News & Politics

Five Demands of the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers

The Pelican Bay Prison Hunger strike is bordering on a major medical crisis. What are their demands and why are they important?

Update: The hunger strikers reject the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's (CDCR) proposal. "This afternoon leaders of the Pelican Bay hunger strike unanimously rejected a proposal from the CDCR to end the strike. In response to the prisoners’ five, straightforward demands, the CDCR distributed a vaguely worded document stating that it would “effect a comprehensive assessment of its existing policy and procedure” about the secure housing units (SHUs). The document gave no indication if any changes would be made at all." Read morehere

One of the largest hunger strikes in U.S. prison history began on July 1, 2011, and is now bordering on a major medical crisis. After years of legal struggles, nonviolent protest has become a last resort in the strikers’ attempts to be guaranteed their civil rights.

Legal representatives report dehydration, irregular heartbeats, mild seizures and even severe diabetic shock. Urgent pressure is needed to meet the strikers’ five demands to avoid further harm to their health.

The five demands

1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse.Prison staff regularly uses racially based group punishments after a single infraction by a single individual. These lead to unnecessary and undeserved punitive measures against those who have done nothing wrong.

2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria.One way to get out of solitary is to be secretly “debriefed,” which is seen as snitching on fellow inmates. It can lead to violent retribution and cause further safety hazards to inmates, their families and the guards. Prisoners are also labeled gang members through false evidence and procedures contradicting the Castillo v. Alameida settlement that restricted using photographs to implicate gang membership.

3. Comply with the Us Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons
2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement.Strikers want to end conditions of isolation, ensure that prisoners in SHU and ad-seg (administrative segregation) have regular meaningful contact and freedom from extreme physical deprivations that are known to cause lasting harm.

Strikers want to make segregation a last resort. They want to create a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and ad-seg the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities relating to being a part of the community.

Prisoners want an end to long-term solitary confinement, which is extremely harmful to their mental and physical health. Inmates who have been warehoused indefinitely in SHU for the last 10 to 40 years (and counting) should be released into the general prison population.

The strikers also demand that SHU inmates have immediate and meaningful access to adequate natural sunlight and quality health care and treatment, including the transfer of all PBSP- SHU inmates with chronic health care problems to the New Folsom Medical SHU facility.

4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food.Denial of food is frequently used as punishment. Strikers want an end to this, and they want an independent officer to ensure that complete rations of food are served on each tray.

5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates.Pelican Bay SHU is one of the harshest punitive environments in the country. Strikers simply want their everyday lives to be put on par with other SHU units around the country (eg: Federal Florence, Colorado and Ohio).

Some of the constructive programming and privilege demands are: expand visiting time and adding one day per week, allow one photo per year, allow a weekly phone call, allow two annual packages per year, expand canteen and package items allowed, more TV channels, allow TV/Radio combinations, or TV and small battery operated radio, allow hobby craft items, allow sweat suits and watch caps, allow wall calendars, install pull-up/dip bars on SHU yards, and allow correspondence courses that require proctored exams.

A Burgeoning Prison Abolition Movement

These demands are aimed at ensuring legal and healthy day-to-day living standards. The California Department of Corrections (CDCR) is refusing to negotiate on these simple demands, even though they are considered the norm at many other similar facilities in the U.S. In refusing to negotiate, CDCR is risking the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds, of inmates.

This nonviolent protest is socially and legally important for a number of reasons.

In order to combat forced racial segregation and its harmful outcomes, strikers have organized across racial and religious boundaries
that are normally exacerbated by the prison system and guards.

This is also a fight for a legal right to refuse food, upheld by the First Amendment right to protest, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments right to due process, the American Medical Association’s multiple oppositions
to forced feeding, and the international laws spelled outby the World Medical Association, among others. Hunger strikes are often a last option of nonviolent protest for people under extreme oppression.

The sheer number of active hunger strikers, at one point reaching 6,600,
as admitted by the CDCR, is a groundbreaking step in prisoner solidarity.

Opposition to solitary comes not only from prisoners, but also from prison wardens and guards, such as Don Cabana. The warden of Parchman prison in Mississippi for nearly three decades, Cabana was responsible for building one of the first supermax facilities with solitary. "The biggest single regret I had in my career was having built that unit,"says Cabana

This strike isn’t the first measure taken by inmates to secure their civil liberties, and it won’t be the last. Through court ruling after court ruling, prisoners have won their rights, only to be denied these rights by administrators and guards when it comes to day-to-day circumstances.

Why should we support
this struggle for justice? The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition says it best:

 In upholding the legacy of George Jackson and many other prisoners, we understand that supporting the Pelican Bay prisoners is to be connected across the prison walls meant to disappear so many of our loved ones, friends and neighbors. We understand our support of the Pelican Bay prisoners to be connected to organizing a movement to end the US prison system which now cages millions of people. We understand our support to be connected to building a movement to end the imprisonment of immigrants and children. We understand our support to be connected to fighting against the devastation of communities from which so many prisoners are rounded up and imprisoned. We understand our support to be connected to combating the violence of policing. We see our support connected to the struggle for affordable housing, more jobs, better education, relevant and empowering programs for youth and formerly incarcerated people, sustainable health-care, and overall community self-determination. 



Matt McCoy is an educator in Brooklyn. He works for Communities Rising, an educational nonprofit in the U.S. and India.
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