(update below)

More than three weeks later and after building up great support from activists, academics, celebrities and others in the US and around the world, the leaders of the prison hunger strike in  the Pelican Bay supermax prison have brought an end to their strike and have begun to eat again. They emphasize that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has given them a few good-faith token gestures and that the end of this strike is entirely conditioned on achieving the long-term policy changes that they have demanded.

Marilyn McMahon of California Prison Focus, who spoke to four of the eleven prison strike leaders last night to confirm it was over and that CDCR was not deliberately misleading the public, says the leadership of the strike concluded the “hunger strike was successful” last night and chose to end the action.

Prison leaders believe CDCR was brought out into the open on torture and barbaric practices in the Security Housing Units or the SHUs. They find CDCR was forced into a situation where CDCR had to offer up token changes and display good will. CDCR has now given prisoners their word that they would make some changes to satisfy at least a portion of each of the five core demands the prisoners made, and the prisoners expect CDCR to honor its word and stop torturing prisoners.

McMahon stresses the need for solidarity for the strike may now be over, but the need for solidarity and support for the prisoners’ demands was never more important.

The only reason the strike went on as long as it did, according to prison leaders, was because the outside support they received amazed and excited them. The strike did spread to thirteen other prisons and at one point as many as seven thousand prisoners were striking. The leaders now expect people on the outside to continue the movement to end solitary confinement or torture in prisons in the United States.

Those on the outside who supported the prisoners now also have an obligation to watch CDCR closely to make sure that they do not get away with retaliating against those that led and participated in the strike. As McMahon explains, “Prisoners were very clear that they have not been retaliated against yet for organizing the hunger strike and they said the reason is all of you out there, who have supported us in whatever way, have kept us safe. “

In December, thousands of prisoners in Georgia engaged in a strike, uniting across divisions of ethnicity, age, religion, gang affiliation, geography, etc. The prisoners demanded a living wage for work, educational opportunities, decent health care, an end to cruel and unusual punishment, decent living conditions, nutritional meals, vocational and self-improvement opportunities and access to families and just parole decisions—all very basic demands that are very similar to what the prison leaders at Pelican Bay demanded.

The strike was one of the biggest prison strikes in history, but after it was declared to be over, cases of retaliation became known. According to BayView, they identified inmates that were leaders and confined some of them to isolation and transferred some of them to other detention facilities. Thirty-seven prisoners were disappeared and for a few months it was unknown where they had been rendered, though one report claimed they were in Reidsville, a place with a history of hiding people.

One inmate, Miguel Jackson, was “pepper sprayed, handcuffed and beaten with hammers, resulting in a fractured nose and 50 stitches to his face. Guards then tried to throw him over the railing from the second floor.” Corrections staff beat prisoners with hammers and they even began to allow “gang bangers” or “thugs” to beat up inmates. The “thugs” were protected from disciplinary action and sometimes rewarded with compensation.

Because of what happened to strikers after the Georgia prison strike, it is important to not take CDCR’s statement on the end of the strike lightly. This official comment from Secretary of the CDCR Matthew Cate definitely lays a foundation for justifying retaliation within the prison:

Hunger strikes are a dangerous and ineffective way for prisoners to attempt to negotiate…This strike was ordered by prison gang leaders, individuals responsible for terrible crimes against Californians, and so it was with significant and appropriate caution that CDCR worked to end the strike. We will now seek to stabilize operations for all inmates and continue our work to improve the safety and security of our prison system statewide.

“Stabilizing operations” could entail taking action against the prisoners, who put this together. The CDCR’s characterization of negotiations is not one that suggests any kind of respect for the prisoners or their demands. CDCR characterizes the leaders as “individuals responsible for terrible crimes against Californians.” It’s just a shade away from saying, “This was a hostage situation and we don’t negotiate with people, who take hostages.” And, suggesting “hunger strikes are a dangerous” and an “ineffective way” to achieve reforms in the prison puts the burden on CDCR to save face and prove it isn’t. The strikers have ignited a movement ready to back them up and push back against the cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners. CDCR may feel like they need to retaliate so people don’t ever get to tell the story of how prison resistance effectively ended dehumanization of prisoners in CDCR facilities.

Those who engaged in the prison hunger strike had five core demands and will continue to push for them. They are: end group punishment and administrative abuse, abolish the “debriefing” process [the practice of offering up information about fellow prisoners in return for better food or release from the SHU] and modify active/inactive gang status criteria, end long-term solitary confinement and comply with US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations, provide adequate and nutritious food and expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.

Prison strike leaders consider the problem of “debriefing” to be the worst aspect of imprisonment. As McMahon describes, it drives prisoners in the SHU (“the hole”) “stark raving mad.” They cannot get paroled. They name names, rat on people and, if they are not in gangs, they make up information on gang members to get out of the SHU. Some of these people have gang members as family so this means retaliating against family and then putting their loved ones on the outside at risk of gang retaliation because of their snitching.

McMahon further explains:

Many of these people are not in gangs at all. We hear so many stories of individuals wrongly gang validated. They are not gang members. They are put in there because they are successful jailhouse lawyers. They are people who are political and they organize other prisoners. They educate other prisoners; they understand their circumstance in political terms and they can raise the consciousness of the prisoners. Those are the people who get put in the SHU and they are labeled as gang members but it is totally illegitimate.

How can they debrief? They don’t know anything about the gangs because they were never in them. And this leads to a cycle of people giving false information and every time someone does debrief because they’re cracking and they can’t stand it any longer and they want to be able to touch their child for the first time, maybe, in the child’s life. The only way they’ll ever have contact visits is to debrief. They do it by naming names and everybody on that list now gets validated as a gang member and those are all false.

Gang “validation” happens throughout the California prison system. The prison leaders and those from the other prisons throughout the state that joined the strike are very conscious of the fact that any prisoner in the system can end up at Pelican Bay and be put in the SHU. Anybody can be “validated” as a gang member any time and be transferred. This fear prisoners have of being “validated” is part of why nearly seven thousand people participated in the hunger strike.

Finally, the prison leaders, according to McMahon, had this message for young people in gangs that they wanted to get out:

Our example is the message. We came together. We united against lines of ethnicity, geography and rival groups. And we came together and we recognized who the real enemy was and that was our strength and we were successful. And that is what youngsters out there need to do. They need to unite and go after the one who is really their enemy.

The prisoners didn’t really win much of anything yet, however, they have sparked a movement of solidarity that did not exist before they took action. They have moved people like this author, who knew nothing about this aspect of America’s domestic detention system prior to the strike, to pay attention. They have moved and inspired countless people to stand up against solitary confinement and cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners. They have given Americans the opportunity to shift public consciousness on mass incarceration and challenge the existence of a racial caste system in America.

To the extent that people do not fight to change how society thinks of the prison system and who is incarcerated and being subjected to conditions of torture, there will not be radical change and an end to “debriefing” and solitary confinement. But, if people do take up this challenge and really confront how people regard mass incarceration and the racial caste system in this country, prisons across the country will find it harder and harder to get away with inhumane treatment of prisoners.

UPDATE

California Watch has a post looking at whether CDCR will keep its word. The post questions whether CDCR will actually do anything about their gang management and solitary confinement practices. The article points to a 2007 department study that produced recommendations to review the practices but nothing much was done to get rid of or change the practices.

This post is yet another reason why one should understand the struggle is not over. And, people should understand the prisoners weren’t going to just all of a sudden get CDCR to come out and commit to meaningfully doing away with the SHU and gang management practices like “debriefing.” It is going to take a continued movement to achieve real changes for the prisoners. Changes from any administrative process are guaranteed to be abysmal if the people do not continue to speak out forcefully for an end to the inhumane prison conditions.

UPDATE 2

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition now has a list up on the gains made by the prisoner strike:

  • While the CDCR vigorously dehumanizes prisoners, and refused to negotiate, saying (“we don’t negotiate with prisoners”), they were effectively forced into offering an agreement to make changes;
  • this historic strike has demanded everyone who is against torture in any way to recognize prisoners as human beings, to act on their beliefs that no one should ever be tortured;
  • this historic hunger strike has widened and intensified international scrutiny into prison conditions and policies in California, and around the United States, as well as solidarity in intervening in CDCR “business as usual.” According to Terry Thorton, spokesperson for CDCR, this strike was “a major disruption to CDCR’s normal’ operations” (i.e. of control, isolation and torture);
  • this historic strike has (re)inspired prisoners to work together in struggling for their humanity to be recognized;
  • this historic strike has proven to family members, former prisoners, advocates, lawyers, faith-based and religious groups, medical professionals, and community members and organizations that we can and need to continue to work together better in the struggle to change the conditions we live in, and to transform the devastation and disappearance prisons cause in our communities
  • this historic strike has re-invigorated rigorous and collective prisoner-led resistance in the US.

As the strike leaders told PHSS, this is “only the first quarter.” The struggle continues. Onward.