What is the Meaning of the California Prisoner Hunger Strikes?
A statement in support of the hunger strikers
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” —Frederick Douglass
Over six thousand California prisoners participated in a 3-week-long hunger strike in July, seeking relief from unjust and inhumane conditions. In the face of California Department of Corrections (CDC) officials failing to honor settlement negotiations, the hunger strike resumed on September 26th, with some 12,000 prisoners participating nationwide.
It is a truism that oppression breeds resistance. Indeed, the U.S. Declaration of Independence enshrines the right and duty of the oppressed to resist their oppression.
In this era of capitalist oppression on a global scale, the hunger strike exhibits the very same human spirit, courage and outrage that drove millions across North Africa and the Middle East this year, to take to the streets in protest against oppressive governments. U.S. rulers, in the face of pretending to champion and support human rights, democracy, and the demands for basic rights by people half-a-world away, can’t admit they practice abuses just as vile against their own subjects—right here in America.
Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. puppet and Egyptian dictator who was driven out of Egypt by mass protests this year, was notorious for torturing his own people. But so too are U.S. officials. Indeed, one of the key protest issues of the California prisoners is the acute psychological torture of sensory deprivation in the CDC’s Security Housing Units (SHUs)—Pelican Bay’s SHU in particular. This torture can’t be honestly denied.
It has long been the game of U.S. officials, especially since the 2004 Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib torture scandals, to pretend that psychological torture isn’t really torture at all. However, they secretly know the exact opposite to be true. According to torture experts, psychological—or “clean” torture—is the most destructive, sadistic and inhumane type of torture. Among the most proven effective methods is the very sort inflicted by design in the isolated cells of the SHUs, namely, sensory deprivation.
Noted psychologist and torture expert, Dr. Albert Biderman, long ago found as to sensory deprivation, “the effect of isolation on the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved or deprived of sleep”1. The very same U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that employed Biderman as one of its torture researchers and experimenters, encoded these findings in its 1963 “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation torture manual, confirming that:
- The deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress;
- The stress becomes unbearable for most subjects;
- The subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli; and
- Some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, which produces delusions, hallucinations, and other pathological effects.
What’s more, over a century ago the U.S. high court found and denounced the same in U.S. prisons, in the face of In Re Medley, 134 U.S. 150 (1890)2. These findings have been repeated in U.S. courts today in response to the conditions of SHUs and super-maximum security prisons that have swept America since the 1970s, alongside massive imprisonment of the poor and people of color. In one case concerning Pelican Bay’s SHU, the California federal courts found “many, if not most, inmates in SHU experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation in SHU.” Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (1995).
So it’s no wonder thousands of prisoners have been driven to starve themselves in desperate efforts for exposure and redress, and to show they are worthy of basic human rights and dignity.
But the typical response of officials is to discredit the resistance of those who suffer at their hands by villainizing (or “dirtying up,” as Johnnie Cochran used to call it), the victim. It was done to Civil Rights activists from the 1950s-1970s who opposed and exposed racism—U.S. officials projected them as fronts for foreign communists, and denounced as “Soviet propaganda” graphic photos of Southern lynching that appeared in world media.
Whatever happens to be the popular official enemy and bogeyman of the day is the label used to discredit those who resist official oppression. During the Cold War, the “enemy” was communists. Then it was terrorists. In the era of mass incarceration and ongoing persecution of Black and Brown youth, it’s gangs. These labels are used to provoke visceral reactions in the population at large of fear, hatred and consequent disregard for and alienation against the oppressed. And true to form, the hunger strikers have been “dirtied up” as the work of prison gangs:
“The CDCR has continued to lie about the hunger strike—saying it was organized by gangs and attacking representatives of the strikers and others, depicting them as the ‘generals’ of the prison gangs and the ‘shot callers’ who order other prisoners to engage in gang violence.
“Dolores, whose son has been in the SHU for ten years, said ‘If that is their [the prisoners’] way of thinking, then why did they just conduct a hunger strike willing to risk their own lives, to suffer on a daily basis in a nonviolent demonstration that spread across California prisons involving thousands and thousands of men crossing all racial lines? It’s because they are human beings. They do have dignity, and they want to be heard.’”3
Not coincidentally, another of the hunger strike’s main protest issues is the CDCR’s labeling prisoners as gang members upon the flimsiest grounds, then confining them in SHUs until they “debrief”—that is, finger other prisoners as gang members to be thrown in the SHU. Thus the only way to leave SHU is as a known informant to be ostracized and targeted as such by others.
The real purpose of SHUs and Super-maxes
The true purpose of SHUs isn’t to control gangs and racial violence. In fact, the CDCR has long instigated and facilitated prisoner-on-prisoner violence. From the notorious “gladiator fights”—where guards at CDCR’s Corcoran State Prison set up prisoner fights, gambled on the outcomes, and then shot the prisoners for fun, killing eight and shooting 43 just between 1989 and 1994—to massive numbers of prisoner-on-prisoner clashes instigated and manipulated by the notoriously corrupt California prison guards’ union, to generate public support for building more prisons to increase prison jobs and dues-paying membership.
In 1999, prisoners at the New Folsom Prison went on a hunger strike protesting being forced onto prison yards with rivals. CDOC Ombudsman Ken Hurdle rejected negotiations, stating, “Then you’d have two groups normally aligned on the yard together. They would have only staff as their enemy.”4 This admits officials deliberately facilitating prisoner-on-prisoner violence as a technique of prison control. This is what they fear in the unity shown by the hunger strikers. And it undermines the disunity they need to project them as animals.
Officials welcome and incite gang violence. It creates jobs, justifies their oppression, and enhances their “control.” Even Crips co-founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who was killed by the CDCR exposed this.5
More revealing is that then-California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, rejected massive international pleas to stay Tookie’s execution on grounds that Tookie dedicated his book, Life in Prison, to Black revolutionary George Jackson, who was murdered by CDOC officials in 1971. Schwarzenegger said the dedication “defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed.” Which brings us closer to exposing the real reasons SHUs exist.
The actual “leaders” officials fear, and who are the prime targets of SHUs and super-maxes are those who are politically conscious and prove able to unite prisoners across racial and other lines.
The proliferation of SHUs and super-maxes began with the Marion Control Unit, which opened in 1972, following the murder of George Jackson and the peaceful 1971 Attica uprising that officials ended with the cold-blooded murders of 29 prisoners and ten civilians, and systematic humiliation and torture of hundreds of prisoners, provoking international outrage. Like the brutal government responses to mass protests in Asia and Africa this year, when the prisoners of Attica took to the yard in protest, with grievances articulated and represented by politically conscious prisoners, the official response was murder and torture, then high security torture units. In one of the few admissions on record, Ralph Arons, a former warden at Marion, testified in federal court: “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison and in society at large.”6 Yet U.S. officials deny confining or persecuting people for political beliefs.
In fact, Pelican Bay officials recently banned my own book, Defying the Tomb, as “gang material,” a book of political writings and art, which many readers and reviewers have compared to George Jackson’s writings, whose books CDOC banned in the 1970s as well. And with the resurgence of prisoners’ political consciousness, they’ve recently begun confiscating this book as “gang material.” Like Nazi book burnings and concentration camps, the object is to censor and persecute political consciousness and revolutionary culture amongst the most oppressed peoples. And “gang” labels are used to “dirty up” the people, practices, and ideas they seek to repress.
Just as I am confined in a remote Virginia super-max, under “special” conditions of a SHU because of my political beliefs and having co-founded the New Afrikan Black Panther Party as a Party of the oppressed, so too you’ll find in these units across America those who hold and practice revolutionary political views and affiliations that are supposed to be constitutionally protected, not persecuted. As the high court once proclaimed:
“Our form of government is built on the premise that every citizen shall have the right to engage in political expression and association. This right was enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Exercise of these basic freedoms in America has traditionally been through the media of political associations. Any interference with the freedom of a party is simultaneously an interference with the freedom of its adherents. All political ideas cannot and should not be channeled into the programs of our two major parties. History has amply proved the virtue of political activity by minority, dissident groups...”7
But contrast these political ideals with the political reality that such parties face at the hands of officials, as admitted by Justice Hugo Black: “History should teach us...that...minority parties and groups which advocate extremely unpopular social or governmental innovations will always be typed as criminal gangs and attempts will always be made to drive them out.”8
This is the function of the SHUs like those that California’s prisoners are protesting, and the ones used as a weapon to censor and repress political consciousness.
Resistance to the oppression of these units is the meaning of the hunger strikes. America’s oppressed and disenfranchised victims of modern penal enslavement and the New Jim Crow, are struggling like those of generations past for recognition and respect as human beings. As a Party of the oppressed, especially the imprisoned, the NABPP-PC stands in unity with the heroic struggles of California’s entombed, and call on all freedom-loving people everywhere to take up their cause.
Dare to struggle! Dare to win!
All Power to the People!
1 Albert D. Biderman and Herbert Zimmer, eds. The Manipulation of Human Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1961), 29.
2 The court found under conditions of solitary confinement “A considerable number of prisoner fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to remove them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were generally not reformed, and in most cases, did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”
3“Hunger Strike to Resume September 26—Support the Just Demands of the Pelican Bay Prisoners,” Revolution #243, September 25, 2011.
4 Quoted from Sacramento Bee, December 8, 1999.
5“Yes America, as unbelievable as it may seem, ‘hood cops, with impunity, commit drive-bys and other lawless acts. It was common practice for them to abduct a Crip or Bounty Hunter and drop him off in hostile territory, and then broadcast it over a loudspeaker. The predictable outcome was that the rival was either beaten or killed on the spot, which resulted in a cycle of payback. Cops would also inform opposing gangs where to find and attack a rival gang, and then say ‘go handle your business.’ Like slaves, the gang did exactly what their master commanded. Had they not been fuelled by self-hatred, neither Crips, Bounty Hunters, nor any other Black gang, would have been duped.
“The‘ hood cops were pledged to protect and serve, but for us they were not there to help, but to exploit us—and they were effective. With the cops’ Machiavellian presence, the gang epidemic escalated. When gang warfare is fed and fuelled by law enforcement, funds are generated for the so-called anti-gang units. Without gangs, those units would no longer exist.” Blue Rage, Black Redemption (2004).
6 Stephen Whitman, “The Marion Penitentiary—It should be Opened-Up Not Locked-Down.” Southern Illinoisan. August 7, 1988, p. 25.
7 NAACP v. Button. 371 U.S. 415, 431 (1963).
8 Barenblatt v. U.S., 360 U.S. 109, 150 (1959) (J., Black, dissenting).