This article was updated at 5:30 PM East with comments from CDCR.
Hundreds of California prisoners, who led a hunger strike against an oppressive and months-long lockdown, suspended their protest following negotiations with the warden and the fulfillment of two of their six demands.
But advocates for the incarcerated say negotiations may now be falling apart, and the hunger strikers are contemplating their next move.
Over 250 people incarcerated in the “3C Unit” at the state prison in Corcoran, California, joined the hunger strike after living under lockdown conditions since September 2018.
The hunger strike officially lasted from January 9 to 28, although prisoners began refusing meals days earlier. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) only recognizes a hunger strike after nine consecutive meals are missed.
Prisoners released a list of six demands, which included an end to the lockdown and for the reinstatement of visitation. They demanded to be able to enroll in educational and rehabilitation programs. They also demanded commissary access, the ability to receive packages, their mandated 10 hours of outdoor recreation each week, and finally, to be treated fairly.
“We will continue this hunger strike until our voices are heard,” prisoners declared at the bottom of the demand letter.
Advocates with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), which supports the hunger strikers, say three of the protesters were taken to the infirmary “due to chest pain and shortness of breath.”
Prison staff also allegedly placed “sand pipes,” or long sandbags, along the bottom of cell doors on the unit to prevent prisoners from communicating via passing notes and sharing food supplements from the commissary in the midst of the hunger strike.
Following the hunger strike, the warden allegedly agreed to restore access to the canteen and prisoners from 3C Unit would once again receive packages. A new recreation schedule was said to be under negotiation.
But prisoners claimed the canteen continued to provide only hygiene products. They were supposed to meet with Warden Ken Clark on February 5 to continue negotiations, but the warden allegedly delayed the meetings before telling them they would still be forced to share the yard with their rivals.
Prisoners on the 3C unit are supposed to get 10 hours of yard time each week, but advocates say they have only been allowed approximately one-to-three hours per week on the yard. “This is if the yard isn’t effectively shut down all the time due to the setup fights and jumpings,” added Brooke Terpstra, an IWOC representative.
The indefinite lockdown began at the end of September, when three prisoners were attacked and sent to the infirmary for their injuries. Prisoners say the violence stemmed from corrections officials releasing members of rival groups for recreation together to deliberately stoke violence.
Since at least 1996, corrections officers at Corcoran have arranged for violent encounters between prisoners for their own amusement and financial gain and to indirectly impose their authority.
Eight officers were charged with arranging the fights, known as “gladiator fights” or “dogfights,” when they first were exposed. However, the officers were acquitted in June 2000.
Advocates say these arranged encounters continue unabated at Corcoran to this day.
The violence is used as a pretext for collective repression, which incarcerated people say disrupts solidarity among prisoners as they organize against their mistreatment.
More specifically, this orchestrated violence escalates racial tensions in the prison and undermines the peace agreement between prisoner groups in California from 2012, known as the “Agreement To End Hostilities.” That agreement preceded a massive statewide prison strike that emanated from people in isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The incident from September 28 that instigated the lockdown involved two groups: the Bulldogs and the Sureños. Prior to the lockdown, prisoners from these groups were exercising on the yard together when three Sureños were jumped by the Bulldogs and had to seek medical treatment for stab wounds.
“Even though [Sureños] were the targets and not the aggressors, Sureños are being locked down along with Black, Paisa, and other segments en masse in group punishment and in contradiction to CDCR [regulations] and supposed commitment to ‘Individual Threat Assessment,’” Terpstra argued.
Terpstra said all hunger strikers were Sureños housed across five units at Corcoran.
The Bulldogs are known as a “Sureño dropout gang,” and are comprised of people who were kicked out of the Sureño group. They are not signatories to the Agreement To End Hostilities and are described by advocates as “totally hostile” to it.
IWOC explained that the Bulldogs’ “power and protection within CDCR lies solely with their collaboration with being a free agent and spoiler of prisoner solidarity.”
“They put in work to destabilize yards with violence and sabotaging agreements between other prisoner formations,” Terpstra added, “often directly at the behest and instruction of guards, in exchange for privileges, dope, movement, etc.”
Prison officials have let Bulldogs out onto the yard at 3C Unit with Sureños, even though they are supposed to have recreation separately as mandated under the “programming status report.” When they begin to attack one another, the yard is closed and cleared.
These violent incidents are used as the basis for “modified programs,” which is CDCR jargon for a lockdown, restricting prisoner movements, services, and privileges.
Prisoner family members are organizing a protest outside the gates of Corcoran on February 9 and 10 during what would normally be visitation hours.
They have circulated a petition calling for an end to the lockdown. They’ve engaged in a call-in campaign (known as a “phonezap”) in response to the hunger strike, leaving messages with Corcoran and CDCR officials to echo prisoners’ demands. They also called Internal Affairs to report alleged orchestrated violence by senior prison officials.
Numerous comments have been left by people who said they were family members of incarcerated individuals at Corcoran. They expressed their anger, and some even called for the warden to be removed.
Following the call-in campaign, the warden allegedly ordered CO’s to place members of the Men’s Advisory Council, who represent Sureños and other groups, in solitary confinement. This council is comprised of prisoners from each unit who are elected by their peers to “meet and deal with group conflicts and issues with the prison.”
Representatives of the Bulldogs were not isolated, advocates claimed.
“Not only is [the prison administration] protecting their Bulldog partners, they are short-circuiting the different groups’ ability to negotiate agreements and address the administration through channels, and attacking the leadership of a nonviolent protest,” Terpstra concluded.
CDCR was asked about prisoners’ six demands and the progress of negotiations, when the lockdown will be lifted, and why officials at Corcoran insist on placing members of rival prison groups on the yard together.
In response, CDCR Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton told Shadowproof the hunger strike peaked at 270 participants at the start. By the end, 245 prisoners were on hunger strike.
Thornton also quibbled with the use of the word “lockdown” to describe the restrictions placed on prisoners in 3C Unit.
“CSP-Corcoran was not on lockdown and it is currently not on lockdown. The facility where the hunger strike occurred is on a modified program,” Thornton insisted. “A modified program is when inmate movement and/or programs are limited in response to an incident or unusual occurrence. Modified programs last no longer than necessary to restore safety and security.”
“A lockdown means the restriction of all inmates to their cells and dorms and only happens on rare occasions,” she argued.
This is indeed how CDCR defines a lockdown in their regulations. But “lockdown” is a term very widely used to describe a restriction on movement and privileges for a group (often a unit or entire facility) as a “security measure” in response to an incident or disturbance.
The disagreement over terminology is significant. Prison officials, not only in California but in the rest of the country, are notorious pedants who benefit from a reliance on euphemism. One reason is that euphemism helpfully obscures the material experience of prisoners and gives the impression that a situation is somehow not oppressive.
The second is that lockdowns are embarrassing for prison officials because they signal a loss of control and can bring unwanted attention from the public, the media, and importantly, from government officials tasked with overseeing these facilities. Functionally, this distinction is key in avoiding any potential repercussions for subjecting prisoners to oppressive conditions.
Prisoners are the true experts in their prison experience. They have used the word “lockdown” to describe their day-to-day life at Corcoran since September 28. In fact, the word is used in the very first demand in their letter.
Finally, Thornton claimed prisoners “did have access to medical care, packages, and yard time and institution leaders talked to them daily about their concerns.”
She said prisoners are receiving yard time “with groups of inmates who are not affected by the modified program.”
She specified prisoners could spend $55 at the canteen exclusively on hygiene products.
And she said prisoners on the “modified program” have been receiving packages once a quarter since before the hunger strike began.
“This is in compliance with the settlement in the Mitchell v. Cate, et al. lawsuit,” she said, although there are no such stipulations about mail and canteen privileges in the settlement.
“CSP-Corcoran officials are doing all they can to return to normal program,” Thornton said.
Incarcerated people and their families were contacted. We will publish any responses received in a later update.