The Courage of the California Prisoners and the Responsibility of the People

by the Bay Area Revolution Writers Group

“These attempts to further brutalize my mind and isolate my body have only set my resolve in stone.” —a Pelican Bay Prisoner

Tens of thousands of prisoners in Security Housing Units (SHUs) and Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg) in this country face the most brutal, inhumane conditions of solitary, long-term confinement and denial of other basic human rights. Twice in the last few months, California prisoners in such horrendous conditions, along with others not in solitary, launched hunger strikes—each lasting three weeks. Over 6,500 prisoners took part in the first wave (July 1-20), nearly 12,000 during the second (September 26-October 13).

These prisoners put their lives on the line and have courageously stood up—despite attempts by the prison authorities to suppress their struggle through lies and repression—to let the world know about the barbaric U.S. prisons and to demand to be treated like human beings. And now, after the second round of the hunger strike has ended, with many prisoners in a physically weakened state, the prison authorities are coming down with a new wave of repression.

The website Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity wrote of one of the reasons the prisoners called off the strike this last time: “The prisoners have cited a memo from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) detailing a comprehensive review of every Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisoner in California whose SHU sentence is related to gang validation. The review will evaluate the prisoners’ gang validation under new criteria and could start as early as the beginning of next year.”

“This is something the prisoners have been asking for and it is the first significant step we’ve seen from the CDCR to address the hunger strikers’ demands,” said Carol Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “But as you know, the proof is in the pudding. We’ll see if the CDCR keeps its word regarding this new process.”, October 13]

The mood of the prisoners remains strong.  A visitor to one prison where prisoners had been on hunger strike told Revolution: “The amazing thing is that they’ve been through such an ordeal, but they still managed to smile. They still managed to stay positive like good warriors in the belly of beast.  They’re standing united and will not let anything divide them.  There is so much positive energy. Their determination kept them going.  They are tired of being treated like this and they have to do something about it.  Prison to me is to break your spirit and dignity and everything about being human.  These guys are standing up to it—it’s amazing, you can’t break them. Whatever you do to isolate them—put them in a box and tape the box—and these guys come out of the box even stronger.”

Some of the retaliation being taken against the prisoners:

  • The prisoners who participated in the second round of the strike are receiving a “Rules Violation Report” known as a 115 which accuses them of participation in “a mass disturbance.”  It is not yet clear how these reports will affect the prisoners.  They could be used to take away the few small things that are allowed to prisoners in the SHU, to deny them parole or to keep them in the SHU for a longer period.
  • Families of prisoners in Pelican Bay have noted a drop in correspondence and are concerned that letters are being held up or censored. 
  • Family members have reported that some prisoners may be being denied adequate health care when they are in weakened condition after the strike.  Family members also report that their loved ones are being moved to other prisons or other areas in a prison, making it difficult for them to communicate or check up on their health.
  • Prisoners have reported that their yard privileges have been revoked, from 30 to 90 days.  Previously, these prisoners (with no other inmates present) were allowed a brief period of time for so-called “recreation” in a small concrete, walled area the size of two regular cells called the “dog run.” An attorney who has been in contact with prisoners at Pelican Bay reported that some of those who participated in the hunger strike who have had TV’s had them taken away.
  • Prisoners and their families report that some items such as knit caps and sweats, for the cold; art supplies, calendars, which had been allowed to SHU prisoners who could afford them after the first part of the strike, had been taken away as punishment for participating in the second stage of the strike.  Authorities said they would not have access to these items for one year.

All attempts by authorities to retaliate or punish the prisoners for participation in the hunger strike must be opposed.  The prison authorities must be made to keep the promises that they have made to the prisoners.  The just demands of the prisoners must be met—in full!  IT IS NOT A CRIME TO DEMAND TO BE TREATED AS A HUMAN BEING.

Shock waves from a courageous stand

While the prisons remain locked down in horrific conditions and subject to new brutal tortures and humiliations, the prisoners’ daring stand has inspired many to take important actions in support of their demands. 

On October 14, three supporters of the hunger strike prisoners chained themselves to the front door of the headquarters of the CDCR in Sacramento.  Stating why the three engaged in this non-violent act of civil disobedience, Revolution writer Larry Everest, one of the three arrested, wrote, “We felt it was imperative to take bold action to underscore the urgency of the situation faced by prisoners and to make clear our support for all the prisoners who have been on hunger strike—or who are continuing their hunger strike. And we felt that everyone has a moral obligation to step up their support for the hunger strikers and their just demands in whatever ways they possibly can. Anything less is unconscionable.” The three were arrested and each slapped with five different charges.   

The same day in Los Angeles, Keith James was arrested for chaining himself to the State Building, declaring “Torture Is Unacceptable—Step Up the Struggle to Stop It!”  “What people do on the outside of prison,” James said, “will be a big factor in what happens now that the prison authorities have reacted with vicious reprisals against prisoners, families, and legal advocates.  The hunger strike has been halted for now.  The torture, despite an epic struggle, continues… the five demands of the prisoners have NOT yet been met… but many, many more people, millions more, learned about the SHUs and thousands today are looking for ways to act to put an end to such inhuman, punitive treatment.”

More bold actions like these are needed by people on the outside in support of the prisoners—to bring attention to the struggle of the prisoners as well as to let the prisoners know that they are not alone.  One mother after visiting her sons in Pelican Bay said that they were very happy to hear about the civil disobedience at CDCR.  She said one son “didn't know people on the outside cared so much about the prisoners."  It is important to defend those who take bold stands in support of the prisoners.   

  • On September 30, hunger strike supporters traveled to Pelican Bay, held up a banner supporting the prisoners’ demands and spoke on a bullhorn. Families who were visiting prisoners told the activists that the prisoners could hear the bullhorn and it lifted their spirits.  (See “Taking Prisoner Hunger Strike Support to the Gates of Pelican Bay State Prison,” Revolution online, October 10, 2011,
  • On October 17, a UN torture investigator called for countries to end lengthy solitary confinement in prisons (over 15 days), saying it could cause serious mental and physical damage and amount to torture. In a written report submitted to the UN General Assembly, he singled out the United States, describing as "problematic" the use of super-maximum security jails where 20,000 to 25,000 are held in isolation.
  • Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd, the three American hikers who had been imprisoned in Iran, spoke at Occupy Oakland supporting the demands of the prisoner hunger strikers.  “We learned when we got out is that there—here in California, there have been thousands of people on hunger strike in prison,” Shane Bauer said.  “You know, nobody—nobody can come out of prison, especially come out of the situation of isolation, solitary confinement, and not feel for other people in that situation. And these people, you know, there have been—from Pelican Bay, thousands of people went on hunger strike, and it’s spread throughout California. This is incredible, you guys. This is really incredible. These people are struggling, like we had to struggle in Iran, for change in their conditions. You know, we lived through solitary confinement. This is psychological torture. And they’re living through that, and they’re struggling to change that. Every day, there’s at least 20,000 people in this country that are in solitary confinement. I can’t tell you guys, standing here right now, what it means to be in solitary confinement. It’s hell. And no person should have to live—live that.” (Democracy Now!, October 18)
  • Support for the hunger strike and the prisoners’ demands has been voiced by a number of the Occupy Wall Street movements, including Occupy Oakland and Occupy Los Angeles. It was announced that Occupy Wall Street in New York City will read letters at its General Assembly from prisoners and families in a campaign called "Wish You Were Here." Prisoners will be encouraged to write a letter saying they wish they could be at the protest and explaining why they cannot be—part of the 99% not being counted.
  • Vigils in support of the hunger strike and the prisoner demands have been held in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Long Beach, Grass Valley, Eureka, and New York.
  • Support for the SHU prisoners and their demands, as well as opposition to the overall massive criminalization of Black and Latino youth, was a central focus of the October 22 National Day of Protest.  At a NDP action in San Francisco, Jerry Elster, from the ex-prisoner group All of Us or None, challenged people to break out of the confines of acquiescence and conformity:  “Our society and us are guilty of conformity and we ain’t doing it no more.  We not going to acquiesce with the bullshit no more,” he said.

In a letter to the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund, dated October 4, a prisoner wrote: “It is my hope that through this struggle more people come to recognize the true nature of this system. That any ‘disciplinary action’ taken against us only serves to awaken us out of the complacent stupor in which we’ve found ourselves for far too long. That we recognize not only the need for change but our collective capacity to bring about that change. That we raise our sights, come together in even greater numbers, and ‘Become a part of the human saviors of humanity.’ There are sacrifices to be made but we’ve had very little to lose for a long time. I for one welcome the struggle ahead.”

These prisoners continue to be subjected to the most brutal, inhumane conditions of torture. And in the face of this, they are waging a tremendously heroic struggle to let the world know about the barbaric nature of U.S. prisons and pressing forward with their demands to be treated like human beings.  We on the outside must—and will—continue to wholeheartedly support all those prisoners. We must stand with the prisoners and let the world know about the outrageous, criminal conditions they face and the struggle they are waging! We must continue to wage a real struggle on the outside, to force the CDCR to meet the demands of the prisoners. And we must demand an immediate halt to the vicious retaliation and punishment prison officials are bringing down on the prisoner hunger strikers. 

This article originally appeared on the site Revolution.

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World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.