The number of California prisoners that remain on hunger strike now hovers around 2,500, at 17 prisons, down from 30,000 at the beginning of the action, on July 8. That’s still a lot more than at this point in the two previous strikes, in 2011. Prisoner solidarity activists say the protest is more widespread, this time, largely because authorities transferred lots of inmates around the system, allowing plans for the strike to circulate.
The epicenter of the protest is Pelican Bay prison where more than a thousand inmates are locked in long term solitary confinement from which some will never emerge, unless there is a change in policy. Prison officials made a show of making concessions in response to the 2011 protests, establishing a program that would allow some inmates a chance to get out of solitary. But the state reviewed only 400 cases, and allowed only about half of them back into the general prison population. And, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is suing the state for imposing cruel and unusual punishment, “not a single one” of its 1,000 Pelican Bay clients “has experienced any change in their situation whatsoever.”
The inmates insist that they will not end their action without a signed agreement with the force of law, addressing their core demands. But the State of California is not in the habit of acting in good faith, even with the judicial branch of government, on prison matters, much less negotiating with inmates. Governor Jerry Brown – who some call a liberal Democrat – has twice been threatened with contempt of court for refusing to release 10,000 inmates in order to relieve life-threatening conditions in the prisons. His wardens now claim that gang members in solitary confinement – people who have no means of communicating with anyone but guards – are somehow forcing thousands of other inmates to join the hunger strike. Governor Brown and his wardens continue to claim that conditions are improving in the prisons – even as thousands of inmates testify, with their very lives, that the opposite is true.
“Solitary confinement is the ultimate tool of the man-breaker.”
Prisons – especially prison systems designed by diabolical American minds – are meant to break men’s wills, to make them non-persons, groveling masses of flesh. Solitary confinement is the ultimate tool of the man-breaker, narrowing the scope of human activity to the bare functions of processing food into waste. For a person so restricted, the only mode of resistance available is to refuse to eat. California is one of only three states in which prison doctors are prohibited from force-feeding inmates. However, there is a loophole. The State Supreme Court ruled 20 years ago that forced feeding can be used to protect the “custodial environment,” that is, the discipline and security of the prison. If the authorities believe that allowing holdouts to continue their strike until death would be disruptive of the prison order, they could probably get away with forcing tubes down hunger strikers’ noses, like in Guantanamo Bay.
It is way past time that people stop saying that the United States is “moving towards” becoming a police state. It is, in fact, by far the biggest police and incarceration state ever known to man: an empire of dungeons.
Nelson Mandela was on the run for years, a fugitive inside and outside South Africa, before being caught. The ANC maintained camps and facilities in African countries neighboring South Africa quite openly during the last decade or two of the apartheid regime, while receiving substantial aid from many African countries and most notably from the Soviet Union. They got none from the United States, by the way. Martin Luther King was arrested many times but usually refused bail for a day or two while the press and religious leaders successfully clamored for his release. Dr. King never faced the prospect of felony time except once, briefly, for breaking a silly law against boycotting. King’s longest stretch in jail was 11 days, during which he was allowed to write a short book, Letters From a Birmingham Jail, while receiving phone calls and interviews from people around the world.
Daniel Ellsberg was released on bond after no more than a day or two in custody, and the “Moral Monday” folks are typically booked for disorderly conduct or some such trivial offense.
None of that compares with the way the US treats political dissidents, and even suspected political dissidents today. Bradley Manning has been confined almost 3 years, the entire first year naked and in solitary confinement, no letters, no interviews, no phone calls, no writing materials, and a gag order slapped on his lawyers. What’s a gag order mean? It means you can’t talk about the case publicly or privately, sometimes that you can’t tell an outsider the defendant says “happy birthday” to so-and-so. Veteran civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart is about to die in a federal prison for transmitting an innocuous public message from a defendant convicted of terrorism.
King was allowed to write a book in prison. Iman Jamil Al Amin, who as H. Rap Brown led SNCC and risked his life to start freedom schools, organize co-ops and register voters in rural Alabama was finally framed for the shooting of a deputy in Atlanta. To keep him from family and other Georgia prisoners, he was moved to federal custody and is now in an underground supermax cell half a continent away in Colorado, allowed one phone call and one letter to family per month. California prisoners found with just the name —- not his books, just the scrawled name —- of Black Panther leader George Jackson or other political items are classified as “gang members” and placed in automatic solitary confinement for the remainder of their sentences, which may also be lengthened due to that classification.
About 30,000 California prisoners have joined the hunger strike begun, on Monday, by inmates at the Secure Housing Units at Pelican Bay. That’s more than four times as many as joined Pelican Bay inmates in their first hunger strike, in July of 2011, and two and a half times the number that struck in October of that year. So far, two-thirds of the state’s prisons have been affected.
The Pelican Bay inmates carry a certain moral authority, in that they represent the most long-suffering, intensely persecuted group in the largest and most barbaric prison system in the world – the approximately 80,000 U.S. prison inmates held under solitary confinement. Pelican Bay is the site of more than 1,000 solitary confinement cells, where prisoners are isolated from other human contact for at least 22 and a half hours a day. Around the state, about 4,500 people are held in Special Housing Units, or SHUs, with 6,000 more enduring some other form of solitary. Some of the SHU inmates have not seen the natural light of day for more than 20 years.
The State calls the SHU inmates the “worst of the worst” in order to justify a punishment regime more barbaric, in many respects, than any in recorded history – a massive, multi-billion dollar enterprise whose mission is to destroy the minds of men and women. Inmates are locked away for years on end for possession of literature, or for mere suspicion of political militancy. By far the largest number of SHU inmates are accused of belonging to gangs, and can only be released from solitary by accusing other inmates of gang affiliation – a process that is euphemistically called “debriefing” – thus turning everyone into a potential snitch against everyone else.
Prison is the ultimate surveillance regime, a place where the sense of self, of human agency, and of privacy is systematically crushed, in the name of security. It is no coincidence that the world’s prison superpower, the United States, which accounts for one out of every four incarcerated persons on the planet, is also engaged in spying on every other nation and population on Earth. It is as if the United States is determined to surveil – with the implicit threat to crush – every expression of the human soul.
Both U.S. global surveillance and American prison policies violate international law. The Center for Constitutional Rights has sued on behalf of the Pelican Bay inmates, citing the finding by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture that any more than 15 days of solitary confinement violates international standards of human rights.
California’s inmates aren’t waiting for the UN or the courts to come to the rescue. They’ve issued five core demands, with elimination of long-term solitary confinement at the top, and insist that the hunger strike will not end until California signs a legally binding agreement. The very concept of negotiation with inmates is anathema to the Prison State, whose goal is to reduce human beings to objects, with no rights whatsoever. The Pelican Bay inmates have concluded that, if they are to have any chance to live, they must be prepared to die.
An estimated 30,000 California inmates refused all three meals yesterday, in an announced hunger strike to protest prolonged solitary confinement that can last upwards of a decade. The strike focuses on practices at Pelican Bay, an infamous facility that one of the American hikers held hostage in Iran called as bad or worse than the treatment he experienced in Iran.
A lawsuit last year alleged that more than 500 inmates have been held in solitary confinement for 10 to 28 year, and that 78 prisoners have been held in solitary for more than 20 years. Overall, recent estimates suggest some 80,000 inmates have been placed in solitary confinement, for as long as 42 years. Since then, corrections officials have begun reviewing isolation determinations and released nearly half of the 400 prisoners reviewed, according to the LA Times. Confinement typically involves isolation for 23 hours a day in a small, often windowless room with a steel door. When prisoners are let out of the cell for showers at least 3 times a week, they are taken to another small, isolated space where they are sometimes locked for extended periods of time.
…Studies have found that the negative psychological effects set in after just ten days. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, has said the practice can amount to torture, or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. And the ACLU, Physicians for Human Rights and The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law all call the practice torture, while Human Rights Watch calls it at the very least a violation of international law.
McClatchy notes that this is probably the largest prison protest of all time, far larger than similar protests in 2011.
The protest involves the same issues and many of the same inmates who led the protests in 2011. At the height of those hunger strikes, more than 11,600 inmates refused meals. The correction department’s official tally, which counts only those inmates on any given day who have skipped nine consecutive meals, never rose above 6,600.
The parallels with hunger-striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay are easy to make. Last time, the head of the state corrections department sought a court order to allow officials to force-feed inmates, where the practice led to a court examination of prison conditions and a legal ban on force-feeding. However, force feeding still goes on in several state penal systems. If you want to thoroughly normalize inhumane practices in the US just use the penal system as a test-market for what is generally accepted elsewhere as atrocity.
Black Americans were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana posession in 2010, even though the two groups smoke weed at similar rates, according to new federal data. The American Civil Liberties Union cites the Edward Bryne Justice Assistantship Grant Program as one possible reason for the disparity. The program incentivizes increasing drug arrest numbers by tying the statistics to funding. Law enforcement then concentrates on low-income neighborhoods to keep those numbers up.
The argument resonantes with criticism of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” program, which overwhelmingly targets young, black or latino men in the city (and, indeed, demonstrates a racial disparity in arrests for marijuana possession). But as the ACLU and the Times show, the problem of racial bias in arrests for possessing a drug that is, after all, gaining acceptance across the U.S., is a national one. the ACLU found a bias in “virtually every county in the country,” they told the Times, regardless of the proportional population of minorities in that county.
Back in 2010 the NAACP called the racial discrepency in weed arrests a “civil rights issue.” One year later, to mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. War on Drugs, author Michelle Alexander told a crowd of 1,000 at Harlem’s Riverside Church back in 2011, “The enemy in this war has been racially defined. The drug war, not by accident, has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.”
To see just how that war has played out in communities of color, check out our infographic [at the link].
And in other news water is very wet and fire is still extremely hot.
Statistics like this are the reason why I would like to see marijuana legalized. I don’t give a shit about the white hipsters who wanna smoke a blunt with their friends while listening to Bob Marley and retwisting their “dreads.” I don’t give a shit about the white college students who get pissed and cry to mommy and daddy when they get a ticket for possession.
What I do care about are the PoC who are stopped, searched, and abused by police who think they have drugs on them. I care about the parents ripped from their families to serve mandatory sentences in prison because of a three strikes law. I care about the fact that in Iowa, Black people are eight times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana-related charge than white people.
If your “legalize it” campaign revolves around making sure white people can get high whenever and wherever they want, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your actions.
Of course, the unfortunate thing is that the US government is ‘actively stockpiling weapons to use against its own people’ (no one cares about it using them against other people). You don’t end up with 2.3 million Americans in prison cells by asking them nicely. You force them in at the point of a gun. The FBI alone gets over $8 billion a year to do this. Federal prisons get over $8 billion to keep them there. Is that the same as the sort of political repression that goes on in Syria or Iran? No, it’s different. The people getting shot in the streets by security forces are usually Black or Latino. And no one has anywhere near the size prison population that America does.
Charles Davis, Stockpiling inmates
… The economic-social nexus at work in for-profit prisons is a microcosm of the imperial tendencies of the capitalist West. Its parts are the integration of state and private functions where presumed social legitimacy derives from the state function (right to imprison) and the structure (private prisons) derives its economic legitimacy from capitalist ‘efficiency.’ The broader context is political-economic relations as they have developed historically with the result of a social taxonomy (race, class) with embedded place in the existing social hierarchy. The explicit relation of domination and control affected by prisons to the systemic theft of labor of slavery finds its contemporary expression in for-profit prison labor with the ‘innovation’ of technocratic cost containment through deprivation that provides the ‘added’ profit motive. Quite explicitly here one person’s table is full because another’s has been emptied.
The strategies used to legitimate this system are fundamentally political—social taxonomy is history embedded in current relations. Statisticians call ‘crime’ statistics resulting from racist laws and policing ‘selection bias’ because the premise—the social artifact of ‘crime,’ is predetermined to derive from subsets of the population and the strategies of crime suppression ‘prove’ the predetermination by overwhelmingly targeting these subsets. The result that few ‘white collar’ criminals are in prison is a function of rich whites writing the laws and the police practice of partitioning the types of ‘crime’ they target and enforce to exclude rich whites. This tendency has multiplied with the ascension of finance capitalism with the predictable consequence economic ‘freedom’ is the freedom of the financier class to imprison historic and new under-classes under the veil of ‘efficiently’ providing a state function at a profit. The innovation is the mode of exploitation, not its purpose.
Of relevance here is the history embedded in social classes, the fact of these classes, and the social divisions produced by economic exploitation. The history of race in America, with its extended accoutrement of theoretical apologetics, provides the illusion of binary taxonomy, a convenient ‘other’ to be conquered with ‘divide and conquer’ imperial strategies. Blacks, and increasingly browns, have historically been excluded from political and economic participation to the extent their economic production has been stolen from them and put forward as the product of those who did the stealing. To the extent economic power buys political power, stolen slave labor is reified across history as a tool of economic domination.
The suggestion slavery is an existing mode of economic production in the U.S. in 2013 is twenty steps beyond outrageous to most Americans because the formal institution was ‘abolished’ one hundred and fifty years ago. I leave it to readers to decide the semantic matter yourselves with reference to the work of scholars Michelle Alexander and Kahlil Gibran Muhammad. The points of current relevance are slavery was a (radically egregious) mode of political economy premised on domination and control to expropriate labor from its producers; this stolen labor was put forward as the product of the people and institutions that stole it; and it bought exponentially greater social power for them as it aggregated and time abstracted it from its source.
The ‘innovation’ learnt from the ‘end’ of slavery was [that] degrees of the same political-economic outcomes can be produced without it. The remnants of social catastrophe left behind by incarnations of European and American imperialism and related ‘world’ wars provided the ‘natural’ states of existence conducive to labor ‘freely’ choosing to work for multi-national corporations for subsistence wages. The unstated fact of history is people by degree ‘got by’ for millennia with no help from, or need for, the institutions Western capitalists today put forward as indispensable. Where history didn’t suffice ‘free-trade’ agreements supported by conspicuously imperialist economic theory produced the local misery necessary for Western capitalism to ‘come to the rescue.’ [continue]
Understanding the near impossibility to prove otherwise, I’ve no reason to doubt the authenticity of this letter. I decided to cut/paste the letter in its entirety. It is an amazing and sad read from John Kiriakou. The hand-written note can be found here.
Greetings from the Federal Correctional Institute at Loretto, Pennsylvania. I arrived here on February 28, 2013 to serve a 30-month sentence for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection act of 1982. At least that’s what the government wants people to believe. In truth, this is my punishment for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program and for telling the public that torture was official U.S. government policy. But that’s a different story. The purpose of this letter is to tell you about prison life.
At my formal sentencing hearing in January, the judge, the prosecutors, and my attorneys all agreed that I would serve my sentence in Loretto’s Federal Work Camp. When I arrived, however, much to my surprise, the Corrections Office (CO, or “hack”) who processed me said that the Bureau of Prisons had deemed me a “threat to the public safety,” and so I would serve the entire sentence in the actual prison, rather than the camp.
Processing took about an hour and included fingerprinting, a mug shot (my third after FBI and the Marshals), and fourth DNA sample, and a quite comprehensive strip search. I was given a pair of baggy brown pants, two brown shirts, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and a pair of cheap sandals. My own clothes were boxed and mailed to my wife. The CO then led me to a steel bunk in “Central Unit” and walked away. I didn’t know what to do, so I took a nap.
My cell is more like a cubicle made out of concrete block. Built to hold four men, mine holds six. Most others hold eight. My cellmates include two Dominicans serving 24 - and 20 - year sentences for drugs, a Mexican serving 15 years for drugs, and a Puerto Rican serving 7 1/2 years for drug conspiracy, and the former auditor of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, who’s doing a long sentence for corruption. They’re all decent guys and we actually enjoy each other’s company.
The prison population is much like you might expect. Loretto has 1,369 prisoners (I never call myself an “inmate.” I’m a prisoner.)
About 50% are black, 30% are Hispanic, and 20% are white. Of the white prisoners, most are pedophiles with personal stories that would make you sick to your stomach. The rest of the white prisoners are here for drugs, except for a dozen or so who ran Ponzi schemes. Of the 1,369 prisoners, 40 have college degrees and 6 of us have master’s degrees. The GED program is robust. (But when I volunteered to teach a class my “counsellor” shouted, “Dammit, Kiriakou! If I wanted you to teach a fucking class, I’d ask you to teach a fucking class!”) I’m a janitor in the chapel. I make $5.25 a month.
The cafeteria, or “chow hall” was the most difficult experience of my first few days. Where should I sit? On my first day, two Aryans, completely covered in tatoos(sic), walked up to me and asked, “Are you a pedophile?” Nope, I said. “Are you a fag?” Nope. “Do you have good paper?” I didn’t know what this meant. It turned out that I had to get a copy of my formal sentencing documents to prove that I wasn’t a child molester. I did that, and was welcomed by the Aryans, who aren’t really Aryans, but more accurately self-important hillbillies.
The cafeteria is very formally divided. There is a table for the whites with good paper, a section of a table for the Native Americans, a section of a table for people belonging to a certain Italia-American stereotypical “subculture”, two tables for the Muslims, four tables for the pedophiles, and all the remaining tables for the blacks and Hispanics. We don’t all eat at the same time, but each table is more-or-less reserved as I described.
Violence hasn’t been much of a problem since I arrived. There have been maybe a half-dozen fights, almost always over what television show to watch. The choices are pretty much set in stone between ESPN, MTV, VHW, BET, and Univision. I haven’t watched TV since I got here. It’s just not worth the trouble. Otherwise, violence isn’t a problem. Most of the guys in here have worked their way down to a low-security prison from a medium or a maximum, and they don’t want to go back.
I’ve also had some luck in this regard. My reputation preceded me, and a rumor got started that I was a CIA hitman. The Aryans whispered that I was a “Muslim hunger,” but the Muslims, on the strength of my Arabic language skills and a well-timed statement of support from Louis Farrakhan have lauded me as a champion of Muslim human rights. Meanwhile, the Italians have taken a liking to me because I’m patriotic, as they are, and I have a visceral dislike of the FBI, which they do as well. I have good relations with the blacks because I’ve helped several of them write communication appeals or letters to judges and I don’t charge anything for it. And the Hispanics respect me because my cellmates, who represent a myriad of Latin drug gangs, have told them to. So far, so good.
The only thing close to a problem that I’ve had has been from the COs. When I first arrived, after about four days, I heard an announcement that I was told to dread: “Kiriakou - report to the lieutenant’s office immediately.” Very quickly, I gave my wife’s phone number to a friend and asked him to call her if, for some reason, I was sent to the SHU (Special Housing Unit) more commonly known as the hole, or solitary confinement. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but this kind of thing happens all the time.
When I got to the lieutenant’s office, I was ushered into the office of SIS, the Special Investigative Service. This is the prison version of every police department’s detective bureau. I saw on a desk a copy of my book, The Reluctant Spy, as well as DVD copies of all the documentaries I’ve been in. The CO showed me a picture of an Arab. “Do you know this guy,” he asked me. I responded that I had met him a day earlier, but our conversation was limited to “nice to meet you.” Well, the CO said, this was the uncle of the Times Square bomber, and after we had met, he called a number in Pakistan, reported the meeting, and was told to kill me. I told the CO that I could kill the guy with my thumb. He’s about 5’4” and 125 pounds compared to my 6’1” and 250 pounds. The CO said they were looking to ship him out, so I should stay away from him. But the more I thought about it, the more this made no sense. Why would the uncle of the Times Square bomber be in a low-security prison? He should be in a maximum. So I asked my Muslim friends to check him out. It turns out that he’s an Iraqi Kurd from Buffalo, NY. He was the imam of a mosque there, which also happened to be the mosque where the “Lackawana 7” worshipped. (The Lackawana 7 were charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism.) The FBI pressured him to testify against his parishioners. He refused and got five years for obstruction of justice. The ACLU and several religious freedom groups have rallied to his defense. He had nothing to do with terrorism.
In the meantime, SIS told him that I had made a call to Washington after we met, and that I had been instructed to kill him! We both laughed at the ham-handedness by which SIS tried to get us to attack each other. If we had, we sould have spent the rest of our sentences in the SHU - solitary. Instead, we’re friendly, we exchange greetings in Arabic and English, and we chat.
The only other problem I’ve had with the COs was about two weeks after I arrived. I get a great deal of mail here in prison (and I answer every letter I get.) Monday through Friday, prisoners gather in front of the unit CO’s office for mail call. One female CO butchers my name every time she says it. So when she does mail call, I hear “kirkakow, Kiriloo, Teriyaki” and a million other variations. One day after a mail call I passed her in the hall. She stopped me and said, “Are you the motherfucker whose name I can’t pronounce?” I responded, “Ki-ri-AH-koo.” She said, “how about if I just call you Fuckface?” I just walked away and a friend I was walking with said, “Classy.” I said to him, “White trash is more like it.” An hour later, four COs descended on both of our cells, trashing all of our worldly possessions in my first “Shake-down.” Lesson learned: COs can treat us like subhumans but we have to show them faux respect even when it’s not earned.
I’ll write about COs more next time. If you’d like to drop me a line, I can be reached at : John Kiriakou 79637-083, P.O Box 1000, FCI Loretto, Loretto, PA 15940.
Best regards from Loretto,
June 1st will mark the beginning of Bradley Manning’s fourth year in prison. Two days later his trial will begin, a trial which could sadly result in his imprisonment for a life sentence. June 1st also begins an international week of support and solidarity, aimed at thanking Bradley Manning.
Thanking Bradley Manning
By the time Casey Myers died at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s McConnell Unit, south of San Antonio, he’d already spent the majority of his life locked up. Ordered into the then-Texas Youth Commission on a 30-year sentence when he was in the eighth grade for killing a 12-year-old boy he lived with, Myers became an adult prisoner three years later at the age of 17. … He never got out. On March 22, 2011, the 30-year-old Myers was discovered hanging in his prison cell. For the previous eight months, he had been assigned to administrative segregation, where inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cells.
Austin American-Statesman investigates suicides of prison inmates in isolation (via centerforinvestigativereporting)