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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.