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High-security prisoners to start hunger strike

Rashid Johnson/prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.comRashid Johnson of Red Onion State Prison in Virginia made a drawing in support of California hunger strikers.

Built in 1989, Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City was California’s first supermax prison, designed to keep the “worst of the worst” criminals under strict security, often in solitary confinement.

On Friday, about 100 of those inmates plan to start a hunger strike to protest what they say are cruel and unusual prison conditions.

They plan to continue the strike until Pelican Bay officials address their five core demands. Those include changing the prison's practices of group punishment and segregating inmates, which prisoners say are meant to coerce "snitching." They also want changes in their food, education and activity programs. 

The prisoners are circulating an online petition with the help of the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition.

“It remains yet to be seen whether they’re actually going to initiate a true hunger strike,” said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. If they do, she said the department will monitor the prisoners’ health, but “if an inmate decides he’s not going to eat, we can’t force him to eat.”

“It’s appropriate for the CDCR to review the demands, but they’re not going to concede under these types of tactics,” she added.

Solidarity coalition member Jay Donahue said it is unclear how the prisoners organized amongst themselves, because officials read letters between prisoners. He said inmates wrote prison advocates and asked them to form a coalition to spread the word.

“Mostly for security reasons, the prisoners have not divulged how they are organizing,” Donahue said. “They’ve definitely been organizing for several months now, and this is within a long history of prisoner resistance. Prisoners are definitely suffering under these conditions, but they’re also organizing themselves, and I think it’s kind of an incredible show of resilience under such oppressive conditions.”

The prisoners’ demands, which were written by the inmates themselves and refer often to court cases and the findings of the 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons [PDF], focus on Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Units. The high-security units house inmates who have committed certain violent offenses or are validated prison gang members.

“It’s based on inmates’ behavior,” Thornton said. “Inmates earn their way into the SHU.”

Inmates in those units are in their cells for up to 23 hours per day, some for more than 20 years. Those housed there for specific offenses stay a pre-determined amount of time, but gang members’ stays are indefinite, and their status is reviewed every six years.

Inmate John Martinez, who is in the Security Housing Unit, wrote a letter [PDF] to Gov. Jerry Brown, the secretary of the Corrections Department and the warden of Pelican Bay dated June 16, citing a judge's condemnation of the unit in Madrid v. Gomez – a 1995 federal case in which 3,600 Pelican Bay inmates alleged mistreatment by prison officials.

Judge Thelton Henderson said at the time that “many, if not most, inmates in the SHU experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation in SHU.”

Following the case, a court-appointed special master monitored the prison until 2008, and the case was terminated earlier this year.

Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit currently houses 1,107 of the facility’s 3,085 inmates, and 1,084 of them have indefinite terms.

The Corrections Department operates security units at four prisons in the state: Pelican Bay, the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla and California State Prison, Corcoran.

Corcoran prisoners are expected to join the hunger strike, and events are organized in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Toronto and Montreal to show support.

Prison-rights activists and members of the solidarity coalition call the isolating conditions in the unit a type of torture used to force prisoners to “snitch” on other inmates.

Thornton said unless a validated gang member’s prison sentence expires, his only option for getting out of the unit is to show he is willing to “leave the gang lifestyle.” That’s most easily done through a process of debriefing, in which an inmate identifies another prisoner as a gang member, thus getting himself out of the unit and sending someone else in his place.

Inmate Mutope Duguma, an organizer of the hunger strike, is serving an indefinite sentence in the unit.

“It should be clear to everyone that none of the hunger strike participants want to die,” he wrote in a call to action published on the solidarity coalition’s website. “But … (the) state of California has sentenced all of us on indefinite SHU program to a ‘civil death’ merely on the word of a prison informer (snitch).”

Thornton says Pelican Bay’s debriefing policies are sound and have been “challenged, tested and established through litigation.”

“Pelican Bay is probably one of the most scrutinized prisons in the United States,” she said. “With all of the layers of review and scrutiny, these allegations of torture, they don’t hold.”

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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