California Hunger Strikes Two Years On: What Has Changed?

George Lavender

Two years ago, prisoners across California went on hunger strike to oppose the use of long-term solitary confinement in the state. It was the third such protest in as many years. The hunger strikers had a set of five core demands:

1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;

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 security housing unit inmates.

In 2012 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation which runs the state’s prison system instituted a Step Down” program which officials said would make it possible for inmates to earn their way out of isolation.

In an in-depth article Victoria Law examines what has, and hasn’t changed since then. (The full article is available on TruthOut here )

Three people have been paroled while in the Step Down program. But for Lorenzo Benton, spending 25 years in the security housing unit continues to be a barrier to freedom. Benton was placed in step five and transferred to Ironwood State Prison, where he joined various programs, including a vocational masonry program. But when he appeared before the parole board, he recounted, The board felt that I continued to demonstrate criminal-minded thinking because I refused to debrief. The board had the audacity to tell me that, because I refuse to debrief, it appears that I was trying to retire from the gang with honor.” The board also held his previous rules violations reports against him, including one issued in 2013 for his participation in the hunger strike. I had not received a 115 since 2007 (disobeying a direct order) and prior to that, 1997 (contraband: possession of staples),” he explained. He was given a five-year denial, meaning that Benton, who has been in prison since 1977, will not be eligible for consideration until 2020. Still, he does not regret his actions. Initially, I was not a strong believer in the success of a hunger strike,” he wrote in May 2015, months after his parole denial. I mistakenly felt we did not have the mass/​organized support that would be needed to force change on the system of solitary confinement, but I am glad to have been proven wrong on this.”

In an email to Truthout, Terry Thornton, CDCR’s deputy press secretary, noted, The Step Down Program and the regulations about Security Threat Groups will not be affected by the new regulations.” In a follow-up call with Truthout, she reiterated, The CDCR does not consider the SHU solitary confinement.’”

At present, over 1,000 people are confined to Pelican Bay’s security housing unit. But both those inside and family members outside remain hopeful. Noting CDCR’s assertion about solitary confinement, Canales told Truthout, You can change the wording all you want, but the situation hasn’t changed. What we want is not the words changed. We want the situation changed.” But, she added, More progress has been made in the last three years than in the past 30 years. This wouldn’t have happened if the men hadn’t starved themselves.” Continue reading…

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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