“Give Me Five. . . Core Demands!”

Marching along a dusty road surrounding the California State Prison at Corcoran, a mother and her daughter hope that the reverberating chants and sounds of the drums are heard inside, where many prisoners are on hunger strike in protest of indefinite solitary confinement.

A loved one is in there, and Ms. María and her daughter, Gaby, would like him to know they’re here, Saturday, July 13th, peacefully demonstrating their support for him and all the prisoners who’ve been caged in Security Housing Units (SHU) for long-term isolation.

Hundreds Turn Out in Solidarity with Hunger Strikers

“My son Manuel knows I’m here,” said Ms. María, who had not eaten breakfast or lunch due to an upset stomach. “He was transferred to the SHU earlier this year, but he’s been imprisoned since age 17, ten years ago. I hope he’s listening, I truly do, though being where he is…”

Neither the suffocating 102 degree heat nor the four-hour drive dissuaded Ms. María and her daughter from making their way to Central California to join the hundreds of people who marched in solidarity with the prison hunger strikers.

“They’re not alone,” said Ms. María. “I’m so glad to know there are people who came to show their support, even though they don’t have a loved one in there.”

5 Unmet Demands at Center of Revived Hunger Strike

On July 8th, an estimated 30,000 prisoners began a hunger strike (with thousands of others refusing meals) in two-thirds of California’s prisons, including Pelican Bay, Corcoran and several out-of-state prisons holding California prisoners.

The current hunger strike is a continuation of the one prisoners started in 2011 at Pelican Bay, Pleasant Valley, San Quentin, Tehachapi, and Corcoran.

The hunger strikers developed and presented the Governor and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) with five core requests:

  1. End group punishment and administrative abuse
  2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria
  3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement
  4. Provide adequate and nutritious food
  5. Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates

The CDCR promised meaningful reform, including reducing the amount of years a prisoner had to serve in the SHU and reviewing the policy that throws thousands of people suspected of belonging to or associating with prison gangs in its SHU or Administrative Segregation Units (ASU), which are windowless, concrete cages the size of a parking spot.

Instead of Reform, State Continues Abuse of Solitary

The average prisoner remains in isolation 22.5 hours a day, 7.5 years. It’s been reported that in Pelican Bay alone, 89 prisoners have been in the SHU for at least 20 years, and one for 42 years.

“Some SHU inmates have committed heinous acts in prison, but a prisoner doesn't have to be violent to get put in the hole indefinitely,” states investigative reporter, Mr. Shane Bauer, in his latest opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times.

“Until recently, all it took was evidence that the inmate was associated with one of a number of gangs, and the evidence had to satisfy only prison authorities; it was never reviewed by an external body or court.”

What this means, explains Mr. Bauer on his webpage, is that “decisions are made in closed-door hearings where a single prison staffer acts as judge, jury, and prosecutor. Inmates are not allowed to call witnesses, gather evidence in their defense, or even have a lawyer present. Any evidence provided by informants is kept confidential and is thus impossible to refute.”

It’s evident, by the current massive prison hunger strike, that the CDCR did not honor the promise of reforming its long-term solitary confinement policy.

In fact, as Mr. Bauer writes, what the CDRC actually did was to modify the definition of “serious rule violation,” which previously included selling drugs, attacking other inmates, or attempting to escape, so as to make it more expansive.

“Under the new policy, a serious rule violation can be the possession of self-made drawings, the wrong books or anything that ‘depicts affiliation’ with a security threat group — in other words, the kind of stuff that has always been used to lock people in the SHU,” he highlights.

Books and Drawings: Justification for Solitary Confinement

Mr. Danny Murillo, who spent seven of a 15-year-sentence under solitary confinement in both the SHU and the ASU, agrees with Mr. Bauer. In reality, he points out, what the CDRC has done is to fully implement its “validation process.”

“They can validate someone as a member or associate of a prison gang through confidential informants, tattoos, drawings, photographs, books, newsletters or verbal communication,” he says.

“I witnessed numerous individuals, primarily Latino and Black, being targeted because they hold in their possession drawings of Aztec, Mayan, or other indigenous cultures, or for having books by Malcolm X or George Jackson.”

Mr. Murillo’s testimony is not an isolated one. Where exactly, then, is the humanness in an institution that prides itself on correcting and rehabilitating people?

Prisons a Human Trafficking Violation?

Since CDRC, through the state’s prisons, has complete control over prisoners, has it been interpreting “rehabilitation” and “correctional” as its legal right to play God, or worse yet, human trafficking?

It may sound extreme, but the United Nations UN defines “trafficking in persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of giving or receiving of payment or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs.”

Many SHU and ASU prisoners can certainly apply this definition to their situation, especially because the CDRC has ignored the fact that the UN itself has condemned the practice of indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement. 

CDRC has also ignored the fact that decades of scientific research conducted by reputable scholars, like Dr. Craig Haney and Dr. Stuart Grassian, have concluded that solitary confinement is cruel, psychologically and irreparably damaging, torture, inhumane, a clear violation of human rights.

Stop the Needless Destruction of Minds, Bodies, and Souls

At present, California holds nearly 12,000 of the more than 80,000 prisoners being caged in solitary confinement nationwide. The thousands of prisoners on strike and their supporters are asking the CDRC to give them five —five essential demands.

“Give me five!” said Mr. Murillo, who is still searching for a method of healing to overcome the years of inhumane treatment against his mind, body, and soul. “Give me five, the five core demands!”

Tell CA Governor Jerry Brown to Meet Prisoners’ 5 Demands