From the November-December 2014 issue of News & Letters
Oakland, Calif.—On Sept. 6 about 100 people in Mosswood Park commemorated one year since the suspension of the historic 60-day hunger strike, the third of its kind, by California prisoners opposing the torture of solitary confinement. The Security Housing Units (SHU) prisoners’ unprecedented cross-race human rights action inspired solidarity among prisoners, former prisoners, prison activists, and, most prominently, families of prisoners.
The painful hunger strike protests brought the issue of long-term indefinite solitary confinement to the attention of the public, with many writers—even in the mainstream media—questioning the heavily used practice in the U.S. Condemnation of solitary confinement even reached California legislators. The prisoners suspended their strike in part because two legislators, Tom Ammiano and Loni Hancock, each proposed new bills that would restrict the arbitrary use of solitary by the California Department of Corrections (CDC).
What the past year has proven, unfortunately, is that legislation is merely a response to the struggle, not an engine of change. Over the last year, Tom Ammiano’s bill was defeated in part because Democrats were afraid to go against a powerful prison gang—the guards’ union: California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Loni Hancock’s bill became so watered down that it appeared written by the CDC, turning their policies into law and failing to provide any meaningful oversight. It was withdrawn.
What the last few years have shown, however, is the power and courage of prisoners’ loved ones to be leaders in this human rights movement. Often made to feel isolated, as though they are facing the enormous prison system alone, families of prisoners are working together now in their fight to support their loved ones inside. As the smiling faces at the barbeque on Sept. 6 show, the families are full of spirit and solidarity, determined to keep on fighting.