California prisoners end hunger strike after Bay Area legislators call hearings

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The Secure Housing Units at Pelican Bay has kept hundreds of prisoners in solidary confinement for more than a decade each.
KQED

Bay Area legislators Tom Ammiano (D-SF) and Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) — who chair the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees, respectively — played pivotal roles in today’s decision by California prison inmates to end their hunger strike after 60 days.

The legislators last week called for legislative hearings to consider implementing some of the reforms that the prisoners and their supporters have been calling for, including changes to solitary confinement policies that critics say amount to illegal torture under international law.

“I am relieved and gratified that the hunger strike has ended without further sacrifice or risk of human life,” Sen. Hancock said in a joint public statement with Ammiano. "The issues raised by the hunger strike are real – concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons – and will not be ignored.”

“I’m happy that no one had to die in order to bring attention to these conditions,” Ammiano said. “The prisoners’ decision to take meals should be a relief to CDCR and the Brown administration, as well as to those who support the strikers.”

The question now is whether the legislative hearings, set for next month, can persuade the executive branch to finally take action, despite the fact that both Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have taken a hard line on prison issues, even resisting federal court orders to reduce the population in the severely overcrowded prison system and to improve substandard health care.

Ammiano spokesperson Carlos Alcala told the Guardian that the end of the hunger strike could help end that stalemate: “Mr. Ammiano is hopeful that CDCR’s intransigence has been directed at negotiating under the hunger strike pressure, but that they will now be open to making some changes that are meaningful.”

CRCR head Jeffrey Beard issued a public statement saying, “We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill.”

Issac Ontiveros of the Oakland-based California Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group said the hunger strike generated international attention and support, waking the public up to horrific conditions in the prisons and putting pressure on the CDCR to implement reforms.

“Their demands are legitimate and they are pointing out human rigths violations in California’s prisons,” Ontiveros told the Guardian, noting that Amnesty International and a long list of other groups are putting pressure on California to reform its prison practices. “What made them call off the strike was the political gains that they made...It was a thoughtful civil rights strategy.”

This latest hunger strike was called for and organized by prisoners in the “secure housing units,” aka solitary confinement cells, at the maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison, many of whom have gone years without meaningful human interaction. Court filings indicated that more than 400 prisoners have been locked up in solidary for more than a decade, despite the psychological harm that experts say such confinement causes.   

The prisoners today issued a long statement announcing the end of the hunger strike, which includes this excerpt: “To be clear, our Peaceful Protest of Resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system’s solitary confinement units is far from over. Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met (despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable). The core group of prisoners has been, and remains 100% committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice.  With that said, we clarify this point by stating prisoner deaths are not the objective, we recognize such sacrifice is at times the only means to an end of fascist oppression.

“Our goal remains: force the powers that be to end their torture policies and practices in which serious physical and psychological harm is inflicted on tens of thousands of prisoners as well as our loved ones outside.  We also call for ending the related practices of using prisoners to promote the agenda of the police state by seeking to greatly expand the numbers of the working class poor warehoused in prisons, and particularly those of us held in solitary, based on psychological/social manipulation, and divisive tactics keeping prisoners fighting amongst each other. Those in power promote mass warehousing to justify more guards, more tax dollars for “security”, and spend mere pennies for rehabilitation — all of which demonstrates a failed penal system, high recidivism, and ultimately compromising public safety.”

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