Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Day 23 of the Hunger Strike: Light and Shadow in Press Coverage

Two interesting newspaper articles came out recently, bracketing the range of public opinion about the California inmate hunger strike.

The first piece, in the Los Angeles Times, is a profile of Todd Ashker, one of the leaders of the hunger strike, part of the Short Corridor collective, described by the article as the "legal mind" behind the strike. Ahsker's long and violent criminal record and his membership in the infamous Aryan Brotherhood are examined at length, as is the stabbing of his defense attorney during his trial.

Armed with a prison law library and a paralegal degree earned behind bars, Ashker, 50, has filed or been party to 55 federal lawsuits against the California prison system since 1987, winning the right for inmates to order books and collect interest on prison savings accounts.

"There's an element within [the Department of Corrections] who would celebrate some of our deaths with a party," Ashker wrote to The Times in March after prison officials denied access to him.

But others say Ashker is a danger, accusing him of being an Aryan Brotherhood member bent on freeing gang leaders from solitary confinement so they can regain their grip on the prison system.

"We're talking about somebody who is very, very dangerous … who has killed somebody in a pre-meditated way," said Philip Cozens, Ashker's court-appointed defense lawyer in a 1990 murder trial.

Terri McDonald, who ran California's 33 prisons until a few months ago and now runs the Los Angeles County jail system, said Ashker and his compatriots in the Short Corridor Collective are not fighting for rights, but power.

"From my perspective, they are terrorists," she said.

Ashker has spent nearly all his adult life in California's prison system — and much of that time, he has been in solitary confinement. 

Ashker has an intimidating record, indeed, and an unappetizing gang affiliation. But that is how someone ends up in isolation in Pelican Bay or in Corcoran: By committing crime and by being classified as a gang member. The question readers might want to ask themselves is, are we prepared for the moral slippery slope that starts with treating folks like Ashker as not human, and not deserving of basic dignity?

I've posted before about why I consider myself a left realist, rather than a radical abolitionist. I don't care for incessant recitations of the prison industrial complex mantra (frankly, I find this a useless argument with middle-class taxpayers), and I don't think that all prisoners are political prisoners. And I do think that some folks need to be in prison, for long periods of time, and perhaps Todd Ashker is one of them. I do, however, think that far less people should be incarcerated, and that holding 80,000 people nationwide under conditions that do not befit living human beings, depriving them of all human contact and offering inappropriate ways out, is categorically outrageous, no matter what crimes they perpetuated.

I am, apparently, not alone: Today's San Francisco Chronicle story lists many thinkers, actors, and political figures, including Jay Leno, Gloria Steinem, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Coyote, and Noam Chomsky, who oppose solitary confinement and support the hunger strikers.

This is the third hunger strike launched since 2011 to protest living conditions in the prison's security housing units, where 4,500 gang members, gang associates and serious offenders are held in extreme isolation, many of them for indeterminate terms of more than 10 years.

The protesters are demanding an end to indeterminate sentences and for alternative ways to leave the units other than "debriefing," which the prisoners say is an agreement to inform on gang members and a risk to their safety from reprisals for "snitching."

The security housing units at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California are the subject of a lawsuit alleging that the living conditions — which include confinement to the cells for 23 hours a day and very little contact with other people — amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Maybe this support of the hunger strikers will convey the message that even inmates who commit truly heinous crimes are still human beings, and that cruelty and indignity cannot be justified as being begotten by cruelty and indignity.

Thanks to Tom Oster and to David Takacs for the links.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Inmate as Customer: "Pay-To-Stay" and the Commodification of Punishment

This morning Huffington's Post reports about the Fremont Jail:

The Fremont Police Department is now offering its inmates a "pay to stay" option. For a one-time fee of $45 plus $155 a night, prisoners serving short sentences on lesser charges can stay in a smaller facility while avoiding county jails.

"It's still a jail; there's no special treatment," Lt. Mark Devine, a Fremont police official who oversees the program, told Chris De Benedetti of the Argus. "They get the same cot, blanket and food as anybody in the county jail, except that our jail is smaller, quieter and away from the county jail population."

This arrangement differs somewhat from the previously covered arrangement at the Riverside Jail: payment is not for basic incarceration, but for upgraded, improved services. The concerns raised by the ACLU are that the prison experience is likely to be tiered across race and class lines. But I think this is part of a larger humonetarian trend: The commodification of the prison experience and seeing the inmate as customer. Not the customer's-always-right from the early days of the service industry, but the customer-as-mass-consumer of the conglomerate era. It's no wonder inmates review prisons on Yelp.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hunger Strike Bears Fruit at Martinez Detention Facility

On July 19, 2013, all Martinez Detention Facility hunger strikers suspended their hunger strike. (Prisoners there had joined the statewide California hunger strike when it began on July 8, after submitting their own demands to the warden.) The SF Bay View reports about the demands that have been met, which were detailed explanations about reasons for administrative segregation, the ability to empty one's trash once a day, more privacy scheduling medical appointments (rather than announcing them on the intercom), separating mentally ill inmates from the general population, and allowing ink pen fillers to be purchased from the canteen.

Congratulations to the strikers on the successful conclusion of their courageous struggle, and best wishes to those who are still on hunger strike.

Props to Caitlin Henry for the link. 

Crime, Incarceration, and the Human Spirit: On Billy Sell and the Escape from Alcatraz

Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin, courtesy
the BBC UK.
Billy Sell's tragic death yesterday, ruled a suicide by CDCR, raises some disturbing and urgent questions. How many such casualties will it take for CDCR to take the inmates seriously? We are on Day 21 of the hunger strike and there is serious concern for inmates' well being, especially those of them who are aging and infirm. Their physical condition is being monitored. Conditions in the SHU debilitate and harm not only people's mental health, but their physical constitution. It is admirable that, under these circumstances, inmates are committed to deprive themselves of food and drink. And if being prepared for the ultimate sacrifice, because a life of torture and indignity is worse, is not a good reason for CDCR to reconsider its position on isolation, I really don't know what is.

I wonder how much coverage Sell's death will receive in the mainstream media. Any effort to honor and remember his honorable sacrifice in the struggle for better incarceration conditions is likely to be blighted by ignorant commentary negating its value because, after all, he was doing time in prison, and therefore he must have been a very bad person, or worse, not a person at all. This is the same pervasive thinking that leads people on the outside to think that inmates are somewhat coddled by what folks who are not in the know perceive as "free health care." This dehumanizing attitude means not only that people can be disinclined to stand side by side with the hunger strikers and demand better conditions for them, but also that they could completely miss the heroic aspect of the struggle and not find anything admirable in it.

The tragic news of Sell's passing were particularly poignant for me yesterday, as I received them after completing my sixth successful Alcatraz crossing, which made me think about sacrifice and heroism within walls. Every time I jump off the ferry near Alcatraz and start swimming toward San Francisco I take a few moments to look behind my shoulder. In the first ten minutes of the swim it seems as if The Rock is not getting any smaller. And then, I think about the many documented attempted escapes from Alcatraz, and particularly about Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who in 1961 plotted (with Allen West, who could not join them due to technical difficulties) the most daring, and likely successful, escape through the ventilation ducts, ingeniously using dummies and a raft.

More than fifty years after the escape, the file remains open, and among the thousands of athletes who attempt Alcatraz crossings there are many, like yours truly, who are convinced that Morris and the Anglin brothers made it safely to shore. I like to think of them, now very old men, sitting in a suit and a beret or a fedora at a cafe in North Beach, sipping a strong espresso, reading the Chronicle and chuckling quietly to themselves.

To them, the frustration of looking back and seeing The Rock looming dark and threatening must have been fraught with terrible fear and apprehension, compounded by the serious concerns about their welfare once they got to shore. Would they suffer hypothermia? Who would help and shelter them on the outside? Where would they get money, and how could they avoid being recaptured?

Time has been kind to Morris and the Anglin brothers. Millions around the world admire and respect their courage, ingenuity and bravery. But they were not saints. Morris' record included daring robberies, and the Anglin brothers robbed a bank (with a toy gun.) They received lengthy sentences and perhaps, to the average citizen in the early 1960s, would appear unsympathetic, dangerous, and undeserving of respect. Just as some people may be thinking about today's hunger strikers and their struggle.

But crime and criminality do not negate the value of the human spirit, or its ability to soar in courage and conviction. Last week many of us saw Fruitvale Station in the theaters and enjoyed Michael Jordan's humanizing rendition of Oscar Grant, a man who did not live a grand life of achievement, but rather a life of fatherhood, flawed partnership, and teetering between drug dealing and an honest day's work. And we cried for him, and we appreciated the ember of humanity within his soul, because it is also in ours, and we wept when that ember was extinguished by a gunshot. Billy Sell's death teaches us a related, and perhaps more important, lesson. It's not just that each and every life is precious and imbued with intrinsic value. It's also that the human spirit does not die if someone has broken the law. Indomitable courage, initiative, creativity, commitment to one's values, perseverance, and the yearning for personal freedom, are as admirable in prison as they are on a freedom ride or at a protest in the park, and perhaps more so because of the risk of retaliation and mistreatment, not to mention death. There are courage and bravery and principled positions behind walls. There is much there that we can find inspiring and respectable, even as there is plenty there (as on the outside) that we would find petty and deplorable.

May Billy "Guero" Sell's memory not be in vain, and as generations of athletes are inspired by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, may generations of activists and advocates within walls and on the outside honor his sacrifice with an undying struggle for dignity.

Props to Jonathan Simon, whose conversations with me last year inspired this post, to Caitlin Henry, whose work on behalf of the strikers inspires me daily, and to Chad Goerzen and Rhett Aultman for talking to me yesterday about Alcatraz and the power of myth.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tragic Breaking News: Billy Sell Succumbs to Hunger Strike

The first known casualty of the hunger strike is Corcoran inmate Billy Sell. The San Francisco Bay View reports:

Billy Michael “Guero” Sell, CDCr No. P-41250, age 32, was housed in 4B-3L of the Corcorcan SHU, had not been under mental health care and had been going without water as well as food.

The prisoners reportedly described him as “strong, a good person, a good soldier” and concluded that “Billy died because of the hunger strike.” He is said to be from Riverside, but supporters have not yet been able to locate and talk with his family. The Bay View sends condolences to everyone who was Billy’s friend, comrade, fellow prisoner or family member.

Our heartfelt condolences go to Billy's family and friends, on the outside and behind bars, and our best wishes for physical and mental strength go to the strikers.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Emergency State Appeal of Plata Before Supreme Court

Justice Kennedy, the deciding voice in Brown v. Plata, is to tackle overcrowding once more, in responding to an emergency appeal from Gov. Brown to block the Plata panel to release more inmates and ease overcrowding. The L.A. Times reports:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is in a position to decide — again — whether California's overcrowded prisons must release more than 9,000 inmates by the end of this year, but at the risk of sending some violent criminals back to the streets.

. . . 

Gov. Jerry Brown is now asking Kennedy and the high court to block a pending order from a special three-judge U.S. District Court panel that calls for releasing 9,600 more inmates by the end of the year.

In the emergency appeal, Brown's lawyers say the state has spent $1 billion to upgrade its prisons and improve the medical care of its 119,000 inmates.

In a brief filed late Monday, the state's lawyers said most of the prisoners who are nonviolent offenders are being kept in county facilities. Most of those who would be released now are classified as moderate- to high-risk inmates, the state said.

"Unless stayed, the three-judge court's order will release offenders with a history of serious or violent offenses who are very likely to commit more serious crimes," the lawyers said.

Because Kennedy oversees emergency appeals from the West Coast, Brown's request went to him. The justice could act on his own or refer it to the full court. But either way, the decision is likely to rest with Kennedy, a California native. The four liberal justices joined his 2011 opinion in the case, and the four conservatives dissented.

Hunger Strike - Day 18

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

TV Series Review: Orange is the New Black

The new Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black, is a dramatization of a book by the same name by Piper Kerman (referred to as Piper Chapman in the series), who a few years ago served fifteen months in a federal prison camp for her role in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Kerman's story, while not imaginary, is fairly unique. In her early twenties, through her romantic involvement with a woman who worked for an international drug cartel, she helped deliver money internationally. When the relationship disintegrated, so did Kerman's involvement in the cartel, and she moved on to live a normative, white, middle-class life and get engaged to a man who did not know of her past. Then, ten years after the commission of the offense, the FBI knocked on the door; Kerman's involvement in the cartel was exposed, and she ended up pleading guilty and being sentenced to fifteen months in federal prison.

The first season of the show, which now streams on Netflix, walks us through the beginning of Chapman's imprisonment, from her initial surrender at camp through her adjustment to prison life. We are introduced to the other inmates and guards, to prison dynamics, and to the mix of cruelty and compassion that is part and parcel of the incarceration experience.

A few notable examples of the show's excellent storytelling include the racial divisions among the women and the way the prison system itself uses them to divide the inmates; the underground economy of prison; and the informal socialization mechanisms behind bars. Particularly notable is the show's attention to sexual assault on the part of the guards, which is a very unfortunate and prevalent aspect of women's incarceration. One episode draws an analogy between the birth experience of one of Piper's friends on the "outside" and one of her fellow inmates, taken to the hospital in shackles and returning to prison without her baby. While the show portrays romance behind bars, it steers clear from the lesbian inmate sensationalism that usually characterizes women's prison dramas and empathizes with the need for human connection. And, while not depicting the many complexities involved in incarcerating trans women (and the practices of administrative segregation involved), it is particularly sensitive to a trans woman's plight at receiving decent health care in prison.

Because the timing of the show coincided with the California inmate hunger strike, Episode Nine, which depicts the show's main protagonist spending a night at the SHU, was particularly poignant. Her stay there is portrayed as a frightening, dehumanizing experience. And while there, she speaks through the wall to another inmate--or is it a ghost?--who has lost count of how long she has been there. The terror, isolation and grief involved in the experience has moved many viewers to tears, and I have gotten many inquiries about whether the SHU "is really like this" (it's much worse and for much longer periods of time.)

Some critique has been leveled at the show's portrayal of race and class, arguing that black and brown nudity is treated more licentiously than white nudity. There has also been a concern that the show negatively portrays poor and working class women, in a way that is inattentive to the history of black activism. While the former point bothered me, too, when I watched the show, the latter point reminded me a little bit of the complaints leveled, a few years ago, at the American version of Queer as Folk: Not representative enough, not complimentary to Every Gay Person on the Planet, not educational in the manner of a Very Special Episode of a teenage drama or a carefully-racially-balanced Benetton commercial.

I didn't find the show remiss in its portrayal of politics behind bars. Yes, there's a history of racial and social activism in prison. But to argue that, in presenting a federal prison camp the series is remiss in not presenting inmates of color as activists is to ignore the realities of prison. Activism and uprising are the exception, not the norm (this is what is making the California hunger strike, now entering its 17th day, so notable). While many inmates develop consciousness regarding their experience and its broader meaning, incarceration is a difficult experience and for most people "doing time" does not involve political activism. This also goes to the portrayal of race in the show: uniting in the struggle front across barriers of race is also an exception. And, at least in the context of the hunger strike, it's not the result of some form of racial enlightenment, but rather a response to abysmal, inconceivably degrading prison conditions that offend people's dignity beyond their racial alliances.

As to the main critique against the show--its atypical narrator and removal from the class/race experience of prison--I think it is important to keep the potential audience in mind. Indeed, while Kerman/Chapman's story is atypical in terms of her background, introducing the viewers to prison through her eyes is a masterful storytelling device. The passage, by referendum, of so much punitive legislation illustrates how few middle-class taxpayers humanize, and empathize with, the prison population. Even the powerful stories of exonerated inmates haven't made nearly as much impact as they should, because the average citizen simply cannot imagine himself or herself suffering such indignity. This lack of imagination is startling, considering that 1 in 100 Americans is behind bars, but as we know, that share is not randomly distributed among the population. My experience in explicating the realities of incarceration is that spewing the overworked "prison industrial complex" cliche at white middle-class voters does nothing to deepen their understanding and empathy. On the other hand, giving them a character they can identify with--a woman who, to them, does not "naturally belong" behind bars--can do wonders for their ability to imagine themselves in such a setting. Moreover, while the story is told from a white, middle-class woman perspective, all of its characters come to life as complex, interesting women, aspects of their lives before incarceration shown in flashbacks, and their interactions with each other offered authentically and believably.

Does Orange is the New Black tell viewers everything they need to know about incarceration in America? Of course not. It portrays a federal prison camp of women and does not expose its viewers to overcrowding. Its exposure of SHU isolation practices is menacing, but minimal. And its engagement with the literature on prison politics and economics is superficial. But television cannot educate without entertaining, and judging from the immense interest this series has provoked, it is doing its job as well as can be expected. Many people who did not know about the hunger strike have now resolved to educate themselves and understand it better. Just seeing one night in the SHU on screen will help millions of viewers try to imagine what it could be like to spend five, ten, twenty, thirty years without seeing a living soul. If that raises consciousness and awareness to one of the biggest human rights struggles in America, I will be more than pleased.

Finally, those seeking a more realistic dimension to complement their perception of the prison experience for women should read Inside This Place, Not Of It, which drives home the frightening prevalence of sexual abuse by guards and of atrocious health care practices.
Props to RJ Johnson for providing fodder for this review through the lively discussion on his Facebook page.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Film Review: Fruitvale Station

What a tragic week in which to watch Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year's Eve of 2008. Still raw and thoughtful after the week of intense public commentary on George Zimmerman's acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murder, a San Francisco audience wept tonight at the Metreon as they saw a familiar scene come to life: A brutal shooting of a handcuffed man, in grainy cellular phone footage first, and in dramatized high definition much later.

The film walks us through a day in the life of Grant, a 22-year-old man, teetering between two courses of life: Responsibility, a steady job, and a stable relationship with his young daughter's mother, and a life of drugs in the street that led him to a stint in San Quentin the previous year. His family and friends, and especially his girlfriend, come to life, not in an idealized, canonized, haloed poster image for a demonstration, but like any of us: Living, loving, making mistakes, having fun, getting angry, trying, failing, succeeding.

We could talk about the comparison between the dramatized series of events and what actually happened. And we could remember the moving op-ed from the doctor who treated Grant, and the aftermath for BART Police, and the broader meaning of the taser defense, and about the difference between protest and riots, but we already talked about all that during the events and the trial. And now it's time to look at the movie as what it is - a work of art that seeks to tell us something important.

Here is what I am glad the movie does not tell us: That we should canonize Oscar Grant as the saint of the struggle against police abuse of power and racialized violence. or that his life was exemplary and flawless.

The movie also does not tell us this: That Oscar Grant is nobody, his life not worth remembering except for the event of his death.

Instead, the movie tells us what we should all remember: That Oscar Grant should be canonized. As all of us should - every single one of us. Because every human life is valuable and precious and has intrinsic value. Grant's, and Mehserle's, and Martin's, and Zimmerman's. And because the measure of a life is not its death or its achievements, but the small magic it works in our loved ones and friends and family members. In the little deeds, like dropping off our kids at school, or going to the supermarket to buy ingredients for gumbo, or at the greeting cards aisle picking a silly card for a relative.

And yet--even though all lives are precious and valuable--some lives are worth less than others. David Baldus' study of the death penalty indicated the way prejudice operates through the race of the victim; black victims' murderers, whether white or black, fared more leniently than their counterparts with white victims. If you will, this is where the prevalent "let them kill each other" approach comes from. And a grim reminder that underenforcement, like overenforcement, is not race blind.

Far from offering overt racial preachy monologues, the film exposes the experience of an African American working class life in a way that weaves the racial experience intrinsically into the minutiae of one's day, in life and in death. One's consciousness need not be raised for one to experience the subtle effects of race on one's life. In a humorous scene, Grant's sister asks him to buy a card on her behalf for her mother's birthday. "Don't buy a white card," she asks, a reminder that even in the Hallmark aisle there are symbols and themes and that even cute pastel slogans speak to different life experiences.

And, through the fighting scene with a former fellow inmate on BART that led to Grant's apprehension and shooting at the station,  the movie tells us one more thing: That the experience of imprisonment is toxic, poisonous, and that life on the outside is permeable to life on the inside. That animosities behind bars have a way of affecting interactions on the outside. That an imprisonment experience that offers no growth, no hope, no betterment, promises only pain and tragedy.

Many thanks to the many friends who came with me to see the film tonight for their wise words.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Day 11: California Bans Inmates' Rights Lawyer from Prisons

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus, on Wednesday said she was sent a fax informing her that her access to inmates participating in a statewide hunger strike — as well as inmates anywhere else in the state — has been cut off. In addition to advocating on behalf of inmates, McMahon is a member of the mediation team assembled to work as a go-between state corrections officials and protest leaders.

The letter, bearing Tuesday's date and the signature of corrections Undersecretary Martin Hoshino, cites a pending investigation into an unspecified “threat” created by a retired paralegal who worked as a volunteer for McMahon and had last visited Pelican Bay inmates in May.

In a copy of the letter provided to The Times, a check mark appears next to the words "The person's presence in the institution/facility presents a serious threat to security." No details are provided.

California corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said late Wednesday that she was unaware of the action against McMahon and had no comment. Thornton said 2,300 inmates in 15 prisons continued to refuse state meals Wednesday, the 10th day of the protest.

Tomorrow: Day of Action in Support of Hunger Strikers

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

CA Switching to Single-Drug Executions

California will no longer pursue three-drug methods of lethal injection, proposing from now on single-drug executions. The Los Angeles Times reports:

At the direction of Gov. Jerry Brown, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decided against challenging a unanimous California appeals court ruling that blocked the three-drug method on the grounds it had not been properly vetted, said Jeffrey Callison, a corrections department spokesman.

He said he did not know when a new, single-drug method would be unveiled or which drugs the state was considering.

Law enforcement groups had wanted the state to appeal the May ruling by a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 1st District Court of Appeal, and during the appeal, to push forward with a new single-drug method.

Is this more debate of the "tinkering with the machinery of death" variety? After all, in response to similar challenges, Missouri is considering bringing back the gas chamber. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hunger Strike, Day 8: CDCR Defines Strike "a Disturbance"

The hunger strike in Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and other facilities continues. This series from TruthOut provides some insight into the strike and their links are fascinating reads.

Meanwhile, CDCR has released information on the strike, referred to as a "disturbance":

As of [July 12 - H.A.], 12,421 inmates in 24 state prisons and four out-of-state contract facilities have missed nine consecutive meals since Monday, July 8, 2013. An inmate is considered to be on a hunger strike after he has missed nine consecutive meals.

CDCR is not identifying how many inmates are or are not participating in specific prisons. The mass hunger strike is organized by prison gangs and publicizing participation levels at specific prisons could put inmates who are not participating in extreme danger.

In addition, 1,336 inmates have refused to participate in their work assignments or attend educational classes.

Participation in a mass disturbance and refusing to participate in a work assignment are violations of state law, and any participating inmates will receive disciplinary action in accordance with the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3323(h)(A) and Section 3323(f)(7).

While, as Caitlin Henry pointed out yesterday, CDCR is wrongly citing their own code, they seem to be threatening these consequences:

3323. Disciplinary Credit Forfeiture Schedule.
(a) Upon a finding of guilt of a serious rule violation, a credit forfeiture against any determinate term of imprisonment or any minimum eligible parole date for an inmate sentenced to an indeterminate sentence, as defined in section 3000 Indeterminate Sentence Law (ISL), shall be assessed within the ranges specified in (b) through (h) below:
(h) Division “F” offenses; credit forfeiture of 0-30 days.
(9) Work related offenses:
(A) Refusal to work or perform assigned duties;
(B) Continued failure to perform assigned work or participate in a work/training program.
(f) Division “D” offenses; credit forfeiture of 61-90 days.
(7) Willfully resisting, delaying, or obstructing any peace officer in the performance of duty.
3315. Serious Rule Violations.
(a) Inmate misconduct reported on a CDC Form 115 shall be classified serious if:
(2) It involves any one or more of the following circumstances:
(3) Serious rule violations include but are not limited to:
(L) Participation in a strike or work stoppage.

In addition, a serious 115 rules violation report may have impact on an inmate's parole, clemency, medical parole, or resentencing under Prop 36, as well as any other process that takes into account an inmate's disciplinary history.

Props to Caitlin Henry for the CDCR links and explanations.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

After Trayvon: Why a Guilty Verdict Is Not The Answer

Like many people of good conscience, I was angry and upset to hear the news last night. The acquittal of George Zimmerman, while not wholly unexpected given the trial coverage, has been a punch in the stomach for those of us who saw race relations in America dramatized yet again in this incident. It is also hard to see this as an isolated incident, and those of us who experienced frustration and rage at the verdict of Johannes Mehserle, who shot Oscar Grant in front of dozens of onlookers are even more enraged and hopeless today.

Which is why this post is a hard one for me to write. Because I have hard things to say, and they will not heal our broken hearts or silence our voices from crying out in indignation today. But maybe they are still worth saying.

Legal Truth and Factual Truth

We all know this, but it bears repeating: Criminal law doctrine--stripped of all realities and considerations and constraints and group effects--allows convicting people only if the evidence supports their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. What that means, exactly; whether it allows for majority decisions; whether jurors understand how to quantify it; and how it relates to actual innocence is a different question. But finding someone not-guilty at trial is not a factual statement that the person did not commit the crime. Also, which is less obvious, finding someone guilty at trial is not a factual statement that the person committed the crime. The legal system would have us believe that it takes legal guilt seriously. That is, that it hopes that legal guilt will approximate, as much as possible, factual guilt. And much of the premise behind the post-Warren court's chipping away at the Bill of Rights was exactly that: No one wanted factually innocent people to go to prison, but we weren't all that excited about the factually guilty going free. The legal system and the rule of law rely on legitimacy from the public, and to garner that legitimacy the façade of truth in convictions has to be maintained.

But deep down, the system knows it makes mistakes. Dan Simon's In Doubt, which analyzes the causes of wrongful convictions, cites the astonishing statistic that we may be wrongfully convicting up to 5% of all people found guilty at trial. We acknowledge this to the point that habeas proceedings have an "actual innocence" exception to the cause and prejudice rule. Part of the reason for this may be that Doreen McBarnet is right, and that the system is inherently biased toward conviction. Throw in one more important factor: Six jurors is a lot less than twelve, which makes not only for cheaper trials but also for an increased tendency to come to a guilty verdict in weak cases. So, six people came to an unpopular decision, and we may disagree with them. But I certainly do not envy them. I have, perhaps, an inkling about the political culture these folks will be going back to this morning, but I still think it's going to take a lot of guts to explain this legal decision to people who don't believe the factual assertions behind it.

Facts and Symbolism

Do you know what happened in that Florida gated community the morning that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin? And by "know", I mean, are you absolutely certain of what happened? And can we be certain at all? I wasn't there, and neither were you. And even if we were there, or saw a video, we could not be sure.

But you and I have a fairly good idea in our heads, and that idea differs from what six Florida residents decided yesterday. We listened to the tape, and we know that Martin was not armed, and we think that Zimmerman, who was motivated by hypervigilance and racial animosity, shot a defenseless man. And my fear this morning has been that we are allowing the symbolic value of this incident, as we did when Oscar Grant was shot, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of what happened.

The much-awaited movie Fruitvale Station (trailer above) opened yesterday in Oakland theaters. I didn't see it, but am planning to do so soon; yesterday I had a chance to talk to some people who saw it, and one of them told me that a relative who came with him wanted to know, at the end of the film, whether it was "romanticized." Films are never an accurate description of the truth, because the truth is messy and does not make for a neat and coherent story. But the story in the film resonates very strongly with those of us who were in Oakland the night of the protests, because it epitomizes what we know and believe is true, namely, that racism is alive and well in America. This feeling would be valid whether or not Mehserle reached to the taser or Zimmerman was attacked by Martin. Because it goes to the heart of a problem, and not to the details.

I read some reviews of Fruitvale Station, which were for the most part laudatory. One of the few exceptions was this piece of drivel by the NY Post's Kyle Smith. You don't really need to see the movie to learn something from this review--namely, that Smith doesn't see Oscar Grant as a human being worthy of life and dignity. To him, Grant is merely a "criminal" and a "recent San Quentin resident," the "only remarkable aspect" of whose life "was its end." I suppose that for Smith, as for many people (and, judging from his words to the 911 operator, for George Zimmerman), human life doesn't have intrinsic value when the person living it has darker skin and a criminal record. I don't think any of us needs to canonize Grant or even Martin to understand this terrible truth (even though an unarmed honor student is, perhaps, easier to canonize.) That their lives and deaths are a morality tale about the fragile concept of sanctity of life in America for black and brown men is important enough. They don't have to be all good and flawless. No one is. Even the people we have canonized, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., were real human beings with flaws and weaknesses. And when we wear the hoodie, we are not, perhaps, making a factual statement about an interaction we didn't witness, but about its symbolic meaning.

A Racialized Criminal Justice System

Perhaps the resentment about Zimmerman's verdict comes not from this place of truth and symbolism, then, but from a bitter acknowledgment that a black defendant would not have received this careful consideration, determined defense work and benefit of the doubt. It is one more data point on our chart of racial inequities in the system. When we decry the correctional binge that has bloated America's prisons for the last four decades, we highlight the obvious racial aspect of it. Some of us go to the extent of referring to the incarceration system as the new Jim Crow.

As James Forman reminds us, however, the picture is more nuanced. A growing number of white people are criminalized, incarcerated, and their lives savaged by the meth plague, much as the not-imaginary crack epidemic savaged African American communities in the 1990s. Black and brown young men are incarcerated at much higher rates, but the white population is rising steadily as well and possibly faster. Contrary to what we believe, the prison inflation is not solely or even predominantly due to nonviolent drug crimes; violent crimes play a big role, and African Americans perpetrate more of those crimes, which are less open to interpretation. All of this does not mean that the criminal justice system is not racialized or that racism does not exist. Of course it does. But the roots of racialization may be much deeper than merely incarceration rates or stop-and-frisk practices, and go back in history to a place of coercion, slavery, torture, and the resulting deep-reaching inequities. Convicting a white man who killed a black man, no matter how enraged his particular story makes us feel, would not do anything to fix this. It would merely add one more inmate to the population.

The Empty Promise of Punitivism

Why would convicting Zimmerman not make us feel better this morning? Some of us, especially Trayvon Martin's family, would perhaps find some comfort in a conviction. Even this is not a certainty. Tragically, a conviction will not bring Trayvon back to them, or to any of us, and the anguish and despair experienced at the loss of a loved one is a personal experience that takes its own course toward healing.

And what about the rest of us? Would a conviction make for a better tomorrow? Let's, indeed, imagine an alternative universe, in which a guilty verdict sends Zimmerman to prison. The racialized lines formed around the trial will accompany him to prison and intensify there. There is no truce or hunger strike in Florida, and Zimmerman is embraced by the Aryan Brotherhood, fueling whatever racial ideas he has about the world and crystalizing them forever. Vilified by some and canonized by those who believe in maintaining the racial caste system in America, Zimmerman would become one more pawn in the battles fought across racial lines in the criminal justice system.

Many of the good, angry, upset, frustrated people who will be in the streets this afternoon protesting spend much of their time protesting the excesses of our prison system. If we believe, generally, that the hyperpunitive character of America's incarceration project is destructive, dehumanizing, and ultimately counterproductive, then sending one more person, deserving as he may be, to this system is no cause for rejoice.

So, a guilty verdict would not send me frolicking in the streets. It would push me into solemn contemplation of the futility of remedying years of slavery, lynching, discrimination, with one "right" act. And mostly, into contemplation of the immense well of suffering that is to become Trayvon Martin's family's life for many, many days to come. Healing doesn't come from a guilty verdict.

Where Healing Comes From

Nothing good comes from punitiveness, and it will not change what we know or think about the world. Healing comes from taking the rage and hot, burning energy we all feel this morning, and channeling it toward sentiments that produce effective change. It comes from taking a hard look at the immense resources we spend in maintaining a carceral colossus and investing them in educating a new generation of people who do not hate, suspect and judge others based on the color of their skin. That is the commitment I'd like to see renewed today, after our anger subsides and we start asking ourselves where to go from here.

Healing comes from a deeper understanding of the role of implicit biases in our own lives. From asking ourselves why one of Victor Rios' young interviewees did not get a fast food joint job at an interview in which he refrained from shaking his prospective boss' hand, not wanting to alarm a white woman with physical closeness. From asking why reaching out to others across skin color lines is such a frightening concept. From taking a cue from California inmates, who have realized that the unfair, torturous, abysmal incarceration conditions they face is a common enemy that transcends race and needs to be fought together.

“Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.”

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hunger Strike, Day Six: 7,667 Inmates on Strike, CDCR Threatens Repercussions

Reuters Los Angeles reports:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that 7,667 inmates in 24 prisons and one out-of-state unit had missed nine consecutive meals, the benchmark used by the state's prison system for recognizing a hunger strike. 

That is well below the 12,421 inmates out of a total prison population of more than 130,000 that officials had confirmed were striking on Thursday in an what the Los Angeles Times said marked the largest prison hunger strike in California history. 

California prison officials have threatened to impose disciplinary measures on inmates who take part in what the prison system has termed as illegal "mass disruptions." 

Officials have not specified what privileges could be taken away from inmates, but on Friday they said visitors would be allowed into state prisons as usual this weekend. They said the prison system was not negotiating with the strikers.

While 7,667 is a lot less than the original 12,421, it is important to keep in mind that it is also more than the number of strikers in any of the previous strikes. Obviously, the folks who continue the strike are the folks that are most committed to achieving its goals; we have no breakdown by institution, but it is probably reasonable to assume that SHU inmates have the least to lose.

What can you do?

1. Many people still don't know about the hunger strike. Make it a topic of conversation this weekend.
2. Join the human rights pen pal program and cheer up a hunger strikers with letters from the outside.
3. Donate to support the folks helping and visiting inmates at Corcoran.

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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hunger Strike, Day Three: 29,000 Inmates Refusing Meals; 2,000 Enagage in Work Stoppage

The L.A. Times reports this morning:

The inmates issued a hand-written letter spelling out their demands for improved prison conditions, including cleaner facilities, better food and more access to the prison library. It is one of at least eight demand letters California prison officials had in hand as some 29,000 inmates — a slight decline from 30,000 Monday — refused meals Tuesday.

Corrections officials said the wide protests — mostly focused on solitary confinement conditions — were causing no disruptions, although 2,000 inmates refused to show up for their prison jobs or attend classes. The state does not acknowledge a hunger strike officially until inmates have missed nine consecutive meals, which would occur late Wednesday.

The protest comes at a time of turmoil in the California prison system, criticized by the federal courts for unconstitutionally poor care of inmates and an unchecked outbreak of potentially deadly valley fever. State officials recently agreed to comply with a federal judge's order to move 2,600 inmates at risk of contracting the disease from Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons.

Interesting tidbit:

Corrections officials said Ramadan complicates their count of those who refuse meals in protest rather than as religious observance.

Hunger Strike, Day Three: Demands Across the System

Some of you may have wondered whether all 30,000 inmates who refused meals are housed in solitary confinement in the SHU. The strikers are from many correctional institutions, not only Pelican Bay and Corcoran. And the strike is not merely a move of solidarity on their part: Inmates have made demands of prison authorities in their respective institutions. Some of these demands address particular prison conditions, and some are more generally aimed at sentencing and the like. But one recurring theme is the classification system, and in particular the ways of establishing gang affiliation.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Support 30,000 Hunger Strikers! Stop Torture in CA!

CDCR: 30,000 Inmates Refuse Meals

It is Day Two of the hunger strike, and the Los Angeles times reports:

California officials Monday said 30,000 inmates refused meals at the start of what could be the largest prison protest in state history.

Inmates in two-thirds of the state's 33 prisons, and at all four out-of-state private prisons, refused both breakfast and lunch on Monday, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. In addition, 2,300 prisoners failed to go to work or attend their prison classes, either refusing or in some cases saying they were sick.

The corrections department will not acknowledge a hunger strike until inmates have missed nine consecutive meals. Even so, Thornton said, Monday's numbers are far larger than those California saw two years earlier during a series of hunger strikes that drew international attention.

Read the full article for some background on the strike.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Inmate Photo Ban and Reasoned Restrictions

Self-portrait drawn by Marcus Harrison at
the request of his mother Anita. Courtesy
the California Report.
There's an interesting and thought-provoking story in this morning's California Report about a prison regulation that prohibited photography.

For a quarter-century, California outlawed personal photographs for inmates held in isolation in special security housing units. Over the years, the restrictions affected thousands of inmates in four prisons: California State Prison, Corcoran; California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi; California State Prison, Sacramento; and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. While prison officials photographed the inmates for administrative purposes, those images were not passed on to families, making the men all but invisible to relatives living hundreds and even thousands of miles away. For years, prison staff defended the ban, contending that personal photographs were circulated by prison gang leaders as calling cards, both to advise other members that they're still in charge and to pass on orders. 

But after taking a closer look at the ban during a 2011 inmate hunger strike, top Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials determined it was not justified. Scott Kernan, who retired as undersecretary of corrections in 2011, said the stories of calling cards were isolated examples and the photo ban and other restrictions targeted inmates who were not breaking any rules. 

"I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day," he said. "How right is it to have an offender who is behaving ... (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?" 

Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations. 

Now, with hundreds of families receiving photos from relatives locked at Pelican Bay, some for the first time in decades, there is growing pressure on the corrections department to lift other restrictions and limit the amount of time inmates are locked in the controversial security units. 

I find this story fascinating for several reasons. First, this is probably not the only instance of a prison restriction lasting decades before being examined and questioned. Scott Kernan is to be commended for his willingness to reexamine the restriction. Second, and related, note the incident that prompted reexamining the regulation: The 2011 hunger strike. While CDCR was very intent in arguing that the changes it made to its SHU policies were unrelated to the strike, it is clear that organized, nonviolent action that received media attention (arguably too little) has actually had an impact on institutional policies.

Lifting the photo ban was not one of the strikers' five core demands. But it was a dated, unnecessary restriction that needed to be reexamined, and the hunger strike created the opportunity for prison authorities to reflect on its necessity.

The photo ban also illuminates the many aspects of segregation seldom addressed in the literature. The distance of Pelican Bay and Corcoran from many urban centers in California means that families seldom, or never, get to see their loved ones--to the point that children, siblings, parents and lovers may forget what their loved ones look like.

The success of the hunger strike that begins today remains to be seen. But this story highlights the possible gains from nonviolent action and is yet one more reminder why the strikers need our support.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Tubal Ligations to Female Inmates in CA Prisons With Questionable Consent

Yes, you read it right. The Sac Bee reports:

At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men's prison.

As you'll see in the piece, the issue of consent is contested.

Moving Away from the CCA! For Financial Reasons

The state of Kentucky is opting out of private incarceration. For the first time in 30 years, no Kentucky inmates will do time in private facilities. The reason? Savings. The Courier-Journal reports:

J. Michael Brown, the state Justice and Public Safety secretary, said in a news release Tuesday that the move will save the state about $2 million a year. And he credited a 2011 law and other steps taken by the General Assembly and the Beshear administration that reformed sentencing and increased drug treatment opportunities.

“This has created, for the first time in a generation, an opportunity to manage our inmate population with existing DOC (Department of Corrections) facilities, county jails and local halfway houses,” Brown said in a news release.

The state inmate population is dipping — from 22,102 inmates last November to 20,591 today, according to Jennifer Brislin, spokeswoman for the cabinet.

It is, apparently, possible to opt out of private incarceration, and it is sometimes more cost-effective.

Thoughts on Standing, Or: Why Should I Care About PRISM/mass incarceration/the Hunger Strike?

Recently, many Californians rejoiced at the news that the Supreme Court, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, would not hear conservative arguments to preserve the discriminatory Prop 8 because of lack of standing. The happiness was because of the combined effect of the decision with another decision handed that day, U.S. v. Windsor, which found the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The bottom line is that same-sex marriage, in the states that recognized it (now thirteen and the District of Columbia, with the addition of CA), is fully federally recognized. Nothing has changed in states that have not recognized same-sex marriage, and there are still many battles to be fought on those fronts; but some happy outcomes in the area of immigration are already happening.

But what did the Court really say about Prop 8? Rather than reaching the decision on its merits and expressing a clear opinion about the proposition's constitutionality, the Court found that, when a state government is unwilling to defend one of its laws, private citizens cannot do so in its stead--not even when said citizens were pointed to by the government as possible ideological and financial stewards of this law. The dissenters, I'm sure, would come to different conclusions on the merits, but the opinion of the court is based on what Chief Justice Roberts and others consider principles of sound government. This is particularly interesting in the context of a neopopulist, direct democracy system like the one in California, in which legislative impasse requires that ideologically controversial laws be taken up by the voters.

The five Justices were very cautious not to attach value judgments to their no-standing decision, but we are free to think whether such meanings exist. Usually, the test for standing has to do with whether the party in question has a stake in the matter before the court. And it could be argued (albeit with little help from the text in Hollingsworth) that a no-standing argument is a broader statement against the notion that same-sex marriage somehow affects--in injury or otherwise--people who are not same-sex couples. The little graphic below, which made the rounds on the social networks in the last few months, is an expression of this interpretation of lack of standing: That gay people can now marry has no injurious effect on the institution of marriage itself, so no one but the government can argue against it.

But on further thought, this interpretation of standing is not the deepest or most interesting stance on the matter. After all, that same-sex marriages may proceed in California, now with full federal backing and support, does have an effect on everyone in the state, in the sense that we all live in a more just and egalitarian society, that has taken an important step in furthering civil rights. This is why organizations such as the ACLU of Northern California have a stake in the decision, if not as official parties then at least as amici. This is not, however, a matter of technical legal standing, but rather one of moral standing; when some of us don't get our civil rights, it affects all of us in a variety of ways.

What does all of this have to do with the hunger strike? I have recently had a chance to interact with various progressive audiences, only to find out that they were unaware of the hunger strike that begins tomorrow in Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and possibly other prisons. Those who knew, vaguely, about the strike, were not well informed about the inmates' five core demands and of CDCR's new protocols' failure to address them. Very few people know that Christian Gomez, an inmate at Corcoran, died during the previous hunger strike. Very few people know that the strike galvanized agreements across races and gang affiliations. My grave concern is that, like its predecessors, this strike will receive little publicity, and the illness and possible death that might result will remain unknown and unexamined. And this is because I think we all have standing on this matter. Not in the strictly legal sense, but in the sense that treating our fellow human beings, Americans, Californians, in inhumane ways does have a detrimental effect on how we all treat each other.

What keeps us unaware of prison conditions, why do many of us feel that we lack "moral standing" on incarceration conditions? Some of this has to do with misinformation. Mainstream media does not cover incarceration frequently, though the financial crisis has begun to change that insofar as expenditures on corrections affect our wallets. Still, since incarceration does not affect everyone equally, many of us are likely to familiarize ourselves with its evils through the increasing number of new TV shows about prison (such as the new Orange is the New Black,) which will likely not tell us anything of social or political value. Even shows that purported to offer some critique of the system left its basic tenets unexamined. Moreover, prisons themselves are distant from the consciousness of those not directly affected. The disparate effect of incarceration is exaggerated by institutions like Pelican Bay and Corcoran, which are far away from major urban centers and very difficult to get to, and by the worrisome prospect of even larger, more isolated institutions.

But one should be informed, and one should care, because incarceration and segregation regimes do affect all of us  First of all, one in a hundred Americans is behind bars, and one in 36 is under some form of correctional supervision. That person could be you. While I think articles like this one are somewhat facetious--the people targeted by technology laws are unlikely to be the critical mass of inmates in California prisons, for a variety of reasons involving race, class, and enforcement priorities--those are still vast numbers of lives touched by the experience of imprisonment. But at least one must acknowledge that the vast numbers of incarcerated people mean that the experience of incarceration touches many, many lives, such as those of 2.5 million children with parents behind bars. If that child is not you, he or she is your future neighbor, coworker, and fellow citizen. Most people behind bars will, one day, be released, and it is to the benefit of all of us that they have some chance of reintegration because we all have to interact with each other, even when someone we don't know crosses our path in our gated community.

Second, even if your life has not been touched by incarceration, the dehumanization of your fellow citizens may eventually spill over to the way your government sees you. This is why the recent discoveries about phone surveillance cannot be brushed away with the supposition that, if one is not a terrorist, one is not affected by PRISM. Approaches toward human rights, surveillance and social control tend to be imported and exported across systems and institutions, and not caring about other human beings' conditions of confinement may infect conditions in schools and other places.

Third, there is the persistent question of how much all of this costs us. Even if this system could be stomached from the humanitarian perspective, is it financially viable?

And finally, there is a serious moral argument. Do you want to be part of a society that locks up people for many years, sometimes decades, for 22.5 hours a day, waking them up frequently so they get little to no sleep, with no human company whatsoever, abysmal medical care, and very poor food? Do you feel comfortable subjecting others to this regime based on partial and faulty information, particularly reports of some people on others to receive a reprieve from this same system? Do you believe tattoos and rumors to be a fair indication of gang affiliation, enough to place a person in this system for years? And do you feel comfortable with the possibility that we might have made a mistake and subjected an innocent person to years of horrific torture?

If not, stand with the hunger strikers tomorrow. Because you have moral standing.