"We are starting to look death in the face with these indeterminate SHU terms," wrote Lorenzo Benton on July 8, 2013. "Looking death in the face, isolated from family and friends and with no meaningful contact with others is a lonely experience that serves no one well. That is why we are now seeking redress from said condition as our days are becoming more and more numbered."
Benton is referring to the mass prison hunger strike that began that day and is now entering its third week, amid officials' threats and retaliation. On July 8, more than 30,000 people incarcerated throughout California refused meals, and more than 3,000 people refused to attend work or educational programs.
The strike encompassed people in two-thirds of California's state prisons and four out-of-state private prisons contracted by California. Benton has been in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison since 2007.
In the SHU, people are locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Prison administrators place them in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term for being accused of gang membership. These accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence.
Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for more than a decade. Until recently, the only way to be released from the SHU was to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence.
This is the third mass hunger strike in California's prison system in two years. In 2011, prisoners staged two separate hunger strikes to protest their indefinite placement within the SHU. As reported earlier in Truthout, hunger strikers have issued five core demands:
Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
Provide adequate food;
Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
In addition, Pelican Bay prisoners have issued 40 more demands, such as expunging all violations issued for participation in the 2011 hunger strikes and prohibiting retaliation for those participating in the upcoming hunger strike.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), "Participation in a mass disturbance and refusing to participate in a work assignment are violations of state law, and any participating inmates will receive disciplinary action in accordance with the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3323(h)(A) and Section 3323(f)(7)."
On the first day, hunger strike participants were still able to send out letters. "I am doing fine so far," Mutope DuGuma wrote Truthout. "We started our mass hunger strike today and we have a long way to go."
DuGuma reported that prison officials issued a memorandum reducing the number of books that SHU prisoners are allowed to own from 10 to five." DuGuma also enclosed two photos of himself, the first he has been able to have taken in years. Prior to the 2011 hunger strikes, SHU prisoners were not allowed to take photographs of themselves to send to loved ones.
The hunger strike is now entering its third week. According to the CDCR, the number of hunger strikers has dramatically decreased from 12,421 participants on Thursday, July 11, to 2,572 participants on Monday, July 15, to 986 participants in 11 prisons on Monday, July 22. The CDCR does not recognize a person as being on hunger strike until they have missed nine consecutive meals. Prison advocates, however, charge that the CDCR is lowballing these numbers.
Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and part of the mediation team, noted that prison custody staff, not medical staff, are responsible for counting people on hunger strike.
"Last time there were discrepancies between [the numbers kept by] custody and medical staff," she told Truthout. Prisoners who have canteen items, or even empty canteen containers, in their cell are counted as not being on hunger strike. For those people to be counted as being on hunger strike, they must "start again" and be counted as having missed nine consecutive meals.
"We also knew that not everyone was going to take this to the Nth degree," she added. "Some people were going on and off so that they wouldn't get in trouble but would still be participating. The people who are most directly affected [by SHU policies] are the ones who are going to go on the longest."
Retaliation Against Hunger Strikers
On the first day of the hunger strike, SHU prisoners were placed on "modified program status," which restricted them to their cells for 24, rather than 22 to 23 hours, each day.
"Any day, one can expect a cell search to remove any canteen food items from hunger strike participants' cells," Benton noted. He also stated that prison staff began enforcing restrictions limiting a person's possessions to six cubic feet of property, which may include 40 pictures, 40 letters and five books or magazines. "The accumulation of property is our lives, but that's something we don't have any control over, so we will have to unwillingly submit."
According to Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition of grassroots organizers and community members, 14 strikers were moved to Administrative Segregation cells (or Ad Seg) on Thursday, July 11. During the 2011 hunger strikes, prison officials also placed hunger strikers into Ad Seg. In 2011, a prisoner at Pelican Bay's SHU described how hunger-strike participants were transferred:
To help you better understand what took place, I'll tell you how this kind of thing happens. A crew of CDCR officers will show up out-of-the-blue at a prisoner's cell. They'll tell him to strip naked and hand his clothes to them. They'll give him his boxers, socks, shoes and T-shirt and tell him to put them on. Then they will handcuff him behind his back and escort him to Ad Seg. Ad Seg is a separate building that is located not far from SHU. They put the prisoner in a van with little cages in it and drive him over to Ad Seg.
In Ad Seg you have no property when you first get there. When the guys from here in SHU arrived in Ad Seg, they went to an empty cell with nothing but the clothes they wore from their SHU cell.
Todd Ashker, who was one of those moved, recounted being "placed into bare strip cells that had ice cold air blowing hard out of the vents, without adequate clothes, bedding, etc, freezing our asses off [from September 29 to October 13] while starving and told by the warden "As soon as you eat, you'll go back to your SHU cells." (November 13, 2011) Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Ashker's attorney in Ashker v. Brown, challenging prolonged SHU placement, expressed concern about the isolation of those in Ad Seg, particularly as the hunger strike continues and the strikers' health deteriorates.
Paul Redd is one of the 14 who has been moved to Ad Seg this time. On his ninth day on hunger strike, he wrote Truthout, "These cells are very small. Cold air is blowing out of the vents extremely hard. The guard in the control booth cannot see into our cells at all. If one of us or all of us fall out, there is no way to get their attention. There is no speaker in our cell with a button to push [for help]. There are no 30-minute "welfare checks." It's around every four hours here."
In addition, the CDCR has barred at least one legal advocate from communicating with both hunger strikers and prisoners across the state. Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus and a member of the mediation team between state corrections officials and protest leaders, received a fax from the CDCR informing her that one of her volunteers, a retired paralegal, had made "unspecified threats" and that McMahon was barred pending investigation. McMahon and Strickman had also been excluded from the prisons during the September 2011 hunger strikes, but were reinstated once the hunger strikes ended.
Although other attorneys have not been excluded from meeting with their clients in Pelican Bay, prison officials have not made legal visits easy. "Sometimes we'll try to schedule a visit and we'll be told, 'All the attorney booths are reserved,' " Strickman said. Pelican Bay has four attorney booths, which must be reserved in advance. If an attorney reserves a booth for a half-hour, the prison considers it unavailable for any other attorneys that day.
Stepdown Program Temporarily Halted
During a live interview with Al-Jazeera, CDCR Press Secretary Terry Thornton stated that the CDCR has temporarily halted its case-by-case review of SHU inmates for the Stepdown Program because the hunger strike has diverted needed resources. However, Carol Strickman stated that she had been told that the CDCR is continuing with case-by-case reviews at prisons that have no hunger strike participants. "It's the same sort of coercion in which they say, 'We can't do reviews at Pelican Bay because people in Pelican Bay are on hunger strike.' But Pelican Bay is where the reviews are most needed," she noted. "Why can't they continue with the review process while the hunger strike is going on?"
Jules Lobel agrees. "CDCR wasn't doing a huge number of reviews at Pelican Bay before, and they had nine months to do so," he told Truthout. "To try to pin the blame on the hunger strikers is simply a retaliatory move. The CDCR's reaction is to be more punitive rather than address the underlying conditions that caused people to go on hunger strike." Terry Thornton was unavailable for further comment as of press time.
Still Strong, Still Committed
Lobel receives a phone call every few weeks from his clients. "But I had to go to court and get a court order," he clarified, to receive the calls. Going into the third week of the hunger strike, he reported, "They're still strong and confident and committed. The fact that they're still three weeks into this hunger strike is a testament to the commitment of the people and the harshness of the conditions that have brought them to this point."
Advocates and family members also remain committed. On Saturday, July 13, nearly 400 people rallied outside Corcoran State Prison in California's Central Valley despite 103 degree temperatures. Marie Levin, whose brother Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa has been in Pelican Bay SHU since 1990, told Truthout, "They have unity on the inside, we have unity on the outside. I don't know anyone in Corcoran – my brother is in Pelican Bay. It was his birthday that day, but I went to the rally in Corcoran to show my solidarity. It doesn't matter what prison you're in. We're doing what we can to end these inhumane conditions in all the prisons." Levin continues to do public outreach and education, including reaching out to religious organizations. She told Truthout that the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the American Friends Service Committee have joined Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity in urging other clergy and religious organizations to sign "A Religious Call for a Just and Humane End to the Hunger Strike in California Prisons." In addition, family members in southern California are planning a solidarity rally in Norwalk for Sunday, July 28.
"Hopefully this would be the last for such drastic actions in which one's willpower and humanity is tested," Lorenzo Benton wrote Truthout on July 8, 2013. "One should not be required to put one's well-being to such uncertainty to have one's voice heard and a judicious hearing before the powers-that-be for reasonable changes."