The California Hunger Strike: Repression, Resistance, the US Prison System, and Political Imprisonment in India
November 21, 2011
By Isaac Ontiveros.
The author works on the media committee of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition.
An Introduction by Partho Sarathi Ray
The demand for the release of political prisoners is a major demand of democratic movements in India now, and the condition of prisoners in jail a major cause for concern. The case of Binayak Sen had brought the issue of political prisoners into focus, but there are thousands like him languishing in jails, including people like Jiten Marandi who have been sentenced to death.
The situation has parallels to the USA, which has the largest prison population ratio to the total population in the world, and has political prisoners who have been in jail for more than thirty years, from the time when the Black population of the US stood up in struggle for their rights. In the following article, the author Isaac Ontiveros of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Condition writes about the recent historic hunger strike by prisoners in California prisons, which had focused attention on the US prison system and the condition of prisoners therein. This hunger strike, which at one point had 12000 participants throughout the California prison system, exposed the inherent repression, maltreatment and misery of the prisoners in the US prisons and became a symbol of resistance against these.
In India, over the last one year there have been many hunger strikes in prisons, led mostly by political prisoners in various jails, although they have never received any media attention as the hunger strike by Anna Hazare did. As the aggression by the Indian state against its own people continues, and as resistance builds against it, India has come to have one of the largest political prisoner populations. Draconian central laws such as the UAPA, and various state laws have been used to incarcerate a large number of political activists in various jails [for example, this letter from the incarcerated Chhatradhar Mahato, from Midnapur jail in West Bengal, details the inhuman condition of political prisoners there and the resistance]. Together with these, application of various sections of the Criminal Penal Code (CrPC) has resulted in a large number of cases, in most instances false, against people who have resisted or protested in any form against the aggression by the state or corporations. And just as the US prison population has a disproportionately large number of African-Americans and Hispanic people, who form the most downtrodden and marginalized sections of the American population, the political prisoner population in Indian jails has a disproportionately high number of adivasis and dalits, who have borne the brunt of the repressive state policies.
For example, amongst the 250 odd political prisoners in Midnapore central jail, around 240 are adivasis of all ages and gender. The political prisoners have gone on hunger strike a number of times in jails in West Bengal, demanding better treatment and better facilities for all prisoners, and for the recognition of their status as political prisoners. Even that has been hard to come by, both during the previous Left Front regime and the new Trinamool Congress government which had promised to release the political prisoners before the polls.
Currently, more than 800 under-trial prisoners in Presidency, Alipur and Dum Dum jails in Kolkata are in the fifteenth day of a hunger strike demanding speedier disposal of their cases and better conditions in prisons. This week, the hunger strike spread to Medinipur and Krishnanagar jails, with the political prisoners and other prisoners in these jails joining the hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners in the Kolkata jails. As of now, more than 1500 prisoners are on a prolonged hunger strike in West Bengal.
As the struggle for the release of political prisoners continues to build up in India, this article gives us a glimpse of the resistance by US prisoners and reminds us about the need of international solidarity to bring the issue of political prisoners to the fore.
The California Hunger Strike: Repression, Resistance, and the US Prison System
By Isaac Ontiveros.
This past summer, at least 6,600—probably many more—prisoners in the US state of California’s prison system went on hunger strike. After more than 20 days, prisoners suspended their strike when prison administration was forced to respond. Then, in late September, because repression had increased, and there was no movement on their demands–and reprisals were targeted against those labeled as strike leaders, the prisoners resumed their strike. The second round of striking, which lasted nearly three weeks, at one point had at least 12,000 participants throughout California. Both waves of the strike were initiated in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison.
SHUs are some the highest security facilities in the United States—often referred to as “prisons within prisons.” Prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day in eight by ten feet cells made of smooth concrete that have no windows. Fluorescent lights can be kept on 24 hours per day. Armed guards control entrances and exits electronically and are strategically located to be able to fire on prisoners at any time. The average amount of time a prisoner spends in the Pelican Bay SHU is 6 ½ years, while some have been held for over 20. Around 4,000 prisoners in California are held in SHUs. Nationally, it is estimated that 80,000 people are held in some form of solitary confinement. Many organizations internationally have condemned SHUs and other solitary confinement facilities as torture. In California and elsewhere, prison administrators claim that prisoners are kept in these special units because they are high level gang shot-callers, yet many have pointed out that, in fact, the SHUs are often used to break up organizing for prisoner’s rights.
When the strike started in July, prisoners at Pelican Bay made demands for
• an end to collective punishment,
• an end to the “debriefing” and “gang validation” processes (wherein only prisoners who “confess” or identify others as gang members are released from the SHU back into the general prison population),
• compliance with a 2006 report on the effects of long-term solitary confinement,
• the provision of adequate food, and
• access to “privileges” (such as cold weather clothing) and educational programming for prisoners being held indefinitely in the SHU.
Thousands of prisoners, including SHU prisoners at other facilities in California, prisoners held in similar special Administrative Segregation units, prisoners in the general population at a third of the state’s 33 prisons, and California prisoners being held in out-of-state facilities, joined the strike in solidarity with the Pelican Bay Prisons, with some strikers making additional demands around conditions at their particular prison. Once again, prisoners have stopped their strike because the California prison administration began to respond with first steps addressing some strike demands, especially those having to do with debriefing and gang validation.
Beyond the particulars of the “what, when, why, and how” of the strikes themselves, it is useful to think about these strikes historically. While prisoners have always resisted and organized inside prisons (this strike began around 40th anniversary of the historic Attica [New York] Prison Rebellion in 1971), the California prisoner hunger strike comes on the heels of a massive work strike several months earlier in which thousands of prisoners throughout the (US) Georgia State’s prison system went on work strike. The Georgia strike was followed by a hunger strike by death row prisoners in the state of Ohio. In the Georgia and California strike, prisoners organized across racial and geographic lines touted by (and in large part manufactured by) prison administrations as un-bridgeable obstacles for separation and control. This wave of strikes comes as the US prison population approaches 2.5 million people (California holds more than 160,000 prisoners).
This number of people held in US prisons (which makes the US the biggest prison system on the planet) doesn’t count the many more millions who are under restrictive parole (including those forced to wear GPS tracking devices) or on probation. A more accurate number of people in the US under some form of carceral control or supervision is over 7.2 million. In addition, at least 93,000 young people are held in youth jails and prisons. While accurate numbers are purposefully hard to obtain, there are at least 400,000 people also being held in immigrant detention pending deportation (as more and more anti-immigrant legislation is enacted, these numbers can be expected to continue to skyrocket). Of people being held in prison, jail, parole, probation, in youth facilities, and in immigrant detention, it is important to note that the vast majority are poor people of color, with an extremely disproportionate number being African American. An overwhelming number of imprisoned immigrants are people from Mexico and Central America, but also include many Asian, African, and Middle Eastern peoples. In California’s SHUs, a significant majority of prisoners are of Latino descent.
The composition of the prison population, and of the migrant detention centers population, indicates that this is not only a domestic policy. As there is also a stark relationship between US imperialism and the US’ imprisonment in immigrant detention (and other element of the prison system, of course), we must also note that models of repressive imprisonment are being exported for other countries’ use and/or being employed directly by the US in its hegemonic relations and wars (from the sharing of prison and police technology for Mexico and Colombia’s counterinsurgency campaigns, to similar US-Israeli collaboration, to Guantanamo Bay, to countless rendition sites across the planet…).
Indeed, the current strikes have not only shined a light on the horrendous conditions of particular prisons or state prison systems (for example, California’s prison health conditions were recently condemned by the US Supreme Court as contributing to the death of at least one prisoner a week), but have offered a framework for those inside and outside US prisons to analyze, talk about, and understand the wider political contexts that current struggles are situated within.
For example, many have noted the relationships connecting SHUs and solitary confinement to the meteoric rise of imprisonment in the US in the past 40 years, and how this boom is linked to capitalist crisis during the same period. Additionally, the rise of imprisonment has been understood as inextricably intertwined with expansion of police powers and domestic militarization in the same period. Further, strong connections have also been drawn between the relationships to imprisonment and policing to US imperialism and war against liberation struggles both domestically and internationally. Many political prisoners held in the US—captured during the 1970s and 80s, have spent significant time in SHUs and other solitary confinement. Indeed, Hugo Pinell, (a comrade of Black revolutionary George Jackson before his prison assassination in 1971) has been held in Pelican Bay’s SHU for over 20 years (and participated in the recent hunger strike). The gang-labeling of prisoners held in SHUs also creates a framework to further understand the political nature of policing in the targeted communities where these prisoners come from, and the connections between domestic counterinsurgency and the US’s “War on Drugs,” “the War on Gangs,” and the “War on Terror.” This adds to the texture of understanding the devastating social and economic impacts of imprisonment and policing of marginalized communities (especially Black and Latino communities) in the US, including the conditions in which these communities are able to organize, defend, and resist.
In working in solidarity with the Hunger Strikers, people outside prison have had the opportunities to match the creative communication techniques employed by the prisoners and have gained national and international attention and support. In doing this, the voices of the prisoners themselves, along with their families and loved ones have gained a level of recognition that has too often been denied them. As noted above, the amplification of prisoner voices and leadership has widened the arena of discourse for people to make connections between SHUs, political imprisonment, the prison system in general, imperialism, institutional racism, the economy, etc. People working in solidarity with striking prisoners have also been able to make strong international connections. International support and action happened throughout the California Hunger Strike and activists in US were able to highlight hunger strikes that were being led by political prisoners in Colombia and Palestine during the first and second waves of the California strike.
While invigorating, galvanizing, and inspiring lessons can be drawn from the abilities of prisoners to organize under some of the most horrendous conditions and in the wider political moment, there is still much work to be done in working with them to win their demands. At the same time, there is much potential in the connections being made between prisoners and those on the outside, the connections made across multiple points of oppression and struggle, and an overall historical understanding of this political moment. The power of these connections will surely blossom as they are used to push forward even stronger organizing work. With the contradictions of capitalism and racism getting deeper and deeper, as state repression breeds more and more resistance, and as communities—inside and outside prison—become more and more ignited, the moment seems to hold potential for some serious and thoroughgoing change.