(Clyde Young, revolutionary communist and former prisoner)
In an act of tremendous courage, prisoners in the Security Housing Unit [SHU] at Pelican Bay State Prison in California are beginning an indefinite hunger strike on July 1, 2011. This hunger strike is demanding an end to the horrendous and dehumanizing conditions imposed on prisoners at Pelican Bay. People everywhere must come to their aid and support their demands.
Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is a super-maximum security prison located in an isolated part of northern California, twenty miles from the Oregon border. There are more than 3,000 prisoners confined at this prison. More than a thousand prisoners are locked down in the SHU at Pelican Bay, where they are subjected to isolation, maximum sensory deprivation, and brutality.
Imagine being confined to a tiny, bare, tomb-like, windowless cell for 23 hours a day, robbed of sensory stimulation and without contact with anyone except guards. Imagine being in a cell hardly larger than a small bathroom, containing only a toilet, a sink and a slab of metal protruding from the wall serving as a bed. Imagine guards cavity searching you and cuffing you before you can take a shower or get out of your cell for exercise in a bare concrete space. Some prisoners at Pelican Bay have been confined under these circumstances for over 20 years.
Long-term isolation can and does have a devastating effect and is nothing less than mental abuse. Many prisoners are driven insane as a result of long-term isolation, and it is especially cruel when prisoners who are already suffering from mental illness are subjected to such confinement. In California, approximately 5 % of the total prison population is locked down in isolation–but 70% of prisoner suicides occurred in these units in 2005. Tens of thousands of prisoners are confined to isolation units throughout the country. Isolation over long periods of time and sensory deprivation violate international anti-torture laws.
The following core demands are being circulated in a “final notice from prisoners on D-Corridor at Pelican Bay: 1) End “group punishment” where an individual prisoner breaks a rule and prison officials punish a whole group of prisoners of the same race. 2) Abolish “debriefing” and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. False and/or highly questionable “evidence” is used to accuse prisoners of being active/inactive members of prison gangs who are then sent to the SHU [Security Housing Unit] where they are subjected to long-term isolation and torturous conditions. One of the only ways these prisoners can get out the SHU is if they “debrief”–that is, give prison officials information on gang activity. 3) Comply with recommendations from a 2006 US commission to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” 4) Provide Adequate Food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food. They want adequate food, wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals and an end to the use of food as a way to punish prisoners in the SHU. 5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates–including the opportunity to “engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” which are routinely denied. Demands include one phone call per week, more visiting time, permission to have wall calendars, sweat suits and watch caps (warm clothing is often denied event though cells and the exercise cage can be bitterly cold.
The prisoners who have called for this strike have made clear that they are uniting across racial lines, an extremely important development, given racial divisions in prison, which are often exploited and promoted by prison officials. And they have called on prisoners throughout the California prison system, including prisoners who are “suffering injustices in general population, administrative segregation and solitary confinement,” to join them in the strike.
The inhumane and dehumanizing treatment of prisoners in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison are totally unacceptable and the prisoners there are showing a lot of courage and determination in standing up and demanding to be treated like human beings. Their example of standing up in this way has the potential to inspire millions.
They are risking their health and their lives in going on an indefinite hunger strike. They are raising demands that are entirely just and legitimate. This is a serious situation.
Prison authorities will go to extremes to stop a struggle like this one from developing and from drawing support from those outside the prison walls. The prisoners are shining a spotlight on the horrific and unacceptable conditions existing inside the corridors of Pelican Bay State Prison; they must not be allowed to stand alone. People throughout the state of California and beyond must urgently come to their aid and support, standing firmly in support of the hunger strike and supporting the just demands of the prisoners. The system has cast aside masses in the inner cities all across this country; the system has demonized and criminalized and incarcerated hundreds of thousands and millions of them and they have no role for them under this rotten and putrid system. But I’ll tell you one thing: there is a place for them and there is a role for them in the revolution; large numbers of them can and will be brought forward, together with people of all nationalities and from all strata, as emancipators of humanity and will join the monumental struggle to change the face of the entire world.
Clyde Young served time in juvenile facilities as a teenager. His transformation from a life of crime to a revolutionary communist, while serving a 20-year prison sentence for armed robbery, is chronicled in an interview in The Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology by Gang Members & Their Affiliates, Edited by Louis Reyes Rivera and Bruce George, with a Foreword from Jim Brown (Soft Skull Press, 2008).