Media Roundup: Hunger strikes and focus on solitary confinement

Current Strikes

According to the latest report, with information coming from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the hunger strikes at Corcoran and Tehachapi State Prisons have ended. As of Wednesday, October 17, 69 prisoners had continued to refuse meals at Corcoran, while prisoners at California’s Tehachapi State Prison “started refusing food on October 10. The number fluctuated, reaching 208 before declining to 135 yesterday [Tuesday] and zero today [Wednesday],” said Terry Thornton, a CDCR spokesperson, quoted by KQED.

According to the LA Times, “Corrections officials said the inmates are protesting new gang control policies the state intends to put into place, defining when and how inmates suspected of gang membership are to be assigned to long-term segregation units away from the main population.”

The Wall Street Journal chimed in, essentially repeating the CDCR lines from Terry Thornton.

At the same time that corrections officials say the hunger strikes are against new gang control policies, members of the Short Corridor Collective – a group of prisoners living in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), who recently called for and End to Hostilities Agreement – have published a letter in the SF Bayview criticizing the state’s proposed changes to its gang control policies.

The CDCR’s March 2012 proposed policy changes actually do not change anything for those prisoners whom CDCR has classified as validated gang members, who will continue to be subject to indefinite SHU isolation based on “intelligence information” alleged to indicate the prisoner’s participation in “criminal gang activity” – but in fact often innocent associational/political type activity). The “intelligence” includes confidential informants’ unsubstantiated allegations of involvement in criminal activity – notably, carrying zero formal charges! This is the same policy and practice used and abused by CDCR to keep us in SHU for more than 25 years…

The CDCR’s March 2012 proposed policy changes include a four-year minimum step-down program, which prisoners may participate in to earn their way out of SHU. This is also unacceptable! Four years is too long, and the incentives for each step are not adequate. Any step-down program should have a maximum limit of 18 months and require meaningful incentives from the start, such as increased opportunity for out-of-cell contact with other prisoners, additional programs and privileges, including regular phone calls and contact visits.

We suggest that folks read the full letter from the Short Corridor Collective, which also offers strong historical background on the hunger strike they took part in beginning in July of 2011 and again two months later in September, when 6,600 prisoners across California refused their meals.

‘Orwellian’ Context

“Prisoners in Pelican Bay’s Housing Unit are allowed into the “dog run,” a.k.a. exercise yard, alone, for an hour each day. [Photo credit: Shane Bauer]

In addition to the ongoing strikes, Mother Jones has published a series of pieces giving more context of “gang validation” and the egregious conditions that prisoners who live in SHUs in California have to deal with. Similar to the Short Corridor Collective letter, one article focuses on ways that the CDCR justifies putting people into solitary confinement units, sometimes for decades: “Deep within the Orwellian milieu of California prisons, gang investigators operate with almost total discretion when placing inmates into solitary confinement. Artifacts an outsider might deem innocuous can prove inmates’ association with prison gangs and warrant indeterminate periods in Security Housing Units (SHUs).” The article goes on to explore some examples of ways prison administrations have justified solitary confinement, including a Christmas card and a reference to the number “14”.

In Shane Bauer’s Mother Jones piece, he discusses the experience of visiting the SHU in Pelican Bay (as a journalist) and comparing it to the conditions he experienced while in solitary confinement in Iran. “How do you compare, when the difference between one person’s stability and another’s insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the “dog run” at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn’t write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?” Bauer’s piece also criticizes the lack of real access journalists get to speak with prisoners in the SHU and explores some of the gang validation techniques that are used to place them there. Along with Bauer’s longer written piece, he helped to publish an interactive graphic of a Pelican Bay’s SHU cell.

The final Mother Jones piece is a series of maps that show statistics about solitary confinement around the US. Check them out here.

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Goes to College

UC Berkeley’s newspaper, the Daily Californian, covered an on-campus event meant to highlight the conditions prisoners are forced to live under while in California’s SHUs. Organizers set up a mock SHU cell, which has been popping up around northern California, at UCB’s Sproul Plaza on Wednesday, October 18. The mock SHU cell is a nearly physically accurate representation of what SHU prisoners live in. The article highlights coalition member Azadeh Zohrabi, who is a former UC Berkeley law school student and a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

“Most people in solitary confinement haven’t actually engaged in any behavior that warrants the situation,” Zohrabi was quoted as saying. “The process is arbitrary and broad.”

Zohrabi said she heard a story of a letter being returned to family members instead of being delivered to a prisoner because it included the Spanish word for sun, “sol,” and that was deemed gang-related. She said she had also heard that another prisoner was not able to send a letter to his uncle because he called him “Tio,” the Spanish word for uncle.

California’s Humboldt State University newspaper also gave space for a quality write-up on conditions in Pelican Bay’s SHU (according to the article, the prison is about 60 miles from the university). The piece highlights many elements of the SHU’s inhumane treatment of prisoners and gives a shout out to Critical Resistance, a prison industrial complex abolitionist organization that participates in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

Prisoner Hunger Strikes Go International

Prisoner hunger strikes have also kicked off in recent days around the world, in protest of egregious conditions.

“Freedom for Mapuche political prisoners” [credit: Santiago Times]

According to the Santiago Times, four indigenous Mapuche prisoners in Chile were rushed to the hospital over the weekend after refusing meals for 45 days to support the “demands of the indigenous Mapuche population for increased autonomy and territorial rights”. Amnesty International says that force-feeding the prisoners would be a breach of their human rights. Unfortunately, we do not have enough information about the Chilean strikes, but according to the latest Santiago Times article, Mapuches who are not imprisoned have said that the Chilean president is “not welcome” in their territory as a result of his treatment of the strikers.

Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was sentenced last year to 11 years in Iran’s famed Evin prison (the same prison where Shane Bauer was kept in solitary confinement), has started a hunger strike in opposition to being forcefully separated from members of her family, and not allowed to hug them. This will be her fourth hunger strike since being imprisoned.

Also, one prisoner in an Iraqi jail has refused meals because he does not have access to a lawyer of his choosing.

2 thoughts on “Media Roundup: Hunger strikes and focus on solitary confinement

  1. Reblogged this on Freedom Archives Blog and commented:
    The video is well worth watching to gain further information and insight on the conditions of those held in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s SHU and the process of gang validations which keeps them there. The rest of the article provides some great domestic and international updates regarding hunger strikes in California’s prisons and prison resistance and activism. In January the Archives will launch a major multifaceted project that highlights the history of activism to close Control Unit prisons entitled Out of Control: A Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons. The origin of this type of torturous imprisonment began in 1985 when the US Bureau of Prisons permanently locked down USP Marion in Illinois. This book project teams the archives with Nancy Kurshan, one of the founders of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), which was a grassroots collective organized around ending the permanent lockdown in Marion Prison. Keep an eye on our blog and Facebook pages for future updates.

    -Nathaniel
    Some Statistics on Solitary Confinement in Pelican Bay SHU*

    -81,622 Number of prisoners in solitary confinement across the United States in 2005, the last year for which the federal government released data
    -11,730 Number of inmates held in isolation in California prisons today
    -7 Percentage of California inmates who are in isolation
    -39 Percentage of inmate suicides that happen in isolation units
    -78 Percentage of Security Housing Unit (SHU) inmates not classified as gang “leaders” or “members”
    -$12,317 Extra annual cost to taxpayers for each prisoner in the Pelican Bay SHU
    -11’7″ x 7’7″ Dimensions of a SHU cell at Pelican Bay
    -6′ x 8′ Dimensions of the average American home’s walk-in closet
    -51 Percentage of Pelican Bay SHU inmates who have spent at least five years in isolation
    -89 Number who have been in solitary for at least 20 years
    -1 Number who have been there for 42 years

    *taken from 42 Years of Solitude by Ryan Jacobs, Mother Jones Blog

    Also keep current with updates on resistance in California prisons: http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/

    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  2. Pingback: Solidarity message from Mapuche nation | Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity

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