Friday, July 12, 2013

The Biggest Human Rights Struggle You've Never Heard Of: Hunger Strike, Day Five

Twelve thousand California inmates are entering Day Five of a massive hunger strike in protest of their conditions. CNN reports:

Inmate demands include an end to long-term solitary confinement and halting what's known as the "debriefing" policy, in which inmates are required to provide information on prison gangs to get out of solitary.

Other demands include warmer clothing, better mattresses and better food. In a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, protest leaders say the quality of prison food "dramatically decreased" since the California Prison Industry Authority began supplying the cafeterias.

The strike's leaders are in the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay, near the Oregon state line, Walton said, but inmates in other participating lockups are encouraged to add their own demands. The Corrections Department said the strike is organized by prison gangs and that inmates will face disciplinary action for taking part.

The strike has received some mainstream press coverage and on the hunger strike coalition website and SolitaryWatch, and I still run into usually-well-informed people who are unaware of it. The L.A. Times ran a survey, asking its readers whether they thought conditions in California prisons were inhumane; 60% of respondents said no. Here are some reasons why you should inform yourself and care. 

1. Because solitary confinement conditions in California are more horrible than you can imagine.

Have you ever been alone? Really, truly, not I've-gone-camping alone? For twenty-two and a half hours a day in a tiny room, without interacting with a living soul? With a brief time for exercise in a windowless corridor by yourself? What would it feel like to live like this for years? For decades? Doctors, psychiatrists and other experts that have had a chance to examine inmates in the SHU report that the conditions amount to torture and the toll on the human physiology and psyche is unbearable.

2. Because getting into solitary is so easy.

There are two ways to get into solitary confinement: One is segregation as punishment for breaking prison rules, and the other is being suspected of gang membership. The process to validate gang membership is obscure and problematic, and membership in any one of some 1,500 groups can land you in solitary. Sometimes, this typification is related to tattoos that were not removed, and sometimes to rumors and insinuations.

3. Because getting out of solitary is based on a highly problematic step-down process.

There are three ways to get out of solitary confinement: Parole, snitch, or die. To snitch is to admit to membership in a gang and provide more information about the gang. Not only does this require people to distance themselves from the only support system they've ever known, but the resulting information, provided in the hope to leave a hellish existence behind, may or may not be true, and may land other inmates wrongly in the SHU.

4. Because most SHU inmates will eventually be released, scarred from the experience.

There are some people who will die in prison, but most will eventually be released. And those people will need homes and jobs and ways to reconnect with family and friends. After a psychologically and physically destructive experience like long-term segregation, that ability would be seriously hampered, and recovering from the trauma of solitary conditions can take many, many years.

5. Because of the million small indignities.

It's not just the big picture. What about the quality of the food? The fact that inmates could not have caps, to protect them from the cold, or calendars, or having their photos taken before the 2011 strike? There are a million small indignities that accompany a sentence in prison; more so in segregation. Life in prison is affected by considerations that you can't even think of, such as access to reading material, technology, education, objects, and company of your choice (or company at all).

6. Because of how hard this strike is.

Food is one of the only comforts in prison. Refusing food and drink is a very difficult thing to do. Many of the inmates who are striking are elderly and seriously ill. Most of them came to prison from an impoverished background, and the years in solitary, complete with bad nutrition and confinement conditions, have made them very ill. And nonetheless they are willing to risk their health, perhaps to the death, because they are determined that nothing can be worse than living in the SHU.

7. Because we've been here before.

Inmates have engaged in prior hunger strikes in 2011 in an effort to improve conditions. Some minor improvements resulted, and the inmates agreed to end the strike with CDCR's promise to revise its gang validation process and its evaluation of exiting inmates. The resulting policies were not better than the previous ones, and in some aspects, such as the number of possible gang affiliations, they were worse.

8. Because this struggle has galvanized and united prison population across racial and institutional lines.

Did you know that prisons engage in the unconstitutional practice of punishing inmates collectively according to their race? It's true - lockdowns of all inmates of a given race are common practice and have recently been forbidden by a federal court. Racial divides are part and parcel of the prison experience, and there is a chicken-and-egg relationship between the inmates' tendency to band in racial groups and the administration's usage of such groups to divide and conquer. But last year, an agreement to end race-based hostilities in prison was reached among the inmates, and they are striking united against conditions, leaving behind decades of racial animosity. Moreover, inmates who are not in solitary confinement have joined the strike and are protesting against conditions in their own institutions.

9. Because crime shouldn't be addressed with cruelty.

If I had a nickel for every internet comment I've seen to the effect of "these people should have thought of this when they committed these crimes." Do you even know what crimes we're talking about? Yes, some of them are heinous crimes. But some of them are nonviolent drug offenses, and some of these folks, based on what we know now about wrongful convictions, may well be innocent. But even for the folks who have committed violent crimes, incarceration for many long years is severe punishment. These conditions are way beyond punishment for one's wrongdoing. They amount to torture.

10. Because of the families and children and loved ones and friends.

Even if you think that criminal culpability could somehow justify state atrocities of this scale, what about the inmates' families, who have not seen their loved ones for decades? They have to travel eight hours or more to the distant locations of these facilities, pay for overpriced accommodations exploiting their plight, and hope to see their loved ones. People in solitary don't get seen at all. And many children who grow up without parents deserve some care and attention.

11. Because these are your fellow Californians and you should have some goddamn empathy. 

It's easy to pretend that all this is happening in a parallel universe we don't have to worry about. But this is happening right here in California. If you don't have a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker who is or has been behind bars, it's because the experience of incarceration is not randomly distributed across the state's population, which in some ways should bother you more, because it means incarceration is widely increasing the gaps between Californians. But even if these folks are not of your color or income level, they are your fellow human beings who share this Earth, and this state, with you, and they deserve, if not your love and adulation, at least your empathy, and your appreciation for their struggle.

12. Because of the kind of society we want to be.

Many people said a couple of weeks ago, in the same-sex marriage context, that they wanted to be "on the right side of history." One day, and I hope that day will come in my lifetime, we will look upon the practice of holding people in tiny cells, without human company, with the shame and horror we reserve for corporal punishment and torture, because that is what this is--torture. And on that day, you will want to look back on your former self and know that you saw torture for what it was and stood up for treating your fellow human beings with dignity.

No comments: