July 18, 2013

By Thandisizwe Chimurenga

LAWT Contributing Writer


More than 400 people from Southern, Central and Northern California converged on Corcoran State Prison on July 13 to show solidarity with prisoners on hunger strike throughout the state.  An estimated 30,000 prisoners have been refusing their meals since July 8, resuming a hunger strike begun in 2011 over what they say are torturous conditions in some of the state prison’s Security Housing Units (SHU).

Family members of prisoners, former prisoners and supporters congregated at Corcoran State Prison where an SHU currently holds close to 2,000 prisoners in solitary confinement.  The Hunger Strike was initiated by prisoners in the SHU program at the Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California near the Oregon border..

More than 6,000 prisoners throughout the state of California went on a hunger strike in the summer of 2011 to protest inhumane conditions in the state’s prisons.  Confinement in the SHU program, which has been labeled as a form of torture by various human rights organizations, means a person is confined to a cell by themselves, sometimes for decades, with no human contact with other prisoners, guards or correctional workers, or even family members during visits.  The men on hunger strike say those conditions are designed to lead to their mental and physical breakdown and a hunger strike is the only weapon they have as prisoners to dramatize how depraved the conditions are inside the SHU programs.

On July 8, close to 100 people also demonstrated in solidarity with the Hunger Strikers in front of the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in downtown Los Angeles.   

John Imani, a long-time Los Angeles activist, took part in the July 8 action even though he has no relatives or acquaintances currently being held in Pelican Bay or any of the three other state institutions that have SHU programs.  “I was there to empathize with ... a whole class of humans,” he said.  “It isn’t this or that person in ‘solitary confinement’ but all who face that inhumane form of societal retribution.”

Other actions in support of the hunger strikers were held in Seattle, WA and as far away as Pennsylvania.  Matt Graber, a local Philadelphia activist, helped coordinate publicity about a solidarity action organized by the Global Womens’ Strike because, he said, “...What our society is doing ... there’s people all over this country who have been held in solitary confinement for decades, and its inspiring to see so many people rising up and resisting torture such as this.”

Graber agreed with hunger strikers that solitary confinement was torture because “ ... human touch is so essential to life; I was listening to a radio program, a profile of one of the hunger strikers — his sister hadn’t touched him since 1983,  and that just seemed so inhumane — that people cannot touch their loved ones, that people have to go decades without human touch.”

The July 8 action was organized in part by the Community Coalition for Self-Defense, “an initiative of the National Hood Alliance, which grew out of the Occupy Movement, that seeks to unify Black struggles in America," which it sees as being “fragmented on issues of dire concern to the Black community,” said Bilal Ali, a founder of the group.

The Coalition, along with others, delivered a package containing a typed copy of the five core demands of the hunger strikers, which they say prison officials have reneged on during the 2011 Hunger Strike, to the Speaker of the California Assembly John Perez; California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Governor Jerry Brown. One of the primary demands is that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) abolish what it calls Gang Validation; a process where prisoners are identified as being a member of a prison gang and then placed in the SHU program.  The strikers maintain that the only way out of the SHU program is to inform or “provide intelligence” on other gang members in the prisons, a process known as “debriefing.”

Ostensibly to cut down on violence in the prisons and maintain safety, critics and supporters of the strikers say that removing suspected prison gang members from general population and placing them in solitary confinement has become a punitive issue for prisoners who have a political and activist orientation. 

Forty-six year old Mutope Duguma (aka James Crawford), has been incarcerated in Pelican Bay since 1988 and he’s been in the SHU program since 2001.  Duguma was placed in the SHU because he was “validated” as a member of the Black Guerilla Family (BGF), a charge which he denies.   “I was involved in gang life as a young man in South Los Angeles ... but I was never a member or associate of the BGF. I never even met a member of the BGF during my first decade in prison,” said Duguma, who claims he was targeted for the SHU program because of his political activity; Duguma won a lawsuit against CDCR for keeping his mail from him on the basis that his political writings constituted “gang activity,” according to the website Solitary Watch.

The strikers want an end to the long term solitary confinement as well as the debriefing policy which places so many men in the SHU program in the first place, as well as an expansion of programs and re­sources for the men who are held in the SHU program with no release date, as well as adequate and nutritious food since since their confinement also affects them physically.

Bilal Ali of the Community Coalition for Self Defense says that the group will hold additional actions in the future to continue to show solidarity with and raise awareness of the conditions of the Hunger Strikers. 

“We organized families in the 2011 hunger strikes and we’re doing this in solidarity because the strike was resumed because the CDCR reneged on their agreements with the prisoners to end these torturous conditions,” said Ali.  “We see this as a catalyst; genocide is being waged against the Black community here in America through the prison system.  We can’t sit idly by.”

Category: News