Starving for Change


“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

― Nelson Mandela who spent six of his 27 prison years in solitary confinement

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins’s’ prison movie The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most popular repeats on cable. The story is set in the 1940s. When Robbins, the convicted wife-killer, screws up he’s thrown into solitary confinement, a dark dungeon, for only a couple of weeks, which is seen as very brutal punishment. All through the “prison cycle” of movies in the 30s and 40s, from Each Dawn I Die to Brute Force, solitary is relatively brief before the misbehaving prisoner is released into the “general population”.

In the past few days, in the largest prison protest in California’s history, nearly 30,000 inmates have gone on hunger strike in the country’s largest prison system.  Such near-insurrections are not unusual in America’s prison-industrial complex.  Last year’s  “starve for change” strike in Georgia lasted 36 days before it was broken.  All across the country correctional authorities always respond with the same Pavlovian scenario: first, a news blackout; second, flat-out denial of the obvious; third, official press releases acknowledging a strike but downgrading numbers; fourth, mass punishment by withdrawal of privileges and, away from media’s glare, beatings by guards on militants.

California officials have followed this protocol almost to the letter.  As of today, 7600 prisoners remain on hunger strike at 23 of California’s 33 prisons.  The
OR Book Going RougeDepartment of Corrections and (!) Rehabilitation refuses to acknowledge the strike is a political protest, calling it a “mass disturbance”.

The prisoners’ core issue is the use of “no human contact” solitary confinement in special “control cells” or the infamous SHU, segregated housing unit. California holds 4500 inmates in solitary. Basically it means that, for example in Pelican Bay prison, you’re cooped up in a tiny, 7-by-11-foot windowless cell, sometimes without radio or TV, 23 hours a day.  You cannot make or receive phone calls or have contact visits with family or friends.  You have no access to rehab programs and cannot attend religious services.  The average inmate stays in isolation for over seven years, and in some cases much longer.  The Catholic Conference of bishops, not your standard liberal group, has called for a change in “this inhuman form of punishment.”

You qualify for solitary either because you’re a real threat (killing another prisoner or guard) or unsubstantiated gossip that you belong to, or are “affiliated with”,  a gang such as Mexican Mafia or Crips.  Evidence of a gang “association” is possession of books like Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” or Machiavelli’s “The Prince” – or using words like tio and hermano – Spanish for uncle and brother.

SHU can be a bloody killing field.  A few years ago CBS reporter Mike Wallace found that in Corcoran State prison in northern California the guards routinely staged inmate fights in the Segregated Unit, wagering on the outcome, and if fights got out of control shooting the inmates involved.  Scores of inmates have been shot and eight killed in these fights.  When Wallace returned to Corcoran to follow up he found that guards, now wary of shooting prisoners, retaliated by encouraging the inmate-on-inmate rape.

We in California like to think of ourselves as more progressive and tolerant than the rest of America.  The underfunded, overcrowded, guards-union-tyrannized prison system is a huge exception because of how we handle our inmates female as well as male.  The Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times and Center for Investigative Reporting has revealed that from 2006 to 2010 nearly 150 female inmates were pressured to undergo sterilization via tubal ligation.  (Shades of the infamous “Tuskegee experiment” where hundreds of poor Alabama blacks were mistreated as lab animals by the U.S. Public Health Service.)  iOne of the California prison doctors is quoted that sterilizing women or removing their ovaries provided “an important service to poor women”, and that the money spent on sterilizing them isn’t “huge…compared to what you save in welfare paying for the unwanted children…”

Even if you’re the Devil himself – and some of these imprisoned guys have done horrendous crimes – nobody deserves inhuman isolation that, in some cases, can go on not for weeks or months but for many years. In the past, solitary was a temporary punishment. Today it’s a life sentence of psychological torture. Who wouldn’t go crazy?

California prisoners in isolation account for 5% of the total prison population but account for nearly half the suicides.

MSNBC, the “liberal” network, airs “Lockup” on weekends which probably gets higher ratings than the same networks’ Rachel Maddow. This prison-reality show is designed to scare us by interviewing zombie-like psychopaths who can’t wait to tell the camera how they chopped the head off their cellmate.  It’s gripping, disgusting TV. They’ve convinced me I don’t want these bloodthirsty creeps ever released to roam around my neighborhood. But I also don’t see much point in killing their souls with endless solitary.  You can sometimes get out of solitary by telling the warden you’ve left the gang; the problem is, once you’re back out on the yard you’re known as a snitch worth murdering.

Of the 160,000 prisoners in California, two-thirds are African-American and Latino.  The feds, under Obama and his attorney general Eric Holder, both African American, refuse to intervene.

Being a prison guard – even though you have the backing of an awesomely powerful union – is shitty work. Being the politician in charge of it all – hey, Gov Jerry Brown! what happened to your Jesuit ethics? – is even shittier.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.



Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.

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