Prisoners in the US assert their humanity

Workers wanting to fight back find ways and means no matter what situation they face. In 2013 the leading role in the international workers movement was taken by workers in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable – like  the clothing workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia, on starvation wages, in peril for their personal safety, who beat back violent attacks by cops and company thugs on their picket lines, defeated union-busting efforts in both countries and in Bangladesh won a 77% wage increase.

In the imperialist countries, workers behind bars led the way.

logo of California prisoners' hunger strike

logo of California prisoners’ hunger strike, designed by  Rashid Johnson, a prisoner in Virginia, reflects multiracial character of the action.

Thirty thousand prisoners in 33 separate prisons in California (California alone) carried out a hunger strike which lasted up to two months, beginning July this year. Their central demand: end the inhuman use of long-term solitary confinement.

No accurate figures exist for the number of people held in solitary in local, state, and federal prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice reported in 2000 that 80,000 prisoners were in solitary. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons in 2006 reported that this is “just a fraction” of the real figure. Many of these are held in purpose-built Special Housing Units (SHU). Some have been held in these conditions for years, and even decades.

Prisoners can be sent to the Special Housing Units,  known as the “hole,” for such minor offences as “untidy cell or person,” “excessive tobacco,” “unreported illness,” “unauthorized literature,” “unfastened long hair,” “refusal to obey orders,” and “unauthorized legal assistance.” Prison officials are allowed to impose additional deprivation orders, including denying those in isolation the right to showers, reading material, clothing, bedding and even toilet paper.

The effects of solitary, however, are anything but minor. Solitary confinement beyond two weeks can produce psychological symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to full-on psychosis. For the many prisoners with underlying mental illness who end up in solitary, the suffering is even worse. People in solitary often take to screaming, banging on cell walls, counting cockroaches, cutting themselves,  and worse: although less that 5 percent of all U.S. prisoners are in solitary confinement, 50 percent of prison suicides take place there.

“They would put me in the hole because I was marked as a troublemaker, because of the complaints I had filed against staff,” prisoner Donnell Joseph has said. “I don’t do drugs. I don’t gamble. Most of my problems come from speaking out about the mistreatment of prisoners.”   According to Joseph, at the United States Penitentiary at Beaumont, Texas, he was once put in a four-point restraints for seven days, his hands and feet chained to a concrete block, after he was falsely accused of being part of a prison fight.

“They use it to break you. Sometimes they do break you,” he said. “Solitary should be abolished. There’s always another solution instead of taking away a man’s humanity.”

But the astonishing thing about the California hunger strike was not just the brutality of the system, but the fact that the prisoners held under such conditions were still able to find ways to organise and fight.  Despite the unimaginable isolation imposed on them, they found ways to communicate, develop a leadership, and organise. To do this, they had to overcome the gang system and the snitch system imposed by the prison officialdom, and they had to organise support beyond the prison walls.

Gang affiliation is one of the common pretexts for sending a prisoner to the SHU, and the accusation is operated in tandem with the snitch system. Once a prisoner has been deemed a gang member, they stay in the SHU indefinitely unless they ‘debrief,’ that is, unless they finger another prisoner as a gang member.  Prison officials also use collective punishments to enforce gang identification: when a prisoner breaks a rule, a whole group of prisoners of the same racial group is punished. Ending these collective punishments and the ‘debrief’ snitch system were among the demands of the hunger strike.

Todd Ashker

Todd Ashker

A truly multiracial leadership of the hunger strike was built, proving that the gangs were a creation of the prison system itself. One of the central leaders of the hunger strike was Todd Ashker a 50-year-old prisoner at Pelican Bay SHU. Incarcerated in 1984, he has been in the SHU since 1986, after prison officials deemed him a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a charge he denies.

To maximise their isolation, Pelican Bay prison officials had clustered the alleged leaders of four gangs – the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family, the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia – in a special SHU section with a short corridor. These prisoners found ways to communicate, formed the Short Corridor Collective, and issued an appeal for an end to racial hostilities in October 2012. Also in the Short Corridor Collective are Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, who is Black, and Antonio Guillen and Arturo Castellanos, who are Latino.

Sitawa’s sister, Marie Levin, speaking here at Occupy San Quentin, a large rally outside the San Quentin gates on Feb. 20, 2012, has become a leading spokesperson in the struggle for justice for her brother and everyone in solitary confinement. – Photo: Bill Hackwell


Sitawa’s sister, Marie Levin, speaking here at Occupy San Quentin, a large rally outside the San Quentin gates on Feb. 20, 2012, has become a leading spokesperson in the struggle for justice for her brother and everyone in solitary confinement. – Photo: Bill Hackwell

Key to their ability to sustain the hunger strike was – as always with prisoners – their links to the world outside prison walls. Reading newspapers and books about other struggles waged by prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela and Bobby Sands, and episodes of revolutionary history was part of their preparation. Solidarity actions outside the prisons by family members, friends and supporters continued throughout the hunger strike and beyond.

The hunger strike was called off in September when some prisoners had lost life-threatening amounts of weight, and they judged they had made some progress in drawing attention to their situation. Elected officials agreed to hold hearings into prison conditions.

Now, the reprisals have begun. Thousands of prisoners who took part in the hunger strike, both in solitary and in the general population, have been given Rules Violation Reports, which could extend the time they spend in the SHU. And crucially, attempts have been made to censor the prisoners’ right to read some newspapers that covered their fight. Several issues of The Militant were withheld from prisoner-subscribers in various parts of the country; a similar censorship has hit readers of the San Francisco Bay View.  “Fighting censorship in prisons is fighting for the human rights and dignity of captives whose very humanity is regularly denied by their ‘keepers,’” Dr. Willie Ratcliff, publisher of the Bay View, wrote.

Nothing has been resolved in this fight.

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2 responses to “Prisoners in the US assert their humanity

  1. Pingback: GPJA #487: Sat. Protest: “Justice for Migrant Workers- Stand Up Fight Back!” | GPJA's Blog·

  2. Pingback: This is what a moral crisis looks like | A communist at large·

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