The Los Angeles Times just reported the beginning of what may be the largest prison hunger strike in California history. Organized by a group of prisoners in the Pelican Bay Supermax facility just south of the Oregon border, an estimated 30,000 prisoners across the state are refusing their meals and not going to their work assignments. This may in fact become the largest prison hunger strike in United States history. Here's why you should support them.
Why are these men on hunger strike? At its core, the strike is about the unfair mass segregation of prisoners into what the state calls "Secure Housing Units," or SHUs, where prisoners are indefinitely held in solitary confinement. In their statement released yesterday, the inmates leading the strike refer to the treatment of inmates in SHUs as "state-sanctioned torture." Two years ago, in the summer of 2011, the same group led a three-week hunger strike calling for reforms to the SHU system which led to a class-action lawsuit against the corrections department. Now that the case has entered court-ordered mediation, the inmates do not believe the corrections department is acting in good faith and have begun the hunger strike anew in order to bring public attention to their struggle. The inmates claim that they will continue the hunger strike until the corrections department signs "a legally binding agreement meeting [their] demands, the heart of which mandates an end to long-term solitary confinement (as well as additional major reforms)."
The dingy hallway leading to and interior of one of many SHUs at Pelican Bay State Prison, California.
Last October, Shane Bauer went to Pelican Bay prison to find out more about how the state treats prisoners in isolation. Bauer was famously held in solitary confinement for two years by the Iranian government after being picked up near the Iran/Iraq border with two other Americans. Expecting that nothing in America could be worse than what he went through in Iran, Bauer was shocked by the treatment of the prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHUs. Some of the inmates have been held in isolation for over 20 years. Why are they held so long? All it takes for someone to be held in an SHU with no clear end date is for them to be "validated" by prison staff as a member of a prison gang according to vague standards of evidence. Frequently, that standard of evidence means that possessing leftist, black nationalist, or even anti-incarceration literature can be proof of gang affiliation.
Once marked as a gang associate, it is almost impossible for a prisoner to be released from the SHUs back into the general population. A prisoner can bring their case to court, but almost never succeeds in getting the validation overturned. Prisoners can "debrief" with prison staff by telling them everything they know about the gang, but doing so virtually guarantees they will be killed upon their return to gen pop. If the prisoner was falsely accused, and does not actually know anything about the gang they are accused of being a member of, they cannot actually be debriefed and have no way out of the SHUs.
According to the United Nations, extended solitary confinement constitutes torture. Certainly, medical studies and the testimony of former prisoners can attest to this fact. In California, 39% of prison suicide attempts are carried out among the 7% of inmates held in isolation. Is this inhumane? Doesn't this violate the constitution as cruel and unusual punishment? I believe so, and that's why I stand with the Pelican Bay hunger strikers.