What the Hunger Strikers Demand
In part two of this Hunger Strike series, I will focus on the Hunger Strikers first demand: an end to group punishment and administrative abuse. Since this is a two-part demand, I will address each one separately.
(Part 1 of the Hunger Strike series can be found here)
The California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) uses race as one of the main factors in the placement and punishment of all inmates in CDCR custody. Inmates are assigned to their cells based on race, the recreation areas they use are segregated by race and group punishments are implemented based on race. The most common form of group punishment is a lock-down status, which restricts inmates’ access to family and programming.
During the years that I’ve spent visiting at various prisons in California, I’ve seen that it is common for an entire race group to be placed on lock-down for months at a time based on the actions of one or a few. Family members who visit regularly know to call the CDCR hotline the night before and morning of the visit to see if our loved ones are on lock-down, because it is so common. When inmates are on lock-down, they aren’t allowed visits or phone calls with family and are “denied access to the exercise yard, the canteen, law library, day-room and laundry. During a lock-down, the only time allowed outside of cells is for showers and sometimes even those are restricted.
A lock down status can be applied to an individual, a group of individuals, a housing unit or the entire prison whenever prison administrators believe a lock-down is warranted. Prior to the current Hunger Strike, Pelican Bay had been on lock-down from January through April, with inmates reporting that they hadn’t had time out of their cells for yard during that time.
Although long-term lock-downs and placement in restrictive housing units such as Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg) and Security Housing Units (SHU) are highly punitive and have been found to cause mental illness, placement in these conditions is ususally considered an “administrative measure” and has been given extreme deference by courts. In cases where prisoners’ rights are in question, the United States Supreme Court has stated that courts are not properly equipped to deal with issues of prison administration and that those matters should be left to prison officials who are more knowledgeable on the needs of each facility. Therefore, in matters related to prison regulations courts use a reasonable basis review which inquires “whether a prison regulation that burdens fundamental rights is "reasonably related" to the prison’s legitimate objectives, or whether it represents an "exaggerated response" to those concerns.” In effect, this standard results in a “hands-off” policy on the court’s involvement with prison administration because courts often defer to prison administrators’ judgment without any critical analysis of whether a regulation actually makes the facility more safe.
This “hands-off” policy creates a situation which allows the CDCR to “administratively” implement a wide range of punitive policies and practices and apply them selectively and arbitrarily. This is especially true in regards to their Gang Validation policies which are the source of most of the SHU assignments. Recently, in a case concerning the Black Guerrilla Family, a Northern District Court recognized that the CDCR may have been taking a “race-based short-cut” in their Gang Validation procedures by assuming that anything that had to do “with African-American culture could be banned under the guise of controlling the BGF.” I will discuss Gang Validations in the next article in this series, which will focus on the Hunger Striker’s second demand: to abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
Despite the general “hands off” policy, over the years, the growth of California’s prison regime has produced such deplorable conditions and violations of human rights that in many cases, the courts have had no choice but to become involved. While several courts, including the Supreme Court, have issued rulings ordering California to fix these problems, these reforms continue to lack enforcement. California’s prisons are currently in a state of crisis - the Supreme Court has ordered the state to reduce the prison population by 30,000 after nearly 20 years of litigation. In the youth prisons, there has been ongoing litigation for nearly 10 years regarding widespread abuse and torture. In women’s prisons, the horrific conditions and widespread abuse continue to go ignored, and now people in prisons all over California are willing to die of hunger to change the conditions they live in or at least bring attention to them.
Today the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR) announced that the Hunger Strike was over although this information has yet to be confirmed by any leaders of the strike in Pelican Bay or in other participating prisons. In fact, the Federal Receiver’s office reported earlier this week that almost 100 new inmates have joined the strike. Even when this strike actually does come to an end, it will be important for us to remember that the conditions that caused thousands of prisoners to go on hunger strike will continue to exists and worsen as they have been until we find ways to decrease our dependence on incarceration and focus on alternatives that are more humane and actually make us more safe.
Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499, 502 (U.S. 2005).
Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 87 (U.S. 1987).
The Black Guerrilla Family is the only Black prison gang recognized by the California Department of Corrections. Many inmates who have been validated as BGF have been validated solely based on their possession of certain political and cultural materials absent any actual gang activity.
Harrison v. Institutional Gang of Investigations, No. C 07-3824 SI (pr), 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14944 *11 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 22, 2010). Available at: http://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/california/candce/3:2007cv03824/194459/43/
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