On July 1, 2011, between 50 and 100 prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), Corridor D, are going on an indefinite hunger strike. The D corridor (also known as the “short” corridor) has the highest level of restricted incarceration in the state of California and among the most severe conditions in the united states. The rules of their confinement are extremely harsh in order to force them to “debrief” or offer up information about criminal or prison gang activity of other prisoners. Most inmates in the SHU are not members or associates of prison gangs, as the PBSP staff claims, and even those who are put their lives and the lives of their families and other prisoners at risk if they debrief.
Using conditions of severe mental and physical harm in order to force prisoners into confessing is torture! Many debriefers simply make up information about other prisoners just to escape the isolation units. This misinformation is then used to validate other prisoners as members or associates of prison gangs who in reality have nothing to do whatsoever with gang activity.
These are the five core demands of the hunger-striking prisoners:
- Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
- Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
- Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
- Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
- Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).
This widespread hunger strike has the potential to become the most significant event in California prison reform in the last decade. Public support is crucial. Outside support work for the July 1st hunger strike is being coordinated by California Prison Focus, which works to abolish the California prison system in its present condition. Members of CFP travel regularly to Pelican Bay and Corcoran state prisons to uncover and disseminate information on the current conditions prisoners must endure.
1904 Franklin Street, Suite 507
Oakland, CA 94612
The hunger strike will predictably be met with a media whiteout, and it is our responsibility on the outside to make this untenable for the powers that be. We can do this by carrying out solidarity actions – pickets, demonstrations, banner-drops or whatever – to make this news. It is an obscene sign of where things are at that these people will be putting their lives on the live with this hunger-strike, and yet it will be far less risky or heavy actions on the outside that will either provide the context in which this struggle will succeed – or not.
One prisoner had written asking people to organize candlelight vigils on July 1st, while organizers from California have suggested that July 9th might be the best day to organize public rallies of support – one way or another, though, everyone should be thinking of doing something, and proceeding accordingly.
Here in canada, support work around prisoners often ends up focusing on situations (like this one) in the united states, and this can seem odd. In fact, in some ways it is odd. But there is a reason for this odd situation; while all prisons are instruments of mass oppression, the u.s. prison system is unique in both its scope and its intensity, and constitutes a laboratory for all those sciences intended to destroy human beings, the cutting edge of state repression, whose lethal lessons are then exported around the world.
We can see what this means when we look at California, whose state population is roughly the same as that of Canada, but whose prison population is over five times as large. Within this capitalist tumor which is the u.s. prison system, isolation-torture represents the cutting edge of social control, intended to destroy prisoners without leaving any physical evidence of harm. On any given day there are tens of thousands of people subjected to such torturous conditions in the u.s. gulags.
Here in canada, the new Harper majority government is planning on accelerating the trend of importing elements of the u.s. prison-industrial complex. Supporting the Pelican Bay prisoners resistance to torture and isolation is not separate from building our own resistance to the spread of this new form of human subjugation here and around the world.
i’ve put together a page of information about this hunger strike on the Kersplebedeb website, including all the key documents, agit prop materials, and background information that i could find. You can visit it here.