Solidarity through the walls

Note: for unknown reasons, our computer is not allowing us to include apostrophes in text on the website, so we have replace all apostrophes with a *. Sorry for the inconvenience:

The struggle against the worst excesses of the California prison system continues. Until we can abolish prisons altogether, inmates, their families, and activists from the community are demanding that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) address overcrowding, abusive “segregated housing units,” and the lack of access to adequate health care and education.

Thousands of inmates in at least twelve prisons across California have participated in ongoing hunger strikes since last July, after the US Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in prisons throughout California causes “needless suffering and death” and ordered the state to reduce its prison population. Despite the ruling, inmates have seen few improvements.

To reduce overcrowding, the state began moving prisoners to other states. This is a shoddy response since these prisoners are now further from their families, making it harder for them to exercise visitation rights. They are also further from the arresting court, which reviews their cases in the event of an appeal.

On February 2, 2012, Christian Alexander Gomez, a 27 years old inmate held in an isolation cell who was participating in a hunger strike, died. He was refusing food in solidarity with 31 other inmates in the prison*s “administrative segregation unit” to protest lack of access to adequate health care, nutritious food, and legal assistance. He didn*t have to die. Why can*t the CDCR respond to prisoners* demands for education, health care, nourishing food, and healthy living conditions?

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition works in solidarity with the hunger strikers, with a team of lawyers and organizers. They held a recent protest outside of Pelican Bay Prison. It is crucial for folks on the inside to be encouraged and supported by people on the outside.

Other ongoing projects, such as prison literacy groups which send reading material to inmates, are essential to the prisoners* rights movement. Holistic rehabilitation programs (that receive few or no funds from the state) use a humanistic approach to help folks with addiction problems. Where government services are lacking, autonomous peoples must gather to support inmates and their human rights.

On March 20, 2012, 400 inmates throughout California signed a petition to ask the U.N. to investigate solitary confinement as torture. It is a common practice for state prisons in California to isolate inmates as punishment for gang affiliations or for committing violent crimes in custody. The official excuse is that this strategy protects the rest of the prison population. Being held in isolation for days, months, and years on end can result in psychological illness. Currently, prisoners stay in the isolated housing units unless and until they drop out of the gang and “debrief” officials, which means disclosing information about the gang and other persons. This is similar to tactics used by the government in places like Guantanamo in order to extract names and information. It is more important than ever to call out the federal and state government for under-the-table acts of torture.

The existence of gangs is a reality of life in prison. The framework of gang separation is created and perpetuated by the prison system itself. Violent and nonviolent offenders are housed together in large open rooms that may contain over sixty beds. There is no concept of personal space or personal property. Resources are distributed unequally and inadequately to inmates, which induces prisoners to form alliances in order to protect themselves or trade for items that will help them survive. These collections of people are called gangs.

A report from the ACLU demonstrates that Mississippi lowered its crime rate and reduced its prison population by 22 percent between 2008 and 2011 by allowing inmates to earn time off their sentences for participating in educational and reentry programs. If California were really committed to rehabilitation and lowering crime, the CDCR would provide prisoners access to education, safe living conditions, and health care. The state and the cops do not want to admit fault nor relinquish their power over incarcerated people or people who are different, poor, or politically active.

The movement for prisoner rights and against police brutality and torture reaches far and wide from California, across the country, and throughout the globe. It is encouraging that inmates and their supporters in California are protesting, but frustrating that progress is slow. The system of oppression is deeply racist and immoral at its core; it will take time and persistence to break down the systematic walls that divide us. Those who are opposed to this system must build their own walls in resistance. Solidarity is perhaps the most important tool in this fight: inmates must know that they are neither alone nor forgotten in their struggle.