The Department of Corrections is preparing to force-feed prisoners who have filed do-not-resuscitate orders, on the grounds that gang leaders may have coerced some of them into hunger-striking and even into signing do-not-resuscitate orders. However, thirty thousand prisoners embarked on the hunger strike initially, and only 69 of them were still on it last I heard—not very effective coercion. I’ve heard from men at multiple prisons who say that they personally, and others, did not sign do-not-resuscitate directives. So whatever drives the men to starve themselves and even martyr themselves is more powerful than the so-called gang coercion.
What is this powerful force? It is the dignity of mistreated people asserting itself. It is the indignation of the abused. It is the clamor of prisoners for their human rights.
Here is how prisoners themselves have said it in just the last week. J. at Corcoran wrote that a disciplinary write-up he received states “we were doing this on orders of the [gang] members housed at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP). [But] in fact we are participating in this peaceful protest cause we want to be treated like human beings and want our living environment to be as such. We are not animals.”
J. at California Medical Facility, who vows to hunger strike until the demands are met, wrote, “I too can relate to CDCR torture tactics as I’ve spent quite a bit of time in segregation at PBSP and other CDCR prisons. I’ve been locked in cages like an animal even when I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve enclosed a picture of the type of cages prison staff have repeatedly placed me in for hours at a time.” (These cages are about the size of a phone booth.) He continues, “Officers passed me by in these cages and laughed or made rude, sarcastic and disrespectful comments to me…. No person(s) are asking me or pressuring me to join in hunger strike. This is by my own free will.”
M. at Corcoran told an interviewer that the crux of the motivation to protest was the inhumane amounts of time that prisoners are held in isolation [in the Security Housing Units (SHUs)]. We are suffering, he said, but let this be the last time we have to suffer. Even if we have to suffer for two or three more months, it will be worth it to win our demands.
The interviewer also spoke with A. at Corcoran, who said that the hunger strikers seek simply “decency and respect.” Though he knows he will spend his life in prison, “everything changed” for him when he learned that his son was imprisoned too. The change he desired took on a whole new level of importance. He pointed out that people on the outside have loved ones, friends and family members, who are inside, so what happens in prisons affects everyone.
C. at New Folsom wrote (in Spanish; this is my translation): “..we are just human beings who made errors and are paying with our liberty for our bad decisions. We are not animals! Yes, we have a heart that beats and bleeds at indifference, like anyone else. We are men who at times cry from the pain of loneliness but we refuse to accept it. We are men with feelings and the desire to help our children and youth so that they don’t repeat our histories—but we are not given the opportunity!”
The demands are decent food and healthcare, access to sunlight, an end to group punishment, not putting or keeping people in isolation based on secret allegations or who they associate with, use of isolation only as a last resort, and an end to indefinite isolation. International law makes the same demands, but California defies it.
California corrections officials, apparently, prefer to further torture the protesting prisoners through the excruciating procedure of force-feeding than to meet these reasonable demands.
On behalf of the Mediation Team,
Marilyn McMahon, California Prison Focus, (510) 836-7222
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
Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee
Marilyn McMahon, California Prison Focus
Carol Strickman, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children
Azadeh Zohrabi, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children