Tens-of-Thousands Join Pelican Bay
About 30,000 California prisoners have joined the hunger strike begun, on Monday, July 8, 2013, by inmates at the Secure Housing Units at Pelican Bay. That’s more than four times as many as joined Pelican Bay inmates in their first hunger strike, in July of 2011, and two-and-a-half times the number that struck in October of that year. So far, two-thirds of the state’s prisons have been affected.
The Pelican Bay inmates carry a certain moral authority, in that they represent the most long-suffering, intensely persecuted group in the largest and most barbaric prison system in the world—the approximately 80,000 U.S. prison inmates held under solitary confinement. Pelican Bay is the site of more than 1,000 solitary confinement cells, where prisoners are isolated from other human contact for at least 22 and a half hours a day. Around the state, about 4,500 people are held in Special Housing Units, or SHUs, with 6,000 more enduring some other form of solitary. Some of the SHU inmates have not seen the natural light of day for more than 20 years.
The State calls the SHU inmates the “worst of the worst” in order to justify a punishment regime more barbaric, in many respects, than any in recorded history—a massive, multi-billion dollar enterprise whose mission is to destroy the minds of men and women. Inmates are locked away for years on end for possession of literature, or for mere suspicion of political militancy. By far the largest number of SHU inmates are accused of belonging to gangs, and can only be released from solitary by accusing other inmates of gang affiliation—a process that is euphemistically called “debriefing”—thus turning everyone into a potential snitch against everyone else.
Prison is the ultimate surveillance regime, a place where the sense of self, of human agency, and of privacy is systematically crushed, in the name of security. It is no coincidence that the world’s prison superpower, the United States, which accounts for one out of every four incarcerated persons on the planet, is also engaged in spying on every other nation and population on Earth. It is as if the United States is determined to surveil—with the implicit threat to crush—every expression of the human soul.
Both U.S. global surveillance and American prison policies violate international law. The Center for Constitutional Rights has sued on behalf of the Pelican Bay inmates, citing the finding by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture that any more than 15 days of solitary confinement violates international standards of human rights.
California’s inmates aren’t waiting for the UN or the courts to come to the rescue. They’ve issued five core demands, with elimination of long-term solitary confinement at the top, and insist that the hunger strike will not end until California signs a legally binding agreement. The very concept of negotiation with inmates is anathema to the Prison State, whose goal is to reduce human beings to objects, with no rights whatsoever. The Pelican Bay inmates have concluded that, if they are to have any chance to live, they must be prepared to die.
—Black Agenda Report, July 10, 2013