Workers Vanguard No. 984
5 August 2011
Hunger Strike in California Prison Hell
JULY 29—For three weeks, inmates locked in the solitary concrete isolation chambers of the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s notorious Pelican Bay “supermax” prison starved themselves simply in order to be accorded some vestige of humanity from their jailers. At its height, the hunger strike, which began on July 1, was joined by 6,600 inmates at 13 other prisons in the state. The prisoners’ demands—for an end to group punishment and enforced “snitching”; for access to educational and other programs; to be allowed human contact, weekly phone calls, access to sunlight and nutritional food—were strikingly minimal. This fact is itself testament to the dehumanizing torture of solitary confinement.
As Pennsylvania death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal put it in a solidarity statement, “These men are killing themselves potentially for fresh air and sunlight.” SHU prisoners are locked in windowless concrete cells for 22 and a half hours a day under the incessant glare of fluorescent lights and behind solid metal doors that do not even allow eye contact with fellow inmates. The only “reprieve” is a possible 90 minutes a day in a 26-by-10-foot recreation yard surrounded by 20-foot-high walls. As an op-ed piece in the New York Times (17 July) titled “Barbarous Confinement” noted: “Many of these prisoners have been sent to virtually total isolation and enforced idleness for no crime, not even for alleged infractions of prison regulations . Since it is not defined as punishment for a crime, it does not fall under ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ the reasoning goes.”
To be branded a “gang member”—a tag that can be applied at whim—is a one-way ticket to the SHU, where many prisoners have languished for years and some for decades. One way out, besides death, is “debriefing”—snitching out other prisoners as gang members, itself a possible death sentence for not only the prisoner but his family as well. As the hunger strike spread, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) railed that the willingness of thousands of prisoners to starve themselves was further evidence of “the power, influence and reach of prison gangs”!
The strike at Pelican Bay ended on July 21 with the CDCR agreeing to allow SHU prisoners to have wall calendars and woolen caps to wear in freezing cells during the winter, as well as promising some educational programs and a review of the “debriefing” procedures.
The super maximum jails like Pelican Bay, begun in the 1980s, were designed, in the words of one journalist, for “psychological emasculation, to crush the spirit, strip a man of the last vestige of defiance and force him to conform to the most punitive system the courts will allow” (London Sunday Times, 23 May 1993). High-tech sensory deprivation chambers like the SHU throw into stark relief the nature of the bourgeois state as an apparatus of organized violence to preserve the rule and profits of racist American capitalism.
The prisons are the concentrated expression of the depravity of this society, a key instrument in coercing, torturing and brutalizing those who have been cast off as the useless residue of a system rooted in exploitation and racial oppression. Elementary humanity demands that the SHU and all other solitary confinement chambers be abolished. But it will take nothing short of proletarian socialist revolution to destroy the capitalists’ prison system and sweep away all the barbaric institutions of the bourgeois state.
From Attica to Pelican Bay
The Pelican Bay hunger strike took place on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the murder of San Quentin prisoner and Black Panther Party spokesman George Jackson, who was gunned down by prison guards who alleged that he was “trying to escape.” The murder of Jackson was the spark that ignited the multiracial rebellion of inmates at Attica prison in upstate New York in September 1971. Declaring: “We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such,” the Attica prisoners demanded decent medical care, a minimum wage for prison work, rehabilitation and education programs and an end to censorship of reading material.
In their struggle against the conditions in America’s prisons, Jackson and the Attica inmates reflected the mass social struggles that were taking place outside the prison walls, from the “black power” movement to the protests against the Vietnam War. One of Jackson’s comrades was Hugo Pinell, who became a leader of the prisoners’ rights struggle in the late 1960s while incarcerated in California. The Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee have long fought for freedom for Pinell, a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner who took part in the hunger strike. Pinell has been locked in solitary for some 40 years but remains unbroken and unbowed.
George Jackson was killed and the Attica revolt crushed with particular vengeance because the capitalist rulers feared that the prisoners had come to understand their repression in political terms. When New York governor Nelson Rockefeller moved in for the kill at Attica, he declared that the “revolutionary tactics of militants” were a “serious threat to the ability of free government to preserve order.” Four days after the revolt began, the state unleashed a 1,000-strong assault team. Twenty-nine inmates were killed. After the slaughter, hundreds of naked, overwhelmingly black prisoners were lined up in the yard like slaves at an auction in the Confederate South. Here was a searing image of the reality of black oppression in the U.S. Built on the foundation of black chattel slavery, the forcible segregation of the majority of the black population at the bottom of this society endures as a fundamental prop for preserving capitalist rule in the United States.
Forty years after Attica, America’s prisons are overflowing with black and Latino youth, the majority of them rounded up under the “anti-crime” crusade and especially the “war on drugs.” Republican president Richard Nixon launched a “war on crime” that was centrally aimed at the repression of black militants and the inner-city poor following the ghetto upheavals of the 1960s. This campaign was augmented as deindustrialization began to hit a wide swath of the country in the late 1970s. Largely due to the “war on drugs,” by the mid 1990s the prison population had grown by a million—one place behind bars for every job lost on the assembly lines.
The lives of inner-city blacks, who once supplied a “reserve army of labor” to fill jobs during times of economic expansion, were written off as expendable, no longer worth providing even the minimal subsistence needed to raise the next generation of wage slaves. Virtually every social program benefiting the ghetto and barrio poor was slashed. Having created the conditions in which black and Latino youth had little or no way out of desperate poverty, the rulers branded them as criminal “outlaws.”
The “war on drugs” went into high gear under Republican president Ronald Reagan, with the avid support of black Democrats like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who joined in the ideological crusade against ghetto youth as drug-pushing predators. By 2010, the prison population had reached 2.3 million people, the majority of whom were convicted on non-violent drug charges. The Spartacist League calls to decriminalize drugs. We oppose all laws against “crimes without victims”—from drug use and gambling to prostitution and pornography—which at bottom are designed to regiment the population in this viciously racist, bigoted, class-divided society.
As we wrote 16 years ago in “Lockdown U.S.A.” (WV No. 618, 10 March 1995): “The bourgeoisie’s vicious drive to imprison and execute ever-increasing numbers of ghetto youth reflects a sinister impulse to genocide against a layer of the black population.” The election of America’s first black president has not changed this cruel calculus of torture and death. While one in four black children have lost their fathers to prison by age 14, Barack Obama lectures young black men for having insufficient “family values.”
This is a common refrain of the black petty bourgeoisie. A thin layer of blacks benefited from the affirmative action and “war on poverty” programs instituted in response to the civil rights struggles and to quell the ghetto revolts. Today, much of the black middle class reviles the inner-city poor as “bringing down the race.” As Commander-in-Chief, Obama is the overseer of the plantation of racist American capitalism, which subjects tens of thousands of black, Latino and other U.S. citizens locked up in solitary to the kind of horrors perpetrated in the name of the “war on terror” against prisoners in Guantánamo.
Cruel but Not Unusual
With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the prison population of the entire planet. Over 7.3 million men, women and children are now in jail or prison or on parole or probation. And California leads the nation in the number of people behind bars. The state’s prison population exploded from 25,000 in 1980 to 168,000 in 2009. In the same period, 23 new prisons were built. But this has not been enough to warehouse those put on the state’s conveyor belt to mass incarceration.
California prisons are packed to almost 200 percent capacity in conditions so depraved that a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that they violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” It is notable that the ruling came from a Court that has itself worked assiduously to shred prisoners’ rights, as well as those of the population as a whole. But at bottom the ruling represents little more than an application of some cosmetics to the barbarism of the U.S. “justice” system.
Going back nearly three decades, a series of lower court orders have directed California prison authorities to relieve overcrowding, provide medical care and stop abuse by prison guards. In 2005, a California federal court found it to be an “uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.” Such “deficiencies” include denial of medical care as well as the risk to life and limb that comes with being confined with hundreds of others, triple-bunked in gyms and cafeterias, for 24 hours a day in conditions described as a “giant game of survivor.” Mentally ill prisoners are locked up in “telephone-booth sized cages without toilets.” One prisoner a week kills himself, a suicide rate 80 percent higher than the national average. Even the former head of the prisons in Texas, the execution capital of the U.S., described California’s prisons as “appalling” and “inhumane,” adding that “in more than 35 years of prison work experience I have never seen anything like it.”
Such conditions are the product of literally thousands of laws enacted by Democratic and Republican governors alike, over the past 30 years. In his first round in the governor’s office, when he was known as Governor Moonbeam by those who saw him as the voice of “la-la land” liberalism, Jerry Brown, a Democrat, knocked down any possibility for early release. Most rehabilitation programs were eliminated, and the length of mandatory prison terms was increased. The supercharged “tough on crime” climate laid the basis for the passage of Proposition 184 in 1994. The harshest “three strikes” law in the country, it mandates 25 years to life for any third offense by those with two prior serious convictions. Among those behind bars for life under this law are people convicted on their “third strike” of stealing $2 socks or $20 work gloves.
Anti-gang injunctions make it a crime if the cops find you anywhere in public in the company of an alleged gang member. Once you’re railroaded to prison, the brand of “gang affiliation” can land you in the torture chambers of solitary confinement. Even after serving their time, prisoners remain ensnared by laws that bar ex-felons from public housing, food stamps and many other benefits. California has 210 laws and regulations preventing felons from getting jobs or licenses—even to be a barber, an interior designer or a guide-dog trainer. Criminal background checks are mandatory on most employment applications. Seventy-seven percent of those released from prison in California end up back behind bars—the highest recidivism rate in the nation.
In 2009, Lovelle Mixon, a young black man raised on the destitute streets of the East Oakland ghetto who was out on parole, blew away four cops with an assault rifle in two separate confrontations after he was pulled over by the police. An article in the San Francisco Bay View (24 March 2009) remarked at the time: “Lovelle Mixon was America’s worst nightmare: the Black man with nothing to lose.” As an ex-felon on the streets, he had no prospects. When confronted by the cops, his only future was to be sent back to jail, so he went to his death in a hail of police gunfire instead. More than 500 people came out for Mixon’s funeral, their rage and defiance of the occupying army of police on their streets captured in a text message reading: “Us: 4—Them: 1.”
To preserve their power and profits against those they exploit and oppress, the capitalist rulers erect ever more monstrous institutions of coercion, suppression and death, vastly expanding police powers on the streets of the U.S. while their military marauds over the planet. The medieval tortures of the rack and the screw have been replaced by the high-tech barbarism of solitary confinement, the death row gurneys of state-sanctioned murder or the more “normal” conditions of being packed in overcrowded prisons like animals in abattoirs. Unspeakably cruel, these conditions are not, however, unusual in racist America. On the contrary, such barbarism is the product of a system that has long outlived any measure of progress.
The “Worst of the Worst”: California Prison Guards
Among the biggest beneficiaries of the “war on crime” have been the sadistic jailers themselves. In the past 30 years, the size of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has grown from 5,600 to 33,000, their pay more than tripling during the same period from $21,000 to $73,000 a year. One of the most powerful political forces in the state, the CCPOA has poured millions of dollars into speeding up the assembly line to prison. Promoting a series of reactionary initiatives—from the 1972 reinstatement of California’s death penalty to the 1994 “three strikes” law—this “union” has been a moving force behind the defeat of any attempt to alleviate prison conditions. The hellish prison conditions are their bread and butter. One guard enthused: “With ‘Three Strikes’ and the overcrowding we’re going to experience with that, we’re going to need to build at least three prisons a year for the next five years. Each one of those institutions will take approximately 1,000 employees.”
If there is any criminal gang in California’s prisons, the guards are it, genuinely the “worst of the worst” violent predators. According to testimony in a class-action suit brought by 3,600 Pelican Bay prisoners in the mid 1990s, California prison guards shot and killed more than 30 inmates between 1989 and 1994. Eight Corcoran State Prison guards were indicted for staging “blood sport” fights between inmates in the Secure Housing Unit. In 2010, an investigation by a Sacramento Bee journalist exposed the vicious racism and brutality of guards in the “Behavior Modification Unit” in the High Desert Prison, describing how one black prisoner was shackled, pepper-sprayed and then “paraded naked through the cell block in a way that that prisoner and others who witnessed the event regarded as a kind of image of modern slavery.”
A throwback to the plantation overseers in the Confederate slavocracy, the guards are well-compensated for “doing their job.” While savaging social programs for the poor, sick and aged in the name of balancing the state’s budget, Jerry Brown increased the CCPOA’s vacation and other benefits earlier this year. This was more than a simple payoff for the $2 million the prison guards provided for Brown’s election campaign. The misleaders of the public workers unions shelled out millions for the Democrats, but that didn’t spare their members’ jobs, pensions and other benefits from the budget-cutting ax. The political power of the bonapartist thugs who run and police the prisons is fed by the racist rulers’ endless “anti-crime” campaigns. Having secured ever more fabulous wealth through grinding the working class and poor, the capitalist class is well aware that it is creating a massive sea of discontent at the bottom of this society, and it spares no expense in increasing the powers of state repression—from the cops to the prisons.
Yet the armed thugs of the capitalist rulers are welcomed into the labor movement by the sellout misleaders of the trade unions. It would be hard to find a more savage indictment of the service the union bureaucrats provide as the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class. In defense of the profits and competitiveness of U.S. imperialism, they allowed the industrial unions to be ravaged. Now they are lying down in the face of an all-out war against public workers unions, offering to share in the “sacrifice” while channeling the anger of their ranks into renewed support for the Democratic Party. To maintain their dues base, they organize the strikebreaking cops and the sadistic jailers whose purpose is the violent suppression of the working class, the ghetto and barrio poor and all those perceived as potential “enemies of the state.” Cops and prison guards out of the unions!
Fight for a Socialist America!
While they have written off a whole generation of black youth as criminal outlaws, the rulers remain fearful that prisoners might develop some social and political consciousness. Being caught with a book by George Jackson is enough to be branded a gang member and sent to solitary. In 2005, black death row prisoner Tookie Williams was denied clemency by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In sending Williams to his death, Schwarzenegger particularly singled out Williams’ dedication of his 1998 book Life in Prison to, among others, George Jackson as “a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems.”
It was the violence and brutality of the prisons, combined with the social upheavals of the time, that propelled George Jackson and others to see their oppression as a product of the capitalist system. Even so, as prisoners, divorced from any role in capitalist production, they had no social power. The struggles of that time were subject to both bloody repression and co-optation by the ruling class. Today, the Pelican Bay hunger strike is a desperate product of that legacy and of the subsequent dearth of class and other social struggle against the capitalist rulers, who are loyally served by the trade-union bureaucracy. The destitution and mass joblessness in the inner cities have likewise increasingly robbed a whole layer of the black population of any social power, reducing many ghetto youth to a reactive glorification of lumpenism as a reflection of their own desperate struggle to survive by whatever means necessary.
The multiracial working class is the only force in capitalist society with both the social power and historic interest to eradicate a system rooted in its exploitation. The black workers who remain a militant backbone of the unions provide a critical human bridge for linking the power of the working class to the anger of the inner cities. To unleash this power, it is necessary to wage a political struggle to break the chains forged by the trade-union bureaucracy which have shackled labor to its exploiters.
As we wrote in “Massacre at Attica,” the front-page article of the first issue of Workers Vanguard (October 1971):
“We support the most militant struggle against the state. We only seek to give that struggle the strategic perspectives that will lead to the workers conquering political power .
“The heroic Attica martyrs and George Jackson will long be remembered for their courageous stand against overwhelming odds. It is not the crimes (real or alleged) for which the prisoners were jailed, but the stand they took—rising far above capitalist-imposed ignorance, poverty, brutality and frame-up—for justice and against oppression, that the world’s working people will remember.”
The purpose of the Spartacist League is to build the multiracial revolutionary party that will lead the workers in the fight to shatter the capitalist state and all its instruments of incarceration, torture and death. When the workers internationally take political power and put the wealth now appropriated by the tiny class of exploiters to serving the needs of humanity, they will lay the material basis for achieving an egalitarian communist society, doing away with any need for a state apparatus of repression.