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California Prison Hunger Strike

Updated on August 2, 2013

Is this America??

On July 8, 2013, prisoners in SHU (Segregated Housing Units) of several California prisons launched a hunger strike to protest the abuse and inhumane conditions under which they are forced to live. I, myself, was not aware of what takes place in these particular facilities, and, when I took the time to read and research articles, letters, and other sources of information, I admit, I was horrified. It has taken me several days to absorb what I've learned. The conditions I read about seem more like what I've read about prison conditions in third world countries. I am devastated to learn that the United States of America allows this to take place. In fact, what I have read, in my opinion, says that the government officials in California are completely aware of the goings on in these prisons, and they turn a blind eye.

There are more than 30,000 prisoners taking part in the hunger strike in California prisons right now, many of whom are older inmates, including a large number who suffer with serious health problems. Conditions are so bad, they say, that many are prepared to "die for the cause", choosing death over continuing to live in these horrific conditions.

At Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California, authorities have moved a number of hunger striking prisoners from solitary confinement into smaller, more isolated cells as punishment. The prisoner's cells have been turned upside down, their personal belongings have been searched, some confiscated, as have any legal files they possessed. Officials are now saying that belongings and files have been returned, but some inmates lawyers are saying that there is still some legal paperwork missing. Amnesty International is asking California Dept. of Corrections to "revoke sanctions against inmates for exercising their right to engage in peaceful protest". Punishment upon punishment.

This is the third time prisoners in the same locations have protested the conditions in the SHU. They led a hunger strike in 2011 and were promised by authorities changes that ended the strike, but those promises were never "signed, and sealed, so to speak", and were, therefore, never delivered. Prisoners say conditions are worse now than they were then.

Prisoners Live Like Animals

To say that the prisoners in the SHU (Segregated Housing Units) live like animals is a kind description. There are laws against treating animals the way these people are being treated. According to letters from family members of inmates housed at Calipatria State Prison, which is located near the Mexican border in the Mojave Desert, the SHU is a completely separate building from the rest of the facility. They say it was deliberately built away from the rest of the prison so that what went on in there would not be seen or heard by anyone in the other buildings. The cells are tiny, smaller than the ones that are not solitary confinement, and windowless. The men are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, 365 days a year, with an hour "outside", which consists of a small, caged area with a tiny window in the ceiling that lets some daylight in. The men are fed very little, sometimes nothing. Prison authorities claim the reason for this is that they "ran out of food". Really?

For some reason it is said that the prisoners in the corner cells are fed even less than the rest of the men, and that the corner cells are the coldest in winter and the hottest in summer. The laundry is rarely done, and, one family member claimed in a letter that the men are forced to wear their dirty laundry and are only able to change their boxers once every three months. They are not given blankets for the cold. What food they are given is moldy and rotten. They experience rapid weight loss and are even stripped of their visits with family. The time a prisoner spends in isolation is open-ended, and there are those that have been living there for decades.

Being locked in their cells for all but one hour every day, these men have no one to talk to and no way to occupy their time or their minds. They are not allowed writing paper or pens and the books they are allowed to have are few. Is it any wonder that so many begin to slip away from reality? There are family members, parents, wives, children, who have not been able to see their incarcerated loved ones for years. They are crying for justice.

There are no adequate words that can express this kind of treatment. I am appalled that conditions in these prisons so closely mimmick those in Midnight Express!! I feel as though I have been living under a rock, having never realized that this kind treatment of human beings is going on in this country.

Prisoners are people. They could be anyone or everyone. Not every prisoner in every prison is a serial killer. Yes, there are those who are best locked up to protect the rest of society, and they should be getting the help on the inside that they desperately need. We, the people, need to have a natural fear of what goes on in the world, and we need to protect our families, our children, ourselves from the people who, for whatever reason, or no reason at all, have done, and will do, horrible things to the innocent. And, yes, it is a scary world and we need to be on our guard. This is the awful truth. But, another awful truth is that people serving time are not always that person. Prisoners are in prison for hundreds of different reasons, from drugs and alcohol abuse to writing bad checks, or even for making a clueless mistake they may not be aware they made.

We cannot generalize when it comes to incarcerated people any more than we can generalize when it comes to us here on the outside. Unfortunately, society dictates differently. Here on the outside, we don't understand this unless we are placed in the awful position of seeing a loved one locked up. That one locked up could be any one of our own family members at any time. When it happens, your life will take a turn onto a road you never wanted to walk down. You find that your way of thinking changes. Suddenly you become more willing to listen, because that is what you want for your loved one. To be listened to. Your priorities change. You begin to think a lot more about justice and fairness. You suddenly see a blinding light that shines on everything you've always kept private. You find out what it's like to be under the thumb of the "justice" system.

Have a Listening Ear

There is such a loud cry going out to the government of California right now that I don't know how I, or anyone else, hasn't heard it. To put ourselves in the shoes of these prisoners, to live like they do under such terrible circumstances, is unimaginable. Cut off from family and friends, locked up all but one hour a day, inadequate clothing, allowed to have less than the bare minimum of what you need just to survive? Not knowing when and if you'll eat again? Sitting, day after day, hour after hour, in a tiny room staring at the four walls? And the list of atrocities goes on.

My hope and prayer is that the government of the great state of California will understand that time is of the essence. People are struggling to survive. People are suffering, physically and mentally, and all they want is to be allowed to live like human beings. I pray that the authorities would wake up and realize the seriousness of this situation. I read that the secretary of the CDCR (California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation), Jeffrey Beard, just wants the hunger strike to fizzle out so that life can move ahead. That isn't the solution. Unless things change drastically, life on the inside for these prisoners will not move ahead.


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