There are 6000 prisoners currently on hunger strike in California. This is the third day of the strike which is being joined by inmates in jails as well as in prisons. The action was initiated by men inside Pelican Bay’s security housing unit: people the government has labeled the “worst of the worst.” But they are also people’s brothers, fathers and sons. And most of all, they are human beings. They are prepared to die to make their voices heard.
Will you listen?
Nestled in in a forest of giant Redwood trees, it is pretty much hidden from view. If you go too fast down the highway you’ll miss seeing Pelican Bay State Prison. Doubtless many tourists whiz past in SUVs full of camping gear and happy children, never noticing the the guard tower and the high fences set back from the road.
And hidden inside the prison there is another prison, a Security Housing Unit where hundreds of men are each penned in an individual concrete cell, isolated, without sunlight or human contact, for years on end. The SHU has been a quiet feature of not only Pelican Bay, but an increasing number of prisons around the country.
But in recent months the men inside this high-tech dungeon have broken through the silence and caught our attention. Protesting the conditions of isolation they endure, this week they have embarked on a hunger strike — for the second time in the last few months.
SHU prisoner Mutope Duguma (aka, James Crawford) puts it this way, in a letter:
“This is far from over and once again, hopefully for the last time, we will be risking our lives via a peaceful hunger strike on Sept 26, 2011 to force positive changes. For 21 1/2 years we have been quietly held in Pelican Bay State Prison solitary confinement under some of the most horrible conditions known to man. So we continue to struggle to be treated like decent human beings.”
The prisoners have not asked for freedom, but are raising five basic demands:
1) end group punishment
2) abolish “debriefing” (giving names of other prisoners to get out of the SHU) and the “gang validation” process where little evidence plus the accusation of being “associates” of a gang is enough to put a prisoner in the SHU with “debriefing” the only way out.
3) comply with recommendations from a 2006 U.S. commission to “make segregation a last resort” and end the conditions of indefinite solitary confinement.
4) provide adequate and decent food
5) allow things like phone calls to family, one photo per year, two packages a year, more visiting time, permission to buy warmer clothing to lessen the chill of the unheated cells.
To end the first hunger strike, which lasted from July 1st to July 20 and involved over 6,000 prisoners at its peak, the California Department of Corrections made vague promises to address these demands, but now there are reports that CDCR is retaliating against those who went on hunger strike, and are even saying that refusing food itself could be seen as “disruptive behavior” and cause to be sent to the SHU.
So now is the time to come to grips with the conditions of inmates at Pelican Bay, and other prisons in the state, and around the country. Now is the time to listen to these men, fellow human beings, and decide if YOU will keep silent, or support them.
A SHU prisoner can hear the voices of the men in adjacent cells, and they can talk with each other. Some prisoners form close friendships during the years of isolation, friends whose faces they will never see. No doubt they are now talking together about the strike. Sharing scraps of news brought in by family members. Wondering what those on the outside are saying, and doing.
The prisoners are showing their humanity. Now it is time for the people on the outside to show theirs and raise their voices to demand that prisoners be treated like human beings.
Handy phone numbers:
Governor Jerry Brown
Phone: (916) 445-2841
Secretary Matthew Cate
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Phone: (916) 323-6001
CDCR Public Affairs: (916) 445-4950