Families of SHU prisoners converged on Sacramento Oct. 5 to pressure the CDCR to implement the prisoners' five core demands.

October 4, 2011

Also earlier story Sept. 27: http://sfbayview.com/2011/california-prisoners-resume-hunger-strike-today/

Strikers’ families denied visits, attorneys banned

by Jay Donahue

Oakland – As the renewed prisoner hunger strike enters its second week, the federal receiver’s office released information that at least 12,000 prisoners were participating during the first week. Prisoners are continuing a hunger strike that they temporarily suspended in July. 

Originating from Security Housing Units (SHUs) and Administrative Segregation Units (Ad-Seg and ASU) across California, prisoners held at Pelican Bay State Prison, Calipatria, Centinela, Corcoran, Ironwood, Kern Valley, North Kern, Salinas Valley, California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Pleasant Valley State Prison, San Quentin as well as West Valley Detention Center in San Bernadino County are currently participating. Over 3,000 California prisoners held in out-of-state facilities in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma have also refused food.

This corridor of the Pelican Bay SHU is the epicenter of the California prisoners' hungr strike; photo by Michael Montgomery, California Watch

“This is the largest prisoner strike of any kind in recent U.S. history,” says Ron Ahnen of California Prison Focus. “The fact that so many prisoners are participating highlights the extreme conditions in all of California’s prisons as well as the historic opportunity the state has been given to make substantial changes to SHU and Ad-Seg policies.”

Family members of striking SHU prisoners reported that their visits this weekend were denied by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) citing security concerns. “A number of family members received notice that they were not going to be allowed to see their loved ones as long as the strike continues,” says Dolores Canales who has a son in the Pelican Bay SHU.

“Denying visits only heightens the isolation that the prisoners and family members experience, especially at this critical time.” 

Solidarity rally at Cal. Dept. of Corrections HG in Sacramento; photo by Bill Hackwell

Advocates and lawyers have expressed concern that banning visits, along with other tactics including the possibility of violence on the part of CDCR are being used in attempt to break the strike.

“Historically, prison officials have used extreme measures, including physical violence to break strikes,” says Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a member of the mediation team working on behalf of the strikers.

“As this peaceful protest continues, it’s essential for lawmakers and the media to monitor the actions of CDCR. The department should not be allowed to use underhanded methods to resolve the strike.” Late last week two of the mediation team’s lawyers were banned from CDCR facilities with the prison administration citing unnamed “security threats.”

SHU cell; photo Cal. Dept. Corrections and Rehabilitation

The prisoners resumed their hunger strike on Sept. 26 after the CDCR failed to address demands made when prisoners initially went on strike for almost the entire month of July. They have also reported heightened levels of intimidation and retaliation from prison officials since July. Prisoners are demanding changes to long-term solitary confinement, gang validation and debriefing processes and other conditions in the state’s Security Housing Units as well as in other parts of the prison system.

Representatives of the hunger strikers have indicated that this may be a rolling strike, with prisoners coming on and off strike periodically, allowing for the possibility of a protracted struggle. Activists and family members internationally are planning protests in support of the hunger strikers in the coming weeks. For continued updates and more information, visit www.prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.

California Department of Corrections threatens prison hunger strikers, bans lawyers

by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

In response to a renewed inmate hunger strike to protest conditions in the California prison system, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has taken a hard line, threatening participants with disciplinary action and banning two lawyers who represent the strikers. According to the Contra Costa Times:

“Prison officials are investigating the two lawyers for ‘alleged misconduct,’ said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“Letters faxed Friday to San Francisco lawyer Carol Strickman of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Berkeley lawyer Marilyn McMahon of California Prison Focus said they were banned from inmate visits as the department investigated whether they had “jeopardized the safety and security” of the prisons.

“Both women have been active advocates for the rights of prisoners at Pelican State Bay Prison, the Crescent City supermax facility at the epicenter of the hunger strike this week and another one in July.

“’It’s under investigation. I really can’t comment any further on that,’ Thornton said.”

California Watch reports that the attorneys were banned under “temporary exclusion orders” that were signed by Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan on Sept. 29. The order states that an investigation is underway to determine whether the lawyers “violated the laws and policies governing the safe operations of institutions within the CDCR.”

“The document does not provide details about the allegations. It cites a section from the California Code of Regulations that reads:

“’Committing an act that jeopardizes the life of a person, violates the security of the facility, constitutes a misdemeanor or a felony, or is a reoccurrence of previous violations shall result in a one-year to lifetime exclusion depending on the severity of the offense in question.’

“Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton confirmed the department had banned ‘some specific attorneys’ from one facility for alleged misconduct. She declined further comment, citing an ongoing investigation.”

Shortly after it banned the lawyers, the CDCR issued a memo to all striking prisoners, informing them that “the department will not condone organized inmate disturbances.” The memo indicated that disciplinary action could be taken against inmates participating in the hunger strike and that those identified as leaders could be placed in isolation in a Security Housing Unit. The memo did not state what might be done to those strike leaders already locked in solitary in the Pelican Bay SHU, where the strike originated.

The current hunger strike, according to inmate organizers, is not a new protest but rather a renewal of the three-week strike that began on July 1. That strike ended after prison officials agreed to some limited concessions, including a review of the policies by which prisoners are placed and held in indefinite solitary confinement in the state’s SHUs. The initial hunger strike also resulted in a hearing in the California Assembly on the treatment of inmates in the SHUs, where thousands of inmates languish in 22- to 23-hour-a-day in isolation in windowless cells, some for 10 years, 20 years or more.

According to a statement issued in mid-September, strike leaders in the Pelican Bay SHU saw little indication or promise of real change:

“As of September 2011, these SHU prisoners continue to be subjected to CDCR’s torturous human rights violations, in spite of the July 2011 peaceful protest via hunger strike, wherein thousands of prisoners of all races and groups united in their effort to bring mainstream exposure and force an end to such barbarous policies and practices. [CDCR has responded with more propaganda, lies and vague double talk promises of change in time].

“SHU prisoners are dissatisfied with CDCR’s response to their formal complaint and five core demands, and therefore will continue to resist via peaceful protest indefinitely, until actual changes are implemented.”

The state is clearly taking an even harder line on this round of the hunger strike. Scott Kernan told California Watch: “Unlike in the first instance where we certainly evaluated their concerns and thought there was some merit to it, this instance appears to be more manipulative, and it certainly has the possibility of being a real disruption to the Department of Corrections and the security of its staff and inmates.”

Last week, the CDCR stated that close to 3,400 inmates at six prisons were participating in the hunger strike, which the department defines as refusing state-issued meals for three consecutive days, according to the most recent data from the corrections department. On Saturday, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity reported that “numbers released by the federal receiver’s office” that monitors health care in California prisons “show that on Sept. 28, nearly 12,000 prisoners were on hunger strike, including California prisoners who are housed in out of state prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma … Prisoners are currently on strike in Pelican Bay State Prison, Calipatria, Centinela, Corcoran, Ironwood State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison, North Kern State Prison, and Salinas Valley State Prison. Throughout the last week prisoners at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Pleasant Valley State Prison, San Quentin as well as West Valley Detention Center in San Bernardino County were participating.”

James Ridgeway and Jean Casella are co-editors of Solitary Watch, an innovative public website aimed at bringing the widespread use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture in U.S. prisons out of the shadows and into the light of the public square. A unique collaboration between journalists and law students, Solitary Watch’s mission is to provide the public – as well as practicing attorneys, legal scholars, law enforcement and corrections officers, policymakers, educators, advocates and prisoners – with the first centralized, comprehensive source of information on solitary confinement in the United States. This story first appeared in Solitary Watch.

Support the hunger strikers

1) Pressure Gov. Brown to ensure the CDCR implement the changes set forth in the prisoners’ five core demands and that the CDCR cease ALL retaliation on hunger strikers. Call Gov. Jerry Brown at (916) 445-2841.

For more information,  contact (415) 238-1801 or prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity@gmail.com.

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