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After the Hunger Strike: Criminal Justice Activist Discusses the Potential Impact of Prisoners' Action

Isaac Ontiveros of Critical Resistance offers an inside look at California's anti-prison movement.

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“I have to get with it because it’s for a great cause and if good changes come about, I could get a break too. At this point, a move to a mainline would be great, being that my keepers are determined to keep me until I die. On a mainline, we could have contact visits again! It’s been too long since I’ve touched my Mom and all of my loved ones…I wasn’t prepared for a hunger strike, so I don’t know how well or how long I can hold on, but I had to participate…I don’t even think in terms of doing or saying something wrong, for that would strike against everything I live for: freedom, becoming a new man and the New World. So, Sis, this hunger strike provides me with an opportunity for change while also allowing me to be in concert with, and in support of, all those willing to risk their precious and valuable health.”

Our previous interview with Solitary Watch about the Pelican Bay hunger strike examined the broader issue of solitary confinement in prisons throughout the US. In this follow-up report, we place the strike in context, alongside a statewide grassroots movement calling for cuts in prison spending to address California’s budget crisis, and a recent US Supreme Court ruling that calls for the reduction of California state prisoners by at least 30,000, in response to overcrowding.

We interviewed Isaac Ontiveros for an inside look from within California’s anti-prison movement. Ontiveros is the communications director for Critical Resistance, a national organization that is working to abolish the prison-industrial complex and is a member of the Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) alliance and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. 

Angola 3 News: What is the latest news from the hunger strikers?

Isaac Ontiveros: As far as we know, the leaders of the strike at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit have called an end to the strike—based on what they see as some movement on the part of the CDCR beginning to address some of their demands. 

At the peak of the strike at least 6,600 prisoners across at least a third of California’s 33 prisons participated. These are official CDCR numbers, so we can confidently assume actual numbers were higher. Right now, our struggle is to determine how many other prisoners, in what prisons, are continuing to strike. Given how isolated prisoners are throughout the system, this is a challenge, to say the least. 

A3N: Why have the Pelican Bay hunger strikers declared victory?

IO: The prisoners made very important, historic gains. That the strikers were able to move the CDCR at all was no small feat, especially when working under some the most horrendous conditions possible. The fact that they were able to coordinate among themselves despite extreme isolation is also impressive. Furthermore, solidarity was able to spread throughout the California system. This solidarity crossed the racial and geographic lines that we are taught are uncrossable; and strike leaders were able to incite strong support of people outside of prison on an international level. This is all very important when we think about victories, especially if we understand victories as being stepping-stones to further and greater victories.

As far as the specific concessions made by the prison administration, the details are still coming, but it seems that CDCR has moved a bit on the prisoners demands around providing and expanding some of the privileges and programs they have access to in the SHU. These gains—for example, some around cold weather clothing and access to calendars—may seem modest, but for people in such extremely oppressive conditions, these things take on a different weight. Also, it seems like there could be some movement on some of their other demands, perhaps some review of the “debriefing” process.

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