Recently Counter Punch published an article of mine describing the U.S. crime of long-term solitary confinement or control unit prisons. Since then there have been a couple of important developments and the editor has generously allowed me some space to continue this reporting.
Most importantly, tens of thousands of California prisoners have launched the largest hunger strike in the history of the United States. Recent reports, even in the New York Times, have suggested that about 30,000 prisoners are on hunger strike and that many are refusing to work as well.
Although this effort has been stimulated by prisoners in solitary confinement it is apparently spreading throughout the entire system. It is absolutely essential that we support these prisoners. We can do this by: a) joining in the many demonstrations; b) providing financial support; c) signing the petition; and d) spreading the word everywhere. Indeed, this situation has the potential to become one of the most important strikes (of any kind) ever. For information about how to help: http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com
I have received many emails in response to my initial article and it has become impossible to answer them all
individually. I would thus like to thank those people who took the time to write to me, including those who disagreed with some of my basic observations. The disagreements fell into two basic categories.
First, some people thought that I over-emphasized the role of prisons and control unit prisons in particular with respect to people of color, suggesting it was more a matter of class than of race. Let me make it clear that I don’t believe that anyone should be placed in solitary confinement or control units ever. They have been labeled as torture by human rights activists and scholars across the world and thus we all should oppose them for anyone. However, it hardly seems possible to overemphasize the role of social control of people of color. The imprisonment rate in the United States began to rise, for the first time in history, in 1972, following on the heels of the civil rights movement, the Black power movement, the great rebellion at Attica, etc. The rates are now roughly 8 times higher for Black
people than for White people, and there are a hundred different permutations of these statistics that demonstrate how prisons target people of color. If none of this is persuasive, I urge people to read The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s excellent book on this topic. They also might be interested in my book, Out of Control: A 15 Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons, which discusses this topic at length. You can order it or read an abridged version online at: http://www.freedomarchives.org/CEML.html
Secondly, the issue of violence, specifically gang violence was raised by some readers as necessitating long-term solitary confinement. However, additional repression has never been an effective response to anything, including violence in the prisons. It has been demonstrated time and time again that increased repression simply increases violence. Additionally, it is the guards themselves that frequently use gang affiliation to get prisoners fighting among themselves, sometimes in isolation prisons and sometimes in general population.
The 30,000 prisoners who are on hunger strike are not all living in long-term solitary confinement but they oppose it because they understand that it is torture. If the prisoners themselves feel it is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the 8th Amendment, then shouldn’t we take heed of this? (For info re Hunger Strike: http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com)
Shortly after they opened the first such California prison at Pelican Bay, the prison administration claimed that violence went down. However, my husband is a statistician who crunched the numbers and found that violence was going down even before they opened the prison.
Shane Bauer who spent 26 months in solitary confinement in Iran, upon his return to the U.S. investigated the California situation and found that the “rate of violent incidents in California prisons is nearly 20 percent higher than when Pelican Bay opened in 1989.” Furthermore, he explains that “in states that have reduced solitary confinement–Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi–violence has not increased. . . Since Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman released 75 percent of inmates from solitary in the mid-2000s, violence has dropped 50 percent.
If there was a third thread to the emails I received, it was a weariness, a cynicism about change. This is not the time for cynicism, our worst enemy. On July 13th there will be a huge demonstration at one of these California prisons, Corcoran. Hundreds of people will travel for many hours to demonstrate in the blazing heat. That sacrifice will be nothing compared to the Hunger Strike of the prisoners who are literally risking their lives in order to be agents of change. And by the way, this is a Hunger Strike that cuts across ethnic lines, and the prisoners have called for all conflict between the various groups to cease. Let us not prevaricate. Let’s embrace their resistance. For more information, to join the demonstration, sign a petition, or donate needed funds, go to http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.