Third California prison strike impending unless demands met
In 2011, inmates held in long-term solitary confinement in California prisons held two hunger strikes to protest their treatment. Because prison officials have not met the inmates’ demands, another hunger strike is planned for July 8.
To assist their protest, families of prisoners in solitary confinement and human rights advocates across California are now in the early planning stages for a demonstration to be held at Corcoran State Prison on July 13.
“It’s basically to show solidarity and support, and heighten the awareness of what is going on,” said Bilal Ali, an organizer for the protest. “Hopefully out of this … is something that sets up … a statewide movement.”
The last hunger strikes, which originated at Pelican Bay State Prison, quickly spread to 11 other prisons across California and involved thousands of inmates at its peak.
The prisoners have five core demands, one of which calls for the end of long-term solitary confinement. (Some California prisoners have been imprisoned in such conditions for decades.)
Human rights advocates and numerous studies have deemed long-term solitary confinement to be torture. In October 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, said the practice should be banned in most cases, saying it was “contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”
“Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture,” he said.
The practice of long-term solitary confinement is not exclusive to California. Most notably, Bradley Manning, the Army private who is now on trial for handing over thousands of classified documents and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, was held in solitary confinement for 18 months prior to his trial. A little less known, however, is an inmate in Louisiana who has been languishing in the hole for over 40 years.
“It’s sensory-deprivation,” said Ali, who considers long-term solitary confinement torture. “You’re in a small, confining space, you’re not allowed to get any sunshine [or have] any kind of contact with a human being. … They are not given adequate heat; their lights are on, constantly, 24 hours. … People have been known to lose their minds in their and, because of that, also commit suicide.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has argued for the use of long-term solitary confinement in what it calls its “Security Housing Units” or “Administrative Segregation Units.” They say the practice is necessary to isolate its worst offenders and reduce gang activity. Critics, however, say that is not so, citing the high number of inmates in solitary confinement who have filed complaints against the prisons or help other inmates with their legal issues.
The previous hunger strikes did win the inmates a dialogue with prison officials. Prisoners were granted a few items, such as knit caps and sweat suits to stay warm, handballs and a few additional canteen items, although it is far from what the prisoners are asking to receive. They are also requesting adequate food, an end to group punishments and “debriefing,” which is the practice of an inmate disclosing another inmate’s alleged gang affiliation in order to be released from solitary confinement.
Delores Canales, an organizer with California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement and whose son has been in the hole for 12 years, remains hopeful. She sees the concessions as a sign that things may change for him.
“It is the start of change, and it is the sign to keep moving forward,” she said.
Canales, who participates in weekly conference calls with prison reform advocates, said that in her last conversation the subject of preparing for the possible deaths of prisoners who will be on the hunger strike was discussed.
“As a family member to hear that, it’s hard,” she said. “It’s been emotional for me. … But [reform] is long, long overdue.”
1. March 18, 2012: UN help sought over treatment of state prisoners
2. Feb. 12, 2012: Organizing continues over mistreatment of inmates
2. July 24, 2012: Prison hunger strike may be ending, but core issue far from over