Thursday, September 5, 2013

BREAKING NEWS: Inmates End Hunger Strike

The hunger strike in protest of long-term solitary confinement has ended. KTVU reports:

The strike ended after two Democratic state legislators promised to hold hearings this fall on inmates' complaints that gang leaders are often held for decades in isolation units.

A federal judge also recently gave authorities permission to force-feed inmates if necessary to save their lives. However, even the hard-core strikers had been accepting vitamins and electrolyte drinks during their fast.

"We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill," Beard said in a statement. He said the department will continue to carry out changes in its policies over sending inmates to Security Housing Units that were started two years ago.

The changes include more limits on which inmates are sent to the housing units at Pelican Bay, where the strike began, and at other prisons. The policies also make it easier for inmates also can work their way out of the isolation units.

It's been a very, very difficult two months for inmates and their supporters. In the course of the last two months we've seen some successes, one death, accusations that the strike was a "gang power play" and their rebuttal, an order to force-feed that implied that some inmates were coerced into striking, and finally, a promise to hold hearings on long-term confinement.

What will stay with me is the sense that I know what's right, and as I see it, I also see shades of gray. I have no doubt--in fact, I know--that hunger strike leaders were gang members. That CDCR Secretary Beard thought that telling us about the gang affiliations will convince us that the strike is illegitimate and that these folks deserve their conditions is an insult to my morality and my intelligence, and perhaps to yours, as well. Of course these are folks who committed serious crimes and joined gangs. That's why they're serving long prison sentences. But does confinement also imply all these other indignities and aggressions? Decades of isolation under abysmal conditions, and an "out" path that is marred with lies and misinformation?

Where I see more shades of gray is with regard to the coercion/pressure concern, which I'm sure Judge Henderson had in mind when giving the force-feeding order (so as to give pressured inmates a dignified exit from the strike). But social movements seldom boast members who all share a 100% conviction in their path, and why should this one be different? The decision to risk one's life, and to fight back with the only thing one has left--one's body--is a very drastic one to make. Not everyone will share that level of conviction, and that's okay. The extent to which pressure is put on people to comply is where the shades of gray come into the picture. My thoughts about this stem from the fact that I know Judge Henderson, through his decisions and public speaking, to be an upstanding, moral judge, who has been a friend and supporter to inmates for decades of his career. I want to believe that he would not have authorized such cruelty had he not known something about the internal dynamics of the strike that I wasn't privy to. And yet, I am troubled. Medical professionals must have been frustrated and upset at the prospect of being asked to solve what is, essentially, a social and political problem via medical means. What a miserable situation.

And so, I am left frustrated and confused, and living in a state where a nonviolent struggle to achieve a fairly modest goal--making sure that segregation for 23 hours a day lasts "only" ten years--has ended with little to show for it, amidst misleading publicity and some serious doubts about some of the events and the internal dynamics. But there is one thing I know is true. Holding a human being, no matter his or her gang affiliation or former crime, alone, for decades, in a small cell, with no window of hope and change and no human contact, and providing him or her with abysmal health care under conditions that would render anyone insane, is wrong. It is wrong no matter what we are being told. The strike has ended, but the struggle must continue.

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