The Struggle for Prisoners’ Rights: The movement for freedom for all took a huge leap forward

Editor's note: This past year marked a major shift in the movement away from mass incarceration, the drug  war, and the prison industrial complex and towards prisoners’ rights. This shift happened mainly because of a hunger strike that spread across California(and then across the country) by prisoners to protest the conditions of their imprisonment. We have not seen such a movement spread so quickly...well, maybe ever. As our grantee Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity put it, “On July 8th 2013, more than 30,000 Californiaprisoners initiated an indefinite hunger strike in response to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s failure to meet their five Core Demands. Sixty days and one death later, strikers suspended the strike, and Californialegislators committed to hold public hearings.” Here is part of that statement.

By The Pelican Bay State Prison-Security Housing Unit, Short Corridor Collective

The Pelican Bay State Prison-Security Housing Unit (PBSP-SHU), Short Corridor Collective Representatives hereby serve notice upon all concerned parties of interest that after nine weeks we have collectively decided to suspend our third hunger strike action on September 5, 2013.

To be clear, our Peaceful Protest of Resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system’s solitary confinement units is far from over. Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met (despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable). The core group of prisoners has been, and remains 100 percent committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice. With that said, we clarify this point by stating prisoner deaths are not the objective, we recognize such sacrifice is at times the only means to an end of fascist oppression.

Our goal remains: force the powers that be to end their torture policies and practices in which serious physical and psychological harm is inflicted on tens of thousands of prisoners as well as our loved ones outside. We also call for ending the related practices of using prisoners to promote the agenda of the police state by seeking to greatly expand the numbers of the working class poor warehoused in prisons, and particularly those of us held in solitary, based on psychological/social manipulation, and divisive tactics keeping prisoners fighting amongst each other. Those in power promote mass warehousing to justify more guards, more tax dollars for “security”, and spend mere pennies for rehabilitation — all of which demonstrates a failed penal system, high recidivism, and ultimately compromising public safety. The State of California’s $9.1 billion annual California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) budget is the epitome of a failed and fraudulent state agency that diabolically and systemically deprives thousands of their human rights and dignity. Allowing this agency to act with impunity has to stop! And it will.

With that said, and in response to much sincere urging of loved ones, supporters, our attorneys and current and former state legislators, Tom Ammiano, Loni Hancock, and Tom Hayden, for whom we have the upmost respect, we decided to suspend our hunger strike. We are especially grateful to Senator Hancock and Assembly Member Ammiano for their courageous decision to challenge Governor Brown and the CDCR for their policies of prolonged solitary confinement and inhumane conditions. We are certain that they will continue their fight for our cause, including holding legislative hearings and the drafting legislation responsive to our demands on prison conditions and sentencing laws. We are also proceeding with our class action civil suit against the CDCR.

We have deemed it to be in the best interest of our cause to suspend our hunger strike action until further notice.

From our perspective, we’ve gained a lot of positive ground towards achieving our goals. However, there’s still much to be done. Our resistance will continue to build and grow until we have won our human rights.

Respectfully,

For the Prisoner Class Human

Rights Movement

Todd Ashker, C58191, D1-119

Arturo Castellanos, C17275, D1-

121

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry),

C35671, D1-117

Antonio Guillen, P81948, D2-106

And the Representatives Body:

Danny Troxell, B76578, D1-120

George Franco, D46556, D4-217

Ronnie Yandell, V27927, D4-215

Paul Redd, B72683, D2-117

James Baridi Williamson, D-34288, D4-107

Alfred Sandoval, D61000, D4-214

Louis Powell, B59864, D1-104

Alex Yrigollen, H32421, D2-204

Gabriel Huerta, C80766, D3-222

Frank Clement, D07919, D3-116

Raymond Chavo Perez, K12922,

D1-219

James Mario Perez, B48186, D3-124

Editor's note: support for the hunger strikers poured in across the nation, including from many RESIST grantees and allies. Grantee Prison Birth Project in Massachusetts penned a beautiful letter of solidarity with hunger strikers in California. Here in its entirety is the statement which was published by the San Francisco Bay View.

By Prison Birth Project

As prisoners across the country prepare to strike, our hearts and thoughts are with them. As incarcerated women we know firsthand many of the abuses the strikers face on a daily basis – as well as many of the repercussions they may face in retaliation for the action against this abuse.

As incarcerated mothers, we experience lack of access to healthy food, lack of respect, autonomy and access to health care, lack of access to children – and we are regularly set up by the system to fail.

As we stand in solidarity with striking prisoners, we ask you to stand in solidarity with us. Not just on July 8 – but every day of the year. To be in solidarity with us, we need folks from outside to come inside! Being behind the wall is hard, and we need support while we are here, so when we get out we can be leaders. We need allies to be here both inside and out, to support us in creating space and community, to come together and be leaders. We need to be leaders because we are the experts.

We are here. We need folks to listen from their heart and be by our side when we are ready to speak, to strike and to stand out. We need allies to rally in support of policies inside and out so we can survive wall between men and women inside – to help us bridge the gap and support our families through the realities of the criminal system.

Because of our experience, we are the experts on these issues and we ask that all allies, reformers, abolitionists, lawyers, legislators and our families work together, come together around the realities – not rhetoric – and help us move mountains and break down the walls in supportive and sustainable ways physically, spiritually, politically and personally.

Editor's note: Our allies at IraqVeterans Against the War and grantee Civilian Solider Alliancealso wrote a message of solidarity with the prisoner hunger strikers in California. Their statement brilliantly and personally links the injustices of mass incarceration to the injustices of war and militarism. Here is the statement in its entirety.

By Iraq Veterans Against the War and Civilian Soldier Alliance

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and the Civilian Soldier Alliance celebrate the resistance demonstrated by California prisoners at the suspension of their third hunger strike organized to protest the cruel, inhumane and tortuous conditions of their solitary confinement. After growing participation since 2011, 30,000 people on the inside joined this strike and many continued for 60 days (Roughly 23 percent of the entire prison population of CDCR, according to the CDCR website from June 2013). At the close of the strike, led by the Short Corridor Collective, many of the demands of the organizers still have not been met. The struggle continues, and is far from over. IVAW and the Civilian Soldier Alliance honor the resistance by the prisoners and express our continued solidarity.

We see many parallels between the strikers' resistance within the Prison Industrial Complex and our own work of resistance within the Military Industrial Complex. Jeffrey Beard, the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, stated that many of the hunger strikers were only participating in the act of resistance because they were under "extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California" This particular type of lie about the dedication and purpose behind the personal sacrifices of the resisters is similar to the lies spread by military command against war resisters, an attempt to discredit resistance as "a few bad apples." Contrary to a claim like Beard's, we know Individuals cannot be coerced into resisting a system so oppressive as the military or the prison system, but must act at great risk, with much personal reflection and from values and commitment to justice.

The California prisoners are resisting the tortuous conditions of their imprisonment, and many of us, as veterans of the Global War on Terror, have played a part in the torture of thousands of people. As part of boundless war, the United Statesmilitary would capture prisoners and turn them over to parties, such as the Iraqi Security Forces or third-party countries, which the United States military knew would torture them. After learning the truth of our military's role in the torture of prisoners, and sometimes our own personal role in this, we have an intimate connection to the torture happening within our nation's own prisons. The conditions experienced by some of California's prisoners amount to torture. This includes people who are forced to live within Security Housing Units (SHU), with little or no contact with other people for weeks, months, years, even decades.

There are many ways in which the lines between the Prison Industrial Complex and the Military Industrial Complex overlap and blur. For example, our prison industry and domestic police force is another extension of USmilitarism. They are profit driven, and made possible by dehumanizing "the other" through racism, sexism, and xenophobia. It is through the guises of Wars on Terror and Drugs that these powers are able to strive towards higher and higher profit margins through the exploitation of "the other." Stopping these oppressive systems takes people who have experienced it first-hand, taking action through all kinds of resistance and self-sacrifice. We have seen this with whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, also with the Short Corridor Collective hunger-strikers in California prisons and the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who are also on hunger strike.

We are inspired by the unity developed and demonstrated by the strikers under such repressive conditions, and we ourselves as war resisters have much to learn from these fellow resisters. We look forward to seeing what progress Senator Hancock and Assembly Member Ammiano will make through legislative hearings in challenging Governor Brown and the CDCR's policies of solitary confinement and inhumane conditions. We will be watching these next steps closely and are prepared to take further action to support the Short Corridor Collective in their resistance and struggle.