12,500 Prisoners on Hunger Strike to End Solitary Confinement in California

George Lavender July 12, 2013

"Censored Pelican," by Pete Collins. Collins, who is in prison in Canada, created the work in 2011 in support of California prisoners who had gone on a hunger strike to end the practice of solitary confinement. A third statewide hunger strike began on Monday.

If my sac­ri­fice would change the con­di­tions so that gen­er­a­tions of pris­on­ers behind me don’t have to suf­fer the 20-plus years that I’ve done, I can live with that,” says Sitawa Nan­tam­bu Jamaa, a pris­on­er in the Secu­ri­ty Hous­ing Unit (SHU) of California’s Pel­i­can Bay State Prison. Jamaa was one of four Pel­i­can Bay pris­on­ers who put out a call in Feb­ru­ary for the third statewide hunger strike in two years to demand an end to long-term soli­tary con­fine­ment. On Thurs­day, the fourth day of the strike, cor­rec­tions offi­cials con­firmed that almost 12,500 pris­on­ers in 24 state pris­ons and four out-of-state facil­i­ties had missed nine con­sec­u­tive meals (the thresh­old at which Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion offi­cial­ly rec­og­nizes a strike).

The first two hunger strikes against soli­tary con­fine­ment, in 2011, result­ed in minor changes in pol­i­cy: Pris­on­ers were pro­vid­ed with beanie hats, and promised pull-up bars in their exer­cise cages. They were also per­mit­ted to send a pho­to to their fam­i­lies once a year. (Before the pol­i­cy change, the most recent pho­to Jamaa’s sis­ter had of him was from 1988.) But pris­on­ers say the Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment has yet to seri­ous­ly address their main demand: an end to the use of soli­tary confinement.

They have made a deci­sion that the change is so nec­es­sary that they have to make a sac­ri­fice, and the only weapon that they have is to inflict pain on them­selves,” says Jamaa’s younger sis­ter, Marie Levin. Because they don’t have any oth­er recourse. There’s noth­ing else that they can use.”

U.S. Dis­trict Court Judge Thel­ton Hen­der­son ruled in 1995 that con­di­tions in SHU may press the out­er bounds of what most humans can psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly tol­er­ate.” With­out access to phone calls, tes­ti­mo­ny from pris­on­ers about their expe­ri­ence in soli­tary con­fine­ment comes most­ly from legal vis­its and let­ters. I live in an 8×12 [foot] con­crete cell by myself, I’m on 24 – 7 lock­down,” writes a Tehachapi SHU pris­on­er now par­tic­i­pat­ing in the hunger strike I get yard once a week, which is a 10×15 steel cage out­side all by myself for two hours.” His let­ter goes on: The worst thing is the noth­ing­ness, the lack of pur­pose.” The pris­on­er’s fam­i­ly did not want his name used, out of con­cern for reprisals — the depart­ment is treat­ing the hunger strike as a mass dis­tur­bance” for which par­tic­i­pat­ing inmates face dis­ci­pli­nary action.”

Since the first two hunger strikes, California’s Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion has begun review­ing the cas­es of all pris­on­ers cur­rent­ly being held in soli­tary con­fine­ment, and has already released hun­dreds of inmates back into the gen­er­al prison pop­u­la­tion. But the process will take time to com­plete — more than 3,000 peo­ple are held in SHU in Cal­i­for­nia. Pris­on­ers and their sup­port­ers have accused the depart­ment of act­ing in bad faith, and some fam­i­ly mem­bers, like Dolores Canales, whose son, John Mar­tinez, has been in soli­tary for thir­teen years, doubt the department’s com­mit­ment to change. Canales won­ders if the depart­ment will address any of the pris­on­ers’ core demands, because they still con­tin­ue to adamant­ly jus­ti­fy the use of soli­tary confinement.”

When she speaks to fam­i­ly mem­bers whose loved ones have been iso­lat­ed for decades, Canales says, she won­ders if that is the fate that awaits her fam­i­ly. My son and the var­i­ous pris­on­ers talk about the feel­ing of dis­ap­pear­ing into those walls,” she says. Along with oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers of SHU pris­on­ers, Canales is co-founder of Cal­i­for­nia Fam­i­lies to Abol­ish Soli­tary Con­fine­ment. It’s just too painful and too hard to stay silent,” she says.

Canales, who is also on a hunger strike this week, says she believes that this time the pris­on­ers will hold out to the end, what­ev­er that end might be.” In 2011, hun­dreds of pris­on­ers went with­out food for a month before sus­pend­ing their protest after receiv­ing what they said were assur­ances from the depart­ment that key issues would be addressed. This time, there’s a core group of us com­mit­ted to tak­ing this all the way to the death if nec­es­sary,” says Todd Ashk­er, anoth­er pris­on­er inside Pel­i­can Bay State Prison. None of us want to do this, but we feel like we have no oth­er option.”

Ter­ry Thorn­ton, a spokesper­son for the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, said it was too ear­ly to talk about how the depart­ment will respond if pris­on­ers con­tin­ue with the hunger strike, but she says that the depart­ment will not nego­ti­ate with pris­on­ers. To hold an entire sys­tem hostage like this, I don’t think it’s right,” says Thorn­ton. To engage in dis­rup­tive behav­ior is real­ly inap­pro­pri­ate and we feel it’s an inef­fec­tive way to address their concerns.”

While Thorn­ton is clear that the hunger strike will not help the pris­on­ers’ cause, Car­ol Strick­man, a staff attor­ney at Legal Ser­vices for Pris­on­ers with Chil­dren, dis­agrees. Pub­lic edu­ca­tion, attempt­ing to influ­ence pub­lic opin­ion, to influ­ence pub­lic pol­i­cy, is a tried and true method by which we make change in this coun­try,” she says. Strick­man is one of the attor­neys rep­re­sent­ing 10 named pris­on­ers, includ­ing Jamaa, in a class-action civ­il rights case against the state that is chal­leng­ing both the con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of long-term soli­tary con­fine­ment and the process by which pris­on­ers are sen­tenced to SHU. After the first hunger strike, the rep­re­sen­ta­tives decid­ed not to put all their eggs in one bas­ket,” says Strick­man. She sees the two approach­es going hand-in-hand: It’s a col­lab­o­ra­tive affair — the law­suit helps the move­ment and the move­ment helps the law­suit, and hope­ful­ly togeth­er we’re mak­ing progress toward greater human rights.” The next hear­ing in the case is sched­uled for August.

Accord­ing to a state­ment released by Jamaa and the three oth­er pris­on­ers who called for the hunger strike, the protest is not only to improve our own con­di­tions but [is] also an act of sol­i­dar­i­ty with all pris­on­ers and oppressed peo­ple around the world.” The four main pris­on­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives encour­aged every­one to take action to sup­port the strike,” adding that if it was not for your sup­port, we would have died in 2011.”

This week­end is Sitawa Jamaa’s 55th birth­day. His sis­ter, Marie Levin, plans to spend it with oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers and sup­port­ers at a ral­ly out­side Cor­co­ran State Prison, where pris­on­ers are also on hunger strike. I want to see my broth­er home one day,” says Levin. All the things that the Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment has been able to get away are going to be exposed. A change is gonna come.”

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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