Politics & Law

Hunger

Jonathan Simon

Today, July 8, 2013, prisoners in California’s supermax “SHU” units (for Secured Housing Units), are commencing a hunger strike and work stoppage, their second in two years (read the solidarity statement here).

This is tragic. Hunger strikes are an extraordinary act of self deprivation by people who have almost nothing.  They can result in the deaths of those involved and compel prison staff to engage in degrading practices like force-feeding to prevent that.

aerial view of Pelican Bay prison


Pelican Bay State Prison, in Crescent City. The X-shaped cluster is the supermax (SHU) unit. (CDCR photo)

This desperate step indicates the depravity of California’s SHU policy and its recalcitrance in reconsidering it in the face of mounting criticism from human rights organizations (read Amnesty International’s 2012 report here) and the lack of any empirical evidence that this exceptional penal method is justified.  We keep more people, in worst SHU conditions, for longer, than any-other state on the planet.

I ask all readers of this blog to use their social networks to call on Governor Brown and California’s Secretary of Corrections Jeffrey Beard [Actually a search of their website shows no way to contact them other than to do business] to meet the prisoners’ five core demands (read them here), which amount to respect for basic human rights: to be treated as an individual; to have a horizon of hope for release from inhuman isolation conditions; to be given an environment fit for human psychological and physical health.

Supermax-style prisons are an American abomination that are rejected by most other societies and considered a human rights violation in many. Total isolation of prisoners without meaningful activities, visitors, or meaningful human contact has historically been reserved for disciplinary punishments limited to weeks or months. In California’s SHU scores of prisoners have served more than twenty years of such conditions, and hundreds for more than ten.

Most SHU prisoners are there not for any crimes committed on the outside, or disciplinary violations on the inside, but because prison officials have determined that they are an “associate” of one of the racist prison gangs that dominate the social order of California prisons.  Once dubbed an associate, based on evidence that does not have to be tested, a prisoner can never be released unless they “debrief” against the gang they are suspected of being an associate of.  For those falsely believed to be associates, this is impossible.  For those who in fact were associates, this means they are a “snitch” who will need to be in protective custody for the rest of their term (a somewhat less brutal version of the same isolation).

Keramet Reiter

Legal scholar Keramet Reiter

The State continues to claim that SHU isolation is necessary to keep gang violence under control in the State’s sprawling and still extremely overcrowded prisons, but there is no good evidence that this works according to criminologist and legal scholar Keramet Reiter, who carefully examined the State’s case in her Berkeley dissertation (see her recent article on supermax and California here).

More accurately, the SHU is necessary to maintain the State’s ideological justification for its draconian prison sentences and inhuman prison conditions. That justification, which holds that California prisons are filled with committed criminals who represent an unchanging risk of violence to Californians, implies that within this class must be an even more threatening elite, “the worst of the worst”.

Since our prisons offer no meaningful rehabilitation or incentives for self reform, only deeper deprivation can provide a tool for control for this class.  In fact, the State has long ago ceded to the prison gangs responsibility for maintaining a social order inside the prisons, and openly cooperates with their recruitment and operations, but the need to justify this monstrous enterprise of human warehousing requires a veritable monster factory, which is what the SHU is.

The warped security logic behind SHU and CDCR generally is well expressed in a particular policy on photographs highlighted this morning by KQED’s California Report in their excellent reporting on the strike. Under the policy, in place for over 25 years before it was finally changed after the 2011 hunger strike, SHU prisoners are not allowed to have photographs taken of themselves to send to their families or anyone else.  The policy was justified based on the claim that these prison gang leaders used their photos as “calling cards” to intimidate other prisoners.  While this claim is fascinating to a student of penology like myself (with its intriguing echoes of Victorian social customs), it turns out to have been based on mere anecdotes, and passes not even the most basic tests of logic (does anyone believe a prisoner will be less intimidated because a prison gang leader can’t leave his photo but has to leave something else, maybe a dead fish).

For this, people were stripped of the simplest piece of human dignity: the ability to be remembered as you are, by family members who have already lost all ability to touch or speak with you.

The hunger strike that begins today is a terrible thing.  If it is allowed to go on people will die for the crime of demanding to be treated like human beings.  Soon we will be debating force feeding. Enough…There is simply no reasonable justification for anything like California’s SHU practices.  It is worst than Guantanamo and based on even less evidence.  The longest-held Guantanamo inmates have been there for around 10 years.  The longest held SHU prisoner has been in for an astounding 42 years.  For generations Californians managed dangerous criminals of all sorts without a debasing their moral integrity by operating a SHU.

End this disgrace on our state.  Call upon Governor Brown and Secretary Beard to meet the prisoners’ demands, and further, to announce plans soon to close these institutions and relocate all current prisoners within one year.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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