Defend Prisoners' Rights
Support Hunger Strike by Pelican Bay Prisoners
On July 1st, 2011, prisoners in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) in Pelican Bay State Prison in California began a hunger strike, with dozens participating. Many others across the country are also expressing their support, through letters and 24-hour fasts. All are protesting conditions of years-long torture, including solitary confinement, practiced by the U.S. prisons. Voice of Revolution salutes their just struggle and urges all to join in support.
The prisoners bring out that the conditions of long-term solitary confinement, combined with repeated efforts to humiliate prisoners and force them to confess and “snitch” on fellow prisoners is a form of civil death. People imprisoned are treated as though they are not human beings with rights and continually subjected to denial of human contact, confiscation of reading materials, branding as “gang members” subjected to yet more torture and humiliation, and generally considered “dead” as far as their civil and human rights are concerned.
The widespread practices of repeated humiliation and long-term solitary confinement practiced in U.S. prisons were the model for Guantánamo and other U.S. prisons, like Bagram in Afghanistan. They are a reflection of the thoroughly racist character of the U.S. state and its “justice” system, which uses mass incarceration of African American, Puerto Rican and Latino youth as a form of genocide. The state then uses the prisons as a means to practice and refine their methods of torture, so that, as one prisoner put it, they have these methods down to a science. The state also secures a nationwide group of people, from the top down, trained to implement the crimes of torture and support their justification.
The prisoners forced into the SHUs are often done so on the basis of their resistance and being political organizers within the prisons. They are branded as “gang” members for such political activity and thus considered “dangerous.” The SHUs, which were said to be for the most “violent and dangerous” criminals, in fact are being used against political organizers and as a means to punish and threaten all prisoners.
On a broader scale, those resisting government attacks and standing for rights — all those opposing anti-immigrant laws, anti-worker laws, standing against war and aggression — are being criminalized and also branded as “threats” or “terrorists.” One can readily anticipate that much as indefinite detention at Guantánamo is used to coerce “confessions,” force guilty pleas, and naming of others, threats of being placed in the SHUs are also being used for the same purpose. And that this will occur on a broader scale as the government acts to “disrupt and dismantle” organized resistance.
The firm stand of the prisoners against torture and all the government’s crimes is serving to block these efforts by the government to terrorize all into submission. By standing for their rights they also uphold their dignity as human beings. Their strike is being supported by prisoners in other locations and by people nationwide who reject the fascist direction of the U.S. state and its brutally racist prison system. The stand of the prisoners is a significant block against more widespread use of torture and humiliation by the government and contributes to the fight for the dignity and rights of all. We urge all to support this just fight!
The Call for Pelican Bay Hunger Strike
This is a call for all prisoners in Security Housing Units (SHUs), Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg), and General Populations (GP), as well as the free oppressed and non-oppressed people to support the indefinite July 1st 2011 peaceful Hunger Strike in protest of the violation of our civil/human rights, here at Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (PBSP-SHU), short corridor D1 through D4 and its overflow D5 through D10.
It should be clear to everyone that none of the hunger strike participants want to die, but due to our circumstances, whereas that the state of California has sentenced all of us on the Indeterminate SHU program to a “civil death” merely on the word of a prison informer (snitch).
The purpose of the Hunger Strike is to combat both the Ad-Seg/SHU psychological and physical torture, as well as the justifications used to support treatment of the type that lends to prisoners being subjected to a civil death. Those subjected to indeterminate SHU programs are neglected and deprived of the basic human necessities while withering away in a very isolated and hostile environment.
Prison officials have utilized the assassination of prisoners’ character, to each other as well as the general public, in order to justify their inhumane treatment of prisoners. The “code of silence” used by guards allows them the freedom to use everything at their disposal in order to break those prisoners who prison officials and correctional officers (C/O) believe cannot be broken.
It is this mentality that set in motion the establishing of the short corridor, D1 through D4 and its D5 though D10 overflow. This mentality has created the current atmosphere in which C/Os and prison officials agreed upon a plan to break indeterminate SHU prisoners. This protracted attack on SHU prisoners cuts across every aspect of the prison’s function: Food, mail, visiting, medical, yard, hot/cold temperatures, privileges (canteen, packages, property, etc.), isolation, cell searches, family/friends, and sociocultural, economic, and political deprivation. This is nothing short of the psychological/physical torture of SHU/Ad-Seg prisoners. It takes place day in and day out, without a break or rest.
The prison’s gang intelligence unit was extremely angered at the fact that prisoners who had been held in SHU under inhuman conditions for anywhere from ten (10) to forty (40) years had not been broken. So the gang intelligence unit created the “short corridor” and intensified the pressure of their attacks on the prisoners housed there. The object was to use blanket pressure to encourage these particular isolated prisoners to debrief (i.e. snitch in order to be released from SHU).
The C/Os and administrative officials are all in agreement and all do their part in depriving short corridor prisoners and its overflow of their basic civil/human rights. None of the deliberate attacks are a figment of anyone’s imagination. These continuous attacks are carried out against prisoners to a science by all of them. They are deliberate and conscious acts against essentially defenseless prisoners.
It is these ongoing attacks that have led the short corridor and overflow SHU prisoners to organize ourselves around an indefinite Hunger Strike in an effort to combat the dehumanizing treatment we prisoners of all races are subjected to on a daily basis.
Therefore, on July 1, 2011, we ask that all prisoners throughout the State of California who have been suffering injustices in General Population, Administrative Segregation and solitary confinement, etc. to join in our peaceful strike to put a stop to the blatant violations of prisoners’ civil/human rights. As you know, prison gang investigators have used threats of validation and other means to get prisoners to engage in a protracted war against each other in order to serve their narrow interests. If you cannot participate in the Hunger Strike then support it in principle by not eating for the first 24 hours of the strike.
I say that those of you who carry yourselves as principled human beings, no matter you’re housing status, must fight to right this and other egregious wrongs. Although it is “us” today (united New Afrikans, Whites, Northern and Southern Mexicans, and others) it will be you all tomorrow. It is in your interests to peacefully support us in this protest today, and to beware of agitators, provocateurs, and obstructionists, because they are the ones who put ninety percent of us back here because they could not remain principled even within themselves.
Demands by Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers
Prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP, California) are going on an indefinite hunger strike as of July 1, 2011 to protest the cruel, inhumane and tortuous conditions of their imprisonment. The hunger strike has been organized by prisoners in an inspiring show of unity across prison-manufactured racial and geographical lines. The hunger strikers have developed these five core demands:
1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse
This is in response to PBSP’s application of “group punishment” as a means to address individual inmates rule violations. This includes the administration’s abusive, pretextual use of “safety and concern” to justify what are unnecessary punitive acts. This policy has been applied in the context of justifying indefinite SHU status, and progressively restricting our programming and privileges.
2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria
Perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement.
The practice of “debriefing,” or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Debriefing puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as “snitches.”
The validation procedure used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employs such criteria as tattoos, reading materials, and associations with other prisoners (which can amount to as little as a greeting) to identify gang members.
Many prisoners report that they are validated as gang members with evidence that is clearly false or using procedures that do not follow the Castillo v. Alameida settlement, which restricted the use of photographs to prove association.
3. Comply with the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement – CDCR shall implement the findings and recommendations of the U.S. commission on safety and abuse in America’s prisons final 2006 report regarding CDCR SHU facilities as follows:
• End Conditions of Isolation (p. 14) Ensure that prisoners in SHU and Ad-Seg (Administrative Segregation) have regular meaningful contact and freedom from extreme physical deprivations that are known to cause lasting harm. (pp. 52-57)
• Make Segregation a Last Resort (p. 14). Create a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg (Administrative Segregation) the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities relating to having a sense of being a part of the community.
• End Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Release inmates to general prison population who have been warehoused indefinitely in SHU for the last 10 to 40 years (and counting).
• Provide SHU Inmates Immediate Meaningful Access to: i) adequate natural sunlight ii) quality health care and treatment, including the mandate of transferring all PBSP- SHU inmates with chronic health care problems to the New Folsom Medical SHU facility.
4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food – cease the practice of denying adequate food, and provide a wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals, and allow inmates to purchase additional vitamin supplements.
PBSP staff must cease their use of food as a tool to punish SHU inmates.
Provide a sergeant/lieutenant to independently observe the serving of each meal, and ensure each tray has the complete issue of food on it.
Feed the inmates whose job it is to serve SHU meals with meals that are separate from the pans of food sent from kitchen for SHU meals.
5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates.
• Expand visiting regarding amount of time and adding one day per week.
• Allow one photo per year.
• Allow a weekly phone call.
• Allow Two (2) annual packages per year. A 30 lb. package based on “item” weight and not packaging and box weight.
• Expand canteen and package items allowed. Allow us to have the items in their original packaging [the cost for cosmetics, stationary, envelopes, should not count towards the max draw limit]
• More TV channels.
• Allow TV/Radio combinations, or TV and small battery operated radio
• Allow Hobby Craft Items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.
• Allow sweat suits and watch caps.
• Allow wall calendars.
• Install pull-up/dip bars on SHU yards.
• Allow correspondence courses that require proctored exams.
NOTE: The above examples of programs/privileges are all similar to what is allowed in other Supermax prisons (e.g., Federal Florence, Colorado, and Ohio), which supports our position that CDCR-PBSP staff claims that such are a threat to safety and security are exaggerations.
Gang Validation and Civil Death
On July 23, 2010, my cell was searched and three boxes of my property (legal material, books, notes, and personal writings) were confiscated and turned over to Institutional Gang Investigations (I.G. I.) for possible gang validation. The reason for the action, I was told, was my possession of a Kiswahili dictionary and the book Soledad Brother by George Jackson. This is not the first time I have been targeted for a gang validation wherein George Jackson was the cause. In May 2007, I co-wrote an article in which we referred to Jackson as “Comrade George Jackson.” It was determined by I.G.I. that the word “Comrade” constituted gang association or sympathy; therefore, I needed to be investigated (the investigation yielded nothing).
I have been in San Quentin (and on death row) for almost 28 years, and for most of this time I have had George Jackson’s books in my cell. I ordered them through the prison Special Purchase Order (SPO). My cell has been searched hundreds if not thousands of times and never, not once, were George Jackson’s books taken. Why now? And why the link to gang activity when it is well known that George Jackson was a member of the Black Panther Party and a political revolutionary? It is only by exposing the insidious and inscrutable use of politically charged books to label prisoners gang members, thereby criminalizing critical literacy that we can arrive at answers. Both prisoners and prison activists need to understand how the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is using political and historical texts to repress prisoners.
My story is not new or unique. I’ve read numerous accounts from across the U.S. prison landscape—state and federal—of prisoners having books by George Jackson, Che Guevara, Chairman Mao, and others stolen from their cells, or confiscated under the false pretext of gang activity. Some prisoners have even been validated as gang members and locked away indefinitely in Security Housing Units (SHUs). And in June 2010, a ruling by a California appeals court explicitly condoned the practice in California, as follows: “Assigning an inmate to secure housing based on his possession of constitutionally protected materials linking him to a gang [does] not violate his first amendment rights.”
Let’s be clear. The confiscation of leftist and revolutionary books, magazines, and newspapers is not a mere First Amendment issue; failing to understand the bigger picture will just extend your stay in wonderland. Thus, I’m not going to argue a case of censorship (although one can certainly be made since none of the above authors have been ruled to be either dangerous or obscene by a court of law or the PIC). I am interested in a much broader analysis that deconstructs the current ideology of suppression in U.S. prisons that can be traced to other interrelated post-9/11 realities, such as creation of Homeland Security and the gradual erosion of civil liberties; the prosecution of a global “war on terrorism”; the virtually unrestricted spending on and by intelligence agencies; and redefining domestic terrorism to meet the threat posed by gang violence.
Included in these realties, but in a more subtle way, is the government’s fear of the possible rise of a new prison movement and radicalized prisoners. The fear of prisoners becoming political extremists and functioning as independent terrorist cells once they are released is, I believe, the main justification for the “unofficial” policy of censorship carried out nationwide. But such fear is unfounded and seems to be based more on paranoia than rooted in reality: How many inmates have been paroled who have participated in or been linked to a terrorist organization? Where is the evidence? Can prison administrators or the government show this happening? They cannot. The objective of this unofficial policy is fourfold:
1. To define any “in-prison” political activism as gang activity.
2. To criminalize and dehumanize politically conscious prisoners — past and present — by labeling them gang members.
3. To redefine revolutionary and leftist writings as gang literature.
4. To institute countermeasures that will disrupt, inhibit, and delegitimize the emergence and growth of individuals/groups that could be influenced by radical views.
Prison administrators know that if even one prisoner shuns George Jackson’s books or other leftist material because he thinks he might be labeled a gang member and placed in the SHU, then the strategy of suppression is effective. Doing routine or targeted cell searches when George Jackson’s books and other leftist literature are not being found (or not being found in abundance) allows prison officials to claim that the policy is effective. One prisoner’s fears can potentially infect many, and the fear becomes a deadly pathogen that kills self-determination, resistance, and critical thinking. Unwittingly, a fearful prisoner becomes a tool for a COINTELPRO-like apparatus. But because they understand what is at stake, politically conscious prisoners can never become unwitting agents of a pacification operation; they understand that acquiescence would mean the struggle is lost. The price they pay for this understanding is long-term persecution in SHUs.
What also facilitates the suppression of political consciousness is the unending cycle of ethnic and sectarian violence that permeates the U.S. prison system. Violence is micromanaged to perpetuate racial hatred and division among prison groups. And let me be honest, prisoners make it easy for prison administrators to accomplish this when they fail to redress the stark contradictions between their intransigent conflicts against each other and the repressive and often brutal treatment meted out to them by the prison regime. As long as prisoners do not frame their conditions and treatment in a political context, they will remain powerless to alter their situation. The gang mentality cannot produce viable change for prisoners. This can only come from conscious prisoners who are willing to struggle collectively. […]
The revisionist tactic by the PIC of not acknowledging that George Jackson developed a political philosophy that he lived and died for (not unlike like the Founding Fathers of the United States) makes it easy to deny the political activism and convictions of conscious prisoners. However, the confiscation of books, newspapers, and magazines with political content acknowledges the existence of politically minded prisoners. The truth is contained in the system’s lie: George Jackson was not a gang member! He was a political thinker. To suspect a prisoner of gang activity because he reads Jackson’s books is, therefore, also a political — certainly not a logical — move.
Steve Champion is on California’s Death Row at San Quentin. He is author of Dead to Deliverance: A Death Row Memoir. Write him at Steve Champion, C-58001, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA 94974
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