July 15, 2011

Historic hunger strike by Supermax prisoners continues

Gangs are bad, right? And prison gangs are worse?

Yet, when members of California prison gangs try to retire, California punishes them. They are shipping to a solitary housing unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay, one of the worst prisons in the state. They are locked in isolation cells for months or even years while being forced to undergo lengthy “debriefings” where they must snitch on other prisoners. Many become mentally ill.

The conditions of extreme isolation and deprivation are so severe that they violate the U.S. Constitution and international laws on torture, according to prisoners who on July 1 began a hunger strike in protest.

The prisoners were supported by up to 6,600 prisoners at 13 other prisons around the state. But even with some of the strikers reportedly nearing death this week, prison officials adamantly refuse to sit down at the table and negotiate. In fact, they are putting an evil spin on the strikers by claiming they are being coerced by prison gangs.

The prisoners' demands include an end to long-term solitary confinement, expansion of constructive activities and privileges (such as phone calls and the right to take one photo of themselves per year), and abolition of the prison’s gang debriefing policy.

One of the striking prisoners is Hugo Pinell, an African American organizer who has been imprisoned since 1971 for his role in the San Quentin uprising that led to George Jackson's death. Pinell has been at the Pelican Bay SHU for 20 years.

This is at least the third in a series of protests by U.S. prisoners in recent months. Last December, thousands of prisoners in Georgia used mobile phones to organize what has been called the largest prison labor strike in U.S. history, in at least six prisons across the state. Prisoners on death row in Ohio then went on a hunger strike and won some changes in their conditions, according to a lengthy report by Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera has more background on the strike (HERE). To get involved by contacting state officials or taking other supportive action, visit the blog of Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.

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