BREAKING NEWS: Federal Judge Approves Force-Feeding CA Strikers

A federal judge has approved CDCR’s request to force-feed inmates if necessary. The Associated Press reports:

Officials say they fear for the welfare of nearly 70 inmates who have refused all prison-issued meals since the strike began July 8 over the holding of gang leaders and other violent inmates in solitary confinement that can last for decades.

They are among nearly 130 inmates in six prisons who were refusing meals. When the strike began it included nearly 30,000 of the 133,000 inmates in California prisons.

Prison policy is to let inmates starve to death if they have signed legally binding do-not-resuscitate requests.

But state corrections officials and a federal receiver who controls inmate medical care received blanket authority from U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco to feed inmates who may be in failing health.

The order includes those who recently signed requests that they not be revived.

This blanket permission raises a number of important ethical considerations. This New York Times debate highlights various fascinating aspects of the dilemma. You’ll note that reactions to this practice differ according to the commentators’ affiliations. Medical staff, abiding by their Hippocratic oath, may find it difficult to administer “a health-care solution to a political problem.” Some of the legal challenges are highlighted in this piece by Tracey Ohm. In arguing that force-feeding is unconstitutional, some argue that fasting is protected speech, and some argue that it is part of the right to privacy.

For those wondering what force-feeding is like, the above video depicts rap artist Mos Def, who undertook the force-feeding procedure administered in Guantanamo Bay, and had to stop because he could not bear going through with it.

Another Reply to Beard by Berkeley Student and Former SHU Inmate Steven Czifra

My name is Steven Czifra, and I am a formerly incarcerated person who spent time in the both Pelican Bay, and the Corcoran SHUs. As a former SHU inmate I think it is important that I write a response to Jeffrey Beard’s piece in re: the prisoner hunger strike, and give the public a different perspective. I do not have a stake in this issue, except to see the practice of long-term solitary confinement cease to be an accepted practice in California.

The thrust of the CDCR’s stance on solitary-confinement is that those who are refusing food are either Machiavellian-style manipulators, or weak patsies starving themselves out of fear, yet the CDC is allowing harm to come to people they have identified as victims by allowing the strike to continue. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I am being trained to think critically, and when I apply these critical thinking skills to the CDCR’s stance, it doesn’t add up. To put it plainly, the CDCR says it is keeping gangsters in the SHU to inhibit their ability to threaten other inmates, yet inmates are starving themselves because they are scared of retaliation by prison gangsters. I can attest that not all those who have refused food to protest conditions in the SHU have done so out of fear of prisoner retaliation. I have personally fasted along with other Cal students, none of us having anything to gain, except to see the CDCR treat prisoners humanely.

Beard’s illustration makes the SHU seem like quite the wonderful place to spend one’s time, should a person find themselves incarcerated in the CDCR. Television, education (untrue), recreation (alone, in a small windowless pen), skylights in the cells (ridiculously untrue), with outfacing windows (opaqued with paint), and even a buddy to pass the time playing cards (double-celling of some people is evidence that the CDCR is keeping individuals in solitary who they have deemed to be “safe” to socialize) and cheering each other up! While it is true that an inmate who has resources can purchase a television, the fact is that sitting alone in front of one is a small consolation for a person who has no chance of leaving their cell to see and interact with real people for the remainder of their lives. While I was in the SHU I had a television, which I rarely watched. My decision to not watch television was intentional. I knew if I was going to salvage my ability to function intellectually and emotionally in the free world I would have to deny myself the urge to waste away in front of the television Still, having a television is better than not having one. Only some prisoners have the resources to afford a television, or a radio. As I could afford books, I chose to read instead. This was one of the factors that lead to my eventual admission to Berkeley. It wasn’t until I paroled, and enrolled in college as a free man that I acquired an education. Many people in the SHU do not have the ability to read due to illiteracy, and learning disabilities, (as well as problems with cognition, and vision, known to be caused by solitary-confinement) which precludes the opportunity to learn. There is simply no out of cell programming in the SHU. Some people can pay for in-cell correspondence courses, and have the ability to comprehend college material without instruction. They are the few. The CDCR’s use of rare scenarios as part of his paltry excuse for torturing people with endless isolation only speaks to what the SHU is about. Beard stated that he is “concerned about the toll this hunger strike is taking on…the inmates and their families.” The SHU tears families apart, denying prisoners contact with their families, phone calls, and mail, some for decades. The CDCR has an obligation to actually care for the people in its custody, rather than limit its actions to rhetoric. California remands people to the custody of the CDCR with the expectation that it would treat them humanely. In the spirit of that great responsibility the CDCR has to do more than explain why it is tormenting prisoners, and stonewalling this protest.

Hunger Strike News Clearinghouse

I am still on vacation out of the country, but for those of you in need of news and resources about the strike, here’s what’s new from the last few days:

Some welcome news about phone call prices.
Federal judges block move to house more inmates out of state. 
The strike at Calipatria.
Great op-ed on L.A. Times (which, by the way, wins, hands down, my best-prison-coverage newspaper award).
Action to show SHU unit on Capitol stairs (we showed the unit at Hastings last March)
Impending early releases.
The N.Y. Times chimes in.

The blog returns to its full coverage of the strike and all other matters involving CA corrections on Friday. Until then, best wishes of health and success to the hunger strikers.

A Response to CDCR Secretary Beard, by Caitlin Kelly Henry

In a recent OpEd, CDCR Secretary Beard, defends his agency’s use of torture, and justifies it by vilifying and dehumanizing some of its victims. Conditions in CDCR’s SHUs meet international definitions of unlawful torture. Sensory deprivation is torture. Prolonged isolation is torture. California, unlike most states and nations, refuses to recognize that it is both unlawful and poor public policy to punish people with prolonged isolation. Though no other jurisdiction appears to deny that these practices constitute solitary confinement.

These conditions cause permanent physical and psychological effects. As an attorney and academic, I have conducted over 60 interviews with people sequestered in SHUs, and have witnessed the physical and psychological effects of isolation. Having recently visited strikers, I can attest that as a result of their non-violent demonstration, they are experiencing irreversible and life threatening effects that will only worsen if CDCR and Governor Brown do not take action immediately.

Hunger and work strikes by disfranchised people, who have little to leverage but their bodies, have earned a dignified and noble legacy in human and civil rights movements. The last three California prison strikes have succeeded in shining light on atrocious living conditions typically shielded from the public behind prison walls.

The OpEd misrepresents CDCR’s de-jure policies, and avoids addressing its de-facto policies, which arise from prison staff’s vast discretion in policy interpretation and execution. The OpEd attempts to narrow the discussion to CDCR’s treatment of the sub-group of people staff accuse of being affiliated with gangs and focus on the strike’s second demand. However, the other four demands, concern issues affecting all prisoners in solitary, many of whom are never accused of gang activity.

CDCR continues to arbitrarily discipline and move people to solitary confinement without adequate due process, whether for a determinate term (though people are often held after the term’s end) or indeterminate term. Currently, CDCR is issuing rules violations to hunger strikers simply for not eating, and charging participants and non-participants with “gang related activity” for showing support for the strike. These violations can be used to send people to the SHU, keep them there, or deny people post-conviction relief (parole, prop 36 re-sentencing, etc.). To issue so many on such specious grounds at a moment when CDCR is mandated to release 10,000 people is emblematic of the due process violations the strike seeks to address.

As CDCR moves people to or within the SHU, staff have denied people access to their property. This includes placing people in a cell with a mattress, but no sheets or blanket, for days on end. Pelican Bay SHU cells have no windows or skylights, and the murky slits in the concrete at Corcoran can hardly be called windows. Light comes from a fluorescent bulb that is never shut off.

Especially since the strike’s announcement, CDCR has routinely denied people the ability to leave their cells for weeks on end, whether to shower, use the “yard” (either a metal cage or a small room with four concrete walls but no roof), or access the law library to meet court deadlines. With no access to the yard, some people exercise in their cells…but if they do so at the same time as others, the exercise is labeled as gang activity.

Access to other in-cell activities – like television, radio, books, or education – is contingent on having funds. Funds require either work (which many SHU inmates are prohibited from) or contacts on the outside. In the OpEd CDCR lauds how its “[r]estricting…communication…has saved lives both inside and outside prison walls” yet claims people can send and receive letters and visit every weekend. In reality, CDCR’s extreme prohibitions and restrictions on phones, letters, and visits destroy lives by interfering with constructive family and attorney communications. This flies in the face of correctional best practices, which evidence that maintaining community ties decreases recidivism and supports reentry. As a rule, SHU inmates are also denied reentry-facilitating activities, such as interaction with other people in religious service, therapy, classes, or meals. Since the strike CDCR has even confiscated books, mail, TVs and radios.

Governor Brown and Secretary Beard must cease their deliberate indifference and end the standoff by meeting the five demands.

Caitlin Kelly Henry, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Adjunct Faculty, UC Hastings College of The Law
P.O. Box 641050, San Francisco, CA 94164
(510) 277-2025

Hunger Strike, Day 30: Beard’s Article and Community Response

The hunger strike is now entering its fifth week. I’m still on vacation, but didn’t want this day to pass without pointing out Jeffrey Beard’s take on the strike:

We are talking about convicted murderers who are putting lives at risk to advance their own agenda of violence.

Here’s Dan Walters’ commentary.

There are also some important statements on this Facebook page to counter Beard’s commentary. I reproduce verbatim Tom Ammiano’s:

I have read Secretary Beard’s claims in the LA Times and I have visited the SHU. On the one hand, the CDCR told me its isolation policies have put a stranglehold on gang leaders’ control. On the other hand, now they say gang leaders are calling the shots in the hunger strike despite their isolation. Which is it? They told us everyone in the SHU was a validated gang member, but when they reviewed cases, they cleared scores of prisoners of gang affiliation. We find it difficult to take CDCR’s claims about the hunger strike at face value. It would be easier to know if prison media access policies were better, as would have been the case under my bill vetoed by the Governor last year. Even so, one thing is clear: The isolation policies are of dubious benefit and they are an international embarrassment. I realize these prisoners have been convicted of terrible things, but I don’t have to believe everything they say to know that we must change our correctional practices. Taxpayers should not be funding indefinite isolation that is condemned in other countries as a human rights abuse.

Hunger Strike, Day 28: CDCR Mediating with Hunger Strike Representatives

Hunger strike supporters in Sacramento. Photo credit:
Melanie Mason for the Los Angeles Times.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

California’s prisons chief has agreed to meet for the first time with advocates for inmates who are in their fourth week of a hunger strike over conditions in solitary confinement.

“It’s progress,” said Ron Ahnen, president of the Oakland-based group California Prison Focus, which publishes a newsletter circulated to thousands of state inmates that hunger strike organizers used to broadcast their protest. 

Ahnen is among a small group of activists set to meet Friday with Jeffrey Beard, Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointed head of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Other expected attendees include a representative from the American Friends Service Committee.

Meanwhile, an interesting Bloomberg piece by Steven Greenhut compares Brown’s we-don’t-have-a-prison-crisis stance to George Wallace’s resistance to school desegregation.

Jerry Brown, the quirky progressive governor, is defying the orders of three liberal federal judges to release thousands of criminals from the state’s prison system in order to relieve chronic overcrowding. The rhetoric is growing more heated as the state defies a special judicial panel that last week rejected the governor’s attempt to delay the releases and used harsh language in doing so: “Despite our repeated efforts to assist defendants to comply with our Population Reduction Order, they have consistently engaged in conduct designed to frustrate those efforts.” 

In picking up the states’ rights banner, Brown finds himself being compared to Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, who in 1963 defied a federal order to desegregate the state’s schools. But some see Brown as a hero. 

In California, the federal government might order marshals to open the cell doors and Brown could stand in a cell, argued Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton. “Wallace was shamefully standing in the schoolhouse door trying to protect a university’s bigotry from integration by black students,” Skelton wrote. “Brown would be heroically protecting citizens from thugs.”

Props to Caitlin Henry for both links.

Day 23 of the Hunger Strike: Light and Shadow in Press Coverage

Two interesting newspaper articles came out recently, bracketing the range of public opinion about the California inmate hunger strike.

The first piece, in the Los Angeles Times, is a profile of Todd Ashker, one of the leaders of the hunger strike, part of the Short Corridor collective, described by the article as the “legal mind” behind the strike. Ahsker’s long and violent criminal record and his membership in the infamous Aryan Brotherhood are examined at length, as is the stabbing of his defense attorney during his trial.

Armed with a prison law library and a paralegal degree earned behind bars, Ashker, 50, has filed or been party to 55 federal lawsuits against the California prison system since 1987, winning the right for inmates to order books and collect interest on prison savings accounts.

“There’s an element within [the Department of Corrections] who would celebrate some of our deaths with a party,” Ashker wrote to The Times in March after prison officials denied access to him.

But others say Ashker is a danger, accusing him of being an Aryan Brotherhood member bent on freeing gang leaders from solitary confinement so they can regain their grip on the prison system.

“We’re talking about somebody who is very, very dangerous … who has killed somebody in a pre-meditated way,” said Philip Cozens, Ashker’s court-appointed defense lawyer in a 1990 murder trial.

Terri McDonald, who ran California’s 33 prisons until a few months ago and now runs the Los Angeles County jail system, said Ashker and his compatriots in the Short Corridor Collective are not fighting for rights, but power.

“From my perspective, they are terrorists,” she said.

Ashker has spent nearly all his adult life in California’s prison system — and much of that time, he has been in solitary confinement. 

Ashker has an intimidating record, indeed, and an unappetizing gang affiliation. But that is how someone ends up in isolation in Pelican Bay or in Corcoran: By committing crime and by being classified as a gang member. The question readers might want to ask themselves is, are we prepared for the moral slippery slope that starts with treating folks like Ashker as not human, and not deserving of basic dignity?

I’ve posted before about why I consider myself a left realist, rather than a radical abolitionist. I don’t care for incessant recitations of the prison industrial complex mantra (frankly, I find this a useless argument with middle-class taxpayers), and I don’t think that all prisoners are political prisoners. And I do think that some folks need to be in prison, for long periods of time, and perhaps Todd Ashker is one of them. I do, however, think that far less people should be incarcerated, and that holding 80,000 people nationwide under conditions that do not befit living human beings, depriving them of all human contact and offering inappropriate ways out, is categorically outrageous, no matter what crimes they perpetuated.

I am, apparently, not alone: Today’s San Francisco Chronicle story lists many thinkers, actors, and political figures, including Jay Leno, Gloria Steinem, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Coyote, and Noam Chomsky, who oppose solitary confinement and support the hunger strikers.

This is the third hunger strike launched since 2011 to protest living conditions in the prison’s security housing units, where 4,500 gang members, gang associates and serious offenders are held in extreme isolation, many of them for indeterminate terms of more than 10 years.

The protesters are demanding an end to indeterminate sentences and for alternative ways to leave the units other than “debriefing,” which the prisoners say is an agreement to inform on gang members and a risk to their safety from reprisals for “snitching.”

The security housing units at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California are the subject of a lawsuit alleging that the living conditions — which include confinement to the cells for 23 hours a day and very little contact with other people — amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Maybe this support of the hunger strikers will convey the message that even inmates who commit truly heinous crimes are still human beings, and that cruelty and indignity cannot be justified as being begotten by cruelty and indignity.

Thanks to Tom Oster and to David Takacs for the links.

Crime, Incarceration, and the Human Spirit: On Billy Sell and the Escape from Alcatraz

Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin, courtesy
the BBC UK.

Billy Sell’s tragic death yesterday, ruled a suicide by CDCR, raises some disturbing and urgent questions. How many such casualties will it take for CDCR to take the inmates seriously? We are on Day 21 of the hunger strike and there is serious concern for inmates’ well being, especially those of them who are aging and infirm. Their physical condition is being monitored. Conditions in the SHU debilitate and harm not only people’s mental health, but their physical constitution. It is admirable that, under these circumstances, inmates are committed to deprive themselves of food and drink. And if being prepared for the ultimate sacrifice, because a life of torture and indignity is worse, is not a good reason for CDCR to reconsider its position on isolation, I really don’t know what is.

I wonder how much coverage Sell’s death will receive in the mainstream media. Any effort to honor and remember his honorable sacrifice in the struggle for better incarceration conditions is likely to be blighted by ignorant commentary negating its value because, after all, he was doing time in prison, and therefore he must have been a very bad person, or worse, not a person at all. This is the same pervasive thinking that leads people on the outside to think that inmates are somewhat coddled by what folks who are not in the know perceive as “free health care.” This dehumanizing attitude means not only that people can be disinclined to stand side by side with the hunger strikers and demand better conditions for them, but also that they could completely miss the heroic aspect of the struggle and not find anything admirable in it.

The tragic news of Sell’s passing were particularly poignant for me yesterday, as I received them after completing my sixth successful Alcatraz crossing, which made me think about sacrifice and heroism within walls. Every time I jump off the ferry near Alcatraz and start swimming toward San Francisco I take a few moments to look behind my shoulder. In the first ten minutes of the swim it seems as if The Rock is not getting any smaller. And then, I think about the many documented attempted escapes from Alcatraz, and particularly about Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who in 1961 plotted (with Allen West, who could not join them due to technical difficulties) the most daring, and likely successful, escape through the ventilation ducts, ingeniously using dummies and a raft.

More than fifty years after the escape, the file remains open, and among the thousands of athletes who attempt Alcatraz crossings there are many, like yours truly, who are convinced that Morris and the Anglin brothers made it safely to shore. I like to think of them, now very old men, sitting in a suit and a beret or a fedora at a cafe in North Beach, sipping a strong espresso, reading the Chronicle and chuckling quietly to themselves.

To them, the frustration of looking back and seeing The Rock looming dark and threatening must have been fraught with terrible fear and apprehension, compounded by the serious concerns about their welfare once they got to shore. Would they suffer hypothermia? Who would help and shelter them on the outside? Where would they get money, and how could they avoid being recaptured?

Time has been kind to Morris and the Anglin brothers. Millions around the world admire and respect their courage, ingenuity and bravery. But they were not saints. Morris’ record included daring robberies, and the Anglin brothers robbed a bank (with a toy gun.) They received lengthy sentences and perhaps, to the average citizen in the early 1960s, would appear unsympathetic, dangerous, and undeserving of respect. Just as some people may be thinking about today’s hunger strikers and their struggle.

But crime and criminality do not negate the value of the human spirit, or its ability to soar in courage and conviction. Last week many of us saw Fruitvale Station in the theaters and enjoyed Michael Jordan’s humanizing rendition of Oscar Grant, a man who did not live a grand life of achievement, but rather a life of fatherhood, flawed partnership, and teetering between drug dealing and an honest day’s work. And we cried for him, and we appreciated the ember of humanity within his soul, because it is also in ours, and we wept when that ember was extinguished by a gunshot. Billy Sell’s death teaches us a related, and perhaps more important, lesson. It’s not just that each and every life is precious and imbued with intrinsic value. It’s also that the human spirit does not die if someone has broken the law. Indomitable courage, initiative, creativity, commitment to one’s values, perseverance, and the yearning for personal freedom, are as admirable in prison as they are on a freedom ride or at a protest in the park, and perhaps more so because of the risk of retaliation and mistreatment, not to mention death. There are courage and bravery and principled positions behind walls. There is much there that we can find inspiring and respectable, even as there is plenty there (as on the outside) that we would find petty and deplorable.

May Billy “Guero” Sell’s memory not be in vain, and as generations of athletes are inspired by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, may generations of activists and advocates within walls and on the outside honor his sacrifice with an undying struggle for dignity.

Props to Jonathan Simon, whose conversations with me last year inspired this post, to Caitlin Henry, whose work on behalf of the strikers inspires me daily, and to Chad Goerzen and Rhett Aultman for talking to me yesterday about Alcatraz and the power of myth.

Tragic Breaking News: Billy Sell Succumbs to Hunger Strike

The first known casualty of the hunger strike is Corcoran inmate Billy Sell. The San Francisco Bay View reports:

Billy Michael “Guero” Sell, CDCr No. P-41250, age 32, was housed in 4B-3L of the Corcorcan SHU, had not been under mental health care and had been going without water as well as food.

The prisoners reportedly described him as “strong, a good person, a good soldier” and concluded that “Billy died because of the hunger strike.” He is said to be from Riverside, but supporters have not yet been able to locate and talk with his family. The Bay View sends condolences to everyone who was Billy’s friend, comrade, fellow prisoner or family member.

Our heartfelt condolences go to Billy’s family and friends, on the outside and behind bars, and our best wishes for physical and mental strength go to the strikers.