Sunday, July 10, 2011

Prisoners Launch Hunger Strike

Charge torture at Pelican Bay

By Judy Greenspan
San Francisco
Published Jul 6, 2011 7:45 PM

“This is a formal complaint and request for action to end 20-plus years of state-sanctioned torture in order to extract information from or cause mental illness to California inmates incarcerated indefinitely in punitive isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Units (PBSP-SHU). ...” Thus begins the eloquent legal complaint and human rights indictment written by prisoners incarcerated in one of California’s most notorious torture and isolation prisons — Pelican Bay State Prison.

Located in California’s northwestern-most Del Norte County, PBSP is home to lockdown units called “security housing units” where prisoners sit in long-term solitary confinement for 23 and a half hours per day for months and years on end.

Between 50 and 100 prisoners went on an indefinite hunger strike July 1 on D-Corridor at PBSP-SHU to draw attention to “25 years of torture via the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices.” PBSP prisoners issued five core demands directed at ending the long-term isolation and segregation of prisoners. Demands focused on basic human needs — prisoners should receive adequate food and diet, natural sunlight, and quality health care and treatment. SHU prisoners also are demanding an end to group punishment and expanded access to visiting, phone calls and outside correspondence.

The United Nations and international justice courts have long ruled that long-term isolation and sensory deprivation are torture.

‘Fight to right this wrong’

CDCR uses SHU incarceration to punish prisoners who are “suspected” gang members, outspoken activists, rebels or those who just don’t conform to prison rules. Once thrown in the SHU, prisoners are faced with the choice of “debriefing,” known as snitching, which usually involves naming other prisoners who will then be sent to the SHU. If a prisoner does not debrief, he or she will spend the rest of their incarceration in a 6-by-10-foot cell, locked down 24 hours a day, with only minimal out-of-cell time for occasional showers and exercise. SHU prisoners generally exercise in cages in isolation from other prisoners.

Mutope Duguma (s/n James Crawford), one of the PBSP hunger strikers, said in a statement posted on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity blog, “The CDCR uses every trick they can to force men into debriefing, including ever-increasing levels of what can only be described as torture. But if you are innocent, or if you are a principled person, they force you to endure every hardship in an effort to break you.”

PBSP-SHU prisoners suffer daily violations of their First, Fifth, and Eighth Amendment rights, especially their right to be free of punishment for their association with other prisoners and their right to freedom of speech. Prisoners cite the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1984 convention against torture and cruel, inhumane treatment ratified by the U.S. in 1994 in their legal complaint delivered to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Feb. 5, 2010.

“The prisoners inside the SHU at Pelican Bay know the risk that they are taking going on hunger strike,” said Manuel LaFontaine of All of Us Or None, a Bay Area organization directed by former prisoners that is taking an active role in the coalition to support prisoners at PBSP. LaFontaine and others held a press conference on the steps of the California State Office Building in downtown Oakland, Calif., the day before the hunger strike began. Lawyers and activists from the Prison Activist Resource Center and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children attended and spoke out about the hunger strike.

Despite the risk, reports have come in from other prisons around California, including the SHU at Corcoran State Prison, where prisoners are fasting in solidarity with their comrades at PBSP. Groups of outside prisoner rights activists in Humboldt County (near PBSP), San Francisco and other areas are holding their own solidarity hunger strikes and rallies. California has a long and rich history of support for prisoners’ rights and prison abolition.

From inside the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison come the words of Mutope Duguma, urging all to support the hunger strike: “I say that those of you who carry yourselves as principled human beings, no matter your housing status, must fight to right this and other egregious wrongs. Although it is ‘us’ today (united New Afrikans, Whites, Northern and Southern Mexicans, and others) it will be you all tomorrow. It is in your interests to peacefully support us in this protest.”

A rally will be held July 9, 11 a.m., in San Francisco’s U.N. Plaza (Civic Center BART) to show solidarity with the hunger strikers. For more information and to sign the support petition, go to the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity blog or call 510-444-0484.

All quotes are from the blog at

Greenspan is a longtime prisoners’ rights activist who has visited prisoners in Security Housing Units at California prisons.

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