time!
Assemblymember Ammiano, when he opened the hearing, said, “We are here to question the existence and effects of the SHU.” The very existence, in question! Sen. Hancock expressed dismay that the 2004 legislative hearing with CDCr she reviewed featured the same questions still being asked today, 10 years later.
Legislation to end solitary confinement has just been introduced in New York State. It remains to be seen if the bill will pass, but on first reading it does an amazing job of implementing the California hunger strikers’ third demand, the 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prison’s recommendations regarding solitary confinement, and would effectively end use of isolation in New York.
Recently the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections spent 20 hours in a Colorado Administrative Segregation Unit. Colorado has cut their use of solitary confinement in half, and the current director is committed to continuing this trajectory.
A national hearing on solitary confinement is taking place as I write this, and the National Lawyers Guild has submitted testimony roundly condemning solitary confinement. It begins with the heading “Solitary Confinement is Torture and Inconsistent with Constitutional and Democratic Principles.”
As was repeated several times at the hearing, the U.S. is an outlier in its use of solitary confinement, and California is an outlier in the U.S. The handwriting is on the wall – we WILL end this practice!
So, with tremendous respect for the hunger strike representatives and organizers inside the SHUs and AdSegs of prisons around the state, I wanted to share an opinion I’ve arrived at lately, which is that especially with the gains in awareness resulting from your protests and the current national climate, now could be a good time for outside supporters to go full-tilt on the demand to Abolish Solitary Confinement.
This appeals to my sense of the principles of negotiation – the idea that bringing greater pressure to bear can force an opponent to move further and more quickly than they otherwise would have. Up to this point, rightfully so, outside supporters have been focusing on asking CDCr to meet the five demands, which include some extremely important reforms. And up to this time, CDCr has been stalling, with bogus reforms and stealth expansions.
However, in the face of intense public pressure for total abolition, it seems more likely CDCr would move more quickly to find a way to institute much-needed reforms in SHU conditions and due process, if only to salvage some form of their isolation gulags.
In the face of intense public pressure for total abolition, it seems more likely CDCr would move more quickly to find a way to institute much-needed reforms in SHU conditions and due process, if only to salvage some form of their isolation gulags.
Also, outside supporters are dealing with a world that is unbelievably media-saturated. We are bombarded constantly with information from multiple sources – so much that it is only possible to digest a small percentage of it. There are still far too many, even people of conscience, who have no idea about California’s domestic torture program, and we need to reach them.
In this kind of media environment, complex messaging that requires a certain amount of educating to understand runs the risk of being scanned and forgotten. For people with little knowledge of prison systems, “Meet the Five Demands” is difficult to understand. But “Abolish Solitary Confinement,” even for those with no background, immediately communicates.
And of course, once people engage with the movement, learning about the intricacies of the five demands starts immediately, along with core principles about amplifying the voices and supporting the leadership of those inside.
This would not be a question of changing content, just a change of focus. After all, de facto abolition of solitary confinement is already contained within the third demand: “Comply with the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement.”
The commission’s recommendations are excellent. As listed by hunger strike representatives in the third demand, they are: end long-term solitary confinement and conditions of isolation, limit use of segregation to the last resort, and give people within the SHUs immediate meaningful access to natural sunlight and quality medical care. Implementing these would basically constitute abolition of sensory deprivation by CDCr.
The other day I was writing to one of my pen pals and stopped for a moment to observe my thoughts. I realized that even though I am supporting him to eventually be freed from the torture he’s now enduring, I always think of him in prison.
In some kind of strange way, it’s as if the prison walls have replicated themselves inside my mind. It took a little doing, but I deliberately took a moment and imagined him free and more at ease, still working for social justice – because I know he always will – but in the outside world.
One day our collective struggle will finally overcome the consciousness and the brutal profit-making system of the slave master – although the outward form is different, that consciousness is at the very core of our prison system today. Until then, abolition of human rights atrocities arising from these ruthless economics remains an important course of action for people of conscience from all communities and social strata, building on a proud tradition of abolition work led by communities of color.
I know it will take more time and a lot more struggle. So with utmost respect and admiration for those on the inside who have courageously risked their lives in peaceful protest, I’m sharing these thoughts for your consideration, as the movement representatives and organizers. I’m ready – and I think many others are as well – to rally behind the demand to “Abolish Solitary Confinement Now!”
Denise Mewbourne is a writer, artist and activist involved with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition and is also on staff at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC). This editorial represents her own opinion and not necessarily those of organizations she is affiliated with. She can be reached c/o LSPC, 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch the hearing: Following is the California Channel recording of the Feb. 11 Joint Informational Hearing on CDCRs Proposed New Policies on Inmate Segregation by the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees, three-and-a-half-hour gavel to gavel coverage.
Listen to full hearing or to individual speakers: The following links are broadcast quality audio excerpts from the hearing. The public comments are particularly valuable.
Link to entire Feb. 11 legislative hearing audio: https://app.box.com/s/dt12vbi61f3iincl4efi
Charles Carbone testimony: https://app.box.com/s/i7ptbg0wjllag5pzemdk
Craig Haney testimony: https://app.box.com/s/dcasb3jxqjarnze5qfwa
Anne Weills testimony: https://app.box.com/s/shyow2v2p52szuqjxnn7
Dolores Canales rally words: https://app.box.com/s/vex6jpbqrwy8bfrm0tfs
Marie Levin rally words: https://app.box.com/s/tcyiftp0rj9nvdo6qo98
Misty Rojo rally words: https://app.box.com/s/9lp3u3jkv8qyrbzwri3s
Steve Czifra rally words: https://app.box.com/s/z8wug2tj1nm2rys9wxfy
Read the transcript: Click on this link to read the proceedings, transcribed by prisoner supporters: Joint hearing on solitary 021114