PHSS (Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity): In approaching the year anniversary of the hunger strike, how have things changed? What have some of the advances been?
Antonio: In looking at the two principal reasons that gave rise to the five core demands (indeterminate SHU sentencing as communicated in demands 1-3 & SHU living conditions as communicated in demands 4-5), change has been minimal at best.
Indeterminate SHU sentences (Core demands 1-3): At present, we are awaiting review of CDCR’s most recent step-down proposal, which they refer to as “Version 6.5”[i]. However, from the small amount of information we were able to gather, it does not look like there’s going to be too much difference from CDCR’s original proposal (version 5.5, March 2012), which we adamantly oppose [ii]. In the meantime, while the proposals are being drafted and re-drafted, there has been no change. We are still subject to the same abuses of the validation process and long term warehousing in these SHU environments.
SHU Living conditions (core demands 4-5): There have been some minimal changes in this regard. Several of the hunger strike representatives (myself included) participated in monthly meetings with an associate warden and a facility captain to address issues of concern and work towards resolving these issues at the institutional level. [iii] As you can imagine, a number of things are often raised which include, but not limited to, meals, educational opportunities, exercise equipment, personal hygiene products, inclement weather clothing, unit cleaning supplies, art materials, canteen and package items, T.V. channels and so on. But of course, only a fraction of those issues actually got modified.
I think some of the most significant advances that have been achieved so far: first the national (and to some extent international) exposure of the abuses of the housing units (SHU) and the harm caused by the use of long-term solitary confinement. Second, the huge support received by various prison reform and human rights organizations, as well as from people all over the US. I believe this played an important role in the unprecedented hearings of the assembly (Sacramento, August 23, 2011) and Senate (Washington DC, June 19 2012). And third, the United Nations petition (filed march 20th 2012) and the civil rights complaint (filed may 31st 2012), which raise violations to international law and the US constitution.
PHSS: What have been the biggest challenges to furthering this struggle? What are you most hopeful for/about?
Antonio: I think the biggest challenge we face today is the same enormous challenge we had to face at the beginning of this struggle—CDCR’s unwillingness to change! The culture and tradition that contributes heavily to this reluctance is based on CDCR’s need for power, control and retribution. After years, and even decades, of dealing with CDCR, we’ve come to learn that they do not offer anything in the form of change, unless it substantially increases their own position. It is in this same spirit that CDCR has approached our demands for change. As is quite evident in their original proposal for a step down program (Version 5.5 of March 2012). [iv]
The one thing I hope for the most is that the many sacrifices people have suffered do not go in vain—especially the three men who offered up their lives! Johnny Owen Vick (PBSP AdSeg), Hozel Alanzo Blanchard (Calipatria) and Christian Gomez (CSP Corcoran AdSeg). I know the price of change can sometimes be steep but compared to what we are asking, which is well within reason, it should have never cost so dearly.
PHSS: How do you think you struggle relates to other fights happening inside and outside prisons all over the world right now? What the connections? How can we forge stronger ones?
Antonio: I think most, if not all, human rights struggles have a common theme—equality and justice! People, regardless of what side of the wall they are on, just want to be treated fairly and the wrongs done to them righted. It is a basic human desire that countless people have fought for and died over since the beginning of time—and, right now is no different. I understand that they very nature of prison is not meant to be an enjoyable experience. And, in no way am I (or any other SHU prisoner I know) expecting to be coddled as we pay our debts to society. But, after being subjected to years and, in many cases, decades of continuous abuse by the torturous policies and regulations that are specifically designed to keep people in a perpetual state of isolation, it then becomes more than just a non-enjoyable experience. Rather, it becomes a cesspool of anguish and misery that rots the soul! This is not something that is unique to the SHU’s of California prisons. This same type of abuse is happening all across our nation and in certain parts of the world. People from all over are feeling the same type of anger and frustration at having to suffer the same type of brutal and degrading treatment. So, it is not surprising, in the least, that the collective conscience has risen in all corners of the world to say, “That’s enough!”
PHSS: How would you like people to support you on the outside?
Antonio: I thought about this question for some time and to be honest I couldn’t be more amazed at the outpouring of support from people all across the world. It is truly a humbling experience and one that has caused me to acknowledge, and believe, in the power of humanity—a true awakening of the spirit!
As for the continued support itself, I believe the outside support teams (mediation, litigation and media) have done an excellent job and strongly encourage each of you to stay the course. I do suggest, however, that more pressure be put on legislative leaders to draft and or amend laws to end the use of long-term solitary confinement and the security housing units in general. I know this may be a lot to ask for but the legislature can enact laws to ensure that positive change occurs rather than have to rely solely on CDCR to do the right thing—which is the same as hoping for a miracle.
I would like to end this letter with a poem that was given to me. I don’t know how old it is or who the author is, but it hold a powerful truth…
I Am the People
I am the people and the people are me, for our goals are the same, we struggle as one.
Forever, I push forward, towards the destined horizon. Although, my path may be long and full of sacrifices, I will never give in, for the rewards are too great, or which I cannot describe.
I will always have faith in my fellow warriors. Where we began and where we will go. For if I lose faith, I lose faith in me.
My struggle is that of equality and justice, it is knowledge I seek. I stand next to my brothers who will never be weak.
If it is battle, then let it be. I have come this far and believe in we. For I am the people and the people are me!
Strength & Respects,
[i] PBSP officials have notified us that due to federal litigation (Ruiz v Brown Lawsuit), they were instructed by CDCR office of legal affairs not to provide us (prisoners) with a copy of the version 6.5 proposal
[iii] The associate warden and facility captain have the authority to make some changes at the institutional level only, not anything that will affect statewide policy.
[iv] There are a number of areas that are of concern to us (see endnote 2). But I am particularly concerned with the fact that there is absolutely no change to the validation process. All the policies and regulations, which givern this abusive practice remain intact. Further, the only real change to occur is that CDCR greatly expanded the validation process to include anyone (under the security threat group classification scheme) who they consider to be problematic. This, however, appears to be nothing more than a guise to keep the SHU filled to, and beyond, capacity.