Incarceration Nation

California Rises to Prisoners’ Challenge to End Racial Hostilities

By Mary Ratcliff

In the U.S., we not only encage 25 percent of the world’s prisoners—more than any nation in the history of the world and more Black people than were enslaved in 1850—but we isolate at least 80,000 of them in solitary confinement. I contend that the purpose is to drive them mad; and after years of reading their letters, I believe they are targeted for this intense form of torture not because they are the worst of the worst but because they are the best and brightest.

In September, the Short Corridor Collective, prisoners confined to the SHU (Secure Housing Unit) in Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), one of the first and harshest examples of mass solitary confinement, sent out a historic call for racial hostilities to end in California prisons beginning October 10.

Of the prisoners in the SHU, who are all “considered the most dangerous and influential (prisoners) in the state,” these men in the Short Corridor are “the leaders, what one authority called all the ‘alpha dogs,’” writes Nancy Mullane of KALW, who managed to get approval for a visit to the SHU—and even an interview with a SHU prisoner. In California, reporters’ access to prisoners is largely barred by law.

In a letter to prisoner advocates, these so-called “shot callers,” who prison officials say require isolation to prevent them from ordering prison murders, have shown their true colors. Writing “on behalf of all racial groups here in the PBSP-SHU Corridor,” they declare that “now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups.”

“Therefore,” they write, “beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups in SHU, ad-seg (Administrative Segregation), general population and county jails will officially cease.” With this call, prisoners who endure some of the world’s worst punishment have disarmed their jailers—disabling the most effective weapon in the Corrections Department arsenal: divide and conquer.

“In conclusion, we must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us and our best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR (California Department of Corrections) to use us against each other for their benefit,” they write. So, with solidarity, the same men who led last year’s hunger strikes, which involved 12,000 prisoners at their peak, intend to achieve the modest relief they were promised then—promises still unfulfilled.

Prisoners respond to the call

When the Bay View published the call to end hostilities, prisoner advocate Kendra Castaneda printed 100 copies of the story and mailed them to 100 prisoners around the state, so that word would begin to spread before Bay View prisoner subscribers received their October papers. She was determined to make a way around the severe restrictions on prisoners’ ability to communicate.

California prisoners, who are prohibited from writing to each other, rely on phone calls, visits and letters from outside the walls and on the Bay View and a few other publications for the news that matters most to them. Most of the men in the Short Corridor Collective, however, are allowed no phone calls, and many are denied visits as well.

And rumors reached us that the Corrections Department might ban the October Bay View statewide for containing the call that would effectively disarm them. We don’t yet know whether subscribers have received their papers. What we have heard is that many prisoners’ letters to the Bay View are being confiscated.

Of the 100 copies of the call to end hostilities that Kendra mailed, all appear to have been delivered except the 11 addressed to the very same men who wrote it. On October 12, she received 11 “mail stops,” notices from the Pelican Bay gang unit claiming her letters violate California Code of Regulations Title 15 with “plans that violate the law” and facilitate prisoner-to-prisoner communication, even though she had deleted all the signers’ names and prison numbers.

Responses from prisoners who did receive her letters are beginning to reach Kendra, and here’s what they write:

From Gustavo Chavez:

“The idea of this agreement going around is a positive start to a new beginning for all inmates. If we could maintain this valuable peace treaty within the prison system, why not work on spreading the word outside the prison walls so that we may put an end to the gang violence and work on becoming a bigger force?

“Of course this movement will immediately be looked at as home grown terrorism. We can’t allow such propaganda to interfere with our progress to educate our youth. The whole system operates on scare tactics, tactics that we shouldn’t fear.

“The challenges that lie ahead must be supremacy over the entire system. We can’t allow our decisions to be uncertain, because uncertainty won’t take us far. We also must implement principal to our purpose so that we may understand the cause. When people lose focus, things get ugly, and we all know who benefits from that!

“Last but not least, we/I know that rumors have been going around about certain stuff, and supposedly everything is coming from the Short Corridor. It sounds like the guards are attempting to disrupt the agreement by spreading these rumors around. We all must be careful not to fall into the guards’ web.

“I’m always prepared for the worst, especially when knowing I’m being psychologically tortured day after day.”—In struggle, Gustavo Chavez, E-45117, PBSP SHU D-8-121, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532, written September 26, 2012.

In a separate personal letter, Gustavo writes on October 7: “Kendra, a lot of scandalous things are occurring up here. They have over 16 inmates from the main line on potty watch. I’m constantly being threatened by the coward pigs. Their tactics are aimed to disrupt what we are setting out to accomplish. You make sure to continue riding strong against the enemy regardless of the amount of times they try to bring you down.”

From Terrance E. White:

“They’ve moved a lot of people over to Wasco State Prison Ad-Seg Unit, and they’re still validating people but have let non-serious incidents go back to the yard. That’s what I’ve witnessed.

“And they didn’t try to deter our Black August celebration this year. Here at North Kern State Prison, we had Southern Hispanics, Northern Hispanics and a few whites participate in our exercising routines on the yard (dog kennel) with us New Afrikkkans.

“We are all also aware of the peace treaty that’s to start October 10, 2012, throughout the prison system and are all in agreement with it. It is about time to take back all that has been lost and continue to press forward in this struggle for liberation. They’ve had all us oppressed in these conditions for far too long.”—Comrade T, Terrance E. White, AG8738, KVSP D6-241, P.O. Box 5005, Delano, CA 93216, written October 5, 2012

From Heshima Denham:

“We received the comments (from several different sources) on the 10/10 cessation of hostilities and are in FULL adherence/compliance with all three points. However, there does seem to be some confusion on aspects of point 3 as it relates to the 10/10/2012 date, and we were wondering could we get some clarity from the main reps at PB?”—Heshima Denham, J-38283, Cor-SHU 4BIL-46, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212, written October 3, 2012

Prisoners’ inability to communicate leads to confusion

The confusion Heshima mentions appears to be reflected in an October 13 story in the Los Angeles Times. Prisoners apparently heard that a call had been put out by those who had called last year’s hunger strikes and assumed it was for another hunger strike. The Times reports:

“Corrections officials said they do not know why about 500 inmates started refusing food Wednesday, the same day a prison ‘end to hostilities’ was called by inmate activists who had orchestrated last year’s mass hunger strikes.

“The fasting began at opposite ends of the state. Several hundred inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border refused meals from Wednesday through Friday, but began eating again Friday night, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. About 300 prisoners at California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi, north of Los Angeles, also began refusing meals Wednesday. About 200 of them continued to refuse food Saturday, Thornton said.”

The Times’ story closes on an ominous note:

“Prison officials regard the reference to race [in the call to end hostilities] as a synonym for the race-based gangs active in California prisons, including the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood and 415 KUMI.

“Molly Porzig with Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity said Pelican Bay prison officials responded to the ceasefire by asking the 16 Short Corridor inmates whose names appear on the statement to acknowledge gang activity. She attributed the claim to a family member visiting one of those inmates last week.”

This suggests that CDCR is trying to turn the call to end hostilities on its head and consider it evidence of gang activity.

To nip in the bud these efforts to confuse and criminalize prisoners and stop their peaceful organizing, it is imperative that the truth be communicated to prisoners all over California. We urge readers to print out this story and mail it to prisoners you know. If you’re not currently corresponding with a prisoner, look for California prisoners from among the hundreds of pen pals listed in the Bay View.

The call to end hostilities is heard and heeded on the streets

Los Angeles’ Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) called for a “parallel cease fire in the streets” to correspond to the end of hostilities inside the prisons called by the Short Corridor Collective. Led by the youth, a large, diverse crowd rallied at 10:00 A.M. on October 10 outside the LA County Men’s Jail.

In announcing their rally, YJC wrote:

“Prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) have announced a push to end all hostilities between racial groups within California’s prisons and jails. The handwritten announcement was sent to prison advocacy organizations. It is signed by prisoners identifying themselves as the PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective. Pelican Bay’s SHU was the point of origin for last year’s hunger strikes which rocked California’s prison system, at one point including the participation or nearly 12,000 prisoners in over 11 prisons throughout the state.”

“We have the duty to fight for our brothers and sisters who remain inside the walls of injustice and confined to a system that does NOT work for our community,” they declared.

Photos taken at the rally that illustrate this story exude solidarity and hope.

Sponsoring organizations included Youth Justice Coalition, Fair Chance Project, LA Community Action Network, FACTS (Families to Amend California Three Strikes), California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, Homies Unidos, California Faith Action, Coalition to Stop Sheriff Violence and Gender Justice LA. For more information or to add your organization as a supporter, email the Youth Justice Coalition at or call them at (323) 235-4243.

The youth quote political exile Assata Shakur: “If unity happens inside the walls of prison, imagine the impacts it will have on our neighborhoods and youth!”

Another rally was held in Riverside. The announcement on Facebook reads:

“We are calling on all communities in Riverside County to stand in solidarity with all of our loved ones locked inside California’s prisons and county jails. This press conference and rally calls on the CDCR and local county sheriff’s departments to honor the call to end all hostilities between racial groups.”

Mary Ratcliff is editor of San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper.

San Francisco Bay View, October 14, 2012