Hunger strikers take on US prison torture; California inmates unify across racial lines

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The summer of 2013 saw the largest wave of prison hunger strikes in U.S history. Started by prisoners in solitary confinement at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, the strike grew to 30,000 prisoners at two-thirds of California’s prisons. Inmates used their bodies as the only weapon available for fighting the prison torture and abuse. The strike ended on Sept. 5, 2013, the 60th day for 41 inmates who had continuously refused food and faced imminent death.

California legislators who agreed to hold hearings on the strikers’ demands, and supporters who vowed to keep the pressure on state officials, urged the strikers to spare their lives. In ending the strike for now, the prisoners declared they would remain “100% committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

Routine inhumanity. The prisoners’ main demand in earlier strikes and now is an end to long-term solitary confinement. Their four other core demands are to stop penalizing groups for the actions of individuals, stop rewarding those who debrief (snitch) on others, improve nutrition, and institute constructive programs for those in solitary. All considered reasonable in most of the world.

The current strike erupted because the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) broke its promise to negotiate and implement meaningful reforms following two hunger strikes in 2011. See Prison abuses rooted in slavery: Pelican Bay inmates strike against ‘the hole,’ by Mark Cook, in the Freedom Socialist. In February of 2013, strike leaders gave Gov. Jerry Brown and CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard five months to meet their demands. They refused, and the inmates struck once again, on July 8, 2013.

Brutal long-term solitary confinement is so mentally and physically destructive that the U.N. Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, called on the U.S. government to totally abolish it, stating that even brief confinement can amount to torture. At Pelican Bay, more than 400 people have been in solitary for over a decade, some for 30 to 40 years. California currently holds 12,000 prisoners in isolation. Nationally there are at least 80,000, the vast majority are people of color.

Very few prisoners are in solitary because of their original crimes, but rather for prison rule violations, solidarity with other prisoners as jailhouse lawyers, radical political beliefs, or alleged gang association — the definition of which is so broad that a mere greeting to a fellow inmate or a tattoo can land a prisoner in solitary. One prisoner said that, “If the gang investigation unit hears you fart, they will try to decode it for gang messages.” Getting out of solitary is next to impossible unless one accuses someone else of gang association.

State retaliation and PR lies. Gov. Brown and the CDCR callously refused to negotiate with the hunger strikers. Instead, they punished them with additional isolation and sensory deprivation, withheld medications, and confiscated property. Incredibly, state officials claim that solitary confinement does not exist because prisoners have radios and TVs, can talk to guards, can leave their parking stall-sized rooms for one hour of exercise in a slightly larger, windowless room, and can occasionally converse with visitors through thick glass. Further, the state falsely insists that the strike is a power play by gang leaders to get back into the general population so they can carry on their gang business in prison and the community.

On Aug. 19, 2013, the state used these lies to persuade a judge to authorize prison doctors to force-feed prisoners, even if they had previously signed medical orders not to be resuscitated. The lawyer for prisoners in a statewide class action over medical treatment, Donald Spector, shamefully agreed to the order.

The Center for Constitutional Rights represents inmates suing to end prolonged solitary and denounces force feeding without consent as torturous punishment. Such treatment of Guantánamo Bay inmates on hunger strike recently drew wide condemnation. Claude Marks of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition declared: “This approach (in California) much like Guantánamo, sets the U.S. apart from all related international human rights standards.”

Prisoner solidarity trumps divide and conquer. The state’s dishonest allegations about gang coercion are directly contradicted by an inmate initiative to end racial hostilities within California prisons and jails. On Feb. 10, 2012, strike leaders called on prisoners throughout the state “to collectively seize this moment in time and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups.” They urged prisoners to settle personal issues between individuals by diplomatic means so these disputes would not “escalate into racial group issues.” They concluded: “We must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us and our best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!”

Racism is at the root of solitary confinement in the United States, first given government sanction as a means to control slaves. It has been used to varying degrees in prisons since, but was vastly expanded in the 1980s when the so-called war on drugs became the pretext for mass incarceration. In 1972, crime rates were decreasing, and there were 350,000 people in U.S. prisons. Today, crime rates are still decreasing, yet the prison population exceeds 2.3 million. The majority are inmates of color. Attorney and author Michelle Alexander calls this phenomenon the New Jim Crow. Today’s prison hunger strikes are the lunch-counter sit-ins of our era.

Model for the working class. The solidarity intensifying in the depths of prison torture chambers is what the capitalist class fears most and seeks to suppress by brutal means. Not surprisingly, the Guantánamo and California model of abusive prison practices, called the “New Penitentiary Culture” is being exported around the world, including Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. But resistance to U.S. prison imperialism is rising elsewhere, too. A hunger strike also began on July 8, 2013, at La Dorado, Colombia (one of 16 new prisons in that country partially funded and trained by U.S.).

The determination by California prisoners to transcend racism motivates the rest of the working class to do the same. Labor and all movements for social justice need to embrace prisoner demands and help in the fight.

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Val Carlson is a civil rights attorney in Seattle, and a lifelong activist for social justice. For feedback, contact

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