From Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition flyer

“We’re learning more about the large hunger strike going on behind bars of several California prisons,” a local radio station in Fresno, California reported yesterday. “State prison officials say the whole thing was orchestrated by prison gangs in order to sell drugs and make money.”

KMJ News also highlighted the Los Angeles Times, which apparently reported that “top tier members of the Black Guerilla Family, Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood started the strike which encompassed dozens of lockups across the state.”

This is what the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is telling news organizations about a massive protest that has entered its third week. Notice the report does not reflect any truth of what is actually motivating prisoners to go on hunger strike and has consistently motivated prisoners to go on hunger strike: the conditions of solitary confinement which so many are made to suffer.

The strike, according to one ABC News report, began with at least 30,000 prisoners in 24 California prison facilities going on hunger to “call attention to a number of conditions they say are inhumane. The prisoners are demanding changes to policies that allow the jails to hold inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely.”

The Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSSC), committed to amplifying the voices of prisoners on strike at Pelican Bay prison and other facilities in California, reported on July 22:

 As the California prison hunger strike enters its 3rd week, reports of retaliation against strikers have increased.  Last week it was reported that prison officials had moved at least 14 strikers from the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay to Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg), confiscated confidential legal documents, and forced cold air into their cells.  Later in the week, legal advocate Marilyn McMahon and one of her paralegals were summarily banned from visiting any California prison.  Reports that strikers have been moved to Ad-Seg or to entirely different facilities have also been coming from Corcoran State Prison.  The denial of medical care to strikers, especially those with preexisting health conditions, remains a widespread concern for families and advocates.

The Guardian reported:

Anne Weills, a civil rights attorney who this week visited Pelican Bay state prison, which is at the heart of the protest, said the temperature at the prison had been deliberately lowered. “They are the upping the ante in terms of cold. It’s clearly a tactic to make everything uncomfortable and in essence retaliate for the hunger strike,” she said. “They are freezing, these men. I could see them shivering in front of me. I had two sweaters on and I was freezing.”

The cold was badly affecting smaller, thinner prisoners with little body fat, especially those weakened by their fast, she said. “They are suffering. This puts them at risk of hypothermia.”

Of course, a spokesperson for CDCR, Terry Thornton, completely denied allegations by prisoners that the cold air was being turned up to freeze them. Thornton told ABC News/Univision, “The cells in the security housing units and the administrative segregation unit at at Pelican Bay State prison are 72 to 73 degrees,” Thornton told ABC News/Univision. And, “cell-unit temperatures are not something guards or correctional peace officers control.”

“The inmates leading the hunger strike, housed in isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison, were moved during the first weeks of the protest to smaller, more isolated cells after having their belongings searched and files seized,” the Los Angeles Times reported. CDCR also sought to deny media access to the hunger striking prisoners.

All of which prompted Amnesty International to condemn the prison authorities for breaching “international human rights obligations by taking punitive measures against prisoners on hunger strike over conditions for thousands held in solitary confinement in the state’s prisons.”

A researcher for Amnesty International USA, Angela Wright, declared, “Prisoners seeking an end to inhumane conditions should not be subjected to punitive measures for exercising their right to engage in peaceful protest.”

According to Amnesty International, prisoners at Pelican Bay are “allowed to exercise for an hour and a half a day, alone, in a bare, concrete yard.” California is “one of more than 40 US states to house prisoners in high security isolation facilities, often termed ‘super-maximum security’ prisons.”

“No other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation.” And, “Some prisoners have spent more than a decade without visits from their family. They may correspond with their attorneys, families, friends and outside organizations, subject to certain restrictions. All visits are non-contact, taking place behind a glass screen.”

By the numbers, “More than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in high security isolation units,” according to the US Department of Corrections.

The core demands of prisoners on hunger strike are the same core demands the prisoners have had for at least two years now: end group punishment and administrative abuse, abolish the “debriefing” process [the practice of offering up information about fellow prisoners in return for better food or release from the SHU] and modify active/inactive gang status criteria, end long-term solitary confinement and comply with US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations, provide adequate and nutritious food and expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.

California prison authorities announced prison reforms in March 2012. The reforms were to address what had been motivating protest, but prisoners like Kijana Askari, who, according to Solitary Watch, “has been in the SHU since 1994 after being validated as a member of the Black Guerilla Family,” reacted:

With regards to the revisions that were done to SHU management gang policies, well, that is exactly what has taken place—”revisions” (e.g. “reform”). Hence, more of the same in that, the revisions have only strengthened CDCR officials power and ability to label and validate every prisoner in CDCR as belonging to a Security Threat Group–e.g. “prison gang.” At the crux of the revisions is a lack of a definitive and “behavioral-based” criteria, as to what actually constitute as being gang activity. Meaning, any and everything can and will still be considered as gang activity, in spite of how innocuous the activity may be.

In addition to this, we still have untrained and unqualified CDCR officers/officials determining and assessing what is “gang activity.” And this point is critical for two very important reasons: 1) There are no qualitative oversight mechanisms in place, meaning there is absolutely nothing to prevent CDCR’s prison guards, gang unit, etc., from being vindictive, retaliatory, punitive, etc., via the application of these “revised” gang management policies; and 2) it has been proven that CDCR’s prison guards and their IGI gang unit staff do not properly investigate the evidence used in each prisoners gang validation–see Lira v. Cate.

And the new revisions do not do anything to correct this. [emphasis added]

The reforms further entrenched aspects of policies that prisoners were protesting and virtually ensured that a significant protest action would occur in the California prison system.

In conclusion, not being able to get out of solitary confinement is truly what is motivating this protest and not a desire by gangs to take over the prison and have their way with authorities. It is about being humanely treated while they serve time for committing whatever crime they are in jail for committing.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."