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August 19, 2011

Noting the achievements of a prison hunger strike in California

Last month I asked in this post, "Can a hunger strike by state prisoners in SHU have an impact?". An answer is now provided by this new local piece from California headlined "California prisoners make inroads with hunger strike." Here are excerpts:

Last month, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison launched a hunger strike to draw attention to their complaints of being unfairly held in extreme isolation at the Crescent City lockup.  Within three weeks, the prison hunger strike had become one of the largest in years, spreading throughout the state corrections system to involve thousands of inmates and sparking a legislative hearing scheduled for next week....

The effort ended July 21, after inmates inside the security housing unit at Pelican Bay were promised changes, including being given wool caps for use during winter months and being allowed to have wall calendars.

Officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also said they will review policies on how the agency determines which inmates are believed to be gang leaders who are then placed in a security housing unit.  But they insist that inmates inside the SHU, including several who have identified themselves as leaders of the hunger strike, pose a serious threat to others and are there for very good reasons....

The Assembly's Public Safety Committee has set a hearing for Tuesday on how the corrections agency handles prisoners inside its three security housing units. The panel expects to hear testimony from corrections officials, as well as a former inmate in Pelican Bay's SHU.

Advocates for the inmates contend they are denied basic human rights, are kept in windowless cells, and that corrections officials wrongly label some inmates as gang leaders and banish them to the security housing unit.

They see the seemingly minor concessions made to end the hunger strike as a major step forward for prisoners.  "Those things are more substantial to them than they may seem to those of us outside prison, who can take such things for granted," said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for Critical Resistance, an Oakland organization that supported the hunger strikers....

[T]he hunger strike spawned media interest worldwide, and the corrections department found itself on the defensive against critical coverage.  On Wednesday, it offered the media a tour of Pelican Bay, and CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate wrote a letter challenging a New York Times editorial that labeled the security housing units as "cruel isolation."

The result is that advocates believe they now have an opening to focus more attention on the treatment of inmates, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California earlier this year to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

Recent related posts concerning the hunger strike in California prisons:   

August 19, 2011 at 10:41 AM | Permalink


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The "achievements" are minimal and quite overstated, but one thing the strikes did do is put solitary back on the radar screen of the media and particularly criminal justice reform activist groups, who have migrated away from the issue over the years. ACLU and Amnesty International have quite recently been getting active on the issue at the national level and I doubt that would be happening without the strikes.

That said, whining about the plight of prisoners or portraying them as victims will inevitably be a losing, even counterproductive strategy. I argued on Grits recently that economic cost-benefit analyses coupled with improved risk-assessment instruments could reduce costs from solitary confinement, which is much more expensive than keeping offenders in gen pop. IMO those are the stronger arguments for reducing reliance on solitary in the current budget and political environments.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 19, 2011 11:50:13 AM

i agree completely grits!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 19, 2011 12:25:40 PM

Grits, while I am sympathetic to your awareness that a minority of Californians (and some people on this board) may think that it is perfectly fine to torture prisoners, I wonder whether it is remotely moral to limit ourselves to a cost-benefit argument that it is, after all, EXPENSIVE to torture prisoners, so maybe we should torture them more selectively.

As you perhaps know, California's prisons are lawless jungles where the press are disallowed and the guards are indistinguishable (in terms of their criminality and violence) from the prisoners that they guard. The guards hold gladiator-style cock rights between the prisoners. The guards smuggle in millions of dollars of drugs, which they purchase from gang contacts on the outside, and which are then are distributed by gang members on the inside. Many of the prisoners who are placed in solitary are those who REFUSED to distribute drugs or who otherwise refused to play by the guards' and the gangs' rules.

There is nothing unusual about this state of affairs. In many Latin American and African countries, for example, prisons are nothing more than enclosed slums where the guards are the corrupt slumlords and anything and everything is available for a price, including drugs, cell phones, prostitutes, and even guns. California's prisons are not that bad yet, but they are pretty darn close. I don't know how many former prisoners have told me that it was harder to stay clean on the inside than it is on the outside.

The guards can do all this with impunity because it is illegal for anyone to observe what actually goes on inside our prisons and report about it. Countless prisoners are tortured and, yes, murdered by prison guards (and other prisoners) all the time.

Again, this state of affairs is not uncommon when you look at various third-world countries, so I suppose that we shouldn't worry about it except to limit the guards to forms and degrees of corruption, torture, drug dealing and murder that don't cost us too much money. It's a convincing argument, with universal appeal. It might even have currency in Venezuela or Zimbabwe.

Posted by: Jason | Aug 19, 2011 9:20:14 PM

Jason, is it "remotely moral" to limit your arguments to those doomed to lose so that the problems you condemn remain unsolved? Even Saul Alinsky said "Radicals owe it to their principles to be effective."

I consider it more "moral" to undertake the course of action that's most likely to actually address the problem you're trying to solve. IMO your messaging doesn't do that. Those arguments may engender a feeling of moral superiority in those who make them, but that's different from the question of what approach would actually mitigate the problems. To succeed, you need to be able to make arguments that convince people whose values and ideology are different from your own by appealing to what they care about, not insisting they care about the things you do.

When you address the cost benefit analysis on criminal justice questions, the other issues always, inevitably come up and are also discussed. But it's neither strategically wise nor IMO morally obligatory to make the prisoner-as-victim theme one's primary message on solitary confinement issues, even if it's your primary motivation. Economics and public safety are the arguments that will most influence the voting public and politicians who're in a position to change things.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 20, 2011 12:12:23 PM

Thanks, and I do understand and respect your point.

The problem is that the reality in the prisons, especially when it comes to inhuman conditions and the criminality, depravity, greed, violence and corruption of many of the prison guards (and of the prison guards as a whole in their "band of brothers" silence about what is really going on), that even the simplest plain and factual description of what is actually happening makes one sound like a crackpot. Perhaps you are right: when our state of denial about what is actually happening in our prisons is so deep, it is perhaps better to bring people out of that denial bit by bit.

Posted by: Jason | Aug 20, 2011 2:26:18 PM

"Countless prisoners are tortured and, yes, murdered by prison guards (and other prisoners) all the time."

That's it!!! How have I missed this for so long? "Countless" (like, say, what -- 1,000? 10,000?) prisoners are murdered by the guards. And "all the time," too. Gads, I wonder how many have been murdered this morning. A dozen? Three dozen? My heart is heavy for what a savage nation we are.

Hey Jason, can you, like, supply us with the actual number of prisoners who have been "murdered" by guards over, say, the last 25 years? Nothing beats specifics!

And if you could, would you please get that number from some well-informed and widely respected site, maybe from the ABA or a leading law school, or from court records? Ya know, something from MoveOn.org or the National Lawyers Guild or the America Stinks Club (when did you join?) might be a tad suspect.

Thanks so much!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 21, 2011 11:18:51 AM

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