Hungry for Californian prison reform

After gang interrogations and harsh prison conditions, inmates have been on hunger strike since July 1.

California''s Pelican Bay State Prison
Manuel LaFontaine spent time imprisoned in California, and now works for All of Us or None, an organisation led by former prisoners who advocate for the human and civil rights of prisoners [Isaac Ontiveros/Al Jazeera]

Thousands of prisoners in the US state of California have refused meals for more than a week as part of a hunger strike against the use of “group punishments” and for authorities to follow legal requirements for maintaining their mental and physical health.

Prisoners housed in the notorious Security Housing Unit of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison started the strike on June 1, but it has since spread to at least a third of the state’s 33 prisons.

Their demands include an end to the interrogation process which is used to claim prisoners’ gang affiliation, an end to long-term isolation along the recommendations of a US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons report, and access to healthy food, programmes and privileges.

“The basis for this protest has come about after over 25 years, some of us 30, some up to 40 years, of being subjected to these conditions. Of our 602 appeals, numerous court challenges have gotten nowhere,” Pelican Bay hunger strike leader Todd Ashker said, in a statement released by lawyers of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition

“A lot of us are older now, we have serious medical issues coming on … And there’s a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death, if necessary.”

A key concern for advocates and lawyers working on the strikers’ behalf is their access to medications during the strike. Reports are coming in from prisoners to the solidarity coalition and to family members that medication is being denied.

Inmates can issue a directive which stops prison doctors from force-feeding them at any point. If there is no directive, the doctors are expected to use their best judgment. 

The California Department of Corrections (CDCR), the administrator of the state’s prison system, said that in the first weekend of July, 6,500 prisoners in ten prisons participated in the strike. 

CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton told Al Jazeera that the number has since decreased, as “intelligence now shows 2,100 [strikers] in nine prisons”. 

But advocates working in solidarity with the prisoners say CDCR is downplaying the numbers, and that thousands of prisoners are participating in the hunger strike, and have been for different periods of time, depending on their health concerns.

“What’s important to note,” Molly Porzig of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition told Al Jazeera, “is that whatever their participation, these prisoners are in solidarity with each other across hundreds of miles, in situations where basic communication is denied, and across racial lines often used to divide prisoners.” 


Pelican Bay State Prison was opened in 1989 and included more than 1000 cells in a Security Housing Unit or “SHU” (pronounced “shoe”). 

Cells in the SHU are eight feet by ten feet, made of smooth concrete and have no windows. Often, fluorescent lights are kept on 24 hours per day. Armed guards control entrances and exits electronically and are strategically located to be able to fire on prisoners at any time. 

“Each prisoner is afforded 90 minutes on the [recreation] yard,” hunger striker James Crawford told Al Jazeera through a lawyer. “The concrete yard is 26 by 10 feet, with 20-foot high walls and a security camera to watch you. We get no trees to see, hardly no sun. If you’re lucky you’ll see it five times a year.” 

Conditions inside Security Housing Units have come under criticism and condemnation from US and international organisations. 

A US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (CSAAP), headed by a former US attorney general and a former chief judge of the US court of appeals stated:

People who pose no real threat to anyone and also those who are mentally ill are languishing for months or years in high-security units … In some places, the environment is so severe that people end up completely isolated, confined in constantly bright or constantly dim spaces without any meaningful human contact – torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration. Prisoners often are released directly from solitary confinement and other high-security units directly to the streets, despite the clear dangers of doing so.

The Commission went on to point out the disturbing growth of “high-security” facilities, noting that, “between 1995 and 2000, the growth rate in the number of people housed in segregation far outpaced the growth rate of the prison population overall: 40 per cent compared [with] 28 per cent”.  

Demands not met

One of the five hunger strike demands is an end to Pelican Bay’s “debriefing process”. 

Prisoners claim that the prison administration uses the debriefing policy to force them to name themselves or others as gang members or leaders – using access to food, or further isolation in the SHU as a threat. Their “validation” as a gang member then follows them throughout their sentence, as well as into their parole – if they are released. 

“They literally say that those of you in the [SHU] will die in the [SHU] unless you debrief and ‘tell us what we want to know’ … The debriefer is encouraged to fabricate lies against the non-debriefer, which is what allows the [prison gang investigators] to retain prisoners in SHU indefinitely,” said hunger striker James Crawford.

But Thornton defended the practice, saying: “Debriefing is just the name of a process by which an inmate decides to walk away from a gang,” and that SHU confinement “doesn’t have to be permanent, if the inmate doesn’t want to be there”. 

Of the prisoner’s other demands, the CDCR claims various prisoner and outside concerns have been dealt with through various legal channels and oversight mechanisms within its own mechanisms.  

Thornton says: “SHU is not solitary confinement. There is a great deal of scrutiny over Pelican Bay and all of the conditions of their confinement have been litigated numerous times.”

‘The worst of the worst’

Manuel LaFontaine spent time imprisoned in California, and now works for All of Us or None, an organisation led by former prisoners who advocate for the human and civil rights of prisoners, former prisoners and their families. He is also an organiser of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition.  

“The CDCR spends a lot of time and money trying to convince us that prisoners in the SHU – or even prisoners in the general population – are subhuman, the ‘worst of the worst’. Fear mongering around gangs and gang violence is part of this,” he told Al Jazeera.   

“What they are keeping from us is that many people locked in SHUs are there because of their political activities inside and outside prisons, and if we look at the rapidly deteriorating conditions across the entire California prison system, we will see more and more prisoners organising in stronger and stronger ways to change their conditions.”  

Indeed, in May of this year the US supreme court upheld a lower court’s decision saying that a sentence in California’s prison system is, in itself, cruel and unusual and therefore against the US constitution.

When that case, Brown v Plata [PDF], went to court, California’s prisons were filled to 200 per cent of design capacity, which is a risk to the physical and mental health of all prisoners.

The ruling requires the state’s prison population to be reduced by at least 33,000, lowering the overcrowding to 137.5 per cent of design capacity, according to Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Project, one of the two co-counsels to Plata.

In an earlier interview with Al Jazeera, she explained that the case was about protecting prisoners’ health “so you’re not essentially charging them with death”.

Supporting ‘a more humane world’

The hunger strike is spreading across California’s prison system, and some incarcerated in the SHU at Corcoran State prison, located 600 miles from Pelican Bay, joined the strike and issued a statement, saying, “Many lawsuits have been filed in opposition to these conditions, yet the courts have repeatedly re-interpreted and misinterpreted their own constitutional law to support the state’s continued use of these torture units. It is important for all to know the Pelican Bay is not alone in this struggle and the broader the participation and support for this hunger strike … the greater the potential that our sacrifice now will mean a more humane world for us in the future.”

The Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition formed to publicise the strike and aid the prisoners in winning their demands, and are working with organisations and individuals to plan solidarity actions across the United States and other parts of the world. 

“This is definitely an international issue,” Carl Small of the Hunger Strike Support Committee in Montreal, Canada, told Al Jazeera. “What’s going on at Pelican Bay is particularly horrific, and the groundwork for such conditions exists in Canada, too, as we can see at our own SHU at Sainte Anne des Plaines as well as in isolation wings throughout the country.”

The protest comes after recent hunger and work strikes in prisons in the US’ midwest and southern regions. 

In December 2010, thousands of prisoners in the US state of Georgia used mobile phones to organise the largest prison labour strike in US history, in at least six prisons across the state.  

Shortly thereafter, prisoners on death row in Lucasville, Ohio, went on a hunger strike and won some changes in their conditions.  

The California and Pelican Bay hunger strike comes just months from the 40th anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising in New York State, when more than 2,000 prisoners took control of the prison. Attica came amid general social unrest in the US during that time – and was put down by state police who killed dozens of prisoners. Ten prison guards were also killed.

The Attica revolt was partially in response to the killing of George Jackson at California’s San Quentin prison. Imprisoned for petty theft, George Jackson became a member of the Black Panther Party and an internationally renowned author before being killed by prison guards during an uprising at San Quentin in August of 1971.

Hugo Pinell, a political organiser and fellow prisoner of Jackson participated in that uprising. He has been imprisoned even since, and has been held Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit for the past 20 years.  

Though the prison continues to bring in inmates, the issue of gang affiliation remains at the heart of the matter. For inmates, however, such interrogation has resulted in collective action: the hunger strike.

Isaac Ontiveros works with for Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organisation working to abolish the prison industrial complex. Critical resistance is a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera