California Prisoners Vow to Continue Hunger Strike, Now In 12th Day

George Lavender July 19, 2013

California prisoners are in the 12th day of a hunger strike protesting solitary confinement.

If CDCR [Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion] offi­cials do not sign off on our five core demands I will end up in a hos­pi­tal on a feed­ing tube or dead,” writes Paul Redd, on the back of a post­card with a pho­to­graph of Gold­en Gate Bridge at sun­set. Redd, an inmate at Pel­i­can Bay State Prison, is of 1,457 pris­on­ers in 15 Cal­i­for­nia pris­ons who are on hunger strike to demand an end to long-term soli­tary con­fine­ment, which they call tor­ture.”

Hunger strik­ers and their sup­port­ers have accused the CDCR of retal­i­at­ing” against the protest. On July 11, four days into the strike, 14 pris­on­ers in Pel­i­can Bay, includ­ing Redd, were moved to Admin­is­tra­tive Seg­re­ga­tion Units, an even more extreme form of seg­re­ga­tion used to pun­ish those who have bro­ken prison rules. In a writ­ten state­ment, pris­on­ers in Pel­i­can Bay said they were being sub­ject­ed to more tor­tur­ous con­di­tions than in the SHU [Secu­ri­ty Hous­ing Unit].” Pris­on­ers called the trans­fer a dia­bol­i­cal act” and an attempt to break our resolve and has­ten our deaths.”

In what advo­cates say is a fur­ther attempt to break the strike, Mar­i­lyn McMa­hon, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Cal­i­for­nia Prison Focus, a pris­on­er advo­ca­cy group, was banned by the CDCR from vis­it­ing her clients in Pel­i­can Bay. The exclu­sion order bans her from the prison pend­ing an inves­ti­ga­tion to deter­mine whether one of her legal assis­tants presents a seri­ous threat to secu­ri­ty.” It does not say what the threat is believed to be. McMa­hon was also banned from the prison dur­ing the last hunger strike, in 2011.

Fol­low­ing that hunger strike, the depart­ment agreed to review the cas­es of all pris­on­ers in soli­tary. Before this hunger strike start­ed, the state said it had reviewed 382 cas­es, and moved 208 pris­on­ers back into the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. Last week, cor­rec­tions sec­re­tary Jef­frey Beard announced that the review process would be sus­pend­ed as a result of the protest. 

One of the main demands by the strik­ers is to change the way in which pris­on­ers are labeled as gang mem­bers or asso­ciates (alleged prison gang asso­ci­a­tions are one of the main rea­sons pris­on­ers are assigned to soli­tary con­fine­ment). In par­tic­u­lar, they want to end the require­ment for pris­on­ers to inform on oth­er pris­on­ers in order to be freed from soli­tary, a process known as debrief­ing.” Infor­ma­tion from pris­on­ers who debrief is often used to sen­tence oth­ers to SHU. 

While the depart­ment has cat­e­go­rized him as a gang mem­ber, Paul Redd says he is actu­al­ly being kept in soli­tary because of his work as a jail­house lawyer. He has now been held in soli­tary con­fine­ment for more than 30 years.

In a let­ter from inside Pel­i­can Bay, Kijana Tashiri Askari says he has also been tar­get­ed in retal­i­a­tion for my polit­i­cal beliefs/​ activ­i­ties, and jail­house lawyer­ing.” He accus­es prison offi­cials of psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare” and says that in soli­tary, pris­on­ers avoid speak­ing lan­guages oth­er than Eng­lish because these might be deemed gang relat­ed.” Askari, who iden­ti­fies as New Afrikan, says prison offi­cials pre­vent pris­on­ers from study­ing, read­ing, and writ­ing about our polit­i­cal social and cul­tur­al his­to­ry, as it is con­sid­ered a form of gang activ­i­ty.” Pris­on­ers have even expressed con­cerns that par­tic­i­pa­tion in the hunger strike could itself be grounds for being val­i­dat­ed” as a gang mem­ber or associate. 

Cor­rec­tions offi­cials are treat­ing the hunger strike as a dis­tur­bance” orga­nized by prison gangs. We have had a few reports of inmates being pres­sured or coerced into par­tic­i­pat­ing in this dis­rup­tive activ­i­ty,” says Ter­ry Thorn­ton, a spokesper­son for the cor­rec­tions depart­ment. She says that the Secu­ri­ty Hous­ing Units are nec­es­sary to dis­rupt gang activ­i­ty in prison. The whole pur­pose of sep­a­rat­ing these inmates from gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion inmates [is] so they don’t influ­ence and coerce them,” she says. Accord­ing to Thorn­ton, gang vio­lence is an issue this depart­ment has been deal­ing with for decades.”

But Dr. Ter­ry Kupers, a psy­chi­a­trist who has tes­ti­fied as an expert wit­ness in sev­er­al court cas­es against the state, says that the department’s approach is mis­guid­ed. Accord­ing to Kupers, the real rea­son for vio­lence in California’s pris­ons is over­crowd­ing — an issue that the depart­ment has strug­gled with for years. It can­not be shown that the exis­tence of SHUs in any way pos­i­tive­ly affects the vio­lence rates in the prison,” says Kupers, where­as it great­ly dam­ages the men­tal health of prisoners”.

As the hunger strike con­tin­ues, con­cerns are grow­ing for the health of the pris­on­ers. Cal­i­for­nia Cor­rec­tion­al Health­care Ser­vices says med­ical staff have car­ried out checks on all pris­on­ers cur­rent­ly refus­ing food. Eliz­a­beth Gransee, a spokesper­son for the depart­ment, says that if pris­on­ers show signs of dis­tress, prison offi­cials may refer them to their pri­ma­ry care physi­cian.” Gransee says no pris­on­ers are cur­rent­ly at that stage. How­ev­er, sev­er­al pris­on­ers have report­ed hav­ing their med­ica­tion cut off. Accord­ing to Mar­i­lyn McMa­hon, pain relief med­ica­tion in par­tic­u­lar is being with­held, even if it’s med­i­cine that should not be cut abrupt­ly, but instead tapered off.” She says that one pris­on­er was told that his med­i­cine was cut because it can’t be tak­en if he’s dehy­drat­ed, but he is drink­ing lots of water while on hunger strike, so dehy­dra­tion is not a dan­ger.” Gransee says that if med­ica­tion is being adjust­ed, it is for med­ical rea­sons only. There’s no retal­i­a­tion there,” she says.

In his let­ter, Kijana Askari says that in his view, the pur­pose of soli­tary con­fine­ment is to break pris­on­ers men­tal­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, spir­i­tu­al­ly.” After 12 days on hunger strike, pris­on­ers say that the Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment is try­ing to break their strike as well. In their state­ment, the hunger strike rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Pel­i­can Bay say they remain 100% com­mit­ted” to their protest. Askari says that he joined the hunger strike because after 19 years in iso­la­tion, I sim­ply refuse to be tor­tured and be silent about it any longer.”

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