California prisoners prepare for another hunger strike to protest persistently deplorable conditions
Sitawa Jamaa is among the thousands of California inmates who, two years ago this summer, took part in the largest prison hunger strike in US history to protest harsh conditions and their invisibility to those outside prison walls.
Now, Jamaa and other prisoners are about to launch another hunger strike to highlight the system's unfulfilled promises and the persistence of inhumane conditions.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) counted 6,000 prisoners throughout the state who refused food over several weeks in July 2011. During a follow-up strike that September, the number of prisoners missing meals swelled to 12,000, according to the federal receiver who was appointed by the courts to oversee reforms in the system. At least one inmate starved to death.
As one of four inmates who call themselves the Short Corridor Collective, Jamaa was a key organizer of the hunger strike. The group of inmates drafted a list of core demands calling for the strike when they weren't met.
That was no easy task for Jamaa, who has spent most of the last 28 years alone in a windowless, 8-by-10 foot concrete cell in Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermax facility not far from the Oregon border, where some 1,200 men are held in similar conditions.
Inmates held in solitary confinement (in government lingo: "Segregated Housing Units", or "SHU" for short) aren't supposed to communicate with each other, verbally or through the mail. But they were able to organize with the help of their lawyers, who they are allowed to communicate with, and prison reform advocates outside.
Jamaa and other inmates are planning to launch a second hunger strike on July 8. The Short Corridor Collective has drafted a list of 45 demands, reflecting concerns ranging from inadequate health care to extreme solitary confinement—conditions that prison advocates characterize as cruel and unusual punishment.
The list is an extension of the five initial demands that Pelican Bay inmates presented in 2011 before initiating a hunger strike. Most of those demands were never met, or they were met only with lip service, leading prisoners back to where they started.
High on the list are concerns about conditions in the SHU, the amount of time prisoners can be made to spend in isolation, and the public's inability to monitor the situation.
"I feel dead. It's been 13 years since I have shaken someone's hand and I fear I'll forget the feel of human contact," Pelican Bay prisoner Luis Esquivel told attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights in an interview.
Along with Jamaa and others, Esquivel is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state of California that would effectively cap the time someone can spend in solitary confinement to 10 years.
"The hunger strike is an extreme act," says Terry Kupers, a Piedmont-based psychology professor and clinical psychiatrist who has testified before the California State Assembly on long-term solitary confinement. "It's very dangerous, and you can die. So when a group of prisoners go on hunger strike, it means they've exhausted all ways of expressing themselves and having their demands considered. And that's very much the case here—some of these guys have been in SHU for 30 or 40 years."
Kupers believes solitary confinement in California prisons violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, a view echoed by activists who've launched a statewide effort called the Stop the Torture Campaign.
United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez, an expert on torture, has called for a ban on solitary confinement where inmates are kept in isolation for 22 hours a day or more, saying the practice should only be used in very exceptional circumstances and for short time periods.
The CDCR has made some concessions and reforms since the 2011 hunger strikes, but critical issues have gone unaddressed. In Pelican Bay's SHU, the men are now allowed beanie caps for when it gets cold. They can now have wall calendars to track time and bring a human touch to their surroundings.
Some prisoners have received exercise equipment, such as a handball or pull-up bar. Each year, they now have permission to have one photograph of themselves taken to send to family members, and prison administrators have signaled that they are looking into extending Pelican Bay's visitation hours.
But more pressing issues have yet to be resolved, so the prisoners who drafted the 45 demands are resorting to starvation once again, despite official statements that it will do little to improve their conditions.
"Negotiation is something the department does not do," says Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for CDCR. But the department has met periodically with a mediation team, consisting of lawyers and prison activists, who have communicated the inmates' concerns and gone over their demands with prison authorities.
In 2002, the state of California was sued, and lost, in an 8th Amendment class-action lawsuit: Plata v. Davis. The federal judge overseeing the case called the medical treatment in California prisons "horrifying," sinking "below gross negligence to outright cruelty," ordering improved treatment and reductions in severe prison overcrowding.
A court-appointed doctor found that out of 193 deaths over the course of one year, 34 were "probably preventable," but medical staff gave "well below even minimal standards of care." Eleven years later, the state is still under federal receivership, until it can show that conditions have actually improved.
Court-appointed consultant Dr. Raymond Patterson wrote his 14th annual assessment report last April, blaming high suicide rates behind bars on a lack of "adequate assessment, treatment or intervention." After it was released, he quit the post in frustration, writing: "It has become apparent that continued repetition of these recommendations would be a further waste of time and effort."
So inmates are taking in upon themselves to accomplish what the courts and consultants have failed to do: reform conditions in the prisons.
As happened in 2011, in spite of what is planned to be a peaceful protest, prisons housing strikers will be, according to Thornton, on "modified program" (or "lockdown," as prisoners call it). Generally, that means inmates aren't allowed to leave their cells, even to shower.
New regulations created after the 2011 strikes call for no visits for striking prisoners, and for their canteen food to be confiscated. In addition, "inmate(s) identified as strike leaders, instrumental in organizing, planning, and perpetuating a hunger strike, shall be isolated from non-participating inmates."
Since March of this year, the Guantanamo Bay prisoner hunger strike has made news around the world for highlighting alleged violations of international law. There, when a striker goes below 85 percent Ideal Body Weight, regulations dictate that he or she be shackled to a chair, fitted with a mask, and have tubes inserted through their nostrils into their stomachs for up to two hours at a time.
That didn't happen in California back during the 2011 strikes, but the Division of Correctional Health Care Services devotes five pages of its policy handbook to outlining specific instructions for dealing with hunger strikers, including transfers to prison medical facilities where they could potentially be force-fed, another practice the UN regards as torture.
Prisoners and activists believe the policy was instituted as preemptive attack on the upcoming hunger strike. "We are concerned that, under the pretext of 'welfare' checks, prisoners are being harassed, targeted, and deprived of sleep as the date of planned hunger strikes and work stoppages approaches," said Isaac Ontiveros of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group. "Whatever the case, new CDCR Secretary Jeffery Beard has an opportunity to avoid the strike and begin to undo the indescribable harm that the California prison system has caused."
Problems associated with solitary confinement are closely connected to CDCR's most commonly used tool for sending prisoners like Jamaa into the SHU: the controversial "gang validation" process.
Once an inmate is listed in prison records as a gang member, he or she loses multiple rights on the assumption that they're a threat to the order of the prison. With no disciplinary write-ups since 1995, Jamaa would have been eligible for parole in 2004, except for the gang validation that led to his indefinite SHU sentence.
Getting pegged as a member of a gang can happen easily. Guards can write prisoners up for anything from the possession of artwork deemed to be gang-related, to information obtained from confidential informants whose claims prisoners often aren't allowed to refute and whose identities remain unknown to the targeted prisoners.
Last year, in the wake of hunger strikes, CDCR announced a "complex retooling" of the gang validation practices. The so-called Step Down process, created in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, is meant to transition inmates out of gangs over the course of four years, with privileges gained over that time.
It might be the most significant of the reforms that followed the last hunger strike, but prisoners and their advocates criticize it as too lengthy of a process, subject to the arbitrary whims of the correctional officers overseeing a given prisoner. In fact, they say it may widen the definition of who counts as a gang member.
Manuel Sanchez, who is participating in the Step Down program at Corcoran State Prison, wrote in a letter that he is "seriously considering returning to SHU, where I'd be less harassed and I'd get more yard access more consistently."
Compounding the problems in the prisons is a lack of transparency and public accountability.
"It's like mentioning July 8 is anathema," says San Francisco Bay View Editor Mary Ratcliff, whose African American-focused newspaper has been a CDCR censorship target.
From January to April of this year, Ratcliff said papers were being returned from Pelican Bay undelivered because they included articles about the hunger strikes, representing "material inciting participation in a mass disturbance," and "a serious threat to the safety and security" of the prison, according to CDCR Administrator R.K. Swift.
"I think it's remarkable that hunger strikes are considered a 'disturbance,'" says Ratcliff. "A disturbance is supposed to mean a fight—something that threatens people. A hunger strike is a threat to no one except the people who are participating in it."
Just as inmates can't get news from the outside, they are also walled off from journalists who might cover them and the conditions they live in.
Since 1996, the CDCR has limited reporters to only interviewing prisoners they've selected. Last September, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have opened up media access to the prisons. "Giving criminals celebrity status through repeated appearances on television will glorify their crimes and hurt victims and their families," he wrote, citing the media spectacle around Charles Manson.
But activists say the nearly $2 million Brown received from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) during his successful bid for governor in 2010 had more to do with it than infamous serial killers.
Assembly member Tom Ammiano, who authored the most recent bill, stressed that "Press access isn't just to sell newspapers. It's a way for the public to know that the prisons it pays for are well-run. I invite the governor to visit the SHU to see for himself why media access is so important."
Last time around, Jamaa lost 19 pounds. Deprived of sunlight, the Oakland-born man has developed melanin and vitamin D deficiencies that have lightened his normally dark brown skin. He suffers stomach problems and swollen thyroid glands that he didn't have before prison. Starvation is a possibly lethal proposition. "Make no mistake, none of us wants to die. But we are prepared to, if that's what it takes to force a real reform," he and other strike leaders wrote in a statement last December. Jamaa's sister, Marie Levin, who has organized monthly vigils for the strikers at Oakland's monthly First Fridays/Art Murmur event, is worried about how her brother's body will cope this time around. "It's something that we as family members don't want them to have to experience again," she notes with anxiety. Yet both the prisoners and their advocates on the outside say they can't simply let dehumanizing conditions in California's prison system continue indefinitely. "I think things have changed, but not substantially in terms of actual conditions," Kupers argues. "What is changed is the CDCR had to recognize the strikers, and conceded some of the things. And subsequently, the various prisoner groups have come together and made a commitment not to have violence between groups inside the prisons. This is huge advancement." But unless all 45 demands are met, they say the strike will commence July 8. For now, Jamaa and others are readying their bodies for hunger, for a cause they believe goes far beyond prison walls. "Know this," he wrote from SHU, words that needed to be smuggled out through unconventional means to get around an official wall of silence. "I am a ... Prisoner of War, and I serve the interest of all people."