By Eduardo Stanley
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published by VOXXI (www.voxxi.com/calif-hunger-strike-solitary-confinement/)).
About 500 people recently traveled from all over California to Corcoran, a small farm town at the heart of California’s Central Valley, to support inmates’ statewide hunger strike to end solitary confinement.
Prisoners sent to solitary confinement are housed on special units called security housing units, or SHUs.
“My brother was placed on a SHU here in Corcoran because wardens considered he belongs to a gang,” said Gilbert Pacheco, of Bakersfield. “They determined so by the people you talk to, or the tattoos you have.”
Inmates on SHU units stay in a small cell with little or no personal belongings and almost no external contact for 23 hours a day. There is no time limit to stay in an SHU unit. Many prisoners stay there more than 10 years. Opponents compare conditions in an SHU unit to torture.
Pacheco’s brother faces another problem. By being sent to an SHU unit, his chances to get freed for good conduct before the sentence term is up are now almost impossible. He still has eight years to go out of a 17-year sentence.
Almost the only way out of solitary confinement is debriefing, which means to become a “snitch” for the prison authorities. By doing so, prisoners not only break some inmates’ code but also risk their lives due to retaliation.
Largest Hunger Strike in California History
The statewide hunger strike started on July 8, with about 30,000 inmates who refused breakfast and lunch. About 2,500 others refused to work or attend classes claiming to be sick.
By the time of the protest in Corcoran, about 12,000 inmates were involved in the hunger strike, which could be considered the largest strike of this kind in California’s history.
“The isolation of solitary confinement severely affects all inmates’ mental health, making reentry to society all the more difficult. For those with preexisting mental conditions, such consequences are even worse,” explains a document published by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker national organization involved with the protest and dedicated to the peace movement since 1917.
Corcoran Prison was chosen for the protest against the SHUs because dozens of inmates on the hunger strike are housed there. It is one of the 33 state prisons and four private prisons located out of the state dedicated to Californians in solitary confinement.
Corcoran is also a typical small town in rural central California, where several prisons and jails have been built in the last decade. Supporters of this industry argue that it helps alleviate the high unemployment and chronic poverty. Of the 24,000 residents of Corcoran—63% Hispanic—45% are behind bars. Inmates are counted as city residents by the U.S. Census, so the total includes 10,000 people housed at the local state prison and at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility. The state prison is home of some notorious criminals, including Charles Manson and Juan Corona.
The hunger strike isn’t the only problem the Golden State is facing with the prison and jail system.
In May 2011, California’s Supreme Court ordered the government to reduce its prison population from the approximately 160,000 inmates. The court stated that crowding and terrible conditions in the prison system could be considered inhumane treatment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Although California’s government claims it is doing whatever is possible to reduce the prison population, the reality is that prisons—as well as county jails—are overpopulated and therefore the state could be charged with contempt.
“We are now at 127,000 prisoners in the state, [and] the government still needs to reduce that number,” explains Debbie Reyes, director of the California Prison Moratorium Project, based in Fresno. “We asked the government to release older, nonviolent inmates.” Reyes says that instead, the government is planning to expand prisons’ capacity up to another 3,000 beds and send more inmates out of the state.
Prison and jail overcrowding isn’t only California’s problem but rather part of a nationwide trend. And this trend makes the United States the world leader when it comes to jailed people—not a record to be proud off.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two million adults are incarcerated in the country, in addition to almost five million in parole and close to 80,000 juveniles in juvenile detention. The racial composition of the inmate population also gets some attention: 40% Black, a group that represents 13.6% of the total population, and 20% Latino, a group that accounts for 16.3% of the population.
All this was denounced by the participants at the march and rally held in Corcoran, called by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), a coalition involving several organizations such as Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, California Prison Focus, the Prison Activist Resource Center, Critical Resistance, Kersplebedeb, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the American Friends Service Committee and BarNone Arcata.
The protest in Corcoran split in two: one group marched around the state prison while the other group held a rally close to the main entrance to the facility. While marching around the gray, cement-built prison on a dusty road under 109 degrees, Pacheco looked at the building and said, “My brother can’t see us, I wish him to see how many people are here supporting him and others in the same situation.”
For many activists, the high percentage of people of color behind bars isn’t an accident.
“When we have workshops, we always ask the audience who has relatives in jail. We always get at least one or two kids raising their hands,” said Monica Bernal, an activist for the San Diego–based Chicano Mexicano Prison Project. “They took our land and now they are jailing our families.”
The PHSS made public the prisoners’ demands:
- End group punishment and administrative abuse.
- Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
- Comply with recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement from the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons.
- Provide adequate and nutritious food, and expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.
Eduardo Stanley is a journalist and photographer covering issues related to immigration and the Central Valley. Learn more about his work at www.eduardostanley.com.