Sunday, July 28, 2013

Are Prison Gangs Behind the California Hunger Strike?

In early July, 2013, thousands of California system prisoners, including most of those in lock-down Security Housing Units (SHU), went on a “Hunger Strike” after they deemed that their earlier “5 Core Demands” were not met:

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 participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to long-term isolation (SHU). They can escape these torturous conditions only if they "debrief," that is, become informants on other prisoners. 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 US 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 California keeps thousands of prisoners in isolation units. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.

4. Provide adequate and nutritious food. Prisoners receive tiny quantities of spoiled or undercooked food on dirty trays. 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..." The prisoners also listed other specific needs. Since the 2011 hunger strike, they have won some of these, including: correspondence courses, if they pay for them themselves; wool caps; the right to buy sweatsuits (the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold); the right to buy some art supplies. They still do not have the right to worship together, talk to each other, receive vocational training or education from the prison, or hug or talk on the phone with their families.

Local TV, Radio, and Printed Media soon stated, “We’re learning more about the large hunger strike going on behind bars of several California prisons. State prison officials say the whole thing was orchestrated by prison gangs in order to sell drugs and make money.” The Los Angeles Times reported per CDCR Officials that, “top tier members of the Black Guerilla Family, Nuestra Familia, (EME), and the Aryan Brotherhood started the strike which encompassed dozens of lockups across the state.”

Is this true?

To understand the two opposing views, blog readers should first see:

According to supporters of the Hunger Strike, CDCR has demonized them, but in reality their past criminal record and behavior while incarcerated attributed to the bed that they now lay in.

Supporters say CDCR reports do not reflect any truth of what is actually motivating prisoners to go on hunger strike and has consistently motivated prisoners to go on hunger strike: the conditions of solitary confinement which so many are made to suffer. They say they just want to, “call attention to a number of conditions they say are inhumane. The prisoners are demanding changes to policies that allow the jails to hold inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely.”

The Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSSC), committed to amplifying the voices of prisoners on strike at Pelican Bay prison and other facilities in California, reported on July 22:

As the California prison hunger strike enters its 3rd week, reports of retaliation against strikers have increased.  Last week it was reported that prison officials had moved at least 14 strikers from the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay to Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg), confiscated confidential legal documents, and forced cold air into their cells.  Later in the week, legal advocate Marilyn McMahon and one of her paralegals were summarily banned from visiting any California prison.  Reports that strikers have been moved to Ad-Seg or to entirely different facilities have also been coming from Corcoran State Prison.  The denial of medical care to strikers, especially those with preexisting health conditions, remains a widespread concern for families and advocates.”

Anne Weills, a civil rights attorney who this week visited Pelican Bay state prison, which is at the heart of the protest, said the temperature at the prison had been deliberately lowered, “They are the upping the ante in terms of cold. It’s clearly a tactic to make everything uncomfortable and in essence retaliate for the hunger strike,” she said. “They are freezing, these men. I could see them shivering in front of me. I had two sweaters on and I was freezing.” The cold was badly affecting smaller, thinner prisoners with little body fat, especially those weakened by their fast, she said. “They are suffering. This puts them at risk of hypothermia.”

Spokesperson for CDCR, Terry Thornton, completely denied allegations by prisoners that the cold air was being turned up to freeze them. Thornton told ABC News/Univision, “The cells in the security housing units and the administrative segregation unit at Pelican Bay State prison are 72 to 73 degrees,” Thornton told ABC News/Univision. And, “cell-unit temperatures are not something guards or correctional peace officers control.”

According to Amnesty International, prisoners at Pelican Bay are “allowed to exercise for an hour and a half a day, alone, in a bare, concrete yard.” California is “one of more than 40 US states to house prisoners in high security isolation facilities, often termed ‘super-maximum security’ prisons. “No other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation.” And, “Some prisoners have spent more than a decade without visits from their family. They may correspond with their attorneys, families, friends and outside organizations, subject to certain restrictions. All visits are non-contact, taking place behind a glass screen.”

Inmates state that the situation in the SHUs and San Quentin-Adjustment Center/Death Row has only become worse, “With regards to the revisions that were done to SHU management gang policies, well, that is exactly what has taken place—revisions (e.g. ‘reform’). Hence, more of the same in that, the revisions have only strengthened CDCR officials power and ability to label and validate every prisoner in CDCR as belonging to a Security Threat Group–e.g. ’prison gang.’ At the crux of the revisions is a lack of a definitive and ‘behavioral-based’ criteria, as to what actually constitute as being gang activity. Meaning, any and everything can and will still be considered as gang activity, in spite of how innocuous the activity may be. In addition to this, we still have untrained and unqualified CDCR officers/officials determining and assessing what is ‘gang activity.’ And this point is critical for two very important reasons:

1) There are no qualitative oversight mechanisms in place, meaning there is absolutely nothing to prevent CDCR’s prison guards, gang unit, etc., from being vindictive, retaliatory, punitive, etc., via the application of these ‘revised’ gang management policies;


2) it has been proven that CDCR’s prison guards and their IGI gang unit staff do not properly investigate the evidence used in each prisoners gang validation–see Lira v. Cate. In conclusion, not being able to get out of solitary confinement is truly what is motivating this protest and not a desire by gangs to take over the prison and have their way with authorities. It is about being humanely treated while they serve time for committing whatever crime they are in jail for committing.”

Historically, Corrections isn't very good at "Transitioning to Community". Most will release one day!

Inmates should be able to send pictures to their loved ones if no gang signs are found in them. Family and potential re-unification is crucial for successful re-integration. As most inmates will be released someday, they are being set up to fail if certain things do not occur prior to release. Also, Religious Services has saved many older cons, but it must be monitored well to ensure gangs don’t take over. A process should also be set up for all inmates that are scheduled to be released to be placed in a reintegration process to assist with re-entry at a 1 year minimum whether or not they are housed in General Population or a SHU.

Many experts believe AB109 seems to be dumping people onto the streets without resources or tools to succeed. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to fix overcrowding problems, citing constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The court rejected California’s bid for more time and upheld a two-year deadline to drastically cut inmate population in its 33 prisons to 137.5% of capacity by May 2013. AB 109 shifted a lot of responsibility for incarcerating many low-risk inmates from the state to counties. This shift from state to counties was called “prison realignment.” But, the counties were not prepared for such an influx and programs in jails are generally found less stable than in prison and jail facility designs seldom have room for such programs. A paradigm shift has to take place inside and outside. There can always be system improvements without jeopardizing security.

So perhaps, there are some inmates who have remained disciplinary free for many years that are ready for release from the SHU? They should be able to participate in any programs that might help them readjust to General Population, and even more important, anybody that needs transition for eventual freedom to society that currently has a release date. Many people, including many authorities were surprised (and worried) that all four of the major prison gangs did not “fight on sight”, as they usually did for the past 45 years, after they signed an “Agreement to End Hostilities”, dated August 12, 2012. Prison authorities are monitoring the "hunger strike" situation closely. Many outside organizers said any agreement would not hold without some of the top shotcallers/PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Hunger Strike Representatives signing off on it as they did:

Presented by the PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective:

•Todd Ashker, C-58191, D1-119 (AB)

•Arturo Castellanos, C-17275, D1-121 (EME)

•Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671, D1-117 (BGF)

•Antonio Guillen, P-81948, D2-106 (NF)

And the Representatives Body:

•Danny Troxell, B-76578, D1-120 (AB)

•George Franco, D-46556, D4-217 (NF)

•Ronnie Yandell, V-27927, D4-215 (AB)

•Paul Redd, B-72683, D2-117 (BGF)

•James Baridi Williamson, D-34288. D4-107 (BGF)

•Alfred Sandoval, D-61000, D4-214 (EME)

•Louis Powell, B-59864, D1-104 (BGF)

•Alex Yrigollen, H-32421, D2-204 (NF)

•Gabriel Huerta, C-80766, D3-222 (EME)

•Frank Clement, D-07919, D3-116 (AB)

•Raymond Chavo Perez, K-12922, D1-219 (EME)

•James Mario Perez, B-48186, D3-124 (NF)

To learn more about the growth and present status of the Big 4 Prison Gangs: Aryan Brotherhood (AB), Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), Nuestra Familia (NF), and Mexican Mafia (EME), search for books by author and former Folsom Prison Officer Gabriel C. Morales or see: