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Solidarity, Not Solitary: 6,600 Prisoners Across California Participate in Hunger Strike

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by Megan DowdellCrossposted from Tikkun Daily

Across California, 6,600 prisoners have joined in the hunger strike that began July 1 with prisoners held in security housing units, a sanitary term for solitary confinement, inside Pelican Bay State Prison refusing food and issuing demands that include adequate food and nutrition, an end to group punishment and abuse, as well as compliance with the 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons recommendations on ending solitary confinement practices. On the outside, demonstrators and coalitions have shown their solidarity with the prisoners through rallies in various cities, online petitions and calls to action. So far, the California Department of Corrections and "Rehabilitation" (CDCR) has refused to negotiate or show any signs of addressing prisoners' demands.

I wrote about the start of the Pelican Bay Prison hunger strike in a July 2 posting; in the meantime, solidarity with prisoners has expanded both inside and outside the prison. There are ways to get involved and express solidarity: call the CDCR or your elected officials and urge them to honor the prisoners' demands. You can also tell them you are a person of faith and why you support human rights and true justice for all people. (Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity, the coalition of organizations outside of prison speaking on behalf of and supporting the striking prisoners, even has a sample script and list of phone numbers to make it easy for you to do yourself and share with friends.)

While many people of faith reject the death penalty, solidarity with prisoners has been a difficult pill to swallow for many people of faith on the outside, particularly those of us who believe ourselves to be personally disconnected from the prison system or not "having friends who are felons." Similarly, we may have thought at some point that having solidarity with prisoners is to turn our backs on victims of violence. There are facts and statistics that can help us deal with this discomfort. For instance, prison sentencing for nonviolent crimes has expanded heavily in just the past few decades. Also, solitary confinement has been practiced under the auspices of deterring violence inside prison, not because of original crimes committed outside (and that method has its fill of unjust procedures, like the debriefing rule, which the hunger strike and the video linked below help to illuminate). Still, something stops a large number of us from saying "yes" to solidarity with prisoners and no to solitary confinement. Luckily, many of us rely on traditions and sources of moral wisdom, which for centuries, have called for human dignity, liberation and freeing the captive.

In their book, Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System, Laura Magnani and Harmon Wray write that we live in a "vengeance-soaked culture." Back in 2008, I took Magnani's course called "Prisons and Punishment" at Starr King School for the Ministry, because I wanted to have a spiritual and moral language with which to discuss my rejection of retributive justice or prosecution as a way of grieving and healing from my own experiences of domestic violence. In her course, I also learned the systemic and cultural injustices of the prison industrial complex, the need for an alternative paradigm of justice that some call prison abolition, and what multiple religious traditions including my own had to offer me in moving through the need for retaliation and being in charge of my own healing.

In my own Unitarian Universalist tradition, we have often sung the "Circle Chant" during community rituals about justice issues: " circle round for freedom, circle round for peace, for all of us imprisoned, circle for release." Some might say this is a metaphor, but I choose to believe it urges us to break the cycle of vengeance and violence in this country, and circle for alternatives to mass incarceration. At the very least, it calls upon me to support the release from torture, inhumane treatment, and unjust policies and practices that deny our interconnectedness and violate a respect for human dignity.

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