Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Hunger Strike in US Prisons

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”Nelson Mandela 

Near-insurrections are not unusual in America’s prison-industrial complex.  In the largest prison protest in California’s history, nearly 30,000 inmates have gone on hunger strike in the country’s largest prison system.  7600 - 12500 prisoners remain on hunger strike at 23 of California’s 33 prisons. Accurate figures are difficult to come by.

The prisoners’ core issue is the use of “no human contact” solitary confinement in special “control cells” or the infamous SHU, segregated housing unit. California holds 4500 inmates in solitary. Basically it means that, for example in Pelican Bay prison, you’re cooped up in a tiny, 7-by-11-foot windowless cell, sometimes without radio or TV, 23 hours a day.  You cannot make or receive phone calls or have contact visits with family or friends.  You have no access to rehab programs and cannot attend religious services. The average inmate stays in isolation for over seven years, and in some cases much longer. The Catholic Conference of bishops has called it “this inhuman form of punishment.”

CBS reporter Mike Wallace found that in Corcoran State prison in northern California the guards routinely staged inmate fights in the Segregated Unit, wagering on the outcome, and if fights got out of control shooting the inmates involved.  Scores of inmates have been shot and eight killed in these fights.  When Wallace returned to Corcoran to follow up he found that guards, now wary of shooting prisoners, retaliated by encouraging the inmate-on-inmate rape.

It is true some of these prisoners have done horrendous crimes yet (in)human isolation can go on not for weeks or months but for many years. In the past, solitary was a temporary punishment. Today it’s a life sentence of psychological torture. California prisoners in isolation account for 5% of the total prison population but account for nearly 50% of the suicides.

The Department of Corrections refuses to acknowledge the strike is a political protest, calling it a “mass disturbance”. Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said “To engage in disruptive behavior is really inappropriate and we feel it's an ineffective way to address their concerns.” The California Department of Corrections dismisses the hunger strikes as the work of prison gangs and refuses to acknowledge the demands of the hunger strikers. In a punitive tone that bodes ill for the future the CDCR warned that those prisoners taking part in the hunger strike or refusing to work will be subjected to disciplinary action under state law.

The prisoners demands:

1.Ending Group Punishment and Administrative Abuse – This includes prison administrations’ policy of ”safety and concern” to justify indefinite solitary confinement in Security Housing Units. Prisoners can be accused of being gang members on the flimsiest of pretexts and then put away in solitary. Having books by Malcolm X or Black Panther George Jackson or possession of drawings of Aztec culture can lead to men being put into a Secure Housing Unit for years.

2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria – Perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement. The practice of “debriefing,” or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Debriefing puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as “snitches.”

3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement.

4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food – cease the practice of denying adequate food, and provide a wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals.

5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates – Examples include:Expand visiting regarding amount of time and adding one day per week, allow a weekly phone call.

To lean more about the strike, visit the website of the prisoners solidarity campaign:

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." - Eugene V. Debs 

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