FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Starving for Change

by CLANCY SIGAL

“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.

 

 

More articles by:

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Mueller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon
Patrick Cockburn
People Care More About the OXFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic
Ted Rall
On Gun Violence and Control, a Political Gordian Knot
Binoy Kampmark
Making Mugs of Voters: Mueller’s Russia Indictments
Dave Lindorff
Mass Killers Abetted by Nutjobs
Myles Hoenig
A Response to David Axelrod
Colin Todhunter
The Royal Society and the GMO-Agrochemical Sector
Cesar Chelala
A Student’s Message to Politicians about the Florida Massacre
Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
Robert Fantina
Guns, Violence and the United States
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Latest Insulting Proposal: Converting SNAP into a Canned Goods Distribution Program
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Zaps Oxygen
John Laforge
$1.74 Trillion for H-bomb Profiteers and “Fake” Cleanups
CJ Hopkins
The War on Dissent: the Specter of Divisiveness
Peter A. Coclanis
Chipotle Bell
Anders Sandström – Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen
Ways Forward for the Left
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
Tommy Raskin
Syrian Quicksand
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Still Tries to Push Dangerous Drug Class
Jill Richardson
The Attorney General Thinks Aspirin Helps Severe Pain – He’s Wrong
Mike Miller
Herb March: a Legend Deserved
Ann Garrison
If the Democrats Were Decent
Renee Parsons
The Times, They are a-Changing
Howard Gregory
The Democrats Must Campaign to End Trickle-Down Economics
Sean Keller
Agriculture and Autonomy in the Middle East
Ron Jacobs
Re-Visiting Gonzo
Eileen Appelbaum
Rapid Job Growth, More Education Fail to Translate into Higher Wages for Health Care Workers
Ralph Nader
Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria—Wide-Ranging Lawyers for the People
Chris Zinda
The Meaning of Virginia Park
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail