The Sound Before the Fury: The California Prison Hunger Strike

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Beginning on July 1, 2011, hundreds of prisoners of all races in California’s Pelican Bay SHU (“Security Housing Unit”) began a historic hunger strike to demand an end to the cruel and inhumane treatment that they suffer under – including long-term solitary confinement, which constitutes torture under international law. The hunger strike rapidly spread to over 6,500 prisoners in over one-third of California’s prisons, making their heroic stand the most significant act of prisoner-led resistance in the U.S. in decades.

The prisoner’s five core demands include:

1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse – This is in response to prison officials punishment of all prisoners of a particular race as “group punishment” in response to a particular prisoner’s supposed rule violations, and the prison administrations abusive, pretextual use of “safety and concern”  to justify unnecessary punitive acts to justify indefinite SHU status and increasing restrictions on the programs and privileges available to the prisoners.

2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria – Alleged gang membership is one of the leading reasons put forth by prison officials to justify placement in solitary confinement. “Debriefing” – requiring prisoners to provide (oftentimes false) information about fellow prisoners – is one of the only ways to be released from the SHU. The “validation” procedure used by California prison officials includes such tenuous criteria as tattoos, reading materials, and association with other prisoners as “evidence” of gang membership.

3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement – Calling on California prison officials to implement the findings and recommendations of the the Commission, including: ending conditions of isolation, making segregation a last resort, ending long-term solitary confinement and providing SHU prisoners with meaningful access to adequate natural sunlight and  quality health care and treatment.

4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food – Cease the practice of denying adequate, nutritious meals and demanding an end to using food as a tool to punish SHU prisoners.

5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates – Including expanding visiting time and adding one day per week, allowing one photograph per year, allowing a weekly phone call, allowing two packages a year, expanding canteen and package items allowed, more tv channels and tv/radio combinations, allowing craft and art items such as colored pencils, allowing sweat suits and caps, allowing walls calendars, installing pull-up/dip bars in SHU “yards,” and allowing correspondence educational coursed that require proctored exams.

After going without food for 20 days, the prisoners at Pelican Bay ended their hunger strike, with a call to people on the outside to continue the struggle against torture in U.S. prisons, to ensure their demands are met and that they are not retaliated against for their peaceful political protest. As a statement from the Short Corridor Collective (one group of leaders of the hunger strike at Pelican Bay SHU) explained:

“Many inmates across the state heard about our protest and rose to the occasion in a solid show of support and solidarity, as did thousands of people around the world! Many inmates put their health and lives on the line; many came close to death and experienced medical emergencies. All acted for the collective cause and recognized the great potential for forcing change on the use of SHU units across the country…

We’re counting on all of our outside supporters to continue to collectively support us and to carry on with shining light on our resistance in here. This is the right time for change in these prisons and the movement is growing across the land! Without the peoples’ support outside, we cannot be successful! All support, no matter the size, or content, comes together as a powerful force. We’ve already brought more mainstream exposure about these CDCR-SHU’s than ever before and our time for real change to this system is now!”

Two historic anniversaries of prison resistance in the U.S. are upon us: Comrade George Jackson, the foremost prison-educated revolutionary intellectual and theorist of the Black Panther Party, who inspired many on both sides of the prison walls with his transformation from an 18-year-old accused of a $70 gas station robbery and sentenced to one-year-to-life in California prison into a class-conscious communist revolutionary, was assassinated by prison guards on August 21, 1971. And the righteous rebellion of prisoners at Attica Prison in New York three weeks later on September 9, 1971, who for four liberating days peacefully held the prison yard and demanded improvements in prison conditions, until the prison was stormed by New York State Police Troopers who indiscriminately opened fired, killing 29 prisoners and 10 prison guards, wounding 89 prisoners with gunfire, and injuring hundreds more prisoners in retaliation in the aftermath.

As L.D. Barkley, 21-year-old spokesperson for the Attica prisoners eloquently stated, “The entire incident that has erupted here at Attica is . . . [the result] of the unmitigated oppression wrought by the racist administration of this prison. We are men. We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten and driven as such… What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed…”

Forty years later, after an unprecedented explosion in racist mass incarceration and an unparalleled regime of pervasive solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, the hunger strikers in California have once again placed the heroic example of prisoners at the forefront of the struggle against oppression.

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