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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.

On July 20, hunger strikers at California’s infamous supermax, Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (PBSP-SHU), declared victory and ended their nearly three-week fast for human rights. The strike had been announced several months earlier and when it began on July 1, the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay were joined in the fast by thousands of other prisoners across the state. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), at least 6,600 prisoners in at least one third of California’s 33 prisons participated in the hunger strike.

In response to the hunger strike, Assembly member Tom Ammiano and the Public Safety Committee in the State Assembly of California will hold an informational hearing on August 23 regarding conditions and policies of the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay. Activists have initiated a statewide mobilization around this hearing, in order to pressure state legislators and the CDCR to make substantial changes.

A statement written by the Short Corridor Collective, composed of some Pelican Bay hunger strike leaders, explains that on July 1:

“A collective group of PBSP-SHU inmates composed of all races began an indefinite hunger strike as a means of peacefully protesting 20-40 years of human rights violations.... The decision to strike was not made on a whim. It came about in response to years of subjection to progressively more primitive conditions and decades of isolation, sensory deprivation and total lack of normal human contact, with no end in sight. This reality, coupled with our prior ineffective collective filing of thousands of inmate grievances and hundreds of court actions to challenge such blatantly illegal policies and practices (as more fully detailed and supported by case law, in our formal complaint available online here) led to our conclusion that a peaceful protest via hunger strike was our only available avenue to expose what’s really been going on here in CDCR-SHU prisons and to force meaningful change.... We ended the hunger strike the evening of July 20, 2011, on the basis of CDCR’s top level administrators’ interactions with our team of mediators, as well as with us directly, wherein they agreed to accede to a few small requests immediately, as a tangible good faith gesture in support of their assurance that all of our other issues will receive real attention, with meaningful changes being implemented over time.”

On August 3, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition announced that it had just received a letter from the hunger strike leaders at Pelican Bay, dated July 24, explaining that strikers had given the California Department of Corrections and Reform (CDCR) a deadline of two to three weeks from July 20 to come up with some substantive changes in response to their five core demands. Todd Ashker, one of the leaders of the hunger strike, writes that if the CDCR does not follow through, prisoners at Pelican Bay plan to go back on hunger strike:

“It's very important that our supporters know where we stand, and that CDCR knows that we're not going to go for any B.S. We remain as serious about our stand now as we were at the start, and mean what we said regarding an indefinite hunger strike peaceful protest until our demands are met. I repeat − we're simply giving CDCR a brief grace period in response to their request for the opportunity to get [it] right in a timely fashion!”

Hugo Pinell, one of the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay State Prison, has now been held in continuous solitary confinement for over 40 years—longer than any other US prisoner known to date. In a letter written during the strike to journalist Kiilu Nyasha, Pinell explained why he was fasting:

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