Editor’s note: I’ve broken with the PPOTR chronology to bring you Dispatch #12. The decision was made because of the time sensitivity of the issue at hand – California’s Prisoner Hunger Strike. Dispatches 6 to 11 will follow shortly.
“I think the tragedy of this situation is not the prisoners willingness to give up their lives, I think the tragedy is that the CDCR does not see them as human beings,” says Isaac Ontiveros, Communications Director for Critical Resistance and part of the press team for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition.
The PHSS is made up of grassroots organizations & community members committed to amplifying the voices of hunger strikers.
The strike originally ran from July 1st – July 22nd. It was suspended briefly to investigate the viability of concessions made by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. These were unsatisfactory and the strike resumed September 26th.
Ontiveros and I spoke on October 11th, day 15 of the resumed hunger strike.
TIMELINE OF THE CALIFORNIA PRISONERS’ HUNGER STRIKE
For three weeks in the month of July, 6,600 California prisoners* took on a hunger strike against the conditions of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay & other prisons. The strikers made five demands: access to programs, nutritious food, an end to collective punishment, compliance with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse (2006), and an end to the “debriefing” practice that affiliates prisoners to gangs; a process vulnerable to manipulation and false evidence.
Late in July, the strike was suspended but due to the slow and “inadequate” response of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s response it was clear there was a need for the protest to resume. On September 26th the strikers refused meals once more.
On October 15th, after nearly three weeks, the prisoners at Pelican Bay ended the resumed strike.
The prisoners cited a memo from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) detailing a comprehensive review of every Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisoner in California whose SHU sentence is related to gang validation. The review will evaluate the prisoners’ gang validation under new criteria and could start as early as the beginning of next year. “This is something the prisoners have been asking for and it is the first significant step we’ve seen from the CDCR to address the hunger strikers’ demands,” says Carol Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, “But as you know, the proof is in the pudding. We’ll see if the CDCR keeps its word regarding this new process.” (Source)
Ontiveros and I discuss the history of hunger strikes, the unprecedented scope of the strike in the U.S., the necessity of the demands, late summer negotiations and retaliations by the CDCR and the need for continued awareness of this still developing struggle.
In the context of the sit-in within the Georgia prison system in December of last year, the California hunger strike indicates a growing political awareness of U.S. prisoners to their conditions and invisibility. “Our bodies are all we have left,” says Ontiveros assuming the position of an incarcerated striker.
Generally, prison strikes can be played down by authorities and overlooked by national mainstream media. As our discussion proves, awareness of the details in cases such as this are critical. We cannot wait for deaths to be knowledgable of the issue. Please watch developments in California to see if meaningful results for the CDCR and prisoners can be agreed upon and shared.
*6,600 is an official estimate, and the lowest possible figure. Some reports put the figure at nearly double that at 12,000.
PRISONER HUNGER STRIKE SOLIDARITY
Coalition partners include: Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, California Prison Focus, Prison Activist Resource Center, Critical Resistance, Kersplebedeb, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, American Friends Service Committee, BarNone Arcata and a number of individuals throughout the United States and Canada. For more info on these organizations, visit PHSS’ resources page.
Critical Resistance seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure. As such, our work is part of global struggles against inequality and powerlessness. The success of the movement requires that it reflect communities most affected by the PIC. Because we seek to abolish the PIC, we cannot support any work that extends its life or scope.