Solidarity with Folsom hunger strike

From the July-August 2017 issue of News & Letters

Folsom, Calif.—On May 26 several prisoners at Folsom State Prison’s administrative segregation (ad-seg)—a form of tortuous solitary confinement similar to the infamous Security Housing Unit (SHU)—began a 21-day hunger strike to call attention to gross violations of their basic human rights and demand that prison officials honor prisoners’ legal rights. Their demands included adequate access to legal assistance, meaningful education and rehabilitative programs, and an end to the cruelty and sleep deprivation of so-called “welfare checks.”

Officials retaliated by transferring striking prisoners to different tiers and other prisons, hoping to defeat their solidarity and depriving them of outside contact. Loved ones have to wait several weeks before they are allowed to visit a prisoner at a new facility. Officials issued rules violation reports for “causing mass disturbance” or for outside communication—though a hunger strike is clearly not a “disturbance” in the sense of a fight or a riot, and communicating with outside is still legal.

RALLIES AT FOLSOM AND IN LOS ANGELES

On June 4 about 100 people demonstrated in front of Folsom prison in a show of support for prisoners’ humanity. Others demonstrated in Los Angeles at the same time. A former SHU prisoner speaking at Folsom’s gate expressed his admiration for those inside, since there is very little history of prisoners winning anything from prison administrations. Prisoners’ victories depend on outside support.

Another former prisoner said, “Liberation is treated as a disease in prison. They want to stamp it out.” Another spoke of the permanent harm caused by solitary confinement, it can cause you to literally lose your mind. “Whatever you call those units, they are here to destroy people.”

One striker’s loved one said, “We stand united, and we won’t stop until their demands are met.” Allegra, daughter of Hugo Pinell, who was murdered at Folsom two years ago, spoke about the “right to stand up for our loved ones inside! It is our right to protest! Prisoners’ rights are human rights! Those men are putting their lives on the line to be treated as a human being!”

A lawyer, who worked with the prisoners who staged the historic hunger strikes against indefinite solitary confinement in 2011-13, recalled that those prisoners risked their lives, not for themselves but to ensure that what happened to them would not keep happening to younger prisoners. She pointed to just how remarkable the “Agreement to End Hostilities” is, identifying the system, not each other, as the enemy.

AFTER PELICAN BAY HUNGER STRIKE

As a result of the settlement of a suit from that hunger strike, CDCr released many prisoners from the SHU, and now those officials who hate the legal settlement are putting people in ad-seg indefinitely. Conditions in ad-seg are worse in many instances than SHU. They were meant as very temporary housing, and prisoners there are not allowed any of their property or papers. You have nothing but the four walls closing in on you.

A psychiatrist who used to work at Pelican Bay Prison spoke. She had resigned because she saw that, even after 22 years of court oversight, CDC couldn’t be changed from the inside. Prison only exacerbates mental illness—solitary is torture! There are only two psychologists at Pelican Bay for the 25% of prisoners with mental illness.

Human connections define us as human beings, and getting transferred to Pelican Bay breaks those connections. Prisoners in isolation do not seek treatment, because anything they say to their “health provider” will be used by guards to torture them. They suffer in silence until they can’t anymore. The psychiatrist ended by saying, “Changing laws is not enough! We have to change our communities.”

—Urszula Wislanka

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