Eddie Griffin, one of the surviving Marion Brothers who went on hunger strike in 1976, writes here of his support for the Pelican Bay strike, and his own experiences thirty five years ago. In solidarity with the California hunger strikers, Griffin has himself been on hunger strike since July 1.
Our prayers and support go out to the men at Pelican Bay State Prison in California who began an indefinite hunger strike on July 1, 2011. We empathize with those who have undertaken this extraordinary step to bring the world’s attention to the inhumane conditions of their incarceration.
No matter a person’s status and condition, we are afforded the constitutional right to basic humane treatment, even under conditions of confinement. And, whenever those conditions become brutal and unbearable, we have the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. In absence of relief, or even the hope of relief, these inmates and brothers have collectively joined themselves together to plead their cause to the public and world bodies.
The Pelican Bay State prisoners are asking for relief from “group punishment” and arbitrary branding inmates as “gang members” for the purpose of selective segregation and maltreatment. They are asking that the state comply with federal standards on the use of “long term solitary confinement”, and to provide them with adequate food instead of half-starving them, and to provide a constructive outlet for sensory deprived prisoners in special isolation units.
Historically, the policies and practices of prison authorities have been based upon the concept “Out of sight, Out of mind”. And, it is this public ignorance that allows these inhumane systems to continue.
It was exactly 35 years ago, on July 4, 1976, that the federal prisoners at Marion staged a similar hunger strike. As one of the surviving Marion Brothers, I share this personal experience because very little seems to have changed in the interim.
The Great Bicentennial Hunger Strike
Marion Federal Prison was the first super-maximum security penitentiary, built in 1961 to replace Alcatraz. Before its construction, the Bureau had designated the facility to house high-profile inmates. No one would care that, behind these walls, the government engaged in secret mind-control experiments upon it prison population.
During the 1960s and 1970s, most of the prison population was comprised of high educated, politically conscious men, who crimes were motivated against the U.S. government, and particularly aimed at bringing down the Nixon administration. Many had been caught up in J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO counterinsurgent program.
As a collective body of incarcerated men, we were writers, jailhouse lawyers, and organizers. Prior to the Bicentennial Hunger Strike, the turbulent struggle over human rights at Marion is described in Alan Gomez’s “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary, 1972”. Out of these struggles, the Marion Brothers were born.
I became a prison writer under the tutelage of Arthur Burghardt Banks, an off-Broadway actor incarcerated for draft resistance. Banks went on to win a Big Apple Emmy and Amnesty International went on to win the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize and the release of Banks and thousands of anti-war resisters.
In 1977, I wrote “Breaking Men’s Minds: Behavior Control and Human Experimentation at the Federal Prison in Marion”, which was circulated worldwide. It was because of the hunger strike that I began to gain recognition as a prison writer.
The Great Bicentennial Hunger Strike was two years in the making. It was not a simple undertaking, because men were putting their lives at stake, and the planning had to be kept secret from the prison administration.
I was given the responsibility of drafting the petition for redress and issuing the press release. As a prelude, now part of the Marion Brothers archives, there were interviews with select political prisoners, which included Puerto Rican Nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda, American Indian Movement Leonard Peltier, and Black Panther Lorenzo Komboa Ervin. These were internationally recognized political prisoners with grievances against the United States. And, it was their grievances, besides the human rights issues of prisoners that comprised the body of the petition, which I delivered to the warden on that Fourth of July.
The first redress was “to hire more minority prison guards”. Although most prisoners fought me, tooth and nail on this issue, it was the first to grab the media’s attention, and the most defenseless for the government.
The second redress was “to stop using prisoners as guinea pigs in mind control experiments”. This issue raised curiosity and initiated an investigation by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When the allegation proved true, and that the CIA was behind the experimentation, Angela Davis organized some 800 support organizations into the Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression.
Our case was presented to the United Nation, which declared 1977 as the Year of the Prisoner of Conscious. The World Peace Council convened at the University of Helsinki and named some 125 prisoners worldwide as Prisoners of Conscious. U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young acknowledged that there were hundreds of American political prisoners.
On the other hand, the warden at Marion, through the government, promised to hire more minority and women prison guards. But the “behavior modification” programs continued. Long-term segregation in sensory deprivation chambers took on new names. Today’s Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) is a replica of Marion’s notorious Control Unit.
On the morning of July 4, 1976, I went to the mess hall because it was my shift to work the dish tank. There was much ado about the national celebration of the country’s 200th birthday, and usually on Independence Day, it was all-you-can-eat hot dogs and hamburgers for prisoners.
Would the rest of the men give up the best meal of the year to make a statement like this?
From the dish tank tray window, I had an observation post, and orders to report any inmate who crossed the strike line. Only one guy picked up a tray and hurried made a U-turn when he realized what was happening.
Nobody came to breakfast. I had no dishes to wash. I was proud for several reasons: First, because every inmate participated; Second, I did not have to report on anybody and nobody got hurt; and Third, I clutched the petition in my hand, expecting the prison guards to take me to the warden.
Some time, during those very tense moments, the warden got a call from Jake McCarthy at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, inquiring about the hunger strike. I imagined he hit the ceiling: “What strike!”
By the time I was haled into his office, my comrade Akinsijui was already there, singled out as one of the prime ringleaders. When I handed the warden the petition, the look he gave me in return was worth the price of admission to indefinite solitary confinement.
The prison was shut down. There were riots. When it opened again a few months later, there were more riots. Eventually, the prison went on lockdown for good, until it was converted to a medium-security prison, and other super-max prisoners were built in its stead.
While protesters surrounded the prison, and lawyers barred from entering, I was moved from long-term segregation, to the sensory deprivation boxcar cell with a steel front door, to a padded cell and shot full of drugs, and finally to a refrigerated strip cell with only brief shorts, no mattress, and running water for only 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening.
It was on the fifteenth day that I ended my hunger strike. Leonard Peltier and the Indians continued for 40 days. These were the last of my memories of Marion before being “kicked out”.