From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
Editor’s note: We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the historic 2011-13 hunger strikes against indefinite solitary confinement in California’s prisons. That the struggle is not over was clear on April 9, when a federal judge ruled that the California Department of Corrections (CDCr) is in such flagrant violation of the settlement agreement that monitoring of their compliance should be extended for at least another year (to learn more see ccrjustice.org/home/press-center/press-releases/federal-court-rules-ongoing-constitutional-violations-california).
The settlement was a result of a lawsuit filed by the hunger strikers calling attention to a number of inhuman practices common in prison, such as indeterminate solitary confinement, setting prisoners against each other, abuse of confidential information, etc. CDCr agreed to some reforms, and, as is usual, proceeds to ignore both the spirit and the letter of the agreement they made.
Below is a statement from one of the hunger strikers on his continuing struggle within the prison.
Since my release from the Security Housing Unit (SHU), it’s been an uphill battle to win the rights and freedoms that the prison bureaucrats don’t want us to have. Our objective has always been recreating liberation schools, but it’s a challenge even to get our own self-help groups. Inside these razor-wire slave plantations, CDCr and guards want to implement their own government organizations, equipped with their own staff and curriculums that seek to make people into robots. It’s as if they want you to be a police-minded individual, who will hunt down people and, instead of helping them, call the police.
Neither communities of color nor society as a whole need this type of behavior. We need alternative solutions that are designed to help people meet their needs, not hinder them. Most of the guards don’t care about people or they would let us meet our own needs without interfering when they see it’s working. We also need a curriculum that is useful. For that we need to create our own groups. I’ve heard that is possible in a few prisons, but not all.
The other challenge we face are the Non-Designated yards. The general population and the special needs yards have been merged. [Special needs yards were created by CDCr to separate people deemed at risk from the general population. They were used for those who betrayed other prisoners by telling on them, sometimes with complete falsehoods.] We see this as a ploy by the guards to create violent attacks so they can put us back in the SHU and have people in society thinking we are the worst of the worst. This is not going to happen. We have been collectively proving CDCr wrong by not engaging in violent attacks on each other, but by settling our quarrels verbally.
The self-help groups we created are teaching men how to be men. We’ve learned that by overcoming our old way of thinking we can solve problems through listening to each other and express what’s needed to bring change to a problem or a situation. We only bring to play solutions that work for all. We are building bridges with all ethnic groups. We engage in study cells we call “circle keepers,” where men share traumatic experiences they’ve had and come up with different ways to bring healing. This is just one step forward in our development.
By self-reflecting, we realize we are all different. But we adapt to a way of life that taught us how to survive our circumstances, such as controlled environments like solitary confinement. Now, being out of the SHU, we are still at work, moving in the right direction. Change is going to happen. I am sure of it. As long as we are consistent with our study and analysis, the productive transformation will be possible. We will become new men. The Struggle Continues.