On July 1st 2011, Californian prison inmates commenced a three week long hunger strike. The prisoners, who were predominantly, but not exclusively, incarcerated within Pelican Bay State Prison, struck in protest of the torturous and inhumane conditions that those incarcerated within California's Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prison isolation units were forced to endure.
The Prisoner’s Demands The strikers developed five core demands. First, the prisoners requested that group punishments be eliminated and individual accountability be practiced. This, they asserted, would prevent prison officers from unfairly punishing groups of rule abiding prisoners for misdemeanours committed by an individual prisoner.
Second, prisoners demanded the abolition of debriefing policies and the modification of gang status criteria. They claimed that the system, as it stood, allowed for the classification (and consequent isolation), of prisoners as active gang members. Further, they asserted that, as prisoners were only able to downgrade their gang member status by becoming informants, prisoners were required to risk their safety in order to leave isolation.
Third, prisoners demanded that CDCR policies be made compliant with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) in relation to the ending of an individual's long term solitary confinement. They highlighted that this bipartisan commission had recommended that segregation of prisoners be made a ‘last resort’ and suggested that this recommendation was not being implemented within the state of California. In support of their assertion, it was highlighted that, as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) as well as hundreds more in administrative segregation awaiting SHU cells.
Fourth, prisoners requested the provision of adequate and nutritious food. Prisoners reported that they were provided with food which was inadequate both in terms of quality and quantity. They raised concerns that there were no procedures in place to check that their food provision complied with prison stands.
Finally, prisoners demanded that the provision of constructive programs and privileges be expanded for indefinite SHU inmates. Prisoners claimed that they were routinely denied chances to gain access to educational opportunities. They asserted that this was the case even when they were willing to fund their own distance learning programs. Further, they claimed that they were regularly denied access to warm clothing, telephones and watch caps.
End of the Strike
On 21st July 2011, prisoners agreed to end their hunger strike. It was reported that this agreement was reached following a number of small concessions by the CDCR which related to prisoners’ possessions and educational opportunities. In addition, the CDCR promised a comprehensive review relating to ‘gang management and secure housing’. The CDCR press release stated:
‘We will now seek to stabilize operations for all inmates and continue our work to improve the safety and security of our prison system state wide’.
Though many concluded that the concessions achieved by the prisoners were small, the level of press coverage and international support that strikers achieved is noteworthy. During the course of the strike, demonstration and solidarity messages emerged from the US, Canada, Australia and Turkey. As per Molly Porzig, spokesperson for Critical Resistance:
‘ What is really significant about this is that people are risking their own lives in joining this action’
‘What the challenge is for supporters outside the prison is that we need to by tirelessly working at, in a very urgent way, taking the risks that we can to match the courage of these hunger strikers’.
The Subsequent CDCR Report
In March 2012, the CDCR released its plan pertaining to the methodology to be applied moving forward when placing or withdrawing prisoners from isolation in SHUs. The report, which focuses on gang management within California’s prisons, states that improved provisions within secure housing units will be achieved by adopting uniform certification of criminal gangs by the Operation Community Shield (OCS) into Security Threat Groups (STGs), identifying and validating criminal gang affiliates, providing a Step Down Program (SDP) for prisoners placed in isolation and providing a comprehensive evaluation of prisoner behaviour.
Further, the report states a commitment to make use of the step down process and use privileges to promote good behaviour, in particular when that good behaviour constitutes a disengagement in gang related activities. The CDCR will also conduct debriefing for offenders who choose to disassociate themselves from criminal gangs.
Criticisms of the Report
Two key criticisms have been levied at the report. First, Attorney Charles Carbone believes that the changes may, conversely, result in increased numbers of prisoners being housed in isolation. This, he argues, is because the new plan serves to widen the definition of ‘gang’ to include street gangs or any groups of more than two inmates who are believed to pose a risk to security within the prison. Such inmates, he points out, could then be eligible for isolation within SHUs.
Another criticism, which transcends this report, is the concern that the inhumane conditions which have been inherent within California’s prisons have, historically, been justified amongst prison staff, who consider inmates as ‘the lowest of the low’. In many instances, however, SHU inmates have been incarcerated for non-violent, often drug related crimes. Those supplying illegal drugs, or those operating illegal unlicensed pharmacies which allow individuals to buy dangerous prescription only drugs without medical authorization, could be incarcerated in an SHU, should they be identified as a gang member'.
Rose Wilkinson is a freelance human rights and politics writer from London, England. She travelled extensively in Asia in her twenties and was lucky enough to meet several dedicated campaigners during her travels. Many of these meetings inspire her today.