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What Did Prisoners on Hunger Strike Want, What Did They Get?

| July 25, 2011
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After most of the state prisoners on a hunger strike ended it last week, attorney Carol Strickman of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, who represented the demands of the strikers to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, made a statement as to what she thought the strike accomplished. Strickman refers to SHUs — Security Housing Units, where inmates deemed as affiliated with prison gangs are housed in extreme isolation.

The CDCR promised to make long-term positive changes in its policies regarding SHU (Security Housing Unit) confinement. But these changes will of course take much longer than a hunger strike can last. So to demonstrate its good faith the CDCR granted some small concessions, and to show theirs, the prisoner leaders ended the hunger strike.

The hunger strike was successful because (in the prisoners’ view) it has brought CDCR into the open regarding: its torutous and barbaric practices in the SHU. And second it has boosted a growing movement for the rights of prisoners. And third it has unified prisoners of different racial groups for a struggle against the policies of CDCR.

You can listen to her entire statement here:

Attorney Carol Strickman on the hunger strike

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As Scott Shafer reported on The California Report this morning, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says it hasn’t agreed to anything related to Security Housing Units other than a comprehensive review. Reasons for being sent to and conditions within these isolation cells, which KQED’s Michael Montgomery characterized to us as “windowless boxes,” were at the heart of the strike.

While it remains to be seen whether these polices will seriously be reconsidered (a previous review resulted in few if any changes), some of the smaller requests by prisoners were agreed to.

Even among the larger demands regarding conditions that some prison advocates characterize as “torture,” it was these smaller requests that actually stood out for me. Because they seem so trivial. That is, until you try to put yourself in the place of someone who experiences the following in an SHU, as described by Michael Montgomery:

(Prisoners) do not leave their cell at all except for around an hour of exercise they get individually. That takes place in an adjoining concrete exercise pen. They don’t go outside; in fact they don’t see the outside at all unless they have a very infrequent visit, for example, to a medical facility, or they go to court for a trial…

The inmates really have little contact with each other. You can’t really even see out of the cell doors themselves. In many ways it’s like living in a windowless box.

Some of the smaller things the prisoners asked for within the Security Housing Unit:

A) Expand visiting regarding amount of time and adding one day per week.

B) Allow one photo per year.

C) Allow a weekly phone call.

D) Allow Two annual packages per year. A 30 lb. package based on “item” weight and not packaging and box weight.

E) Expand canteen and package items allowed. Allow us to have the items in their original packaging [the cost for cosmetics, stationary, envelopes, should not count towards the max draw limit]

F) More TV channels.

G) Allow TV/Radio combinations, or TV and small battery operated radio

H) Allow Hobby Craft Items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.

I) Allow sweat suits and watch caps.

J) Allow wall calendars.

K) Install pull-up/dip bars on SHU yards.

L) Allow correspondence courses that require proctored exams.

The full list of demands below:


OUR FIVE CORE DEMANDS:

1. Individual Accountability – This is in response to PBSP’s application of “group punishment” as a means to address individual inmates rule violations. This includes the administration’s abusive, pretextual use of “safety and concern” to justify what are unnecessary punitive acts. This policy has been applied in the context of justifying indefinite SHU status, and progressively restricting our programming and privileges.

2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria – the debriefing policy is illegal and redundant, as pointed out in the Formal Complaint [IV-A, p. 7]. The Active/Inactive gang status criteria must be modified in order to comply with state law and applicable CDC are rule and regulations [eg, see Formal Complaint, p. 7, IV-B] as follows:

A) cease the use of innocuous association to deny an active status,

B) cease the use of informant/debriefer allegations of illegal gang activity to deny inactive status, unless such allegations are also supported by factual corroborating evidence, in which case CDCR-PBSP staff shall and must follow the regulations by issuing a rule violation report and affording the inmate his due process required by law.

3. Comply with US Commission 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement – CDCR shall implement the findings and recommendations of the US commission on safety and abuse in America’s prisons final 2006 report regarding CDCR SHU facilities as follows:

A) End Conditions of Isolation (p. 14) Ensure that prisoners in SHU and Ad-Seg (Administrative Segregation) have regular meaningful contact and freedom from extreme physical deprivations that are known to cause lasting harm. (pp. 52-57)

B) Make Segregation a Last Resort (p. 14). Create a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities relating to having a sense of being a part of the community.

C) End Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Release inmates to general prison population who have been warehoused indefinitely in SHU for the last 10 to 40 years (and counting).

D) Provide SHU Inmates Immediate Meaningful Access to:
i) adequate natural sunlight
ii) quality health care and treatment, including the mandate of transferring all PBSP-SHU inmates with chronic health care problems to the New Folsom Medical SHU facility.

4. Provide Adequate Food – cease the practice of denying adequate food, and provide a wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals, and allow inmates to purchase additional vitamin supplements.

A) PBSP staff must cease their use of food as a tool to punish SHU inmates.

B) Provide a sergeant/lieutenant to independently observe the serving of each meal, and ensure each tray has the complete issue of food on it.

C) Feed the inmates whose job it is to serve SHU meals with meals that are separate from the pans of food sent from kitchen for SHU meals.

5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates. Examples include:
A) Expand visiting regarding amount of time and adding one day per week.
B) Allow one photo per year.
C) Allow a weekly phone call.

D) Allow Two (2) annual packages per year. A 30 lb. package based on “item” weight and not packaging and box weight.

E) Expand canteen and package items allowed. Allow us to have the items in their original packaging [the cost for cosmetics, stationary, envelopes, should not count towards the max draw limit]
F) More TV channels.
G) Allow TV/Radio combinations, or TV and small battery operated radio
H) Allow Hobby Craft Items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.
I) Allow sweat suits and watch caps.
J) Allow wall calendars.
K) Install pull-up/dip bars on SHU yards.
L) Allow correspondence courses that require proctored exams.

NOTE: The above examples of programs/privileges are all similar to what is allowed in other Supermax prisons (eg, Federal Florence, Colorado, and Ohio), which supports our position that CDCR-PBSP staff claims that such are a threat to safety and security are exaggerations.

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