Today my loved one will start starving himself not because he wants to, but because he feels he has to, to stand in unity against injustice. He will refuse bland, colorless, tepid taxpayer-funded food that often includes stale bread, wilted lettuce and overcooked meat filler, served through a tiny slot in a perforated door on a dirty wet plastic tray.
If he continues to refuse state food for nine consecutive meals, he will be officially reported as on hunger strike. He does not live in Iran, China, or Guantanamo Bay, but in the Golden State of California, where Gov. Jerry Brown recently proclaimed that the state’s prison system is being returned to its “former luster.”
Thousands of inmates in solitary confinement, their families, activist supporters, international human rights groups, and mental and medical health experts would beg to disagree— all those who witness that prolonged isolation and deprivation are torture.
In 2011 at Pelican Bay State Prison, in an isolated but painstakingly beautiful region of remote northwest California, inmates in the Security Housing Units (SHU) decided they’d had enough of inhumane and unconstitutional living conditions and broken promises by Corrections officials for improvements. A few prisoner representatives issued a list of five “core demands” in advance of a nonviolent protest that July. Demands ranged from better food and warmer clothing to an end to the process of “gang validation” by which inmates are sentenced indefinitely, often for decades, to the “hell hole”—the prison within the prison of extreme sensory deprivation—in violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments regarding due process and cruel and unusual punishment. By the protests’ height some 12,000 prisoners statewide had joined to raise awareness of the brutalities of this clandestine situation and to bring real reform for the first time since the “lock-em-up” mentality that build so many supermaximum-security prisons in the 1990s.
Many inmates have been driven to mental illness or suicide under these conditions: They do not see color, hear natural sounds like dogs barking, or enjoy a loving touch, being confined 22 hours a day to an 8×10-foot windowless concrete cell.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), partly in response to the 2011 protests, began implementing a two-year gang management pilot program in October 2012, wherein inmates are reviewed for placement in one of five steps including release to general population. Of nearly 4,000 prisoners in solitary confinement statewide, some 400 have been reviewed and slightly over half let out to the mainline. Some personal property allotments have been increased, but the most substantial reforms remain unanswered.
And so begins the third nonviolent protest. Indefinite confinement continues, with no guarantees that those released will stay released; the regulations and evidence for placing someone in the SHU remain intact; and rehabilitation programming is shaky at best, despite a $25 million surplus in those funds as revealed by CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard in his recent confirmation hearing in Sacramento.
Why should we care? These are criminals after all, getting what they deserve, correct? Not unless we believe that crime is indelible to the character and beyond redemption: There is no penological justification—certainly no moral one—for punishment’s extension into a torturous and arbitrary excess beyond criminal sentencing. As Chief Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said: “Prison walls don’t form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.”
When livestock, farm animals and pets in California can enjoy more legal rights and public sympathy than human beings locked in cages for decades without adequate legal protection or public oversight, when rehabilitation programming is insignificant even though many of these prisoners will be released back into society, when the public turns a blind eye to mass incarceration believing these people are “the worst of the worst” without questioning, then we must stop and seriously inquire within: Is this the kind of society we want to sanction?
Even the Supreme Court has said that California’s Corrections system is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.
Please contact Gov. Jerry Brown and elected representatives asking to bring this protest to a rapid and equitable conclusion before human beings die—not from starvation, but because of neglect and indifference.