‘I’ve Never Hugged My Dad’: Family Members of Hunger-Striking Prisoners Rally

George Lavender August 6, 2013

Family members and supporters of hunger strikers rally on August 3 outside San Quentin State Prison.

Fam­i­ly mem­bers of hunger strik­ing pris­on­ers joined a demon­stra­tion out­side San Quentin State Prison on Sat­ur­day. In the third hunger strike since 2011, hun­dreds of pris­on­ers have been on strike for 31 days to protest long-term soli­tary con­fine­ment. Med­ical offi­cials say sev­er­al pris­on­ers have been seen by staff in recent days with health issues, includ­ing dehy­dra­tion, aris­ing from the strike. 

My son is behind those walls back there, but I feel real good that he knows I’m out here,” said Juani­ta Topete, point­ing to the prison. She added that she felt proud to be tak­ing part in a protest rep­re­sent­ing all the pris­on­ers, and all the fam­i­lies, who are going through the tor­tur­ous ordeal of not being able to hug their sons, of see­ing their sons dete­ri­o­rate in soli­tary confinement.”

Demon­stra­tors held tight­ly onto ban­ners that read Stop the Tor­ture” and Sup­port the Hunger Strik­ers” as they were blown about by a strong wind. 

Tiffanie Pala­cios, also at the ral­ly, said her pri­mo,” Anto­nio Chu­co” Guillen, was one of four pris­on­ers who orig­i­nal­ly put out the call to strike in 2011. Pala­cios came to San Quentin on Sat­ur­day along with Guil­len’s wife, sis­ter and kids to sup­port the rest of the hunger strik­ers, fight­ing for what they deserve: not to be treat­ed like dirt.”

Pris­on­ers in soli­tary con­fine­ment are not allowed to use the phone but, they have a voice out here, and that’s us,” says Palacios.

They also have the Pris­on­er Hunger Strike Sol­i­dar­i­ty Coali­tion, a group of sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tions that staged the ral­ly and pro­vides oth­er out­side sup­port. Lau­ra Mag­nani, of the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee, has been involved in the coali­tion since word first reached her in 2011 that pris­on­ers in Pel­i­can Bay State Prison were plan­ning a hunger strike. They sent out word that they real­ly need­ed the com­mu­ni­ty to back them up,” says Mag­nani and that they need­ed strong activism on the out­side at the same time.”

An eight-per­son team cho­sen by the pris­on­ers, which Mag­nani is part of, also serves as a voice” for the hunger strik­ers to advo­cate on their behalf with cor­rec­tions offi­cials. Despite the insis­tence of cor­rec­tions offi­cials that the depart­ment does not nego­ti­ate with pris­on­ers, Mag­nani says the team played an impor­tant role in help­ing bring about an end to the sec­ond hunger strike in 2011. After get­ting a writ­ten pro­pos­al for reforms from the depart­ment, the team was allowed to speak by phone with some of the pris­on­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives, who agreed to the terms and called off the strike.

On Fri­day, Mag­nani and the rest of the team met with Cor­rec­tions Sec­re­tary Jef­frey Beard him­self for the first time since the cur­rent strike began. The meet­ing was very cor­dial,” accord­ing to Ter­ry Thorn­ton, a spokesper­son for the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion. He lis­tened to their con­cerns, answered ques­tions and explained the changes that have tak­en place in Secu­ri­ty Hous­ing Units over the past two years,” said Thorn­ton. For their part, the eight-per­son team of advo­cates said in a state­ment, they pro­posed changes at the meet­ing intend­ed to cre­ate more humane con­di­tions and cir­cum­stances.” Thorn­ton said their pro­pos­als would be tak­en into consideration.”

Under the watch of San Quentin’s guards, demon­stra­tors on Sat­ur­day lis­tened as speak­er after speak­er shared their sto­ries of soli­tary con­fine­ment. A small boy car­ried a hand-made sign that read I’ve nev­er hugged my Dad.” As the hunger strike has gone on, fam­i­ly mem­bers have orga­nized protests, vig­ils, and deliv­ered peti­tions to the governor’s office.

A peti­tion on Change​.org start­ed by Mayra Romero, whose hus­band, Juan, is held in soli­tary con­fine­ment, had more than 80,000 sig­na­tures as of Mon­day. Fam­i­ly mem­bers have also played a sig­nif­i­cant role in bring­ing oth­er orga­ni­za­tions to the cause. After Yulisa Elenes told fel­low mem­bers of Unite Here Local 2850 about her brother’s incar­cer­a­tion, the union vot­ed to sup­port the demands of the hunger strike. He’s my lit­tle broth­er, my only broth­er,” says Elenes, who serves as sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er for the union. The whole fam­i­ly is locked up.” To Elenes, the hunger strike is a labor issue, because unions should be fight­ing for bet­ter con­di­tions whether they’re at work, or in jail.” The local rep­re­sents 2,000 work­ers in the hotel, gam­ing, and food ser­vice indus­try in the north and east of the San Fran­cis­co Bay.

Behind the scenes, oth­er unions with ties to Gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown have pri­vate­ly writ­ten to him ask­ing him to take action to end the strike. Mag­nani says she is hope­ful that pres­sure from unions who have been so finan­cial­ly cru­cial to the gov­er­nor will help per­suade him to take action.

Mag­nani believes that the range of groups involved in the coali­tion is help­ful because it shows that it’s not just the usu­al sus­pects like us.” She point­ed to state­ments of sup­port from com­mu­ni­ty and reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions, as well as An Open Let­ter to Gov­er­nor Brown” being cir­cu­lat­ed online. Among the sig­na­to­ries to that let­ter are enter­tain­er Jay Leno, actor Susan Saran­don and lin­guist Noam Chom­sky. The let­ter says that, along with more than 1,000 oth­ers, they stand togeth­er against these shame­ful prac­tices and con­sid­er them exten­sions of the same inhu­man­i­ty prac­ticed at Abu Ghraib and Guan­tanamo Bay.”

Prison offi­cials main­tain that the strike is being orga­nized by prison gang lead­ers, but sup­port­ers say that’s untrue. Thorn­ton said that the cor­rec­tions depart­ment will con­tin­ue to keep the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open” and said she was hope­ful” that the pris­on­ers would call off this dan­ger­ous and dis­rup­tive hunger strike.”

Out­side San Quentin, Tiffanie Pala­cios said that she also hoped the hunger strike would end — but with the depart­ment meet­ing the demands of the pris­on­ers. Stand­ing with­in sight of the prison’s watch­tow­ers and barbed wire fences, she said her fam­i­ly and oth­ers would con­tin­ue to demon­strate whether it’s here, whether it’s Pel­i­can Bay whether it’s Cor­co­ran, whether it’s Solano, any­where they’re at, we’ll stand in sup­port together.”

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