CHARLENEM and Jamo Muhammad

( – National and international support for California inmates who initiated a hunger strike to protest inhumane treatment has increased with urgency following reports of deteriorating health conditions.

Inmates housed in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at the super maximum Pelican Bay Prison have refused food for 19 days thus far, declaring that they were prepared to die rather than suffer inhumane conditions behind bars.

They told loved ones they simply want to serve their time in dignity and issued their five core demands by letter to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown and G.D. Lewis, Pelican Bay warden:


– Eliminate group punishments.

– Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.

– Comply with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.

– Provide adequate food.

– Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

Photo: Jamo Muhammad

“The message we should receive is the fact that these guys are united around this issue and also the type of torture that’s been going on for decades within not only California prisons, but other prisons as well.

America puts forth this face that it’s this humane society that doesn’t abuse any of its citizens when in actuality that’s not the case,” said Jitu Sadiki of the Black Awareness Community Development Organization, which works to eradicate violence impacting youth and communities.

What’s also important to note is that the strike was organized under extreme isolation across racial lines and geographic lines, said Isaac Ontiveros of Critical Resistance and a spokesperson for the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

Deteriorating health

“They say they are slowly dying anyway by virtue of the conditions that they live under, that they might as well die for a cause, die to put the prison and the CDCR in the position where there is a clamor, a demand statewide, nationwide, and worldwide for change,” said Barbara Becnel, activist, author and film maker who is also part of a five-member mediation team for the Pelican Bay SHU inmates.

By the 12th day of the strike, their health had rapidly worsened, Ms. Becnel told The Final Call.

“We just got word from connections we have at the prison that the prisoners are not even drinking water so as a consequence, they’re in bad shape. Some of them are on the verge of renal failure,” she continued.

According to the Coalition, some prisoners have been unable to make urine for three days and some are having measured blood sugars in the 30 range, which can be fatal if not treated.

“The men are going to start dying and my son could be one of them and I’m terrified. I’m sick at work, not even working to my full capability because I’m so distraught with the mental anguish of what they’re going through,” said Dolores Canalas, who’s 36-year-old son John Martinez authored the June 12 demand letter to prison officials. He has been in the SHU for more than 10 years, she said.

Prison officials refuted reports of deteriorating health conditions.

“No one has died. No one’s in critical condition, no renal failure, no transfer to a CTC (critical unit inside the prison). For the most part, everyone seems to be fine,” said Nancy Kincaid, a spokesperson for the CDCR’s California Prison Healthcare Services.

Ms. Kincaid continued that no inmates are refusing fluids or medications and that nurses conduct visual checks, sometimes two-to-four times a day, depending on the institution, to ensure people are not in conditions that require treatment.

“They have the right to refuse food. They have the right to refuse treatment. They have the right to starve themselves to death if they choose to … physicians are bound by their ethics which means they have to do what the patient requires of them and if the patient refused treatment, they won’t treat them … they will not force feed anybody,” Ms. Kincaid added.

Demand negotiations

When asked if CDCR officials were negotiating or planned to begin talks with the inmates about their concerns, Terry Thornton, CDCR deputy press secretary, told The Final Call that it received the demands quite som time ago and evaluated each of them thoroughly. There were just some things it could do nothing about, like an extra day of visiting, a combined TV/radio unit or additional cable TV, for instance, she said.

But activists argue that the inmates’ demands are not trivial as prison officials have made them out to be and they’ve launched an online petition to raise awareness and support. The petition had garnered 6,000 signatures at Final Call press time.

“If a person is guilty of some crime, they’re paying for that through their incarceration but to enhance that by subjecting them to inhumane conditions, it may make some people feel good that they’re being punished but that extracurricular stuff that goes on is beyond what their original sentence was,” Mr. Sadiki cautioned.

He said that CDCR claims that inmates in the SHU are the worst of the worst, non-rehabilitative, amounts to misinformation and propaganda. Prison officials say the cells are used to house inmates who commit crimes that endanger the safety of others or the security of institutions, such as prison gang members accused of murder or attempted murder of another inmate.

Mr. Sadiki said that, like himself, many inmates are put in the SHU because of their political views, not a propensity to any violence. He served approximately five years in the SHU at Soledad State Prison in the 1970s.

“I’ve lived with these men and the misinformation that the CDCR is putting out is not factual … these are brothers that would stand up to abuse and not accept and as a result, our time was extended to an indeterminate sentence in the SHU program,” Mr. Sadiki countered. He said Pelican Bay is a new monster that is designed to break men’s spirits. “Many of the men in the SHU have been there for over 30 years. To say there’s no redemptive factors about them is untrue. A lot of them have supported me since I’ve been home. I’ve been deeply entrenched. I’ve adopted and raised three young children who are now adults and I’m raising my biological children. What I represent is much of what they represent but because they made the decision not to allow themselves to be abused, they’ve come up with a new game plan that if they can’t break them physically, they’ll break them emotionally and mentally.”

When Mr. Sadiki went in (around 1977), a typical day was waking up at 5:00 a.m. to exercise, and spend approximately three hours confined to his cell studying because back then they were allowed some books.

Not today, according to Ms. Becnel.

She likened the Pelican Bay SHU to a mausoleum or graveyard with all concrete and hardly any windows. She said the cells are soundproof, causing sensory deprivation because they cannot communicate or hear. Inmates are allowed out of the SHU for one-and-a-half hours a day to walk around by themselves and when they receive mail, it’s displayed on a monitor for reading.

They aren’t allowed telephone calls, and according to what inmates have told her during previous visits, “When they eat tonight’s meal, they’re also eating yesterday’s meal. The plates are brought to them with remnants of the previous day’s meal still on the plate, so it’s wet with old food and new food’s piled on top of the old food,” Ms. Becnel said.

She said they have genuine human rights violations according to the international definition of torture.

Growing support

Ms. Canalas fasted for five days to show support for her son and the other inmates. She also helped to organize a host of events in Los Angeles between July 9-17, including an encampment at the KRST Unity Center and a rally in front of men’s central jail.

“He said it’s not something that they want to do but at this point people have been trying to get the message out for years and they feel it’s important that they do their part, whatever it takes. It’s not one culture, one individual, one group, but in solidarity and unity and they wanted it to be peaceful above all,” Ms. Canalas told The Final Call.

Also on July 9, in San Francisco, approximately 150 family members, activists and other supporters held a rally at the U.N. Plaza.

Dorsey Nunn of the All Of Us Or None Prison Advocacy Organization and executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, helped to organize the rally.

“This event is real significant in reframing what they are doing to human beings. Though the hunger strike itself will not make the California Department of Corrections bend, it’s our voices that will,” Mr. Nunn said.

Mr. Nunn told The Final Call, “For those of you who have seen the movie ‘Roots,’ Pelican Bay is where they send people to teach them how to stop calling themselves ‘Kunta Kinte’ and begin referring to themselves as ‘Toby.’ It’s where they try to break the spirit of men.”

“I know personally what’s happening in those prisons and I’ve protested myself many times in solidarity with other inmates while I was in there. I would advise people to stay vigilant in their efforts to see justice done for all those who are suffering in there,” stated Caramad Conley, recently released after serving 18 years for a wrongful conviction.