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.
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.
But while some Americans get jobs, others are put away for decades. Some prisoners have been living virtually without human contact for up to 40 years. The doctors involved in their defense say such solitude has a deadening effect, Weills notes. “They become more and more isolated and detached from themselves,” she said. “They can’t fight or resist because of the domination of the guards. They lose touch with reality.” According to the Los Angeles Times, one United Nations expert said the maximum time anyone should spend in isolation is 15 days.
If the lawyers are successful, they could force significant changes nationwide, including a rejection of the policy of force-feeding prisoners, a horrifying practice that was recently depicted for all to see by The Guardian and actor and rapper Mos Def (also known as Yasiin Bey). A federal judge recently ruled prison doctors could force-feed some inmates whose health was threatened by the strike.
Audiences got another close-up look at the treatment of U.S. prisoners from Shane Bauer, one of three Americans who were imprisoned in Iran after being apprehended at the Iraqi border in 2009. Bauer spent 26 months in Tehran’s Evin Prison, four of them in solitary confinement. An article he wrote for Mother Jones last year was titled: “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”
In July Bauer told “Democracy Now!” that the California strike was not just about solitary confinement. Prisoners were also demanding the return of educational classes and a host of services that have been cut as public budgets have dried up in recent years in an example of how the United States’ incarceration problem intersects with the nation’s deliberate—on the part of lawmakers—slide into economic austerity.
Both solitary confinement and force-feeding have international enemies. The United Nations’ top expert on torture has criticized force-feeding as “not acceptable” and said solitary confinement “amounts to torture.”
Like artists, journalists and other members of the public, the prisoners who ended their hunger strike this week (or suspended, as some have said) are empowered to fight for their rights with only their voices. Lawyers like Anne Weills have the power to challenge and potentially change the policy of the state. Without professionals like her, Americans being abused by their government and the people it employs—people who may enjoy practicing institutionally sanctioned sadism on their captive fellow citizens—would have no real effective power. Representing the underprivileged is not as glamorous as protecting the interests of Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. It is difficult, often unsuccessful legal work undertaken against institutions that are intrinsically resistant to change. For entering that uncertain battlefield on behalf of America’s second-class citizens, we honor Weills and her colleagues as our Truthdiggers of the Week.
A view inside California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.