Tens of Thousands of California Prisoners Launch Mass Hunger Strike
Pelican Bay State Prison. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
On Monday, July 8, prisoners at the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison began a mass hunger strike to protest long-term solitary confinement. It is not the first time such an action has taken place. In 2011, prisoners staged two separate hunger strikes to protest their continued placement in long-term solitary confinement.
Hunger strikers issued five core demands:
1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate food.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
During the first hunger strike, in July 2011, at least 1,035 of the SHU’s 1,111 inmates refused food. The strike spread to thirteen other state prisons and involved at least 6,600 people incarcerated throughout California. The second strike, in September 2011, spread to twelve prisons within California as well as to prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma that housed California prisoners. By the third day, nearly 12,000 people were participating. The strike ended after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) promised a comprehensive review of all SHU prisoners validated as gang members or associates.
Now prisoners are striking again. They charge that in the intervening two years the CDCR has not addressed any of these demands, and they have called for a mass hunger strike combined with a nonviolent work stoppage. “Once initiated, this protest will continue indefinitely—until all Five (5) Core Demands are fully met,” they declared. By the second day of the strike, almost 30,000 California prisoners were taking part.
The 2011 hunger strikes mobilized family members as well. For many, this is their first foray into political organizing, even though their loved ones have spent years locked in windowless cells nearly twenty-four hours a day.
Dolores Canales’s son Johnny has spent thirteen years in the SHU. Canales herself has had firsthand experience with solitary confinement. During her own imprisonment, she spent nine months in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) at the California Institute for Women, where she was confined to her cell twenty-two hours a day. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard everyday. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she recalled. But being in solitary confinement still took its toll: “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in,” she described. Even after being moved from segregation, Canales was unable to shake that anxiety. She broke into a sweat and panicked each time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules. “I just can’t forget.”
In contrast to his mother’s experience, Johnny spends nearly twenty-four hours a day in a windowless cell. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door. The “yard” he is taken to for solitary exercise consists of a cement yard the length of three cells with a roof only partially open to the sky. Johnny never sees the sun.
Over 1,000 people are held in the SHU, and more than half have spent over a decade there. Prison administrators place people in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term because they have been accused of membership in a prison gang. Accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence, such as tattoos or possessing certain books. Prison administrators also place prisoners in the SHU on accusations of gang association, again relying on circumstantial evidence such as being seen speaking with an alleged gang member on the housing unit, associating with prisoners of similar background or racial group or possessing literatures associated with political ideologies (such as the Black Panther Party).
Until recently, alleged gang members are released from the SHU only if they “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefs and his family on the outside. In addition, prisoners can be falsely identified as gang members by others who debrief in order to escape the SHU. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member or associate to be sent to the SHU: jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU. Johnny was one of those jailhouse lawyers. “He’s assisted with legal work for alleged associates charged with being in gangs,” his mother stated.
In May 2011, Johnny began sending his mother letters that he asked her to forward to the governor. The letters declared that Johnny and others were going on hunger strike on July 1, 2011, to protest SHU conditions and their indefinite terms within the SHU.
The day the strike began, Canales attended a rally in Los Angeles. “I had no intention of getting involved in organizing,” she recalled. “I just wanted to find out what was going on. I was asked to speak, and I read a letter from Johnny.”
That was Canales’s entry into organizing. “We [family members] started meeting every other day. More and more family members were coming out, sharing stories of their loved ones in different prisons and jails who were on hunger strike.”
In Oakland, Marie Levin was also galvanized into action by the hunger strike. In 2011, Levin had not seen her brother, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, for over fifteen years. Shortly before the strike, Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, visited her, bringing an audiotape in which Jamaa talked about his decision to go on hunger strike. Moved, Levin then attended a solidarity rally in San Francisco. “I was activated after going to that rally,” she recalled. Like Canales, this was her entry into political organizing. She joined Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), a coalition of lawyers, advocates and family members. “It was overwhelming at first,” she remembered. “I found out so much information I didn’t know about. Not just about SHU conditions, they were talking about the Black Panthers and history that I didn’t know.” But Levin continued to attend.
Family members, advocates and supporters have held rallies and vigils in various cities to draw public attention. On July 18, 200 family members, lawyers and supporters from across California converged upon CDCR headquarters in Sacramento to deliver a petition with over 7,500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers. They then marched to Governor Brown’s office to demand answers.
The hunger strike lasted three weeks, ending after CDCR officials promised changes. Hunger strikers suspended the strike to allow CDCR a grace period to fulfill their promises. In the meantime, family members continued to speak out about SHU conditions. “We were going to churches, universities, anywhere,” Canales recollected. “I can be on line at the bank and I’ll talk to people. I’ll pull out a picture of the SHU cell and the closed-in yard.” When the California Assembly’s Public Safety Commission held a hearing on SHU conditions in August 2011, Levin and other family members attended and testified about the need for substantial changes to SHU policies and practices. Levin also helped build a mock SHU cell, which they brought to rallies, vigils and speaking events.
When prisoners renewed their hunger strike in September 2011, Canales and other family members started California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. “A lot of family members work full-time jobs, so the organizing is all in our spare time even though we have families, jobs, etc.” They continued to speak out about SHU conditions. In the Bay Area, Levin and other PHSS members have brought the mock SHU to the city’s parks, universities and vigils.
The second hunger strike ended on October 13, 2011, after the CDCR agreed to a comprehensive review of all SHU prisoners validated as gang members or associates. Family members continued to keep public attention on Pelican Bay. They held rallies in front of the Los Angeles County Jail. They have continued weekly candlelight vigils in cities throughout California. When Senator Dick Durbin held hearings on solitary confinement in June 2012, they traveled to Washington, DC, in a show of support.
They also began coordinating to enable loved ones to visit Pelican Bay. Canales applied five times for permission to visit her son, who was in the SHU at Corcoran State Prison. Each time, her application was denied because of her conviction record. When she was finally approved, Johnny had been transferred to Pelican Bay, thirteen miles from the California-Oregon border, making the trip more time-consuming and expensive for Canales, who, like many family members, lives in Southern California. Organizing with other family members, she learned that this distance prohibited others from seeing their loved ones. “I try to bring other family members up when I’m driving.”
Although Marie Levin lives in the Bay Area, 370 miles closer to Pelican Bay, the cost and distance have also prevented her from visiting her brother for years. Levin credits the hunger strike with bringing together various families who pool resources. “The support that I’ve gotten from the women who go up there has been a blessing. I can carpool with them, we share the [hotel] rooms together, and we share all the costs. We room as if we were family.” She adds, “In the past, we did not have that.”
California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement also organized larger group visits. On November 19, 2012, the group brought three vans of family members to the prison. Less than one month later, on December 7, 2012, they chartered a bus, half of which were children. The group has since organized several caravans that enable family members to visit their incarcerated loved ones, some for the first time in years.
Family members near the prison in Crescent City have also opened their homes to those traveling from further away. Canales credits this hospitality to the Pelican Bay prisoners’ call to end racial hostilities. “If we really want to bring about substantive meaningful changes to the CDCR system…now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time and put an end to more than twenty to thirty years of hostilities between our racial groups,” SHU prisoners announced in August 2012. “Beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups…in SHU, Ad-Seg, General Population, and CountyJails, will officially cease.”
“It’s real,” stated Canales. “I’ve stayed in the homes of family members of every alleged organization when I’ve gone to visit. I wouldn’t be able to do that if the cease-fire wasn’t real.”
In Fall 2012, the CDCR unveiled its stepdown program. Under the program, even those who have spent years in the SHU may still be required to spend two to three additional years in solitary confinement. The debriefing program remains in place. Groups of three or more can be labeled as Security Threat Groups, warranting SHU placement. Prisoners, family members and concerned advocates have criticized the program, stating that the program does not address the five core demands and instead expands the criteria for people eligible for SHU placement.
On February 14, 2013, prisoners at Pelican Bay’s SHU announced a renewed hunger strike, combined with a work strike, to begin July 8. This time, they promise to go “all the way” if the CDCR does not meet their five core demands. They demand that the CDCR sign a consent decree spelling out the specific terms of the policies they will enact. In addition, they have issued an additional forty demands, which include prohibiting official sanctions for hunger strike participation as well as improving conditions in the SHU and in general population. On June 20, 2013, prisoners reaffirmed their decision to hunger strike after a court-ordered mediation session with CDCR officials.
In Oakland, Marie Levin and her husband Randy have organized monthly vigils. They bring the mock SHU and invite people to step inside. “A large part of it is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ People don’t think about the conditions under which people [in prison] have to live. It’s up to me and others to educate them so they know what’s going on.” Levin notes that the public reaction when confronted with the mock SHU cell has generally been outrage and horror. “The majority of people realize this is wrong.”
In April, Levin also began fasting three days each week. “The purpose was to pray for change from the governor, CDCR officials, the Public Safety Commission, the Assembly, even the officials at Pelican Bay.” She ended her fast in June, but plans to fast again this July 4 and may participate in a rolling fast—in which outside supporters fast for one day in solidarity with the hunger strikers. Family members are also planning a caravan and solidarity rally to Corcoran State Prison, which has its own SHU, for Saturday, July 13.
Both Canales and Levin hope that meaningful change will occur before the hunger strike begins. “As a mother, I don’t want them to put their bodies through this,” Canales said. “But these men have come to a point where there’s no turning back.”
Allison Kilkenny covered the 2011 Pelican Bay hunger strike.