Statement in Support of Pelican Bay Hunger Strike By Former Illinois Prisoner Gregory Koger

 

Since July 1st 2011, hundreds of prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU), joined by thousands more in over a third of California’s state prisons and in other prisons across the country, have been on an indefinite hunger strike demanding an end to the horrendous conditions they face languishing for years (some for decades) in isolation and sensory deprivation - conditions that violate international standards against torture. These courageous brothers have joined together to demand an end to the widespread, systematic policies of torture and human rights abuses that affect prisoners not just in Pelican Bay or California but are integral to the functioning of the world’s largest system of mass incarceration.

I know personally the horrors that these brothers are facing. Like too many others locked down in the hellholes of America’s prison system, I was caught up in survival in the street life as a youth and sentenced to serve many years in prison as a teenager. After being given an indeterminate period of segregation in prison, through intense study and resistance to the increasingly repressive conditions, I began to develop an understanding of the dynamics of this exploitative capitalist-imperialist system, and since my release have dedicated my life to serving the people in the struggle to emancipate all of humanity from the oppressive relations of class society.

My experience is shared by millions. With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. holds one-fourth of all prisoners in the world within its unrivaled and historically unparalleled racist dungeons. As Michelle Alexander has documented in her vital recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are more Black folks in jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in this country just before the Civil War. The United States has a higher rate of incarceration for Black men than apartheid South Africa, a regime universally considered one of the most racist in the history of the world. And there are more women incarcerated in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.

The systematic use of torture constitutes a crime against humanity under international law. As the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum describes, “[crimes against humanity] are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority.” Long-term segregation in the U.S. prison system is just such a systematic practice of torture. As Dr. Atul Gawande, who documented torture in U.S. prisons, said in his March 2009 article "Hellhole" in The New Yorker: “In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.’

The courageous example of these prisoners coming together, across racial and other dividing lines fostered by those in power, from within the bowels of the most dehumanizing and degrading conditions, and stepping forward to demand an end to the torture and inhumane conditions being forced upon them by the U.S. government, risking death and retaliation in the process, should inspire and challenge us to support their struggle and step forward to join them – as part of getting rid of this whole damn capitalist system and bringing forward a liberated world for all humanity.

Circulate information on the prisoner’s demands and developments in the hunger strike, spread the information at Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website at http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/ and news and updates at Revolution newspaper at http://revcom.us/.

By Gregory Koger, a former inmate in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

You know what else is

You know what else is inhumane?  Allowing prisoners to be beaten up and anally raped by their fellow prisoners.  Which is usually what winds people up in administrative segregation.  Tell me.  How would you humanely solve that problem?

 

In many ways, the most humane thing to do with these people who keep attacking others would be to simply put them to sleep as painlessly as possible.  But I bet you wouldn't like that.  So how about putting them on a steady diet of heavy tranquilizers for the length of their prison term, thereby removing their will and/or ability to attack anyone else?  No?  Well, then it seems to me the best thing would be to just keep them away from everybody else until they can learn to act like civilized human beings.

 

Prisoners only get anally raped when they interact with each other.  Either you can lock up everybody in their cells for longer periods, so that there's less interaction and fewer attacks, or you can just lock up the people causing the problem as much as possible.  It's your pick.

 

Do you have a better solution?  If so, I would really and truly love to hear it.

At the risk of feeding a troll...

Actually, the majority of prison rapes and sexual assaults/abuse are committed by prison guards:

 

The total number of incidents of sexual abuse involving prisoners in the United States is more in the order of 216,000 per year: that’s the number that the BJS estimated for 2008. “Overall,” report Kaiser and Stannow, “most victims were abused not by other inmates but, like Jan, by corrections staff.”

 

Source: "The Justice Department's Prison Rape Problem" by Scott Horton, Harper's magazine, March 2011 - http://harpers.org/archive/2011/03/hbc-90008021

  Well the comment I was

 

Well the comment I was in the process of responding to seems to have disappeard, but I'll include further documentation of the fact that the majority of sexual assaults in U.S. prisons are committed by prison staff:

 

There is no dipsuting that the majority of sexual assaults in U.S. prisons are committed by prison staff. You cite a 10 year old report dealing with male-on-male rape among prisoners exclusively vs. full investigation into sexual assault in U.S. prisons produced recently and documented in "Prison Rape and the Government" in The New York Review of Books, among other places, based on the following sources:

 

Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2007–2008 
by Allen J. Beck and Paul Guerino 
Bureau of Justice Statistics, 62 pp., available at bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov                                                  

National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape: Notice of Proposed Rulemaking 
by the United States Department of Justice 
Federal Register, Vol. 76, No. 23 (February 3, 2011), 56 pp., available atfederalregister.gov/a/2011-1905                                                  

Initial Regulatory Impact Analysis for Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Proposed National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA
by the United States Department of Justice 
(January 24, 2011), 65 pp., available at ojp.usdoj.gov/programs/pdfs/prea_nprm_iria.pdf                                                  

Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2008–09
by Allen J. Beck, Paige M. Harrison, and others 
Bureau of Justice Statistics, 91 pp., available at bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov                                                  

 

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/mar/24/prison-rape-and-government/?pagination=false

 

Perhaps a right-wing source would be more to your liking?

The U.S. Department of Justice recently released its first-ever estimate of the number of inmates who are sexually abused in America each year. According to the department’s data, which are based on nationwide surveys of prison and jail inmates as well as young people in juvenile detention centers, at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint.

"Rape Factories: Why is the government doing so little to end sexual assault in prisons?" from Reason magazine, July 2011 - http://reason.com/archives/2011/06/20/rape-factories

 

And now I'm done responding to straw-man arguments attempting to divert the discussion away from the systematic use of torture - including rape and sexual assault, since you brough it up - that pervades the United States' world-leading prison poulation.

 

Budget Cuts and the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

by Allison Kilkenny

Prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU) began an indefinite hunger strike two weeks ago, and the reports coming in are harrowing.

The Prison Reform Movement posted a testimonial earlier in the week from a SHU nurse, who stated the prisoners have not been drinking water and there have been “rapid and severe” consequences, adding that nurses are crying, and some of the prisoners have been unable to make urine for three days.

The prisoners began the strike “in order to draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, twenty-five years of torture via [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation]'s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices,” according to their official statement, dated July 1, 2011. 

Those torturous conditions (years of confinement in steel, windowless cages for more than twenty-two hours a day, no real access to natural light or human contact) are likely to only get worse during these times of economic austerity.

Much attention was paid to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans to “realign” the prison system in order to reduce overcrowding and save the state money, but these orders followed months of harsh cuts that left prisons unable to adequately care for and supervise the hundreds of thousands of prisoners left in California’s incarceration system.

In May, Brown eliminated more than 400 positions at CDCR, in addition to 5,550 positions statewide. The move terminated 33 executive-level jobs at Corrections, and more than 100 management and supervisory positions.

Many rightly criticized the whopping annual state prison payroll of $2 billion. However, California’s huge prison budget doesn’t stem from prisoners dining on caviar and lobster. The budget exploded because of “three strike” laws that rapidly expanded the jailed population.

But even without such unfair laws, California’s prison system would still be in trouble, according to the LA Times. Growing numbers of inmates arrive with communicable diseases (nearly a fourth of them have the tuberculosis virus), one in five has mental problems or brain damage, staffing numbers are already among the lowest in the country, and although a third of its employees are women, the department has a history of sexual discrimination. Furthermore, the department has an especially difficult time locating new employees to fill open positions in desolated locales where new prisons are opening.

While some of the Pelican Bay prisoners’ demands don’t hinge on their prison being sufficiently funded (things like eliminating collective punishment, for example, can be done for free,) other items such as providing better, more nutritious food and expanding constructive programs will cost the state money, and during a time of budget cuts, the governor isn’t likely to lend a sympathetic ear to society’s pariahs.

Brown will likely be able to neglect the prison system without a majority of his constituents retaliating against him in the voting booths. Unlike when he slashed school spending by $1 billion, Brown is this time neglecting a population that many people feel deserve whatever comes to them, even though, let’s remember, prisons are supposed to rehabilitate individuals, and are not simply caves into which we throw and abandon human beings, leaving them to die.

Additionally, movements like the Innocence Project have proven that innocent men and women are incarcerated all the time, and this should always be remembered when political leaders adopt cavalier “to hell with ‘em all” attitudes.

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny is the co-host of the progressive political podcast Citizen Radio (wearecitizenradio.com) and independent journalist who blogs at allisonkilkenny.com. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, the L.A. Times, In These Times, Common Dreams, Truthout and the award-winning grassroots NYC newspaper The Indypendent.

 

A Hunger for Justice in Pelican Bay

A hunger strike in California has highlighted the widespread and callous use of solitary confinement in the US prison system

by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

On 21 July, prisoners in solitary confinement at California's notorious Pelican Bay State Prison began accepting the meals that were slipped to them through slots in their solid mental cell doors. For many, it was the first time they had eaten in three weeks. A group of inmates in the prison's security housing unit (SHU) had resolved to protest their isolation using the only means available to them – by going on a hunger strike. The strike quickly spread to more than a third of California's 33 prisons, where about 6,600 prisoners refused at least some of their meals. After 21 days, with some prisoners losing as much as 30lb (14kg), the strike ended where it began – in the Pelican Bay SHU.
 

If this seems like a desperate measure by desperate men, it is. The widespread use and abuse of solitary confinement in US prisons and jails is one of the nation's most pressing domestic human rights issues, and also perhaps its most ignored. In the end, the Pelican Bay hunger strikers won only a few token concessions from the California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) – the right to wear caps in cold weather, to hang wall calendars in their cells, and to have access to a modicum of educational programming.

But they achieved something much more important, as well: For a few weeks, the men of the Pelican Bay SHU ceased to be invisible.

Solitary confinement is a hidden world within the larger hidden world of the American prison system. At Pelican Bay, about 1,100 men languish in long-term or permanent isolation. In supermax prisons across the country, the number is at least 20,000, with tens of thousands more in solitary in "special housing units" or "administrative segregation" in other prisons and jails. Most are confined to their cells without yard time, work or any kind of rehabilitative programming. In the Pelican Bay SHU, prisoners spend at least 22.5 hours each day in windowless concrete cells, and the remaining time alone, in concrete exercise yards. Many have been there for years, and some for decades, often with no end in sight to their torment.

Solitary confinement has been denounced as torture or "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" by several international bodies, including the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights. Research conducted over the last 30 years confirms that stretches in solitary produce psychopathologies that include panic attacks, depression, inability to concentrate, memory loss, aggression, self-mutilation and various forms of psychosis. But in the United States, the courts have been reluctant to limit its use. In the 1995 case Madrid v Gomez, a federal judge sharply criticised conditions in Pelican Bay's SHU, writing that nearly round-the-clock isolation in windowless cells "may press the outer borders of what most humans can psychologically tolerate". Yet, he fell short of declaring long-term solitary confinement unconstitutional.

Largely unrestrained by courts, legislatures or public opinion, solitary confinement has become routine – a punishment of first resort for all sorts of prison infractions. Today, a prisoner can be placed in solitary not only for violence, but for any form of "insubordination" towards prison officials, or for possession of contraband (which includes not only drugs but cell phones, cash or too many postage stamps). Some inmates are sent to solitary confinement for exhibiting the symptoms of untreated mental illness. Others, including juveniles in adult prisons, end up in isolation for their own "protection" because they are targets of prison rape. Many of the men in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit are there because they've been "validated" as gang members, based on their tattoos or on the say-so of other inmates, who are rewarded for "snitching".

In 2006, as one of its primary recommendations, the bipartisan US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons called for substantial reforms to the practice of solitary confinement. Segregation from the general prison population, it said, should be "a last resort", and even in segregation units, isolation should be mitigated and terms should be short. The Pelican Bay hunger strikers adopted the commission's recommendations into their core demands, along with an end to the system of gang "validation", and provision of "adequate food" and "constructive programming" for SHU inmates. The demands were far from radical. Yet a spokesperson for the California department of corrections and rehabilitation insisted that the state was "not going to concede under these types of tactics".

While its tangible results were few, the hunger strike received surprisingly widespread press coverage, in spite of the CDCR's complete ban on media access to participating prisons and prisoners. And the visibility wrought by the hunger strike builds upon the work of a growing number of advocates. Earlier this year, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture issued a statement calling for an end to prolonged solitary confinement across the nation, and urged people of faith to sign on. They joined the American Civil Liberties Union and American Friends Service Committee, along with several smaller or state-based groups, in opposing solitary confinement as it is practised in the United States today.

If the public at last begins to acknowledge long-term solitary confinement as a form of torture and a major human rights issue, it will be owing largely to the efforts of these activists – and to a group of prisoners who, for a few weeks this summer, starved themselves in solitude to bring their torment to light.

James Ridgeway is the Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones. His blog is the Unsilent Generation.

Jean Casella

Jean Casella is a freelance writer, editor and publishing consultant, and co-editor of Solitary Watch

 

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