On July 1, 2011, prisoners in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU–that’s solitary confinement) in California’s Pelican Bay Prison began a hunger strike that spread across the state prison system. 6,600 people in California prisons joined the hunger strike. In spite of deep divisions that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has spent decades sowing among prisoners, people living in some of the most repressive conditions in this country organized a massive, coordinated resistance to the dehumanization they face. They called off the hunger strike later in July to negotiate with the CDCR about their five core demands. When the CDCR dragged its feet, prisoners resumed the hunger strike in September 2011. The second round of strikes continued into mid-October.
Prisoners were striking because they are kept in cells 23 hours a day, because they do not get enough food, because their cells are freezing and they want to wear sweatpants, because people are sent to the SHU for alleged (often manufactured) gang affiliation, because they cannot touch their mothers who drive 700 miles for a 2-hour visit, because people are disappeared for decades into the SHU and because living without light, food, touch, movement is torture.
Facing down an unyielding level of commitment and organization from the hunger strikers, and a fierce, driving campaign by their families, the CDCR and the State of California have had no choice but to start to move. The CDCR has shuffled some papers and called it policy change. Legislators have called two hearings to start to look into CDCR policies.
I spent the day yesterday at the state capitol in Sacramento for one of these hearings about the “new” SHU policies. Before the hearing, family members of people in the SHU and a handful of anti-prison organizations gathered for a rally outside the Capitol. At the hearing itself, CDCR representatives did an elaborate dance to communicate that they really have made changes to their policies, at the same time as they said that, under current policies, the fastest someone could get out of the SHU is by going through a 4-year process (rife with subjective administrative decisions). There were breaths of fresh air, when a few Assembly Members asked direct questions of the CDCR staff, and most of all when family members of folks in the SHU spoke with immense clarity about exactly the kind of dehumanization that is beginning in those cells and rippling outwards. Although there is a lawsuit in process and there are hopes that these hearing may produce substantive results, prisoners are not holding their breath for change. There are plans to resume the nonviolent protest inside prisons in July if nothing changes.
There are around 100 people who have been in the SHU for more than two decades.
In two and a half decades I have lived my whole life. I’ve had 15 years of formal education; held about ten jobs; lived in three time zones at a dozen addresses; fallen in love three times; zig-zagged all over the place by car, train, bus, bike, foot, canoe, airplane; made life decisions, changed my mind, made different ones, learned, tried things out, gotten scared, done something different, grown up, been young. I have rarely gone a day without seeing someone I love.
I write all that to try to even begin to fathom what thirty years caged means. I’m not trying to describe life in the SHU–that’s not for me to do. These are clumsy steps to try to reach at something I can’t understand, to scratch the surface of something that is so different from the life that’s been built for me in the U.S.
The questions are not only about the SHU. I don’t have a statistic about how many people in this country have been in prison longer than I’ve been alive. A cage is a cage is a cage.
Our readings and focus for the Braden program last week were on Black liberation struggles in the U.S. Our first reading was by Vincent Harding, about the thousands of ways that Africans/African Americans resisted slavery in the 1600’s-1700’s.
When Africans were captured and boarded onto slave ships, they rebelled, commandeered slave ships, took their own lives instead of being abducted into slavery.
Landed on the other side of the Atlantic, Africans were forever finding ways to escape slavery. Sometimes they escaped on their own and with their families. Sometimes they formed organized guerrilla bands or outlying camps, armed havens outside of slavery that sometimes raided and attacked slaveholding areas. Sometimes they joined up with Native people. Plantations were scattered and isolated, communication was nearly impossible, and yet coordinated rebellions took place over and over and over and over. The deeper undercurrent beneath these bigger explosions were the daily sparks of work slowdowns, broken farm implements, arson, poison, fierce protection of African spiritual traditions that white people worked hard to eradicate–and under all of it, the drive to survive slavery in body and spirit.
Slavery was perpetually unstable. It took constant work on the part of the white owning class to quell insurrections, mediate escape, and keep lower class white people in line with the project of slavery. What I didn’t learn about slavery growing up is how terrified slaveholders–and all white people–were, all the time. Harding says, “Even when there was no open, costly confrontation, white men and women understood that black struggle was a radical challenge and might take many forms.”
At the hearing about the SHU yesterday, three representatives from the CDCR took questions from Assembly Members. One CDCR staff was asked about the hunger strike. He sat with his hands folded, hair slicked smooth, and leaned into the mic. He said that anyone found to be a leader of the hunger strike would be assumed to be a threat to the security of the entire institution.
My question starts to be: What responsibility does all of this call me to? What responsibility does it call all of us to, those of us whose movement is free, all of us who don’t get stopped by the police or la migra or who don’t live in chains?
Harding’s piece opens with a quote from a petition, written by enslaved people, in 1779: “The more we consider of this matter, the more we are convinced of our right…to be free…and can never be convinced that we were made to be slaves.”
To those of us who have never been slaves: this example–unrelenting resistance rising out of conditions where organization should seem impossible–has been set time and again as a challenge to our humanity. What does it ask of us?