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One Month After Historic Hunger Strike Ends, Legislators Hold Hearings About Solitary Confinement

"This hearing gives the opportunity for people to do something other than starve themselves to death."
 
 
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Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission. 

Families and former prisoners held for years in solitary confinement expressed optimism October 9 after the first of several California Public Safety Committee hearings about the punishment, promised in exchange for an end to prisoners' 60-day hunger strike over the summer.

"Tell us the truth, even if it’s not pleasant," State Assembly member Tom Ammiano told California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials, advocates, formerly incarcerated people and family members.

On Wednesday, October 9, the California legislature's Public Safety Committee held the first of several hearings about the use of solitary confinement in California’s prisons. These hearings were prompted by a 60-day hunger strike that rocked California’s prison system this past summer.

On July 8, 2013, over 30,000 people incarcerated throughout California refused meals.

Hunger strikers issued  five core demands:

1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;

2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;

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

4.  Provide adequate food;

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

Prisoners in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU) issued 40 additional demands, such as expunging all violations issued for participation in the 2011 hunger strikes and prohibiting retaliation for those participating in the most recent strike.

In the SHU, people are locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Prison administrators place them in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term for being accused of gang membership. These accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence.

Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for more than a decade. Until recently, the only way to be released from the SHU was to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. SHU prisoners launched two hunger strikes in 2011. This past July, they launched what would become a 60-day hunger strike.

The strike ended after California State Senator Loni Hancock, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Assembly member Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, promised to hold hearings around the issues raised by the hunger strikers. As reported earlier in  Truthout, the legislators’ support pushed both the CDCR and the hunger strikers toward a resolution.

"On September 3, we received a copy of the press statement from Senator Hancock and Assembly member Ammiano using strong language in support of our cause, urging us to end our hunger strike with assurances of hearings, etc.," hunger striker Todd Ashker told Truthout in a recent letter. "We’re not ones to snub lawmakers, etc., who pledge support - in public - in spite of CDCR’s vilification campaign." Buoyed by legislators’ support and the promise of upcoming hearings, hunger strikers met and voted to suspend the strike.

"Now this doesn’t end our collective actions to shed light on and end solitary confinement and indeterminate SHUs, but instead is a time of advancing forward on an even broader front," wrote hunger striker Lorenzo Benton the day after the hunger strike ended. "With the gains made (national and international support and a viable movement to achieve our objectives), we are now in a position to see our goal to the end with no further loss of life and/or serious physical or mental harm.  . . . We must not shy away from this golden opportunity to have our collective voices heard and end this mockery of the need for solitary confinement and indeterminate SHUs."