This morning, the third California prison strike in two years has supposedly begun, with hunger strikes by prisoners in solitary confinement and work stoppage by prisoners in the general population.
"As we know, prisons can’t run for long without the free labor of prisoners," said Ed Mead, a prisoner-rights activist and member of the George Jackson Brigade who spent 18 years behind bars. "They cook the food, they mop the floors." He said that some leaders of major prison gangs, including the Black Guerilla Family, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Norteños, and the Sureños have agreed to cease hostilities in preparation for the strikes.
In 2011, the US Supreme Court found that overcrowding in California prisons constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" and is directly responsible for "one needless death per week."
Mead and fellow activist Diana George say it will be days before the outside world gets a sense of the strike's scope. General-population prisoners who refuse to work are often sent to solitary, and solitary prisoners who refuse to eat are tracked by the California prison medical system—but those numbers will trickle out slowly. Mead said that according to numbers from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a previous strike peaked at around 12,000 participating prisoners. (The CDCR has disputed this calculation, saying only 4,252 prisoners joined the hunger strike. But even that lowball number is impressive.)
Youth prisoners at the Green Hill juvenile institution in Chehalis, Washington are among those who've announced their intention to strike in solidarity with the California prisoners. Green Hill youth prisoners have recently conducted hunger strikes of their own, demanding minimum wage for their labor, an end to solitary confinement, and access to drug and sex-offender treatment programs. (Those, Mead said, are "pretty fucking progressive" demands for a prison strike. Read their full list of demands in the latest issue of ¡Rock!, a quarterly prison newsletter. That link is a pdf, by the way.) At noon today, Seattle activists will meet in front of the King County Jail for their own solidarity demonstration.
The California strikers have five demands, which are more modest. As Mead explained them in an interview yesterday:
One, eliminate group punishments. That’s a no-brainer. If I do something wrong, don’t punish everyone on the tier.
Two, abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. The courts have held there has to be some evidence validating a prisoner's gang status. Black prisoners have been validated on the basis of having a copy of my newspaper in their cells that mentions George Jackson. That's been considered evidence. Once you’re validated, the only way out is to parole, debrief, snitch, or die. Debriefing is telling the administration who all the other gang members are. And if you’re not a gang member you have to make up names—it’s a bounty system. Now the prisons have an STG (security threat group) status. If they decide you're a security threat, they lock you up indefinitely, and that requires no proof whatsoever, and also includes people who were never gang members, people who could be politically active.
Four, provide adequate food. [This includes having prisoners who serve meals to those in solitary eat from separate pans to prevent food theft.]
Five, provide constructive programs and privileges for SHU [solitary confinement] prisoners including educational activities and recreation. SHU prisoners are supposed to get an hour a day of exercise in a wire dog kennel, but guards make excuses, like they're too busy to let them out.
Mead said a strike in July, 2011 was about those same demands. Prison officials met with strike leaders, came to a mutually satisfactory agreement, and the strike was called off. But prisoners felt that prison officials didn't hold up their end of the bargain and struck again in October. That came and went. Shortly afterwards, Matthew Cate, the secretary of the troubled state corrections system, stepped down from his job.
Prisoners, Mead said, still feel like their five core demands from 2011 have not been met. So they're striking again.