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Truthdiggers of the Week: Lawyers Representing California Hunger Strikers

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Posted on Sep 8, 2013
AP/Rich Pedroncelli

A view inside California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.

Hunger-striking inmates seeking an end to California’s use of solitary confinement concluded their two-month protest Thursday, three days after state lawmakers pledged to hold legislative hearings on conditions in the state’s maximum security prisons. Corrections department officials also agreed to meet with strike leaders to discuss their demands, something they previously had refused to do.

These responses fell far short of an end to long-term isolation, but news that their struggle would receive serious consideration by public officials was treated as a victory by the protest’s organizers, who are being held in isolation units known as SHUs (security housing units) at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border.

Roughly 1,000 prisoners are held in SHUs in Pelican Bay. These tiny cement cells no bigger than an average bathroom are painted a painfully bright lacquer white, and afford no privacy to their occupants. Inmates are often kept in these cells for 24 hours a day and only occasionally released to walk around small enclosures known as “dog runs” whose 18-foot-tall walls restrict views of the outside. Prisoners describe their quarters as tombs and say the food is worse than that served to the general prison population.

There have been three hunger strikes among Californian prisoners since 2011. At the peak of the latest strike in July, 30,000 inmates across two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons were refusing meals. Officials said the number dwindled to about 100 inmates this week, with many of the protesters practically withered before they agreed to resume eating. The Los Angeles Times reported that by this week, roughly 10 prisoners were collapsing or requiring medical care daily. On Thursday, prison medical staff sought to move four exceptionally frail inmates to the medical ward. Officials said the strikers refused to go.

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The outcome of the strike is owed not just to the dedication of the strikers. It is also a testament to the commitment of the prisoners’ legal defenders. Featured in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the strike’s end was civil rights attorney Anne Weills. Weills, who spent decades organizing unions and defending working women and minorities employed in California’s university system, got involved with prisoner hunger strikes in 2011. Visiting inmates sometimes twice a week, Weills was one of their only conduits to the outside world. In addition to helping secure a hearing with state legislators, Weills supports small gains for the prisoners, such as persuading officials to give them drinking cups and typewriters.

“It may seem small, but ... it does have a little impact in the quality of their lives,” the Los Angeles Times quoted Weills as saying.

Weills and her colleagues (including Jules Lobel)—some of whom come from the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City and the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges—are pursuing a number of changes to prison policy through a federal lawsuit. They say solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution outlawing cruel and unusual punishment, that these men are isolated for no good reason through a biased process that gives its subjects no real opportunity for appeal. Until solitary confinement is stopped, they want an end to the only way prisoners can hasten their escape from it. That process, known as debriefing, involves snitching on anyone and everyone the isolated inmates have ever known, inside prison and out, and it creates an incentive to concoct claims that get other people thrown into the SHU. “Debriefing” can threaten prisoners’ lives if they get a reputation as a snitch, but the alternative is as good as death, many inmates say. One mantra among those in the SHU is “debrief or die.”

Weills’ legal team and her colleagues are up against California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state’s prison guards union. Brown is notorious for following the same quick route to political success as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani: being tough on crime. The prison guards union, which is one of the state’s most powerful lobbies, gave Brown $2 million for his last election. In return, he has fought against a program aimed at reintroducing those who have been jailed back into society, which would result in fewer jobs for prison guards. Furthermore the budget for prisons in California runs at $11 billion annually. The fight over incarceration is more about jobs than safety and public protection, Weills says.

Prison guards aren’t the kindest lot either. Many of them are aggressive and quick to hurl racist epithets, humiliating inmates, Weills explains. The wounds on the men’s wrists, where they are handcuffed and chained, suggest a sadistic slant. The institutional gang investigators, who run the SHUs, act as if everyone’s a gangster, she says. And this belief is profitable. These guards sometimes get paid $10,000 to $20,000 more than regular prison guards, Weills points out. And Gov. Brown is eager to help them keep their jobs.


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