… from Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition – Published on ZNet, by Larry Everest, July 10, 2013.
Carol Strickman is a staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a San Francisco-based organization which advocates for the human rights and empowerment of incarcerated parents, children, family members, and people at risk of incarceration. She is a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, a member of the team mediating between the prison hunger strikers and prison authorities (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—CDCR), and part of the litigation team in Ashker v. Brown, a case filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights challenging solitary confinement in California prisons, now being argued in federal court. This interview was conducted June 27, 2013 … //
… Everest: Are all the prisoners in the SHU through gang validation?
- Strickman: Most are, but not all. Selling dope can send you to SHU—not on gang validation, but serving a “straight SHU sentence,” for a fixed, not indefinite, period. The longest straight SHU sentence is five years for killing a guard, or three years for killing another prisoner.
Everest: Wait—You’re telling me that if a prisoner kills a guard, they get five years in the SHU, but if they’re “validated” as being a gang member—without committing any violent action against a guard or another prisoner—they can be sent to the SHU for decades?
- Strickman: Exactly! Prisoners are in the Pelican Bay SHU for 20 to 30 years for nothing more than having drawn art which supposedly shows they’re gang members or associates.
Everest: This hits me as such a striking example—that these SHUs are not about “crime prevention”; they’re really a counter-insurgency program, aimed at different social groups or organizations—a counter-insurgency before the insurgency, so to speak. This is something Revolution has written about, as have groups like the Stop Mass Incarceration Network and Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow.
- Strickman: It’s like the criminal justice system: They don’t care if you’re innocent or guilty. There’s something about having this system—it’s just a voracious system, and having the control as you say that is abusive and has nothing to do with truth or honesty. The whole thing is very distressing, the whole thing. It’s so cruel, the living situation is so mean-spirited. Some prisoners say, I know you’re going to keep me here, but you have to give me some way to live a meaningful life.
- The CDCR wants people to think they’ve made significant changes, but the prisoners feel they haven’t. It’s not all that different than before. The authorities did not make the big improvements the prisoners were led to believe they would get. And the terrible conditions of confinement have hardly changed at all. Many are still facing decades of long-term solitary confinement. So that’s the reason for the renewed hunger strike.
Everest: I recall after the last hunger strike the CDCR did punish, really retaliated against, the hunger strikers. And recently I’ve seen some of your emails concerning very troubling ways the authorities may be preparing to retaliate against the hunger strikers this time around. Could you talk about that?
- Strickman: Well, first, everyone involved in the second hunger strike in 2011 had write-ups and penalties assessed—for example, losing good time conduct or conduct credit accrued before they went into the SHU. Many had their TVs taken away for 90 days.
- But what’s troubling now is news that the prisons may start doing checks of the cells every 30 minutes (rather than every four hours as is the current practice). It is not yet clear whether this will actually be implemented, or what exactly it means, but there is talk that they’ll implement this in connection with rolling lockdowns, which would be another escalation in the deprivation inflicted on prisoners. A lot of different reasons have been offered for this—it’s very hard to figure out exactly what the CDCR is actually doing or planning, but it could mean that on some days staff would be shifted so prisoners wouldn’t get showers or exercise that day at all. They’d get it the next day, but there would be less time for everyone.
- It’s troubling. We have a hunger strike looming for July 8, and CDCR issues a memo out of the blue for these 30 minute security checks. There’s real potential for abuse—bothering people every 30 minutes, doing a head count in middle of night and waking people up. Are they just flexing their muscles and trying to show the prisoners how much they can make their lives miserable right before the hunger strike?
Everest: What about CDCR OP 228, the so-called “Hunger Strike Policy”? This seems to say the CDCR is going to isolate hunger strikers and cut them off from communication, including family visits or visits from attorneys unless active cases are going on.
- Strickman: During the July 2011 hunger strike, they allowed family visits, but in September 2011, they did not. In both cases they allowed legal visits, but this time they say they won’t unless the prisoner has a pending case. That’s worse. I don’t see how they can do that, how it’s legally justifiable. It’s aimed against the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition lawyers. It’s disturbing because we need to know on the outside what’s going on inside. That’s difficult if we don’t have a way to get inside and talk to prisoners. They held up my mail in the second strike; I got nothing for a while and then 20 pieces came. I believe they intentionally held up my mail so I didn’t know what was going on. We do have a pending class action case, so even under their new rules we should be able to see most Pelican Bay prisoners.
Everest: The June 20 statement from the prisoner representatives from the PBSP SHU Short Corridor Collective said they’d just come out of a mediation session at which the State of California refused to meet their demands. Could you fill us in—are there further negotiations planned? And could you talk about the lawsuit that prompted this mediation session? … //
… (full interview text).
(Larry Everest writes for Revolution newspaper, where this interview first appeared, and is the author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda. He can be reached here. His website).
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