From the September-October 2016 issue of News & Letters
San Francisco—The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition designates the 23rd of each month as a day of outreach to draw attention to the widespread use of 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, which is internationally recognized as torture. On Aug. 23 the coalition showed up with an informational leaflet, “From Alcatraz to Pelican Bay,” at the National Park Service staging area for trips to Alcatraz. A popular international tourist attraction, Alcatraz was a notorious prison from 1934 to 1963 that was made famous by Hollywood
movies and its own ghoulish history of guard abuse. We wanted to draw attention to what replaced Alcatraz.
Alcatraz prison created extreme physical barriers to prisoners’ movement, limiting opportunities for escape as it was built in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Supermax prisons superseded it with the aim of total physical and psychological control. The supermax concept started with the “behavior control unit” in the federal prison in Marion, Ill., which was copied in prisons throughout the country. Control units were designed by behavioral psychologists including Professor Edgar Schein, who advised totalitarian methods.
In the late 1970s prisoners in the Marion control unit went on hunger strikes. When I spoke with them later, they reported that the authorities had learned how to control their outward behavior, to make them respond like Pavlov’s famous dogs who salivated at the sound of a bell. They told me, however, that they learned they have a mind of their own that the authorities can never get to.
Prisoners have been using that power of an independent mind. A multi-ethnic non-violent movement of prisoners staged a series of hunger strikes in 2011-13, forcing the California Department of Corrections to end their use of indeterminate solitary confinement. Strike representatives are now challenging the entire “justice” system. The most gratifying aspect of the many discussions engendered by our leaflet was the reaction of ordinary people, locals and tourists from around the world. Many concluded that the only solution to the absolute inhumanity governing today’s world is the kind of human solidarity personified by these prisoners.