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Human Rights

Hunger strike in California prisons escalate

Prisoners on hunger strike believe their conditions can be described as torture.

Last Modified: 21 Aug 2013 11:33
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Nearly 200 prisoners remain on strike in several California prisons [GALLO/GETTY]

Risk of organ failure, disruption of all metabolic function, loss of at least 18 per cent of initial body weight and potential death are the health risks associated with going 42 days without food, according to California Correctional Health Care Services - a government agency tasked with handling medical care for the state’s 133,000 prisoners.

Sunday, August 18, was day 42 for scores of prisoners, and the reforms being demanded in their hunger strike continue to be met with a refusal to negotiate by prison authorities.

According to the most recently available information from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) from Friday, August 16, 190 prisoners are on strike at seven prisons throughout the state.

That number is down from the initial 30,000 who started the protest on July 8, five months after a group of prisoners calling themselves the Pelican Bay Human Rights Movement called for protest action last February.

As scores of prisoners’ bodies break down, potential for meaningful negotiation plays out outside the SHU cells in a war of ideas: Prisoner advocates want the CDCR to negotiate and accept significant reforms along the lines of strikers’ demands while prison authorities refuse to acknowledge the strike as a legitimate form of protest.

“The department [CDCR] is very concerned about these inmates and their health and well-being,” CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton told Al Jazeera. “There are numerous ways for inmates to have their concerns raised or addressed. This is not a productive way for them to do that,” Thornton said, referring to lawsuits and a complex web of state and federal oversight of prisons as alternatives.

Judicial precedent

One recent case that went through the US Supreme Court took more than 10 years to resolve, and a lawsuit on behalf of California’s striking prisoners by the national Center for Constitutional Rights has been moving through court procedures. Meanwhile, prisoners continue to live in conditions they call torture.

California prisoners say their conditions amount to torture

“The hunger strike is the only tactic available to prisoners,” Azadeh Zohrabi, a prisoner rights lawyer, said. “The 602 process [which gives a legal route for prisoners to bring grievances directly to the prison] is completely ineffective and Kafkaesque. The litigation will take years to bring results and CDCR keeps stalling. Even if we win the lawsuit, CDCR has shown that they don't follow court orders - not even the [US] Supreme Court.”

Zohrabi was referring to the recent court order by the government’s highest court that gave California Governor Jerry Brown a slap on the wrist for not being quick enough to reduce the state’s prison population after the court ordered him to do so due to overcrowding.

As imprisoned strikers amplify conditions in the most isolated parts of California prisons, those who run the system that administers those conditions steer the debate away from what those prisoners are dying for.

“There is no solitary confinement in California prisons,” Thornton told Al Jazeera. “I ask a lot of people: ‘How do you define solitary confinement?’ And I get a different answer from everybody…there is no consensus on what solitary confinement is.”

Prisoner advocates disagree and say Thornton and the CDCR are reaching for ways to delegitimize legitimate demands that are part of a legitimate struggle.

“Of course CDCR won't admit that solitary confinement exists because the practice has been widely condemned as torture and they are currently being sued for it,” Zohrabi said, citing the UN Rapporteur on Torture’s definition: "The physical and social isolation of who are confined to cells for 22-24 hours a day."

Solitary confinement

Indeed, prisoners housed in isolation cells, called Security Housing Units (or SHU), are kept there for more than 22 hours each day, and their time outside their cells consists of solitary workout time in a cement room and behind-glass visits with lawyers or family members. Visitation can be quite a commitment, as Pelican Bay prison, where the strike started, is in the northernmost part of California - more than a 12-hour drive from Los Angeles County, where many prisoners housed in the Pelican Bay’s SHU are from. Most prisoners housed in the SHU have no physical contact with people other than guards for their entire SHU term. According to the undersecretary of the CDCR, from a statement in 2011, the state’s average SHU term is 6.8 years.

“Of course the officers talk to the prisoners, and the prisoners can yell within earshot of other prisoners, so they are not 100 percent isolated,” Terry Kupers, a clinical psychiatrist who studies the psychological effects of solitary confinement, told Al Jazeera. “But it is disingenuous for the CDCR to claim this means they are not in solitary [confinement], since that ‘talk’ occurs in the several seconds it takes to pass a food tray through a slot in the metal door, and yelling at people one cannot see does not exactly constitute meaningful human communication.”

California prisoners call for hunger strike

The current hunger strike comes two years after the same prisoners coordinated similar actions in 2011. As they readied themselves for the current round of strikes, prisoner organizers said that while the prison system did engage some reforms as a result of their earlier action, the reforms have not been meaningful.

“Our decision [to strike] does not come lightly,” they wrote, in a letter published on June 20 of this year. “For the past (2) years we’ve patiently kept an open dialogue with state officials, attempting to hold them to their promise to implement meaningful reforms, responsive to our demands. For the past seven months we have repeatedly pointed out CDCR’s failure to honor their word… and what they need to do to avoid the resumption of our protest action.”

Thornton, the CDCR’s spokesperson, responded to this prompt by describing the ambiguity of the demand for meaningful reforms: “How do you define ‘meaningful’?”

Thornton’s question is an assertion that regarding the hunger strike, it is the prison authorities that wield power over the reform process. The reforms instituted after the 2011 strikes are meaningful enough to the CDCR, regarding the grievances that strikers continue to raise.

“All we’re asking from inmates is to refrain from criminal gang behavior and get along with other people,” Thornton said, in line with her department’s latest public challenge in the hunger strike’s war of ideas. “That’s all society asks of humans.”

Framing the strike through criminality in this way is the most recent of CDCR’s media strategies in the war of ideas. 

We believe that the real purpose behind this hunger strike is for these gang leaders to get themselves out into the general population where they have more access to running their gang business, both in the prison and in our communities,” CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard was quoted as saying earlier this month.

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, a strike leader housed in Pelican Bay’s SHU, cites he and other leaders’ history of organizing for the exact opposite reasons.

“We called for an end to hostilities to eliminate giving prison guards an excuse to kill prisoners,” Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, a striker housed in Pelican Bay’s SHU, said, referring to a document he and other leaders published in the summer of 2012. “We realize nothing productive can be done to change the current state of our situation, our prison environment, unless we end the hostilities between prisoners and end all racial and gang violence within the CDCR.”

Members of the mediation team that advocates for the striking prisoners told Al Jazeera, that in a closed-door meeting on March 15 of this year, the CDCR admitted that violence in the prisons has decreased since the agreement to end hostilities was issued.

A set up?

Beard’s statements also coincided with the unsealing of a legal document that names one of the hunger strike leaders, Arturo Castellanos, as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a variety of illegal violent acts and narcotics sales with the Mexican Mafia gang. The document says that Castellanos gave orders to gang members outside the prison through coded phone conversations and personal visits, all coordinated from his isolated SHU cell that is built to keep people outside the SHU safe from the wrath of those inside.

Castellanos calls the indictment and the timing of its release a setup.

“Behind that 2006 indictment, this prison in August of 2008 severely restricted all my incoming and outgoing correspondence,” Castellanos wrote in a letter from his 38th day without food. “Just one week after my restrictions was officially lifted [on May 23, 2013], I began to receive letters from total strangers who claimed they were from my childhood area and they were clearly asking me for permission to conduct illegal activities.”

This is about human rights, not gangs

-Azadeh Zohrabi, prisoner rights lawyer

Kupers says the newly public charges have ulterior motives: “First, that is ridiculous and disingenuous on the face of it - 30,000 prisoners have participated in the hunger strike, the majority having nothing to do with gangs - but secondly this obvious and desperate attempt to villainise the hunger strikers ignores the very reasonable and just demands of the striking prisoners.”

Thornton, on the other hand, maintains that the indictment is part of the regular rule of law: “That’s the result of a three-year long investigation. That means that that inmate was engaging in organized criminal gang behavior during the last three hunger strikes…While some of these inmates are alleging all of this abuse…they’re still engaging in criminal gang behavior.”

But striker advocates say that what is labeled “gang behavior” by the CDCR is a political tool rather an attempt by these prisoners - who, again, have publicly called for an “end to hostilities” and gang violence.

“This is about human rights, not gangs,” Zohrabi told Al Jazeera. “I got a letter from a hunger striker that said ‘if IGI [the gang investigation unit] hears you fart they will try to decode it for gang messages.’ The bottom line is that CDCR has already made up its mind that these guys are gang members and anything they do will be construed as gang activity.”

More than 42 days into the protest, the state’s refusal to meet striking prisoners’ demands is being held up as strong as protesters’ determination to achieve them. All parties realize that without either prisoners or the CDCR ceding battle, the imprisoned will start to perish.

They all say they fear the impending deaths - coming closer and closer by the hour – but with no clear negotiations in site, that next hurdle in the conflict will be far more damning than any slant or spin in the war of ideas.

I don't know what will make [the hunger strike] effective,” Zohrabi told Al Jazeera. “I hope it’s not the death of the hunger strikers.”

On Monday, August 19 - day 43 of the strike  a federal judge approved a request by state and federal prison authorities to engage the controversial practice of force-feed striking prisoners.

"If an inmate gets to the point where he can't tell us what his wishes are, for instance if he's found unresponsive in his cell, and we don't have a [Do Not Rescusitate order], we're going to get nourishment into him,” said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokesperson for the federal receiver who controls inmate medical care. "We'd take any and all measures to sustain their life.

On the other hand, prisoners say that they have been demanding precisely that: measures to sustain their life including an end to “torture” and violations of human rights.

“This order violates all international laws and standards and gives the medical director of each prison authority to violate human rights laws instead of reasonably negotiating with prisoners,” Claude Marks of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition said.

"This approach, much like Guantanamo, sets the US apart from all related international human rights standards."

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Al Jazeera
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