By Noelle de la Paz
The Pelican Bay Prison Hunger Strike has gained considerable momentum. The renewed strike began last week and is the second such mass action staged by inmates in less than six months to draw attention to overly punitive treatment. Thousands of inmates have reportedly joined the effort in prisons throughout California and across three additional states, despite efforts by prison administration to crackdown on inmates.
The effort began at the Secure Housing Unit at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison on September 26, and inmates from a dozen facilities throughout the state are now participating. According to the federal receiver’s office, 12,000 prisoners are now participating in the hunger strike, including 3,000 inmates housed in out-of-state facilities in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.
As Julianne Hing reported last week, conditions in the prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU) have not improved according to prisoners’ original demands. In July, 6,000 inmates went on strike to protest inhumane prison policies, including one that allowed nearly half of Pelican Bay’s 1,111 prisoners to be held in solitary confinement for more than ten years.
The strike has now become the largest such action in recent history, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has addressed it as such. CDCR classifies the strike as an organized disturbance, thereby institutionalizing disciplinary actions against prisoners. Some strike leaders have been transferred to solitary confinement units.
Families of inmates have also been denied visits to Pelican Bay, according to Jay Donohue of the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS). “Their visits for the weekend were not allowed, and they’ve been told that they won’t be at all until the strike ends.”
“Denying visits only heightens the isolation that the prisoners and family members experience, especially at this critical time,” said Dolores Canales, the mother of an inmate being held in the Pelican Bay SHU.
Inmates reportedly fear that the initial concessions made by CDCR will get buried in the administrative process. The advocacy group California Correctional Crisis posted two memos that were released by the CDCR on September 27, the first day of the renewed strike. One states that while the department has authorized items such as exercise equipment and wall calendars in SHU, “the policy review and change will take several more months to implement.”
The second memo details the crackdown on participating inmates since the summer. Since the suspension of the hunger strike in July, prison guards have reportedly employed intimidation and retaliation tactics such as raiding inmates’ cells and issuing excessively harsh write-ups.
The CDCR has also expelled two attorneys chosen by inmates to represent them on the mediation team. That team has been representing prisoners in negotiations with the CDCR since July.
“This is very worrisome to say the least, ” said Carol Strickman, one of the mediation team lawyers who have been banned from CDCR facilities, according to Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity. “We obviously don’t want to imagine the worst, but we are legitimately concerned about violence on the part of the prison administration.”
On Friday, the two attorneys appealed to Gov. Jerry Brown requesting a meeting to ensure completion of proposed reforms. They are still waiting for a response.
Meanwhile, the strike continues to spread.
“We’re hearing from groups internationally, and the support only continues to grow,” said Donohue. “This is just an indication—the fact that there’s international support as well—that something is seriously wrong in California throughout the prison system, not just in the SHUs and ASUs, and that prisoners actually recognize and understand that, and they have no recourse except to strike.”