On July 8 over 30,000 prisoners in California started an indefinite hunger strike to demand their human rights. Prison officials have retaliated against the prisoners’ right to peacefully protest. At Pelican Bay those who signed the historic “Agreement to End Hostilities” have been moved from their cells to ad-seg (administrative segregation) with no papers, not even their legal papers, and no clothing. Cold air is being pumped full blast into already cold rooms. Two of the prisoners’ representatives who were moved were not even on hunger strike! At Corcoran prison those considered “leaders” have also been moved. In the process the guards destroyed prisoners’ property, specifically their legal papers.
The prisons are impeding communication as they retaliate. They don’t seem to know that it is not a “conspiracy,” that it is the prison system’s own actions that led so many people to join the protest. Their attitude is revealed in the banning of News & Letters and other publications that reprint prisoners’ statements expressing solidarity. They declared it “gang communication” through which the leaders are issuing orders to other prisoners. Their inverted reality borders on insanity. The persisting core communication to all prisoners from this movement has been to end all hostilities based on gang identification.
DERANGED PRISON OFFICIALS
As hunger striker Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa began his moving Aug. 14 letter:
“I would like to reiterate that the Agreement to End All Hostilities, issued Aug. 12, 2012, is significant for all prisoners because CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) has encouraged prisoners in their 33 prisons to not only engage in self-destructive behavior but has also helped heighten racial hostilities–the catalyst for internal warfare, racial warfare and gang warfare–all of which has been magnified inside the prisons and throughout our communities….
“We realize nothing productive can be done to change the current state of our situation, our prison environment, unless we end the hostilities between prisoners and end all racial and gang violence within the CDCR.” (See “CDCR’s $9.2 billion corruption machine vs. Prison Human Rights Movement,” San Francisco Bay View, Aug. 16, 2013)
On July 23, day 16 of the hunger strike, the prisoners issued a statement, which reads in part
“Prisoners across the state are participating because of the inhumane conditions they are being subjected to. As HUMAN BEINGS, prisoners are collectively resisting such treatment, and they are doing so peacefully. “The attempted repression of our protest has not broken our spirits. In fact it has only helped to strengthen us–individually and collectively. Despite CDCR’s retaliations and propaganda, we remain steadfast in our commitment. We will see our peaceful hunger strike through to victory…”
On Aug. 2, I had an opportunity to visit several prisoners at Corcoran. They reported various ways in which prison guards retaliate against the hunger strikers. For example, everyone got write-ups for participating, which will be used at their next review as proof they engaged in gang activity.
CDCR makes engaging in a hunger strike against what is internationally recognized as torture, into a reason to keep torturing you.
Prisoners’ canteen has been cut, their mail (in and out) delayed or withheld, additional days in solitary have been added, visits denied, etc.
One extreme retaliation was to deny medical care to Billy Sell, who kept requesting a medical evaluation of his condition. The guards told him, “You’re not eating, what do you expect, it’s just hunger pains.” When he was able to see a nurse, she just took his vitals and then yelled at him for disturbing her. A day later Billy Sell died. The prison claims it was a suicide unrelated to the hunger strike. Yet the prisoners in adjoining cells saw that he never took a tray of food, he participated in the strike to the end. One prisoner told me,
“Billy was our family! We’ll be happy to testify on his behalf. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Another prisoner stressed the insanity of the prison administration pursuing the strategy of not yielding. He said,
“This is the final push. The administration is so disrespectful we have to continue. The conditions here are so evil, they do drive people to suicide. This is their version of torture. Men and women tire of this disrespect. We’re able to do this because of the support from you [the outside]. We feel we have been heard in many countries. You are magnificent in exposing CDCR!”
OUTSIDE SOLIDARITY CRUCIAL
In fact, there have been dozens of actions: demonstrations, press conferences, public petition deliveries to officials, etc., all over California, the U.S. and across the world. An open letter to California’s governor Brown has been signed by over 60,000, including a host of prominent people and is still collecting signatures (seehttp://www.stoptortureca.org/take-action/open-letter-to-governor-brown/). Another open letter, signed by over 120 medical professionals, decries the state of medical care in prisons, especially gross violations of medical ethics towards hunger strikers. (See “Hunger Strike Reaches 40 Days, Health Concerns Critical, Prisoners Hospitalized, Medical Professionals Continue to Speak Out,” at http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.)
Of special significance is that at most events the prisoners’ families have taken a leading role. They have been at the forefront of organizing events and speaking eloquently to prisoners’ aspirations to be treated as human beings. (See “Families stand up for prisoners’ rights,” Marie Levin’s statement at the July 31 rally in Oakland as an example.)
Mail from prisoners is rare. But in what they are able to send, their spirits are high. This can be seen in a letter from Pelican Bay:
“Today is the 32nd day of the hunger strike, and I’m really starting to feel it (physically)…[S]o far I’ve lost over 40 lbs., my energy level is at rock-bottom, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate! But, my spirit is still soaring with the eagles; and, emotionally and mentally, I’m strong and unwavering in my conviction to follow this through to the end. If necessary, some of us are ready and willing to take it to the grave…
“They’ve been holding all our mail (both incoming and outgoing) for loooong stretches, in retaliation for us hunger-striking. Also, you’ve probably noticed I have a ‘new’ cell number. That’s because they have gaffled us up and thrown us into Ad-Seg, which has even harsher conditions. But, that little petty stuff doesn’t faze me.
“Please know that your continued support out there means everything to us.”
As we go to press, the strike has lasted over 40 days. The prison admits that there are at least 118 people on continuous hunger strike since it began. CDCR has taken many more off the list who are still not eating, and others have started eating for a time and stopped again.
Continued support from the outside is most critical now. Do what you can, make noise, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, write to CDCR, hang a banner from your window or a freeway overpass and send us a picture! Any act of solidarity puts pressure on CDCR to accomplish a change the prisoners are dying for.