by BJW Nashe

More than 30,000 inmates incarcerated in California’s 37 state and private prisons have launched a massive hunger strike to protest the conditions at the Pelican Bay Supermax Prison. Roughly 2,000 inmates at Pelican Bay are also refusing to go to their prison jobs and classes, saying they are sick.

The statewide hunger strike is the third in two years to be carried out by disgruntled inmates who are showing solidarity with their fellow prisoners at Pelican Bay. The last hunger strike in 2011 lasted three weeks, and threatened to escalate into a serious health crisis. Prisoners now are striking again for the same reasons they did two years ago. The state still has not adequately addressed what prisoners consider to be clear human rights violations.

The primary complaint is an obvious one: the fact that several thousand prisoners designated as “serious offenders” are held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours per day (or more), for years on end, sometimes stretching on into decades.

cellieAt Pelican Bay, the secure holding units (SHU’s) in which serious offenders are held amount to no more than tiny, windowless boxes or cages. Imagine locking yourself inside your bathroom and staying there for ten years or more, living right next to your toilet. The food delivered to you is substandard, often contaminated by filth, mold, insects, and vermin. You have virtually no contact with the outside world. There is no bay in sight, let alone pelicans. Nothing but you and your cage. If you’re lucky, you are let out of your cage for an hour each day, when you are taken to a slightly larger concrete enclosure in which you can shuffle around. That’s it. Are you feeling rehabilitated yet?

Inside your cage, you sleep on top of a concrete slab. You have a tiny area to sit down or wash in.Taking more than two or three steps in either direction is impossible. If you’re lucky, you will be given a pillow and a blanket. It all depends on how the guards are feeling about you. What does it matter? Who’s checking up on you? Nobody. The main question is how long will it take living in these conditions for you to lose your mind.

The hunger striking inmates have other concerns as well. They have posted five clear demands for the state of California to address, before they will end their hunger strike:

1.      Stop punishing groups (e.g. all blacks, all hispanics) for the actions of individuals

2.      Stop rewarding those who provide information on others (debriefing)

3.      Improve nutrition

4.      Institute constructive programs for those in solitary confinement (meetings, classes, religious services)

5.      End long-term, open-ended solitary confinement

soliNone of these demands are unreasonable or unrealistic. Any humane system of incarceration should be able to constructively address each of these issues. The fact that it takes a hunger strike to do so only highlights the inhumane and degrading nature of our prison system, which is a shameful blight upon a society that purports to be modern and civilized.

On various web sites and blogs, we see the predictable comments springing up. Let them starve themselves; it will lower my taxes. If they don’t like prison, they shouldn’t have broken the law. Who are they to talk about rights, after committing such heinous crimes, including rape and murder?

This kind of midguided thinking should be rejected out of hand. Human rights should extend to all human beings — even to the most criminally deranged or misguided among us. People who break the law are prosecuted, and if found guilty, incarcerated. Once incarcerated, prisoners still have basic human rights. I can think of no sensible argument to justify cruel and degrading incarceration of any prisoner, even the most serious offender.

Prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture. If you disbelieve this, go ahead and try it out. You’ll most likely go batty within a matter of days.

dickCharles Dickens expressed the problematic nature of solitary confinement better than anyone ever has way back in 1842. His well-publicized trip to America included dinner parties and sight-seeing. But Dickens made sure to visit our prisons. As a human rights advocate, Dickens felt this was far more significant, and revealing, than going to the museums. Far from being places where human rights no longer applied, Dickens understood that prisons were places where human rights issues were of paramount importance. He made a notable visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, and wrote about the experience in his book, American Notes for General Circulation. In the following remarkable passage, Dickens explains exactly what he thought about solitary confinement. We have little reason to doubt that what he wrote in regard to Philadelphia in 1842 is equally applicable to Pelican Bay in 2013.

“The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which tourthis dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

hellCalifornia state officials are not obligated to acknowledge the hunger strike underway at state prisons until prisoners skip nine consecutive meals. Prisoners give no indication that they will back down until their demands are met. The prisoners are to be commended for pursuing a form of nonviolent civil disobedience in order to seek solutions to the clear human rights violations in the prison system.

The eyes of the world are watching.

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4 Responses to California Prisoners on Hunger Strike in Protest of Pelican Bay Human Rights Violations

  1. Roberta says:

    When we think of a time when prisoners were fed bread and water, we see that conditions have improved. But there is still a ways to go. I, myself, have often thought the way others do. It costs more for one prisoner in a year than what I, as a law-abiding citizen make. So it’s difficult to drum up sympathy for prisoners. If you can’t do the time, then don’t commit the crime.

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      The issue here, though, is the psychological deprivation of Solitary Confinement. People lose their minds in those conditions. If you want to complain about prisoners having it easy, you should attack the Federal Prison Camps. They call them Club Fed for a reason. On the other hand, folks in state custody in California Supermaxes have it very very rough.

    • BJW Nashe says:

      I know, it’s difficult for me to empathize with gang members, for instance, or white supremacists. But our whole social contract is based on the fundamental human rights of all individuals. That contract is undermined whenever any of us start to dehumanize certain groups of people.

      Some find it hard to drum up sympathy for young black men wearing hoodies. Some find it hard to drum up sympathy for gay people who want to get married. Some find it hard to drum up sympathy for women who want the right to choose whether or not to get an abortion. Some find it hard to drum up sympathy for hispanics who come to this country out of desperation for a better life. And on and on.

      I don’t want to preach. Just pointing out that we are all challenged to embrace what we share in common as human beings. Dehumanization of anyone poses a threat to us all.

      Those prisoners, however heinous their crimes, are still human beings with fundamental rights.

  2. Chuck says:

    Prisoners deserve their basic human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. We can’t pick and choose who gets those rights. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it; our Constitution makes it so. That’s what separates us from other countries. That’s what separates us from the kings, queens, csars, and dictators throughout history; we don’t treat even our prisoners like animals. I don’t mind at all if my tax dollars go toward providing services for prisoners. Roberta, you are highly misguided. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is correct, but it doesn’t mean torture or subject people to potential mental insanity. Prison is bad enough with all the gangs and potential for violence and rape. Even those issues need to be corrected.

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