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Prisoners Being Frozen to Break Hunger Strike; Some Quit, Some Willing to Die for their Rights

From the SF Bayview Newspaper

October 8, 2011

by Deborah Dupre [1], Human Rights Examiner


Families and other supporters of the hunger strikers came from around the state to rally at the headquarters of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Oct. 5. – Photo: Bill Hackwell

On Day 12 of the resumed historic peaceful Pelican Bay Prison hunger strike, it has become apparent to human rights advocates [3] with the major group supporting the inmates interviewed by CNN [4] that the numbers of strikers began dropping this week from the 12,000 refusing food a few days ago, after the CDCR intensified retaliation [5] against them, such as air conditioning the small concrete cells at 50 degrees. The hunger strike representatives at Pelican Bay who had been kept in D Corridor of the Security Housing Unit were moved to Administrative Segregation at Pelican Bay, while at least one inmate on strike who was denied medications has suffered a heart attack.

“We are hoping that this widespread participation will push (prison officials) to negotiate and honor the basic demands of the people locked behind those walls,” said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity [6] told CNN Tuesday afternoon.

“You have people in there that have been in solitary confinement for 20 years. They just want to change their conditions.”

Lawyers finally able to have one visit last week, after some lawyers of the prisoners’ mediation team have been banned [7], report that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has the air conditioning on high in 50 degree weather.

Advocates have significant concerns about some of the measures that the CDCR is implementing in response to the strike. “Prisoners are being denied both family and legal visits, they are receiving serious rules violations and their mail is being stopped,” says Carol Strickman, a legal representative of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

“CDCR is clearly trying to further isolate the hunger strikers in the hopes of breaking the strike,” she said.

“The CDCR’s numbers appear to be low due to guards falsifying records of hunger strikers,” according to Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity [8]. “At Calipatria, for instance, hunger strikers report they were finally given their liquids after filing medical requests – even though they were still denied liquids for the first several days of the strike. Now, however, guards have been delivering liquids on the prisoners’ food trays. Once strikers take the liquids off of the trays, the guards record they are not striking. CDCR counts strikers based on who touches the state-issued food trays and who doesn’t.”

According to advocates for the prisoners, the hunger strike representatives continue to be willing to risk their lives to win their five core demands [9], each of which reflects a basic human right.

“CDCR is clearly trying to further isolate the hunger strikers in the hopes of breaking the strike,” said attorney Carol Strickman.

Medical conditions are worsening for strikers throughout the state.

“We’ve received reports that after 12 days of no food, prisoners are once again losing severe weight and fainting. One hunger striker at Pelican Bay was denied his medication and consequently suffered a heart attack and is now is an outside hospital in Oregon,” stated an advocate, refraining from identification on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity [10] website.

Other reports indicate that striking prisoners are being moved.

“We don’t know if they are being removed from their cells to some other location or transferred. It’s really terrifying that your loved one could be taken away like that for participating in a peaceful protest,” said Irma Hedlin, who has family members in the Pelican Bay SHU.

Approximately 12,000 prisoners across California last week resumed the hunger strike they had started in July when 7,000 prisoners refused food [11], some for over a month, in America’s largest peaceful prisoner protest in history. The prisoners were protesting SHU (Security Housing Unit) solitary confinement conditions at Pelican Bay and other prisons, where several thousand prisoners are held in isolation, confined to windowless cells over 22 hours a day, with minimal human contact and no work, recreational or educational programs or rehabilitation.

These conditions cause mental illness, according to research.

“Amnesty International is concerned by reports that the California Corrections Department is treating the current hunger strike as an ‘organized disturbance’ and disciplining those who participate. Such disciplinary action reportedly includes removing prisoners in the general population who support the strike to solitary confinement in Administrative Segregation units. The organization has written to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to urge that prisoners seeking humane conditions are not subjected to punitive measures.”

As previously reported [13], a federal court ordered California to move over 33,000 inmates out of its inhumane prisons that experts say are racist, with solitary confinement Security Housing Units (SHUs) typical of supermax prisons throughout the United States, the nation with the highest documented incarceration rate in the world [14], where torture is inflicted daily, often until death.

While mainstream media continues an almost complete blackout about the historic event of thousands of America’s so-called “worst of the worst” peacefully protesting against inhumane conditions, family and community members continue supporting the hunger strikers with rallies, community events, neighborhood candlelight vigils, publicizing the courageous action inside prison and building pressure on representatives to intervene in the CDCR’s handling of the strike.

A petition to the White House [15] begins, “The United States is the only country that uses solitary confinement in prisons in the manner that it does.”


Irma Hedlin, mother of two hunger strikers at Pelican Bay, speaks at the Oct. 5 rally on being denied visits with her sons. – Photo: Bill Hackwell

Already, due to their peaceful protests, the California prisoners “aren’t allowed to speak or write letters to each other; those in the Pelican Bay SHU can’t send or receive mail that mentions the strike, their attorneys have been banned and this past weekend their families weren’t even allowed to visit them,” stated San Francisco Bay View [17] associate editor JR Valrey.

According to an email I received on Wednesday, California prisoners particularly appreciate JR, one of the few reporters respecting them and their plight as newsworthy.

“You know that if the media don’t mention you and your issues, you’re nobody in the world today,” he wrote.

“You might as well be Dred Scott, who, when he sued for his freedom after his ‘owner’ wouldn’t let him buy himself, was told by the U.S. Supreme Court that he and all Black people are ‘so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’ In California prisons – and much of the rest of the world – that’s still the rule.”

When JR started writing for the Bay View 10 years ago in 2001, he was already volunteering at KPFA, the nation’s first listener-supported radio station and founder of the Pacifica Radio Network. As controversial as JR is, due to his insistence that “what is important to Black people should be important enough to everybody to be reported as news,” it took what he called “all these years of pushing and prodding” KPFA for him to finally get regularly on the air [18] just in the past couple of months.

Without media coverage, “You might as well be Dred Scott, who, when he sued for his freedom after his ‘owner’ wouldn’t let him buy himself, was told by the U.S. Supreme Court that he and all Black people are ‘so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’ In California prisons – and much of the rest of the world – that’s still the rule.”

On the other hand, Los Angeles’ popular 102.7 KIIS FM is losing listener supporters over their management of the prison torture issue. On its 8:00 a.m. program Thursday morning according to some listeners [19], the two talk show hosts spoke about the California prisoner hunger strikers.

One commenter in the Pelican Bay-California Hunger Strike Solidarity group on Facebook [19] called the show hosts’ commentary “awful and harsh” and “making fun of the inmates.”

“The hosts asked why the prisoners complain about their food,” saying they get three state meals “and gosh, homeless people get nothing so why are they complaining?”

“The hosts were also laughing and joking around about how they don’t support inhumane treatment but they say ‘those men must have done some pretty awful things to have gotten into solitary confinement.’”

“So to everyone who were fans of 102.7 KIIS FM, this is what they were saying this morning without even asking any other opinions or looking into why they are in there. Ignorance … pure ignorance.”

“If anyone knew why these men are put into solitary confinement [it’s] not based on a crime but based on some other person dropping their name or art work or a tattoo by a correctional officer saying this is true and not based on their original conviction.”

One of America’s most pressing and well-hidden human rights abuses [20] is the fact that over 100,000 people in the United States are held in small solitary confinement cells, some for life, a form of torture, while some experience even worse torture.

How we can help

Pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to tell CDCR to negotiate in good faith to meet the prisoners’ five core demands and cease all retaliation against the hunger strikers. Call (916) 445-2841, email him at [21] and write to him: Governor Jerry Brown, State Capitol, Suite 1173, Sacramento, CA 95814. A sample script is posted here [22].

Attend or organize a Thursday-night vigil. Families of SHU prisoners are calling for supporters everywhere to hold mass vigils in support of the hunger strikers on Thursday nights. If you can organize a vigil in your community, email [23]. For a list of events, check out Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity’s events page here [24].

In the Bay Area, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition will hold a weekly support vigil throughout the hunger strike every Thursday evening 5-7 p.m. The Thursday night hunger strike support vigils will be at held at different locations in San Francisco and Oakland each week. The next two are

  • Thursday, Oct. 13: 24th and Mission, San Francisco

  • Thursday, Oct. 20: Fruitvale BART, Oakland

For more information on the weekly vigils, call Lisa Roellig at (415) 238-1801.

Sign the new petition to the White House [25] on the White House website calling for an end to long-term solitary confinement.

Telephone KIIS Radio to lodge a complaint about their misguided disrespect for human rights of inmates by calling ‎(818) 559-2252 or (818) 566-4814.

Human Rights Examiner Deborah Dupre holds American and Australian science and education graduate degrees and has 30 years experience in human rights, environmental and peace activism. Email her at [26] and visit her website, [27]. Bay View staff contributed to this story, which first appeared at [28], mainly by incorporating excerpts from other posts [29] by Deborah Dupre.

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