Concertina wire and a guard tower are seen at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Seven people were arrested on August 6 after chaining themselves to the entrance of the Elihu Harris State office building in downtown Oakland for several hours. The men and women say their actions were in support of California prisoners engaged in the fourth week of a hunger strike against torturous conditions such as the use of solitary confinement in four of California’s 33 prisons.
The protestors demanded that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and Governor Jerry Brown enter into direct negotiations with the prisoners on hunger strike to meet a core set of demands – one of which would end the use of long-term solitary confinement in Secure Housing Units (SHU) for prisoners who have been suspected or accused of membership in or associating with prison gangs. CDCR officials say the units are necessary to keep the most violent of prisoners away from the general population, identified as “Security Threat Groups” or STGs. Prison hunger strikers and their supporters maintain that the process used to identify prison gang members can be arbitrary and capricious, and has been used against politically active prisoners as a form of retaliation by the corrections authorities.
Azadeh Zohrabi, a Fellow with the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children says that of the 12,000 people currently held in solitary in California SHUs – 80% of whom are Latino – approximately 4000 are being held indefinitely, which means they have no pre-determined release date.
While the number of African-American men held in California’s SHUs is not known, the CDCR process for placing them into solitary confinement consists of “validating” them as members of a prison gang, specifically the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF). The BGF traces its history in the California prison system to the efforts of George Jackson, the celebrated author of “Soledad Brother,” a book of his prison letters, and “Blood in My Eye.”
The CDCR says that a minimum of three pieces of evidence are needed to validate an inmate as a gang member; the evidence must be indicative of actual membership or association with a prison gang within the last six years Critics, including current prisoners in the SHU program, note the arbitrariness of the CDCR’s standards by what it calls evidence.
Writings and references to Black History; W.E.B. DuBois; Malcolm X; Mumia Abu-Jamal; The Black Panther Party; pictures of Assata Shakur, George Jackson and Nat Turner, and copies of the San Francisco BayView newspaper have all been used as a pretext to validate some prisoners. Once validated as a member of a prison gang, it is next to impossible to remove the affiliation.
Daniel Vasquez, a warden at San Quentin Prison in the 1980s, was quoted in a Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Mother Jones magazine as saying it was, “very common” for African American prisoners who display leadership qualities or radical political views to end up in the SHU. Similarly, he recalls, ‘we were told that when an African American inmate identified as being Muslim, we were supposed to watch them carefully and get their names’.”
Tony Marks-Block, one of the protesters arrested at the Harris Office Building on Aug. 5, said the message that needed to be sent to the CDCR and Gov. Brown was “that there are people on the outside who support what the prisoners are demanding, which is basic human rights.”
Marks-Block and the other protesters chained themselves to the front doors of the building around 7:45 a.m., but he says they chained themselves “around 11 a.m. because [the California] Highway Patrol refused to arrest us at that location. We then moved into the building in the main entrance way and began chanting and blocking the visitors’ entrance to the building, and around 12 noon the CHP arrested us.” Marks-Block says the group was taken to Santa Rita Jail, about 20-25 minutes away from Oakland, and held for more than 12 hours.
According to Marks-Block, they were issued citations for “begging,” a lesser charge of “trespassing,” and “failure to disperse at the scene of a riot.” Asked if he would continue his support of the hunger strikers, Marks-Block replied in the affirmative. “Long term organizing is trying to not only improve the conditions inside but also just trying to support [the hunger strikers] so that CDCR does not continue to repress the movement inside; one of the largest prisoner based movements since the 1970s. Even if the hunger strike ends, the SHU needs to be abolished,” said Marks-Block.
Other demands of the hunger strikers include nutritious food and constructive programming opportunities. The leaders of the strike are a multiracial group of individuals that call themselves the “Short Corridor Collective.” The “Short Corridor” is the area of Pelican Bay State Prison, located in Northern California near the Oregon border, where those in the SHU program are housed. The men, said by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to be a group of high level gang members, have spent decades in solitary confinement in windowless 8×12 foot cells and without physical contact by guards or family members.
During the first week of the hunger strike 30,000 prisoners were registered by the CDCR as refusing breakfast and lunch meals at the prison. The CDCR now says that just under 600 prisoners are participating in the strike however, they admit that prisoners who request only kool-aid are not being counted as participating in the hunger strike.
The protest at the Harris State Office building followed a weekend of solidarity actions across the state in support of the prisoners who began their hunger strike on July 8 to call attention to their plight. Rallies were held in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, and in front of San Quentin State Prison and Solano State prison.
According to the Los Angeles Times, celebrities such as Danny Glover, Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, and Jay Leno, either spoke at the rally or have shown their support for the hunger strikers by signing a letter that was sent to Gov. Brown on Aug 5, comparing the SHU programs in California prisons to “the same inhumanity practiced at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.”
A July 13 article entitled “What solitary confinement does to the brain,” posted online in the San Francisco BayView newspaper, an African American newspaper serving Northern California since 1976, quotes psychiatrist Terry Kupers who is described as an “expert witness in an ongoing lawsuit over California’s solitary confinement practices.” In the article, Kupers is quoted as saying that “When prisoners leave solitary confinement and re-enter society – something that often happens with no transition period – their symptoms might abate, but they’re unable to adjust. I’ve called this the decimation of life skills … It destroys one’s capacity to relate socially, to work, to play, to hold a job or enjoy life.”
Kupers also notes that prisoners who are held in isolation make up approximately 5 percent of the total prison population but account for almost half of all prison suicides. One of those suicides occurred on July 22 when Billy Sell hanged himself while in solitary confinement, according to the Kings County Coroner. Solitary Watch, “a web-based project aimed at bringing the widespread use of solitary confinement out of the shadows and into the light of the public square,” stated that the CDCR confirmed that Sells had been participating in the hunger strike from July 8 through July 21.
“Explaining why isolation is so damaging is complicated, but can be distilled to basic human needs for social interaction and sensory stimulation, along with a lack of the social reinforcement that prevents everyday concerns from snowballing into psychoses, said Kupers in the San Francisco BayView article.
An Interfaith Prayer Service and Vigil is scheduled for Thursday, August 8 at 12 noon, outside of the Ronald Reagan State Office Building located in downtown L.A. at 300 S. Main Street.
Members of various faith communities will be standing in solidarity with family members and community supporters of the hunger strikers in the tradition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s statement that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”