Workers Vanguard No. 1029
6 September 2013
Hunger Strike Against the Torture of Solitary
California Prison Hell
In early July, some 30,000 California prisoners launched their third hunger strike in two years against the barbaric torture of solitary confinement. At its peak, the strike encompassed two-thirds of the 33 state prisons and all four private out-of-state prisons that hold California inmates, making it five times the size of the strikes in 2011. Prison officials retaliated by blasting freezing air into the cells of hunger strikers and by denying them vitamins and any liquids except water for 18 days. In an L.A. Times (6 August) op-ed column titled “Hunger Strike in California Prisons is a Gang Power Play,” the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), Jeffrey Beard, ranted that the men starving themselves to put an end to the depravity of solitary did so “to advance their own agenda of violence.”
With some 123 prisoners continuing to hold out eight weeks into the strike, a federal court judge ruled that prison doctors can force feed the remaining hunger strikers. A spokesman for the federal receiver in charge of prison medical care celebrated the court order as clearing the way to “save their lives”! Although prisoners had signed “do not resuscitate” directives, the Dr. Mengeles of the CDCR are preparing to “save” them for the torments of the Security Housing Unit’s (SHU) isolation chambers.
Welcome to Guantánamo North, where the systematic brutality is of a piece with the unspeakable sadism of the U.S. jailers abroad. With 25 percent of the prison population on the planet, the U.S. leads the world in the number of people—disproportionately black and Latino—it throws behind bars. And California leads the nation. Like Dante’s Inferno, the Italian poet’s 14th-century epic portrayal of a journey through the nine concentric circles of hell, California’s prison “Inferno” is a journey through concentric circles of increasing barbarism. Located far from inmates’ families and enclosed by lethal electric fences, “supermax” lockups like Pelican Bay State Prison contain the high-tech sensory deprivation chambers of the SHU.
Entombed behind heavy metal doors in windowless, ten-by-eight foot concrete cages for more than 22 hours a day, prisoners have no human contact other than with guards. Conditions in the SHU were powerfully captured by Shane Bauer, one of three Americans seized by the Iranian government and held incommunicado in the notorious isolation ward for political prisoners at Iran’s Envin prison. In a Mother Jones (November-December 2012) article titled “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons,” Bauer describes visiting the Pelican Bay SHU, where his guide wants to know if it is different from Iran. Bauer wonders if he should “point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the ‘dog run’ at Pelican Bay…; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months and they get none.” Instead, he simply opts to reply that he had “a window.” The sunlight, fresh air and sounds of the outside world it afforded kept him from breaking. But in the Pelican Bay SHU “there are no windows.”
As far back as 1890, the Supreme Court condemned solitary as an “infamous punishment” that drove prisoners “violently insane.” Today prison authorities simply deny that the SHU is solitary. Unspeakably cruel, the conditions in California’s prisons are not an aberration in racist America. On the contrary, such barbarism is the product of a capitalist system that is in a state of advanced decay.
As we wrote in “Hunger Strike in California Prison Hell” (WV No. 984, 5 August 2011):
“High-tech sensory deprivation chambers like the SHU throw into stark relief the nature of the bourgeois state as an apparatus of organized violence to preserve the rule and profits of racist American capitalism.
“The prisons are the concentrated expression of the depravity of this society, a key instrument in coercing, torturing and brutalizing those who have been cast off as the useless residue of a system rooted in exploitation and racial oppression. Elementary humanity demands that the SHU and all other solitary confinement chambers be abolished. But it will take nothing short of proletarian socialist revolution to destroy the capitalists’ prison system and sweep away all the barbaric institutions of the bourgeois state.”
“The Worst of the Worst”
Even in the dungeon empire of “incarceration nation,” California prisons are among the worst of the worst. Conditions are so atrocious that the most reactionary Supreme Court in 60 years found them in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” A 2011 majority opinion recounted that California’s “prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years” during which “needless suffering and death have been the well documented result.” The court mandated that California cut its prison population to 137 percent capacity. For nearly three decades, lower courts had directed the state to relieve overcrowding, provide medical care and stop abuse by prison guards.
In the two years since the Supreme Court ruling, California’s Democratic Party governor Jerry Brown has openly flouted orders to release 9,600 prisoners. In April, a three-judge panel threatened to hold the governor in contempt of court for defying orders to provide adequate medical treatment, particularly for thousands of mentally ill prisoners who often find themselves locked in single holding cells awaiting “group therapy.” Brown defiantly retorted that his jailhouses provided “among the best healthcare in America and probably the world.”
Following this ringing endorsement, an outbreak of coccidioidomycosis, or Valley Fever, at two San Joaquin Valley prisons impelled a federal judge to grant a class-action suit by seven inmates and order the state to relocate around 2,600 prisoners to other facilities. For years, the state has opposed any such move, arguing that it could cause race riots, an open admission that segregation reigns in California prisons. Blacks, Filipinos and people with compromised immune systems are at high risk for Valley Fever, a disease that can be fatal if left untreated. In the past three years alone, close to 2,000 inmates at the two prisons have contracted the disease and in the past seven years 40 have died from it.
As the suit argued, the state’s refusal to transfer prisoners from the Valley “was the equivalent of conducting a human medical experiment on the inmates, without their consent. For an unacceptable percentage of inmates, including the plaintiff subclasses identified here, assignment to these facilities is a potential death sentence.” Here is recalled the infamous “Tuskegee experiment,” in which from 1932 to 1972 public health officials denied lifesaving penicillin to 600 black men in Alabama afflicted with syphilis.
There was, however, one medical treatment readily available in California’s prisons: forcible sterilization. From 2006 to 2010, at least 148 women inmates were coerced into undergoing tubal ligations in a throwback to the genocidal pseudoscience of eugenics. Between 1909 and 1964, California sanctioned 20,000 such operations on patients in state-run facilities under a law authorizing the sterilization of the “feebleminded,” the “diseased” and the “perverted.” This law was only repealed in 1979. But its motivation remains. When questioned about the $147,460 price tag for sterilization, one ob-gyn opined: “That isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”
The Criminalization of
Black and Latino Youth
Mumia Abu-Jamal, America’s foremost class-war prisoner, knows solitary from the inside. An innocent man, this former Black Panther spent 30 years on death row in Pennsylvania on frame-up charges of killing a cop until he was released into the general prison population last year. In his “Sept. 14th Statement on Solitary” from a year ago, Mumia wrote:
“Is it cruel and unusual and thus violative of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. constitution? Apparently this was so in the 1890s but not so in the present, probably because of who was in prison then—and who are now.
“It may surprise you to know that at the end of the 19th century, Blacks were a distinct minority of American prisoners. And while numbers certainly swelled post-slavery—to build the prison-contract-labor industry, really slavery by another name—the biggest bounce in Black imprisonment came in the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements, when Black people, en masse, opposed the system of white supremacy, police brutality and racist juries.”
Despite the hat-in-hand pro-Democratic Party politics of the civil rights leaders, not least Martin Luther King, America’s rulers hated and feared the spectre of black militancy. They correctly saw it as a challenge to a system of class oppression rooted in the forcible segregation of the majority of the black population at the bottom of society. Despite the stone-cold racism of George Meany’s AFL-CIO bureaucracy, labor struggles like the 1970 national postal strike in defiance of anti-strike laws amplified fears that such militancy would spill over into the organized working class with its battalions of black workers.
In 1971, Republican president Richard Nixon launched a “war on drugs,” which centrally took aim at black militants and the inner-city poor on the heels of the ghetto upheavals of the 1960s. In 1973, following the bloodbath he launched against the 1971 Attica prison rebellion, New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacted draconian drug laws that became a model for other states. The “war on drugs” went into overdrive under Ronald Reagan with the avid support of black Democrats like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Today, nearly half of the 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S. are black.
The deindustrialization of much of the U.S., exemplified today by the bankruptcy of “Motor City” Detroit, drove millions more black people out of the workforce and into the ranks of the permanently outcast. Having created the conditions condemning black as well as Latino youth to desperate poverty, the rulers branded them criminals and devised a maze of “anti-gang” laws aimed at funneling ever more of them into prison. Once again, the state of California was in the lead with its 1988 “Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act.”
Wearing “gang clothing,” having tattoos or being named by a “reliable” source is enough to be entered into the statewide CalGang database, which now has an estimated 200,000 names, including children as young as ten. Those in the database are not notified and there is no way to remove one’s name. Such gang profiling begins in the schools, where poor and minority youth are branded for life. Latinos have been a particular target, as testified by the fact that they comprise 85 percent of those in the Pelican Bay SHU.
In prison, the charge of “gang association” is all that’s needed to end up in solitary. “Evidence” of such association includes everything from tattoos to greeting cards; written material, especially by or about black freedom fighters like Mumia Abu-Jamal or even classics like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; jailhouse lawyering and advocacy of prison reform. As Shane Bauer wrote: “In California, an inmate facing the worst punishment our penal system has to offer short of death can’t even have a lawyer in the room. He can’t gather or present evidence in his defense. He can’t call witnesses. Much of the evidence—anything provided by informants—is confidential and thus impossible to refute.”
While the maximum confinement in the SHU for killing a guard is five years, the length of stay for “gang association” is indeterminate. Outside of death, virtually the only other road out of the SHU is “debriefing,” i.e., snitching out others as gang members. We demand an end to this Kafkaesque nightmare both inside and outside the prison walls from the anti-gang laws to solitary confinement! Decriminalize drugs and all other “crimes without victims,” such as gambling, prostitution and pornography!
The Farce of Prison “Reform”
During the hunger strike, Attorney General Eric Holder called for an end to mandatory federal sentencing for “nonviolent” drug users. Many in the Republican Party establishment have also embraced such appeals. Overwhelmingly, the concern on all sides is the cost to the government, with prisons now grotesquely seen as some kind of new “welfare” for black people. Jerry Brown, though, isn’t letting anyone go. According to the L.A. Times (22 August), the governor is now working on a plan with the California prison guard “union” and Corrections Corporation of America—the country’s largest for-profit prison enterprise—to transfer prisoners to one of its jails in the Mojave Desert.
“It’s a win-win,” boasted an official of the prison guard association. Prisoners won’t be released, and the guards will get more jobs policing the new facility. If there is any criminal gang in California’s prisons, these sadistic screws are it. But they are embraced as “union brothers” by the sellout labor misleaders. Having allowed the industrial and now public-sector unions to be savaged in the name of shared “sacrifice” while turning a blind eye to the destitution of the ghetto and barrio poor, the labor bureaucrats seek to maintain their dues base by organizing the strikebreaking cops and jailhouse thugs whose purpose is the violent suppression of the working class and oppressed. Cops and prison guards out of the unions!
The multiracial working class is the only force in capitalist society with both the social power and historic interest to eradicate a system rooted in exploitation. To unleash this power, there needs to be a political struggle to break the chains forged by the trade-union bureaucracy, which have shackled labor to its class enemy, particularly in its Democratic Party face. The purpose of the Spartacist League is to build the revolutionary party that will lead the workers in the fight to shatter the capitalist order. With the proletariat in power internationally, the vast wealth now appropriated by a tiny class of exploiters will instead provide the material basis for achieving an egalitarian communist society. The modern instruments of incarceration, torture and death will be placed alongside their medieval complements as relics of a decaying social order that deserved only to perish.