An Insider's View of the California Prison Hunger Strike

August 14, 2013

Hundreds of striking inmates in California have now gone one month without food in a stated effort to end the state’s controversial solitary confinement practices. Here, our blogger inside San Quentin Juan Haines weighs in.

The hunger strikers locked away in California’s secured housing units (which is a prison within a prison) makes me think about the human spirit and what subjugated people are willing to do to make a point, be heard or seek justice. The hunger strikers are using something mainstream media thrives upon in order to get their story to the masses—the fact that they are willing to die.Bill Sell appeased the media’s appetite by hanging himself while assigned to a secured housing unit. The higher than normal suicide rate for inmates in secured housing units has caught the attention of advocates against the use of hyper-isolation as a tool to curtail prison violence. The matter is currently in the process of court adjudication.

As a person incarcerated tasked with managing a prison newspaper, what is my responsibility? What could readers learn about the hunger strike from the perspective of an inmate journalist? I got into journalism because of the enormous amount of “contextual misinformation” published in mainstream newspapers and aired on television stations about the particulars of crime and punishment. I tell people, “They’re not lying. They’re just not telling you everything.”

I do not question the need for a secured housing unit. It’s what happens to people once they are assigned there that becomes problematic for me. I challenge anyone to argue that what secured housing units do to their inhabitants (where extreme sensory deprivation and hyper-isolation literally destroys their psyche) is a better investment in public safety than focusing resources on meeting the rehabilitative needs of the most isolated locked up men and women in our penal institutions.

Study after study, research after research, show that extreme sensory deprivation and hyper-isolation generate so much psychological damage that it amounts to torture. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered California prison officials to dignify the existence of prison inmates, shouldn’t those who have forced prison administrators to haul them off to a secured housing unit have a dignified existence? I argue that even extreme sensory deprived, hyper-isolated misfits ought to have a real opportunity to turn their lives around.

That being said, some say that these lawbreakers leave law-abiding citizens very little choice. What is to be done when some nut careens out of control inside prison and kills someone or threaten the safety and security of the entire institution? Slam ‘em down sounds like the right thing to do.

I challenge anyone to be afraid, get mad and then make a life changing decision for the person they’re angrily afraid of. But that, ladies and gentlemen, is the cold hard truth of how super-max, secured housing units operate. It’s an emotional and reactive decision. And once you’ve got all these people totally isolated, what are you to do with them? Here lies the $51,000 question for Californians: most offenders are going to get another shot at freedom, but their captivity has made them more dangerous than they were before being locked up.

Research is beginning to prove this. There’s even a term to define this process—it’s called the criminogenic affect if prisons. It means that the prison environment is caustic to normal socialization.  As an example, I’ve seen young men come into prison as petty drug addicts or with some minor behavioral problems. Within a few years, that oddball has turned into a hard-core heroine addict or develop severe mental illness brought on because of the prison environment, e.g., the gangs, race divisions and hyper-controlled atmosphere of being under a microscope, 24/7. I’m talking about an environment where a lot of things normal in the free world are deemed criminal or against prison rules. There’s a rule against intimacy. There’s a rule against privacy. There’s a rule against organizing to demonstrate against prison administrators, which means the hunger strikers could be punished and their sentences extended for protesting. Correction of the person’s anti-social, behavioral problems or deviancy is not incorporated into sentencing structure; only the vague term “punishment” is.

When I examine criminal justice, I know that policymakers relentlessly take up the mantra of public safety. That being understood, it’s easy to acknowledge that when dangerous criminals are locked up, the public is safe from that person. However, what happens to the person while imprisoned is most vital to the criminal justice conversation because when they are released, that’s what matters.

This goes to a conversation I had with a volunteer who has been coming inside of San Quentin for several years.  We talked about the hunger strike. What concerned her didn’t surprise me. She asked me if I thought if their demands were reasonable and she wondered if they’d wreak havoc upon the prison system if released from the secured housing unit. I struggle to find the middle ground in this argument. On one hand, there is the right to a dignified existence while incarcerated, while on the other hand, prison administrators are charged with keeping a safe environment for inmates and guards. Fraught with tight roping this argument I raise a larger question: if the hunger strikers are so dangerous that they need to be isolated from the general population of inmates, then shouldn’t prison administrators be working twice as hard to re-integrate them into society? The point I’m making is that the so-called “worst of the worst” need the most opportunity to rehabilitation programs.

I know it’s hard for law-abiding citizens and prison administrators to come to terms with this proposition. But isn’t caring for the least in our society about as American as an American can be? Creating opportunity and providing the chance for renewal is the backbone of American ideology. One of the founding principles of our country—that unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness—is the basis of my argument.

Prison administrators’ prime directive ought to be correcting the anti-social behavior of those under their purview so that they may be returned to the street less dangerous than when they were committed to prison. I don’t think subjecting human beings to extreme sensory deprivation and hyper-isolation helps in that mission.

Photo credit: Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles Times