Today marks the 38th day that Governor Brown and the California Department of Corrections have sat and watched as hundreds of Californians continue to starve under inhumane conditions in our prisons in an effort to make the state recognize their humanity. This has been a very long and drawn out battle involving decades of litigation, multiple hunger strikes, and many promises by the CDCR that it is finally “doing the right thing” all while vehemently denying that there are serious problems within the state prison system.
California’s prison system is undisputedly in a disastrous state of crisis. That Governor Brown has fought tooth and nail against correcting the crisis – even asking the United States Supreme Court to approve his non-compliance with the Court’s order to fix the prison system so that it no longer violates the US Constitution – is telling. California’s prison system has become a rogue beast devouring billions of dollars in state resources, destroying the lives of the people it has been entrusted to rehabilitate and their families, and continuing to operate in a way that endangers the safety and well-being of both prisoners and the public. It’s time for California to really engage in an honest effort to do the right thing.
What would this look like? First, the state must admit that there is a serious problem. California has not done this. In fact, in January Governor Brown audaciously declared that California’s prison crisis is over. In the case of the hunger strike and the issue of solitary confinement, Governor Brown has remained silent while the CDCR’s strategy has been to deny that solitary confinement exists and to demonize the people in solitary confinement as brutal murderers, the “worst or the worst”, deserving of treatment that constitutes torture. The CDCR is deceiving the public by saying that the people who are in solitary confinement are there because of the crimes they committed. The decision to put someone in solitary confinement in the SHU has nothing to do with why that person is in prison. Rather it is a decision that is made completely by prison guards with very little due process and very little transparency. In fact, many people who are isolated in the SHU are in prison for non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses. Many SHU prisoners have relatively short sentences and return home – approximately 50 people return to our communities directly from the SHU every month. California’s use of solitary confinement has been condemned internationally as cruel and unusual punishment and a disgraceful breach of international standards on humane treatment of prisoners. The whole world is watching this crisis unfurl like a train wreck in slow motion while the state continues to drive forward full steam ahead, as if oblivious to the damage that will result from its deliberate indifference.
Next, the state must begin to work collaboratively with attorneys, advocates and prisoners’ families to correct these issues. Instead of fighting meaningful reform in every way imaginable, the state should work with others to explore options that ensure the safety and well-being of prisoners and the public. CDCR administration has demonstrated that they are either unwilling or incapable of making meaningful changes themselves. Even the new regulations they issued last year, which they called a “big culture change” and a huge shift in policy, are in reality, more of the same. Prisoners will still be held indefinitely in the SHU without having actually engaged in any gang related behavior. The new policy also expands the scope of who can be validated as a gang affiliate and isolated based on that affiliation. The gang validation policies in California have never been effective. If they are meant to curb the proliferation of prison gangs – the policies have not worked to achieve that. There has not been a decrease in the size or reach of prison gangs since these policies have been in effect. If the policies are meant to reduce violence – the policies have failed to achieve these results as well. California prisons are not safer because of the gang validation policies. More forward thinking states like Mississippi have drastically reduced violence in their prisons by working collaboratively with lawyers and advocates and reducing the number of people they keep in solitary confinement. In addition to decreasing violence, the state is also saving six million dollars a year. Perhaps California should take note. It’s time to invest our resources into finding solutions that actually work.
Right now, in the midst of the chaos and lawlessness of this prison regime, California has an exceptional opportunity to do the right thing. There is no doubt that future generations will reflect on California’s current prison crisis as a dreadfully embarrassing stain on California’s history. However, Governor Brown still has the opportunity to preserve his honor and legacy by changing his position and correcting the problem. He has nothing to lose by accepting responsibility and taking corrective action immediately. However, if he continues to sit on the sidelines and watch passively as the human rights violations continue and more prisoners die, the damage will be irreparable.
We urge Governor Brown to take these issues seriously and do the right thing by engaging in meaningful negotiations with the hunger strikers and their mediation team to resolve this strike before anyone else dies.
On behalf of the Mediation Team,
Azadeh Zohrabi, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children
Hunger Strike Mediation Team
Dr. Ronald Ahnen, California Prison Focus and St. Mary’s College of California
Barbara Becnel, Occupy4Prisoners.org
Dolores Canales, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement
Irene Huerta, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC)
Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee
Marilyn McMahon, California Prison Focus
Carol Strickman, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children