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July 29, 2015

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Committed Murder

Sep 25, 2011
Daily Beast/Newsweek
By Michael Daly

For the anonymous executioners of death row, the ‘high’ of pulling the lever is often followed by a lifetime of doubt.

Only a fellow executioner like 59-year-old Jerry Givens would know how crushingly hard it will continue to be for those who put Troy Davis to death last week even as he continued to insist on his innocence.

“The executioner is the one that suffers,” Givens says on the day after Davis’s execution in Georgia. “The person that carries out the execution itself is stuck with it the rest of his life. He has to wear that burden. Who would want that on them?”

During the 17 years that Givens worked as an executioner in Virginia, he put 62 men to death. And each time, he felt what he calls “the executioner high,” an adrenalized state that always imparted a merciful unreality as he sat behind a curtain and pulled the lever, releasing a fatal cocktail of three drugs that seemed to him less humane than the electricity he previously unleashed by pulling a switch. The chemicals of lethal injection always took eternal minutes longer than the deadly jolt from the electric chair.

“I had to transform myself into a person who would take a life,” Givens says. “That transformation might linger for a while. You might be on that for three weeks.”

He figures this same high visited the executioners in Georgia who dispatched Davis last week, in accordance with the state’s Administrative and Execution Procedures, Lethal Injection, Under Death Sentence. “I guess those people last night were on that emotional executioner high.” He says the high is all the more intense with cases that receive public attention, such as when he dispatched the Briley brothers in Virginia in the mid-1980s after their seven-month spree of rape and at least 11 murders.

But once the protective high wears off, the executioner is left with the reality that he has taken a life. And in the case of condemned prisoners like Davis, who maintain their innocence to the very end, there is always that lingering doubt. The only certainty is that the penalty is irrevocable.

“You take an innocent life—that means I committed murder,” Givens says.

If Troy Davis wasn’t in fact innocent, there is a near certainty that some prisoners presently on death row are. A recent tabulation by the Death Penalty Information Center showed that 138 prisoners were exonerated after being sentenced to death between 1973 and 2010. That included five in Georgia, the state that remained determined to put Davis to death despite the numerous reasonable doubts regarding his guilt and the momentous public outrage joined by such varied public figures as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

While the prosecutors, jurors, and judge all had their say in putting a prisoner on death row, the task of actually carrying out the sentence falls to an executioner with no idea of what was said and done at trial. “You don’t know,” Givens says. “You don’t take part in the trial. You weren’t there to witness it.” And even cases of undisputed guilt can continue to haunt executioners to the end of their days. In all 62 of Givens’s cases in Virginia, the official paperwork bore a word that has stayed with him. “When you look at the death certificate it says, ‘HOMICIDE,’” he notes. “How can it leave you?”

His career as an executioner ended 11 years ago, when he was convicted on charges of perjury and money laundering unrelated to his work—going to prison himself for four years, swearing he was innocent. Givens is now a truckdriver, but the residual horror of his time as an executioner flashed back to him as he followed from afar the news reports of the Davis case. “Whenever they have an execution, I get back to when I used to do them. It’s human nature.”

Also in human nature is a cumulative revulsion to taking life even when it is legally sanctioned. Those who finally have been driven to campaign against the death penalty include not just executioners like Givens, but a number of wardens who found it unbearable even to give the order that the executioners carry out. A longtime warden of San Quentin prison in California began to choke up when asked about four executions over which she presided, particularly the execution of Manuel Babbitt, a decorated Vietnam vet who killed a 78-year-old woman in a burglary. Babbitt’s brother had turned him in after false assurances that the state would not seek the death penalty. “The brother had to come that night and watch him be executed,” Jeanne Woodford, the former warden, recalls.

The 58-year-old lifelong corrections official says that presiding over executions actually becomes more difficult over time. “You have to appear normal,” she says. “You have to appear in control ... You try to tell yourself and your staff that this is the law.”

Her career of nearly four decades culminated with her 2004 appointment as the director of all of California’s prisons, but soon afterward, she resigned.

“I knew I couldn’t carry out another execution,” she says. “I knew I just couldn’t do it.”

She says that, from the start, “it never made sense to me that we would believe killing a human being would make up for killing a human being.”

Woodford has concluded that capital punishment also makes no fiscal sense. She figures that her state spent $4 billion to execute 13 inmates between 1992 and 2006—money that would have been much better spent on fielding more cops. She notes that nearly half of California’s murders go unsolved. “If this is really about public safety, then the better option is to keep police on the streets,” she says.

Woodford further suggests that the ultimate sanction is unacceptably arbitrary in its application. She has joined other former wardens, along with at least one executioner, in a national effort to save others from the experiences that perpetually haunt them.

“The death penalty shouldn’t exist at all,” she says.

In the meantime, executioners in 36 states will continue with the ritual that begins with swabbing the condemned’s arm with alcohol, a ghoulish precaution against infection from the needle that will momentarily deliver death.

One recent addition to the protocol in Georgia is the “consciousness check,” instituted this year after two of the condemned were apparently administered insufficient doses of an anesthetic that precedes the two chemicals that do the actual killing. Because of the insufficient doses, the two are believed to have suffered the horror of being suffocated by the paralyzing pancuronium bromide, and then the agony of being burned from within by the potassium chloride. A shortage of the anesthetic sodium thiopental had forced Georgia officials to purchase a batch from an English firm called Dream Pharma that operates out of a storefront driving school in London.

Besides adopting a new anesthetic, phenobarbital, Georgia adopted the new check, which involves tapping the condemned’s eye and nudging his arm after the administration of the first drug, to ensure he is unconscious before the remaining two are delivered.

That was the procedure followed in the Davis execution, by a team contracted by the state through a company called Rainbow Medical Associates. Rainbow is headlined by Dr. Carlo Musso, who presents himself as a professional descendant of Dr. Guillotin, arguing that he is only trying to spare the condemned prisoner unnecessary suffering.

If Musso is untroubled by his work, he is undoubtedly an exception. The others may still be finding protection in that “executioner high” that Givens describes, and they will likely experience it again on Oct. 5, when Georgia is scheduled to execute Marcus Ray Johnson for killing a woman in 1994.

When that high wears off and reality sets in, the consciousness check will be followed by a conscience check. And, if Givens is right, the executioners will then be the ones who suffer.

Givens finds refuge from his ghosts in religion, coping more successfully than some executioners of earlier days. Two of New York’s executioners committed suicide: Dow Hover by carbon monoxide in 1990 and John Hulbert with a gun in 1929 after saying, “I got tired of killing people.”

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/09/25/i-committed-murder.html

I Ordered Death in Georgia: The state's former D.O.C. commissioner on 'rehearsed murder.'

From: The Daily Beast/Newsweek

I Ordered Death in Georgia
Sep 25, 2011
By Alan Ault
The state's former D.O.C. commissioner on 'rehearsed murder.'

I can’t always remember their names, but in my nightmares I can see their faces. As the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections from 1992 until 1995, I oversaw five executions. The first two were Thomas Dean Stevens and Christopher Burger, accomplices in a monstrous crime: as teenagers in 1977, they robbed and raped a cabdriver, put him in the trunk of a car, and pushed the vehicle into a pond. I had no doubt that they were guilty: they admitted it to me. But now it was 1993 and they were in their 30s. All these years later, after a little frontal-lobe development, they were entirely different people.

On execution days, I always drove from Atlanta to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. I knew death row well: 20 years earlier, I had built it. The state had hired me as the warden of Georgia Diagnostic in 1971, where I renovated a special cell block for especially violent offenders. After I left Georgia in 1977, the state reinstated the death penalty and turned the cell block I had developed into death row.

The state executed Stevens first, in June 1993, and then Burger in December. In both instances, I visited them in a cell next to the electric-chair chamber, where they counted down the hours until they died. They were calm, mature, and remorseful. When the time came, I went to a small room directly behind the death chamber where the attorney general worked the phones, checking with the courts to make sure that the executions were not stayed. Then we asked the prisoners for their final words. Stevens said nothing, and Burger apologized, saying, “Please forgive me.” I looked to the prison electrician and ordered him to pull the switch. Last Wednesday, as the state of Georgia prepared to execute Troy Davis despite concerns about his guilt, I wrote a letter with five former death-row wardens and directors urging Georgia prison officials to commute his sentence. I feared not only the risk of Georgia killing an innocent man, but also the psychological toll it would exact on the prison workers who performed his execution. “No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt,” we wrote in our letter.

The men and women who assist in executions are not psychopaths or sadists. They do their best to perform the impossible and inhumane job with which the state has charged them. Those of us who have participated in executions often suffer something very much like post traumatic stress. Many turn to alcohol and drugs. For me, those nights that weren’t sleepless were plagued by nightmares. My mother and wife worried about me. I tried not to share with them that I was struggling, but they knew I was.

I didn’t grow up saying, “I want to work in prisons.” I had never even been in a prison or a jail before I became warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. The commissioner at the time hired me to revamp the system, to implement case management, and work with inmates to make them safer. I had always worked in helping professions, and my main goal in corrections was always to reduce recidivism, so that inmates would leave prison better than they arrived. Over this course of time, the death penalty figured larger and larger into my work. I never supported it, but I also did not want to let it distract me from improving overall prison conditions. Death-row inmates are, after all, only a tiny fraction of the prison population.

When I was required to supervise an execution, I tried to rationalize my work by thinking, if I just save one future victim, maybe it is worth it. But I was very aware of the research showing that the death penalty wasn’t a deterrent. I left my job as corrections commissioner in Georgia in 1995 partially because I had had enough: I didn’t want to supervise the executions anymore. My focus changed to national crime policy and then to academia, where I could work to improve the criminal-justice system without participating in its worst parts. Today, I am the dean of the College of Justice & Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/09/25/ordering-death-in-georgia-prisons.html

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hunger strike recap: California prisoners show the way!

In: SF Bay View
September 14, 2011

by K. Kersplebedeb

[image: Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s hearing in Sacramento Aug. 23 and all the efforts being made in solidarity with the hunger strikers are cutting through the chains and locks that prevent the public from knowing the truth about the Pelican Bay SHU. This “censored pelican” was drawn by Pete Collins, who is imprisoned at Bath Prison, Ontario, Canada.]

This spring, the news started going around that a hunger strike was being planned in the Security Housing Unit at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP). Prisoners at the SHU had apparently united across racial lines and promised to hungerstrike to the death if need be, starting on July 1.

Initially most of the attention paid to the planned strike came from a small collection of organizations, mostly based in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a clear mandate to support prisoners’ struggles and resist the prison-industrial complex. While much of the left ignores prison issues or considers them at best a peripheral symptom of more fundamental social dysfunction, these groups recognized the potential importance of prisoner-led resistance in Pelican Bay’s SHU, California’s flagship torture unit.

Isolation torture in the USA

Pelican Bay was built in 1989, on the remote northern edge of California, in the economically depressed town of Crescent City. One section of the new prison was designated the “Security Housing Unit” (SHU) – essentially a control unit, in which people are condemned to conditions of solitary confinement. The Pelican Bay SHU was just one of many such facilities built around this time, an indirect consequence of the United States’ ongoing mass incarceration policies.

As eloquently described by Michelle Alexander in her recent book “The New Jim Crow,” mass incarceration began as a ruling class response to the Black Liberation Movement in the 1960s, the result of the so-called “war on drugs,” crafted so as to replicate many of the effects of segregation but without the embarrassing bigoted rhetoric. Forty years later, the result is over two and a half million people in U.S. prisons, a majority of them people of color.

Units like the Pelican Bay SHU were partly a result of the “law and order” ideology that accompanied and supported mass incarceration; partly they were intended to neutralize any resistance from those who were now slated to spend their lives behind bars. As Manuel La Fontaine of All of Us or None and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition has explained, “The minute one becomes politically engaged inside, and you begin to challenge the conditions of confinement or begin to organize others to look beyond themselves and to focus on the things that led to their incarceration, such as social, political and economic oppression here in America and throughout the world, is the minute you’re deemed a candidate for the SHU.”1

People have spent years – in some cases decades – buried alive in the Pelican Bay SHU and similar facilities. Cells have no windows, just fluorescent lights which are never turned off. Prisoners spend 22-23 hours a day thus confined; when they are allowed out, it is to be brought – alone – to what is euphemistically called an “exercise yard” – in fact, just a larger enclosed space with grating instead of a roof. Prisoners are fed substandard food, they are punished collectively for issues involving individuals, and their indefinite SHU sentences only end if they agree to “debrief,” that is to say, to snitch.

Violence from guards is commonplace, as detailed by Keramet Reiter:

“In Madrid v. Gomez, a federal court case evaluating the constitutionality of the conditions at Pelican Bay, Judge Thelton Henderson recorded myriad staff abuses of prisoners at the institution. The most memorable: Vaughn Dortch, a mentally ill African-American prisoner, whom guards forced to take a ‘bath’ in near-boiling water. One guard said, as he was holding Dortch down in the water: ‘Looks like we’re going to have a white boy before this is through.’ Dortch sustained third-degree burns over half of his body; guards waited more than an hour after the conclusion of the bath before taking Dortch to a hospital for burn treatment. Judge Henderson ordered numerous reforms to the policies and practices at the institution, including better staff training and diversion of mentally ill prisoners from the SHU. However, Judge Henderson stopped short of declaring the physical structure of long-term solitary confinement unconstitutional.”2

The main excuse used to send prisoners to the SHU is “gang ties,” and yet a majority have never been convicted of any such thing. Being “validated” as a gang member is an administrative decision, with no real possibility of appeal, even though the result can be years or even decades of solitary confinement.

To give just one example: in the 2009 court ruling Lira vs. Cate, it was found that former prisoner Ernesto Lira had spent years in the SHU because of a sketch he had allegedly drawn, an anonymous tip, and a report from a prison guard that was mis-transcribed. The court found that as a result of his time in the SHU, Lira now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression, and that throughout his incarceration, despite his objections that he was not a gang member, he was never provided with any meaningful review of his “validation.” Lira’s case is far from being exceptional; sadly, it is typical of those who end up in America’s supermaxes.3

Long-term isolation has been described as “clean torture,” for it is designed to inflict grave psychological and even physical harm, but without leaving any visible wounds. As Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz has noted, “There is not a single published study of solitary or supermax-like confinement in which nonvoluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days, where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will, that failed to result in negative psychological effects. The damaging effects ranged in severity and included such clinically significant symptoms as hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic depression, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.”4

A family member of a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner describes conditions as follows:

“[T]he warden took calendars away in December 2010. Now they have to make calendars to keep track of which day it is. They lose touch with family as they are not allowed phone calls ever (unless they debrief), the trip by car from Southern California is about 14 hours each direction, by plane the cost to fly into Crescent City with plenty of advanced notice is $440 per person, the accommodations are $87 per night for the cheaper hotel and more for 3-4 people. The visiting is behind glass with one phone. […] They are deprived of all natural light, food, warmth – sweats and night caps are not allowed even though the prison is located on the coast in the mountains. They never turn on the heat so the concrete walls keep the cells cold as freezers. Milk will stay cold in a cell for days. The food looks like vomit, and when refused the guards will say I don’t blame you.”

The prisoners live at the mercy of their captors. For instance, as part of a labor action in the midst of California’s perennial budget crisis, guards recently denied prisoners what little comforts they normally receive, and this for months on end. As the above writer noted:

“They were locked in the cells for almost 2 months straight – no ‘yard’, no showers, no packages or books passed out. It was to say we will do nothing until we get the 3% raise. They did and 3,500 teachers were laid off but the guards did start pushing a button for showers … yes a button.”

In these conditions, kept isolated from one another and tortured for years on end, some SHU prisoners managed to get word out about their strike. The organizers were all from D Corridor – known as the “short corridor,” this is where prisoners are subjected to the most restrictive conditions – and they became known as the Short Corridor Collective. They reached out to other prisoners, and there was talk that dozens would go on strike, perhaps as many as a hundred.

Their demands were detailed in a Formal Complaint, and summarized as follows:

1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.

2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs, using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.

3. Comply with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in administrative segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than 30 years.

4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.

5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities.” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are one phone call per week and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold. All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other supermax prisons in the federal prison system and other states.

The Short Corridor Collective requested people on the outside organize to amplify their voices and coordinate communication through the walls. In response to this call, a Prisoner Hunger Strike Support Coalition was set up in San Francisco, including a number of the key organizations working to support prisoners in California: All of Us or None, California Prison Focus, Critical Resistance, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the Prison Activist Resource Center, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the American Friends Service Committee, BarNone Arcata and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. A media team was established to make sure the prisoners’ voices would be heard in the public arena. Similarly, a mediation team was set up, with a mandate to support the prisoners in their dealings with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) once the strike began.

The strike

On July 1, news started coming in from throughout California that there were people in many prisons, not just Pelican Bay, refusing food. From PBSP itself, word arrived that not only was almost everyone in the SHU participating, but that those in general population were also on board. It suddenly looked like the strike might have mobilized not hundreds but thousands – an order of magnitude greater than anyone had dreamed.

Indeed, although CDCR claimed at the time that fewer than two dozen were on strike,5 within a few days it admitted that in fact over 6,000 prisoners had joined in refusing meals on July 1. At least 13 of California’s 33 prisons were affected. Some strikers were accepting liquid food, some were eating food from the canteen, but many were refusing any and all sustenance.

The Short Corridor Collective had called on other prisoners to strike in solidarity for as long as they felt comfortable, even if they were not willing to go to the death, and that is clearly what was happening, involving numbers that no one had anticipated. The thousands of striking prisoners were joined by individuals on the outside who also began fasting to support their demands. During the first week, solidarity demonstrations were held in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle and Montreal. Press coverage in this first period was mainly limited to California mainstream media, and various progressive blogs and news websites.

By definition, hunger strikes are difficult on those who engage in them. Humane medical care is to be hoped for, but often prison doctors and nurses work not to protect the strikers’ health, but to help the administration break the protest. This is what happened in some California prisons; there were numerous reports in the first week of strikers simply not being monitored and of doctors refusing them their prescription meds. While clearly punitive, CDCR framed this as the system being overwhelmed by the scope of the strike and wary of the dangers of prescribing medication meant to be taken with food.

This medical neglect prompted 40 healthcare providers from across North America to quickly sign an open letter expressing their “grave concern.” As they noted, “If it is true that CDCR medical staff are refusing prisoners their medications, either as punishment for being in the SHU or else as punishment for being on hunger strike, this is not only unethical, but also illegal under California Penal Code Section 673. This would be an act of deliberate indifference to a patient’s serious medical needs, and as such would constitute a violation of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment Constitutional rights.” The healthcare professionals called upon CDCR “to ensure that no prisoner on hunger strike be disciplined or threatened with the denial of medical care” and demanded that “all medical professionals uphold their code of ethics and maintain the highest standards of care for all their patients – be they incarcerated or not.”6

[image: This is the D corridor, where many of the hunger strikers live – if you can call it living – in the Pelican Bay SHU. One of the strike’s achievements was opening the SHU to the press. The California Department of Corrections hosted a few major media reporters Aug. 17 in a rare tour of the SHU, but they were denied access to this corridor. – Photo: Julie Small, KPCC]

Medical neglect was just one of the ways CDCR pressured strikers to resume eating. At Pelican Bay, prisoners were given an “Information Sheet” which – under guise of informing them of their rights – was essentially meant to impress upon them that there would no negotiations, and that there was only one possible final outcome if they persisted: “Since refusing food will eventually lead to increased illness and death, you will be asked to find a suitable person to ensure your wishes are followed once you cannot express them for yourself […] It is also encouraged that you consider your decision to refuse food may be very difficult for your close family and friends.”

In some facilities, prison officials sent general population strikers into segregation – i.e. solitary – and denied them the right to visit with family members. At others, they simply resorted to lies to break the strike. For instance, at Calipatria prison, located in the hot desert on the Mexican border, guards announced on July 7 that CDCR had agreed to all five demands and that the strike was over. This worked, and everybody started eating again. Several days later word was received that this had been a trick, and many prisoners resumed their fast.

Despite these pressure tactics, two weeks into the strike, thousands were still refusing food.7 Such a show of solidarity, across “racial” lines, in prisons across California, had not been seen for generations. This alone constitutes a major achievement.

Meanwhile, on the outside, demonstrations were held in cities across California and throughout the United States. While the numbers attending were small – the largest attracted less than 200, most brought out dozens, and some less than that – these were growing, as were the numbers of family members who were joining, and becoming increasingly prominent speaking to media and facilitating communication with those on the inside.

Why the small numbers? It is an automatic reflex when evaluating any disappointing lack of activity around any issue to point to the left’s ongoing weakness; this is obviously a (or even “the”) factor, but it’s not one that will be solved tomorrow, and it doesn’t explain why other issues attract more people. It makes more sense to see the poor turnout at these protests as a consequence of the fact that there has not been a strong movement inside the prisons for many years, and that the state’s perpetual propaganda offensive keeps many people – including people from oppressed communities – wary of supporting “criminals.”

Furthermore, even those organizations that have been doing important work around prisons have a limited ability to mobilize on the streets and escalate quickly in a crisis, which is what an indefinite hunger strike represents. There is no denying the importance of building capacity, putting down roots and pursuing long-term community-oriented strategies; that said, conflicts are also decided by speed and initiative, and these are underdeveloped qualities even on the radical left.

Nobody had expected thousands to engage in this hunger strike, and many of those organizations which should have been involved from day one were taken by surprise, left trying to catch up with events – and sadly, it must be said, some simply didn’t bother. Nevertheless, as the importance of what was taking place in California became clear, many groups did begin to orient themselves accordingly.

As a sign of this, two weeks into the strike the San Francisco solidarity coalition held a mass conference call, with over 140 people representing a variety of organizations participating. It is clear that every day the strike continued, new groups and new cities were getting involved. As already mentioned, more and more family members were participating in support activities, bringing their own capacities and experiences into the mix. Had the strike lasted longer, this growth could have led to a qualitatively different level of struggle on the outside.

The prisoncrats’ response was twofold. First, they continued to insist that there would be no negotiations; in the words of Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for Receiver Kelso, who is in charge of California prison health care, “They have the right to choose to die of starvation if they wish.” Second, officials argued that the strike’s very success proved the value of the SHU and other forms of long-term isolation. According to CDCR spin doctor Terry Thornton, “This goes to show the power, influence and reach of prison gangs. Some people are doing it because they want to do it, and some are being ordered to do it.”8

Medical crisis

Not surprisingly, health issues remained a serious concern for the duration of the strike. Prisoners were being advised to take multivitamins and salt tablets – and yet these were often not available. CDCR insisted that everyone was being monitored, but there were reports that this “monitoring” consisted of someone standing at a cell door asking if the prisoner was feeling all right. Prisoners were supposed to be weighed daily, but this was sometimes done while they wore chains, sometimes not, making the entire exercise somewhat pointless.

As stated by Dr. Corey Weinstein, a private correctional medical consultant and human rights investigator with 40 years experience providing health care to California prisoners:

“Given my long history of working with California prisoners, I have grave doubts about the Department of Corrections’ ability to adequately carry out their own guidelines and protocols even during this urgent and public moment. Reports such as prisoners with very low blood sugar levels and lack of urination for 3 days should not be coming from the prison. These are men who require hospital care under prison protocols. We should ask why do they remain at the prison?”9

On July 12, supporters became particularly alarmed, as they received reports that some prisoners were suffering from severe dehydration, had lost consciousness, and/or were on the verge of renal failure. Dehydration is a major risk when on hunger strike, and it is imperative that one drink a lot of liquids when fasting. It remains unclear whether the dehydration was the result of some prisoners having escalated to a thirst strike, or if it was due to the guards having provided them with inadequate fluids. Severely weakened strikers had to be brought to the prison infirmary, where they were rehydrated intravenously.

At about this time, rumors began circulating that a prisoner had died. This turned out to be false, partly the result of people misunderstanding a strongly worded letter from Corcoran prisoners where a striker losing consciousness was described as having “gone down,” and partly par for the course in a heavy life-or-death struggle where information was always so highly restricted by the prisoncrats.

One of the reasons the state developed isolation prisons was to cut prisoners off from their communities and, amongst other things, this is intended to make solidarity work more difficult. Luckily, the support coalition was able to confirm that this rumor was false before mobilizing around the claim, which would have constituted an embarrassing public relations setback.
Negotiations and pressure tactics

In this dire situation, there was a breakthrough on Thursday, July 14, as CDCR announced that it was meeting with the hunger strikers’ representatives. The prisoncrats – who had claimed just hours earlier that they would rather see people die than negotiate – were now agreeing to discuss their demands. In and of itself, this was an unprecedented victory.

Nevertheless, the next day, the Short Corridor Collective unanimously rejected CDCR’s initial offer, a vague promise to “effect a comprehensive assessment of its existing policy and procedure.” As prisoner negotiator George Franco has explained, “Mr. Scott Kernan was very demanding and disrespectful towards us therefore, the negotiators went ‘nowhere’ we explained to our mediation team what occurred and what to do as a result of this meeting.”10

Support on the outside now accelerated. Along with weekly pickets in Oakland, there were daily protests in Los Angeles and the first demonstration in Sacramento. In Montreal, there had been weekly pickets outside the U.S. consulate from week one, and now these were joined by regular events in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities across the United States. At the same time, plans were announced for two pickets in London, England, marking the first spread of protests overseas.

By this point, close to a hundred organizations, from the ACLU to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, had come out in support of the prisoners demands. On July 17, the New York Times ran an op-ed critical of CDCR and sympathetic to the strikers,11 which was followed the next day by a positive editorial in the San Jose Mercury News12 and the day after that by an editorial in the LA Times criticizing CDCR for not allowing journalists into Pelican Bay.13

As a consequence of the prisoners’ refusal to end their strike on July 15, and keenly aware of the mounting support from the outside, CDCR attempted to buttress its position by threatening and further isolating the prisoner representatives. SHU prisoners are normally not permitted phone calls but, given the extraordinary circumstances, they had been allowed to phone the support coalition’s mediation team on the 15th to explain why they were refusing CDCR’s offer.

As a result of this initial refusal, it was made known that there would be no more such calls. Then, at 5:30 a.m. on July 18, 17 prisoners from Pelican Bay – including three members of the prisoners’ negotiating team – were transferred to Corcoran prison, apparently due to the severity of their condition and the fact that the Pelican Bay infirmary was now full beyond capacity.

That same day prison officials attempted to resume negotiations – but given that morning’s transfer to Corcoran, there were no New Afrikan prisoner negotiators left at Pelican Bay. It took another day for the warden to agree to allow another New Afrikan prisoner representative to join the negotiating team and another two days after that for Scott Kernan to return to the table.

July 20, as negotiations resumed, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate announced that he would seek a court order allowing prison officials to force-feed striking prisoners – including those who had signed advance medical directives indicating that they did not wish to receive any such life-sustaining measures.14

While California is one of three states where the courts have ruled that prisoners can in some circumstances refuse medical care, nationally judges have more often ruled in favor of force-feeding hunger striking prisoners.15

[image: Constant strip searches required of prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU are humiliating and degrading.]

In some of these cases the courts specifically differentiate between individuals choosing to starve themselves for personal reasons – depression, sickness etc. – and political hunger strikes, i.e. those in which some kind of redress was being demanded. The latter, characterized as “manipulative hunger strikes,” have been deemed “detrimental to the effective administration of the prison system,”16 and this might have provided the legal opening for Cate’s gambit.

Force-feeding is the state’s trump card when dealing with political hunger strikes. It is intensely painful, especially when the patient resists, and is often used as an excuse for physical violence from guards and other staff. Indeed, force-feeding has itself been described as a form of violence. At the same time – despite the fact that prisoners have died while being force-fed, and that the World Medical Association prohibits the practice – in the public’s eye the procedure often reduces the urgency of a strike, because people incorrectly believe that the health of a person being force-fed is no longer at risk.

What Matthew Cate was doing, essentially, was threatening a new form of torture. It remains unclear whether this was used as a pressure tactic during the day’s negotiations or if it was being prepared as a fall-back position lest negotiations continued to bear no fruit.

These were the circumstances in which CDCR renewed negotiations with the Short Corridor Collective. With hundreds of prisoners having gone almost three weeks without food, and with this new threat looming, CDCR offered to accede on a few small points right away. It was stated that this was simply meant as a tangible gesture of good faith in support of an assurance that all of the prisoners’ other issues would receive real attention, with meaningful changes being implemented over time.

In fact, the impression the negotiators were left with was that CDCR had agreed to work towards meeting all five demands. CDCR promised to send representatives back to Pelican Bay within a few weeks to provide the prisoners with a progress report in this regard.

So it was that, on July 20, the prisoners accepted CDCR’s offer, and the strike was suspended. Arrogantly, CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan contacted the support coalition and told them the strike was over, expecting them to then announce this on his say so. This would of course have been out of the question under any circumstances, but especially given that prison officials had already been caught lying earlier in the strike.

In the end, Kernan had to allow the Short Corridor Collective a phone call to the outside mediators to inform them that the strike had indeed ended. This call was placed on July 21. This was just the beginning of the delays in communication, as the task at hand now became checking in with other prisoners across the state – most of whom had not been in direct contact with the support coalition and many of whom were in segregation or other supermaxes. This process would have taken even longer if not for the initiative of family members, who arranged to get the word in that the strike had indeed been suspended. Nevertheless, it was several days before almost all prisoners had resumed eating, and there were reports of hold-outs as much as one week later.

There was an understandable reticence within the support coalition to publicly announce the strike over in this situation, when it was known that other prisoners continued to refuse food. Nobody could be sure that the Short Corridor Collective’s decision would be accepted by prisoners across the state – it was unclear if those still fasting were doing so because they had not heard it was over or if they intended to continue the strike on their own.

As a result, even after the mediation team had been contacted, supporters around the world were unsure whether the strike had been called off or if this was one of CDCR’s tricks, and nobody on the outside seemed able to provide clarity on this question. This confusion was compounded by the fact that journalists had been denied access to the prisoners, and so news stories often recycled information from one another for days after the fact.

Eventually, though, it became clear that everyone who had been participating had indeed recommenced eating. California’s historic hunger strike of July 2011 seemed to have come to an end, after having united thousands of prisoners, garnering support from organizations across America and internationally, and forcing CDCR to the negotiating table.
Aftermath

As prisoners transitioned back to eating, many of the issues that had arisen during the hunger strike continued. Some family members found that they were being denied visits with their loved ones who had been on strike, many of whom received 128B forms, “informational chronos,” which go into their records permanently. These chronos threatened “progressive discipline … in the future for any reoccurrence of this type of behavior.”17

Even now that the strike had been suspended, medical protocol during this transitional period was in some cases simply not followed. For instance, on July 21 one visitor met with a prisoner who had gone three weeks without food, and yet as she explains:

“When the announcement of the end of strike was made on the day before, he tried to eat from the dinner tray, but could not keep it down. The following day’s breakfast he could not keep down either. When he became very weak/dizzy during our interview and asked for water, the guard would not let us buy him water nor give him any, just offered ending the interview. […] He should have been offered a transition to solid food. I am not sure whether he did later, but not on the day we were there.”

Indeed, it was reported that the day after the strike ended, one prisoner had a heart attack while transitioning to food. This turned out not to be the case, but what had happened was that he had to be hospitalized after having major seizures which affected his heart’s ability to regulate its pulse. According to the prison medical staff, this was due to an electrolyte imbalance caused by the 20 days without food. After five days of treatment, he was returned to the Pelican Bay SHU.

Reaction to the strike ending has been mixed. The Short Corridor Collective and many other prisoners see it as a large step forward, declaring it a provisional victory. Some prisoners, however, have expressed disappointment that an agreement was reached with CDCR committing itself to so little in return.

Commenting on the strike being suspended, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Support coalition noted:

“While the concessions may seem too small to claim a victory, it’s important for people outside prison to understand the weight for prisoners who have been held in the SHU for decades of now being able to stay a little warmer, and to be able to keep track of time since they have no windows and the fluorescent lights are on 24 hours of every day. More so, worldwide support and momentous courage of thousands of prisoners to risk their lives effectively pressured the CDCR to sit at the same table and look prisoners in the face and offer a deal, after refusing to negotiate for weeks and insisting prisoners are less than human.”18
Prisoner representatives Mutope Duguma and George Franco have both stated that CDCR committed to meeting all five demands and that if it fails to do so then the strike will resume.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the strike must be seen as only the first step. Without ongoing pressure, CDCR will certainly refuse any meaningful changes. Early on, San Francisco Representative Tom Ammiano and the state Assembly’s Public Safety Committee agreed to hold hearings to examine conditions in the Pelican Bay SHU. These hearings were set for Aug. 23, and in the weeks following the strike’s suspension the outside coalition focused on mobilizing for this date.19

On the inside, prisoner representatives have stated that if progress is not quickly forthcoming, the struggle will continue: “We’ve drawn the line on this and should CDCR fail to carry out meaningful changes in a timely fashion, then we will initiate a class action suit and additional types of peaceful protest. We will not stop until the CDCR ends the illegal policies and practices at SHU!”20

Indeed, prisoner representatives Mutope Duguma and George Franco have both stated that CDCR committed to meeting all five demands and that if it fails to do so then the strike will resume.21
How it came to be

Just organizing a hunger strike involving thousands is incredible – and more than most left groups on the outside could accomplish. Adding the fact that so many of the prisoners are in solitary confinement to the equation and have no easy way of communicating directly with one another simply makes it all the more impressive.

Security Housing Units are sites of frequent and regular abuse, and so it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between retaliation and business as usual. For instance, in the lead up to the strike, some suspected strike organizers had their cells tossed, and there was at least one instance of the so-called “potty watch” being inflicted – an intentionally silly-sounding name for what is in fact a form of physical torture. As attorney Carol Strickman has explained:

“That’s a very cruel procedure where people are restrained for three days, put in diapers and unable to move their arms sometimes, or forced to stand, or strapped down. The rationale is that the prisoner has swallowed contraband and we are going to see it. We’re going to wait for three days and monitor their bowel movements and find the thing they’ve swallowed. But, it’s used for other reasons. It’s used as punishment even if they know that there is nothing there. This shouldn’t be used even if they think that there is something that the prisoner has swallowed. It’s painful, people can’t sleep. They can’t move their arms. I heard that sometimes their arms are put in a plastic pipe. It’s really horrible. We heard of that happening to one or two people before the hunger strike started in Pelican Bay.”22

Again, given the fact that such demeaning and cruel procedures are not unusual in the SHU, it is difficult to separate out preemptive retaliation from everyday abuse. Less ambiguously, announcements were made just prior to the strike that a special Fourth of July menu would include ice cream and strawberries – foods which many prisoners had not seen in all their years behind bars.

[image: Bomani Shakur]

The actual mechanics of how prisoners communicated with one another and arranged to send out word regarding the strike remain unknown, but not unimaginable. Beyond this technical proficiency, the success of the July 2011 hunger strike was facilitated by its location on an arc of increasing struggle within prisons in the United States. Specifically, two previous prisoner strikes during the preceding seven months had already helped prepare the ground the Short Corridor Collective’s July initiative: the December 2010 Georgia prisoners work strike, and the January 2011 Lucasville 5 hunger strike.

In Georgia, for six days in December, thousands of prisoners had refused to work or leave their cells or buy anything at the prison store. A work strike constitutes a direct challenge to the prison system, for without prisoners’ labor the prison system cannot function. Prisoners clean the floors, cook the food and perform every other task not related to custody – as well as being exploited by corporations which make super-profits from their labor.

The Georgia prisoners were demanding better educational opportunities, more nutritious food, access to their families and, most importantly some kind of payment for their jailhouse labor – in Georgia it is mandatory for prisoners to work for “Prison Industries,” a wholly owned subsidiary of the Department of Corrections, making prisoners the single largest workforce in the state. Furthermore, their labor is completely unpaid.

At least 30 prisons were affected, with thousands participating. The Georgia authorities retaliated by turning off the heat and hot water in the prisoners’ cells. Violence was used – guards beat several striking prisoners; one was so badly hurt he ended up in the ICU of a civilian hospital.23 This reign of terror continued even months after the strike had ended.24

Nevertheless, and although none of the prisoners’ demands were met, the Georgia prisoners’ strike was a major inspiration simply for having happened. It has been described as “a roadmap of what must come.”

The second example in this arc of protest occurred just weeks later, at the state penitentiary in Youngstown, Ohio. On Jan. 3, 2011, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Bomani Shakur and Jason Robb went on hunger strike to protest the severe isolation conditions they had suffered for 18 years. The three men are part of the Lucasville 5 – the other two were not healthy enough to participate – who helped negotiate a peaceful resolution to the 1993 uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility but were subsequently framed for murder and sentenced to death. Since then, they have been subject to extreme isolation; the demand of their hunger strike was simply to be granted the same living conditions as other death row prisoners.

After 12 days, the prison administration agreed to meet the demands of the Ohio hunger strikers.

Besides these two previous inspiring acts of resistance, a third external factor worth keeping in mind is the decision rendered by the Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Plata in May. This confirmed an earlier court ruling that conditions in California’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by approximately 32,000 over the next two years.

A lower court in the case had already found that it was “an uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies”25 – a fact that was cited in the Short Corridor Collective’s Formal Complaint.26

How CDCR will comply with Plata is unclear. There are indications that Gov. Jerry Brown will try to transfer prisoners to the counties’ jurisdiction, which would simply shift the problem of overcrowding and potentially lead to people being held in even worse conditions.27

But in terms of the success of the July hunger strike, Plata had already helped expose the horrendous conditions in CDCR’s prisons, and so the department was caught in a vulnerable position. It is difficult to measure what effect this had, but it does play into the overall circumstances surrounding the hunger strike.

Regardless of these external factors, it is clear that the ones who really deserve the credit for the July success are the hunger strikers themselves, those who put their lives on the line to resist torture. All the positive factors in the world may line up, but without people willing to seize the moment, these amount to naught.

Frantz Fanon wrote, “In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression.”28 After decades of mass incarceration, the jailer has joined these “instituted go-betweens” as America’s dungeons have become central elements of class and national oppression. The delay with which most established left groups and talking heads responded to the hunger strike is a measure of their own disconnect from these realities.

Just as California built on advances in Ohio and Georgia, it is to be hoped that future struggles will build on this success and that as part of this process new connections and relationships will emerge between those on the inside and those of us on the outside, allowing space for the movement to overcome these shortcomings.

As Bomani Shakur, one of the Lucasville 5, stated in an open letter to the California hunger strikers: “The system as it currently exists must change, and this, what you all are doing right now, may very well be the catalyst to bring about that change. Remember that.”29

Indeed, this is something that none of us should forget.

K. Kersplebedeb, a Montreal-based writer and purveyor of political books and pamphlets, maintains several websites, including Kersplebedeb and Sketchy Thoughts, where this story first appeared. He can be reached at info at kersplebedeb.com.

1] “The worst of the worst is not allowing people to be treated as human beings” interview with Manuel LaFontaine, Revolution#239, July 17, 2011.

2] “A Brief History of Pelican Bay,” http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/pelican-bay/305-2/

3] Lira v. Cate, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91292 (N.D. Cal. Sep. 30, 2009). See also Carbone, Charles “The Jailer Has No Clothes,”California Prison Focus #34, pp. 13-4, accessed at http://prisons.org/documents/CPF-34.pdf.

4] “Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement” by Craig Haney, Crime & Delinquency 2003 49, p. 132.

5] “State says prison hunger strike involves fewer than two dozen inmates” by Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2011.

6] “Statement of Medical Professionals on the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike,” accessed at http://www.kersplebedeb.com/mystuff/july1/medical_letter.pdf

7] “Prisoners Near Death as 1,700 California Inmates Continue Hunger Strike to Protest Appalling Conditions” by Marie Diamond, Thinkprogress website, July 13, 2011.

8] “Calif. sees gang ties in prisoners’ hunger strike; Some inmates getting pressured into participating, state says” by Justin Berton, San Francisco Chronicle, July 14, 2011.

9] “More on Medical Crisis, Need Support Pressuring Immediate Negotiations,” July 14, 2011, accessed at http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/more-on-medical-crisis-need-support-pressuring-immediate-negotiations/

10] http://www.scribd.com/doc/62546906/Pelican-Bay-Prisoner-Letter

11] “Barbarous Confinement” by Colin Dayan, New York Times, July 17, 2011.

12] “California needs to improve prison conditions,” editorial, San Jose Mercury News, July 18, 2011.

13] “California’s hidden hunger strike,” editorial, LA Times, July 19, 2011.

14] “Prisoners on Hunger Strike Show Signs of Starvation, Official Wants to Force-Feed,” KQED News Staff, July 20, 2011.

15] “Testing ‘Cruzan’: Prisoners and the Constitutional Question of Self-Starvation” by Mara Silver, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Nov., 2005), pp. 657-9.

16] Silver, pp. 655-6, 660.

17] http://www.scribd.com/doc/62546906/Pelican-Bay-Prisoner-Letter

18] “Building a Movement to End Solitary Confinement, Against Imprisonment,”http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/, July 27, 2011.

19] See: “Historic California Assembly Hearing on Solitary Confinement” by Sal Rodriguez, Solitary Watch, Aug. 24, 2011, accessed at http://solitarywatch.com/2011/08/24/historic-california-assembly-hearing-on-solitary-confinement/.

20] “Written Statement by Short Corridor Collective,” July 22, 2011, accessed at http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/declaring-a-victory-ongoing-struggle/.

21] “This hunger strike is far from over,” San Francisco Bay View, Aug. 12, 2011. And: http://www.scribd.com/doc/62546906/Pelican-Bay-Prisoner-Letter

22] “The CDCR is using every method they have to try and stop this hunger strike,” interview with Carol Strickman, Revolution#239, July 17, 2011.

23] “Free ‘Em All: Carrying the Legacy of Prisoner-Led Resistance in Georgia,” interview with Eugene Thomas, The Abolitionist, Summer 2011, pp. 6-7.
“Georgia prisoners staged a STRIKE, not a riot or a protest,” David Slavin, San Francisco Bay View, Jan. 21, 2011.

24] “Protest retaliation against Georgia prisoners” by Mary Ratcliff, San Francisco Bay View, Feb. 20, 2011.

25] “Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population” by Adam Liptak, New York Times, May 23, 2011, accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/us/24scotus.html?pagewanted=all

26] “Formal Complaint” Feb. 5, 2011, accessed at http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/formal-complaint/

27] See for instance “California’s prisoner shuffle” by Lois Davis, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 19, 2011.

28] “The Wretched of the Earth,” Frantz Fanon, p. 38.

29] “Letter of support for the hunger strikers from Bomani Shakur of the Lucasville 5 – and other strike updates,” San Francisco Bay View, July 3, 2011.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Conference Nov 2nd L.A.: Formerly-incarcerated and Convicted People and Allies

Nov. 2nd FICPM L.A. Conference

From: Unprison

On Wednesday, November 2, 2011 in Los Angeles, formerly-incarcerated and convicted people, and our allies, from all over the United States will convene to discuss and ratify a National Agenda to restore our civil and human rights. We believe that unity of purpose will allow us to build political power. Many of us are already working on similar campaigns, to achieve the same demands. After November 2, we hope to organize and mobilize other people who have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system to stand up for our rights around the country. After November 2, we plan to mount unified national campaigns to register voters, to end all forms of discrimination based on arrest or conviction records, to support the human rights of people locked up in cages, and to serve our families and communities.

PLEASE REGISTER NOW to attend the November 2 conference in Los Angeles on this page.

There is no registration fee and no deadline for registering. PLEASE REGISTER NOW so we can plan for food and reserve housing in advance. Our conference will begin with breakfast at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 2, and the convening starting at 9 a.m. in Freedom Hall at the Watts Labor Community Action Center (WLAC) in South Central Los Angeles (10850 South Central Avenue).

TRAVEL and HOUSING: The November 2 convening is 100% self-financed. We have received no grant money so far to organize this event, so we hope everyone will be able to fund-raise for expenses, which we are trying to keep low. Unfortunately, there are no scholarships available for travel or housing for the November 2 convening. If you’re coming from out of town, please plan to travel the day before (November 1). Housing for the night of November 1 will be available near WLCAC at rates of $59-$69 for a double room. Rooms for that night will also be available at the the Westin Bonaventure, in downtown Los Angeles at DPA conference rates — $140 per room for double occupancy rooms.

Here is the form for registering...

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