Home > Uncategorized > Enough is enough: Pelican Bay Hunger Strike and the Abysmal Conditions in America’s prisons

Enough is enough: Pelican Bay Hunger Strike and the Abysmal Conditions in America’s prisons

by David Leonard

On July 1, 2011, hundreds of prisoners initiated a hunger strike in California. While the strike began inside of the Special Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, where human beings are locked away inside of soundproof cells for 22 1/2 hours each and every day, the strike has spread to prisons throughout the state, reaching as many as 6,600 prisoners in 13 locations. According he protest sought to “draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, twenty-five years of torture via [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation]’s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices.” More specifically, the strike began as an effort to change the inhumane treatment facing prisoners in California (and elsewhere). Colorlines Magazine succinctly summarizes the demands as follows

· “End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse” would end group punishment as a means to address an individual inmates rule violations.

· “Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria” The practice of “debriefing,” or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Prisoners demand the end to debriefing because it puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as “snitches.”

· “Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement” Prisoners demand a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities. This demand includes access to adequate natural sunlight and health care treatment.

· “Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food” Prisoners’ demands include the end to the practice of denying adequate food as a means of punishment, asking for wholesome nutritional meals

· “Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates” demands include a weekly phone call, permission to keep wall calendars and craft items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.

These demands are not extravagant but are basic human rights. Yet, the strike continues given the intransigence of the California Department of Corrections and the societal acceptance of abuse and torture directed at prisoners.

The courageous stance of these incarcerated individuals, and the widespread support from those outside the prison walls has not led to fruitful negotiations, with 400 individuals surpassing 20 days without food. According to reports in The Los Angeles Times, 49 have lost more than 10 pounds with one individual having lost almost 30 pounds during the hunger strike. Dorsey Nunn, an activist who co-founded All of us or None of us, described the situation as dire:

Prisoners in Pelican Bay have not eaten in 18 days. I have been told that the prison hospital is full with prisoners who are being hydrated intravenously because some have started to refuse water. Others are having a problem just keeping their water down at this point. Members of the prisoner negotiation team have lost between 20 and 35 pounds. It is truly a matter of luck and or untiring spirit that nobody has died so far.

The dire circumstances facing these hungers strikers symbolizes the daily mistreatment endured by prisoners throughout the United States. From neglect, abuse and sexual violence, to abysmal living conditions and unimaginable health “care,” prisons are spaces of obscene denied humanity. In California, at Kern Valley State prison, prisoners have long been forced to drink water contaminated with arsenic. In Georgia, prisoners “report . . . harsh conditions and inadequate nutrition and health care. Prisoners were constantly hit with fines ranging from $5 to $20 . . . sometimes for even just ‘looking at a guard.’” In Arizona, those in incarcerated in Sherriff Joe Arpaio’s jails have routinely been served rotten food and denied basic health care. In Louisiana, at Angola State Prison, America’s largest prison, reports have documented abuse, violence, politically motivated punishments, and a culture of accepted torture.

On May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Plata, affirmed “the constitutional right of prisoners to be free of cruel and unusual conditions of confinement and the government’s responsibility to provide a remedy for violations of that right.” In this case, the Court upheld a three-judge panel ruling that California’s mental health care and medical care fell beneath the constitutional standard required under the law. Yet, the conditions of abuse and cruel and unusual punishment continue to this day. One has to wonder if the legal decision coupled with the moral spotlight shining from hundreds of prisoners will lead to humane treatment of America’s prisoners.

The conditions that have led to hunger strike are commonplace throughout the United States and the acceptance of these human rights violence illustrates the power of race and class in America. Do we really think that abuse, sexual violence, rotten food, denied health care and a culture of torture would be acceptable if directed at the sons and daughters of white suburban America? The reaction to the Pelican Bay Hunger strike provides us with the sad answer.

Bio

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard blogs @ No Tsuris

Post Script

With reports of an end to the hunger strike at Pelican Bay and its continuation elsewhere, it is unclear how this protest will end. One can hope, however, that the conditions at prisons in California, and throughout the nation will be dramatically transformed and that it won’t require more people risking their lives in the name of respect and humanity.

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