National Conference call to Support the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers
The Haliburton County Hunger Strike Support Committee
July 19, 2011
Yesterday evening a continent-wide information call was organized by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition in support of the striking prisoners in the Security housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay supermax prison near Crescent City, California. Formed this spring at the prisoners’ own initiative, the PHSS coalition was asked to amplify the voice of the prisoners at Pelican Bay; to organize legal, mediation and media teams; and to work closely with family members.
The purpose of last night’s conference call was to review the prisoners’ demands, to discuss logistics, and to move the agenda forward by putting pressure on legislators to open negotiations with the prisoners, among other measures. More than 100 persons joined the call.
Written in the prisoners’ own words, these five demands have been expressed repeatedly by prisoners in supermax facilities across the USA:
1. Eliminate group punishments.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate food.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
Severely hampered by a system of total surveillance, the coalition maintains contact with the prisoners mostly through legal and family visits. From the little information released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), it appears that the hunger strike involves at least 400 prisoners at four California prisons, with 70 more prisoners having joined in the past day. Altogether, 6,600 prisoners have expressed support for the strike.
The action is taking on the character of an indefinite (or rotational) hunger strike, with some prisoners breaking fast, then rejoining the strike with vigour renewed. But others are persisting, suffering grievous weight loss of up to 35 pounds, along with dehydration and other medical complications. Most of the prisoners are accepting water, except for seven individuals, who have been put on IV.
The Pelican Bay authorities are not following the prescribed medical protocols, which requires them to make physical assessments, including weight and hydration status, after the second day of fasting. After three days fasting, the prison doctor is supposed to carry out a physical exam; however, this obligation has been reduced to a walk-by visual inspection. No salt tablets or vitamins have been supplied.
Some of the prisoners have signed Do Not Resuscitate forms, in the event that they enter coma. Others have authorized intubation, whereby they will be fed passively after losing consciousness.
The prisoners have created a team of four principal negotiators, known as the Short Corridor Collective, while eleven prisoners have formed a broader initiative. They are represented by five mediators and two attorneys. To date, three meetings have taken place with the CDCR, which refuses to negotiate directly with the prisoners. Evidently the CDCR is being advised by a prison official from Pennsylvania, a state which takes a particularly hard line towards prison activism.
To this point the CDCR has only tabled three vaguely-worded offers: to study alternatives and look into other ways of carrying out its duties; to work to get things the prisoners should have had by now; and to carry out a comprehensive assessment of policy and procedures.
The prisoners have concluded that the CDCR is not negotiating in good faith, that it has made only an “incredibly hollow offer” in relation to their five stated demands. In the meantime the CDCR has informed the mediation team that it will not be allowed to have further contact with the striking prisoners. With a stalemate looming it is very important to intensify pressure on the legislators who can positively influence the process.
While the Solidarity coalition sends attorneys to Pelican Bay every week, the authorities have the power to deny access at any time. A paralegal was already turned away last week, for example. In the near future the focus of the action may therefore shift to protests being held on the outside at poinnts distant from the supermax prisons.
Organizing and Media
Before the strike began, the coalition prepared a U-tube video to inspire people to take action. Its website is designed as an organizing tool for activists at large. It consists of blogs, letters written by prisoners, interviews with the hunger strikers, talking points, a donation button, as well as a call-to-action page.
Since the Coalition has no capacity to coordinate events on a large scale, it recognizes that the only path to success is for people to take independent action based on the prisoners’ five demands. It therefore urges its supporters in California to conduct vigils in the front of the local courthouse; to bus to Sacramento for larger periodic rallies and demonstrations; to rally outside of the CDCR headquarters; and in general to put on as many public events as they can to build up pressure on legislators.
Because the CDCR seems unable to resolve the strike for deep-seated “cultural” reasons, it may be necessary to prod Governor Jerry Brown into changing the CDCR’s mode of operation. As well, the coalition is lobbying to hold a legislated joint hearing of the State health and safety committees in August, which is something that the CDCR naturally opposes. Efforts are also being made to have the NAACP and/or the statewide Black Caucus make a fact-finding trip to Pelican Bay. An international boycott of the state of California is also a possibility.
Outside of California public attention has been drawn to the strike through articles in the New York Times and Al Jazeera. As well, demonstrations have been held in Philadelphia, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, Montreal and Kitchener, Ontario. A petition consisting of more than 7,000 signatures has been posted by Change.org. The coalition urges to people to mail postcards to the Pelican Bay prisoners (since these transmit faster than letters), but one should avoid hot-button language such as “hunger strike”, since this will be censored.
In addition to phonecalls and petitions, the coalition emphasizes the importance of people posting comments to articles on-line. Within our own communities we can use existing social networks to contact and involve progressive people in the struggle.
Even if the strike concludes successfully, the Coalition recognizes the need to continue monitoring conditions at Pelican Bay indefinitely.
Those who gathered last night in Haliburton County to attend the conference call resolved to:
- Designate ourselves as the Haliburton County Hunger Strike Support Committee
- Contact Canadian Dimension about publishing an article on the strike
- Determine the present status of the Russell Tribunal
- Consult Google Maps for a satellite view of the Pelican Bay prison
- Participate in the one-day hunger strike being organized by Global Woman’s Strike
- Contact the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee
- Determine whether local religious groups will support the strike
- Hold a vigil in coordination with similar actions in Montreal and/or Kitchener
- Establish communication links with the Montreal and Kitchener solidarity groups