23 July 2011

Has Barack Obama heard of Pelican Bay, I wonder

On June 30, 2011, I wrote about hell and heaven, of prisons hellish and heavenly (‘On prisons and death-escape’, Daily News). I wrote about a hell that had a name and acronym: Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), a “Supermax” state prison run by the California Department for Corrections and Rehabilitation, located in Crescent City in Del Norte County’. Inmates of PBSP are incarcerated in long-term solitary confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation, I learned and reported. I wrote also that the law was a creature that has been denied visiting rights to PBSP.

I wrote about Pelican Bay because I had heard that the inmates were planning to starve to death. It is a facility, sorry hell, set out in 275 acres. The inmates inhabit hell-cells the size of a small bathroom in solitary confinement. They don’t see any other human being for 23 hours of the day. They don’t get to see the sky or feel sunlight on their faces. They don’t see a blade of grass, even. Whenever they do get to leave their cells, they are handcuffed and shackled, hands-to-waist and ankle-to-ankle. And so the years pass. Decades, in fact, in certain cases.

Well, they’ve had enough of hell. They want death. They’ve been on a hunger strike since July 1, 2011. Yes, they’d rather die and take their chances in the hereafter (if such exists).

What is it all about?  We need some context here and Marilyn McMahon, Attorney at Law, provides some. She states that the notorious ‘D Corridor’ (also known as the ‘short’ corridor) has the highest level of restricted incarceration in the State of California and among the most severe conditions in the USA. The harshness is designed to force prisoners to ‘debrief’, i.e. to provide information about criminal or prison gang activity of other prisoners. She states that most inmates are neither members of or associated with prison gangs. ‘Debriefing’ does not lessen death-risk for those who give information or their families or other prisoners. The entirety that is their incarceration amounts to torture, sanctioned by the silence of those who ought to know better (e.g. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice et al).  Those who do ‘debrief’, do so simply to escape isolation units, she says.  Armed with this misinformation, the authorities then validate other prisoners as members or associates of prison gangs. That’s ‘Justice for all’, a la the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, ladies and gentlemen.

The striking prisoners have five core demands:
  1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
  2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
  3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to "make segregation a last resort" and "end conditions of isolation." Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in Security Housing Units and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
  4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
  5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities..." Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).
Ladies and gentlemen, I am not surprised by all this. We are, after all, talking about a country where George W. Bush and his partners in war crimes have got off the hook, possibly because Barack Obama wanted to purchase an insurance policy with respect to the risk of getting similarly branded for his adventures in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and who knows where else (he has a couple more years to go).

The prison authorities, meanwhile, have promised to ‘effect a comprehensive assessment of its existing policy and procedure’. The striking prisoners are not biting. Naturally. That’s as vague as one can get. Meanwhile, McMohan informs us that the principal hunger strikers have lost 25-35 pounds each. There are hundreds striking at Pelican Bay and thousands of others supporting in California’s 32 other prisons. There are support demonstrations all over the USA, but also in Canada, Australia and Turkey. You won’t find Channel 4 doing a documentary on all this, that’s for sure.

We live in harsh times, did I hear someone say? The USA seems to have lost its way, someone did tell me this morning. Well, times were always harsh in that country. The USA did not lose its way. It never had a way worth celebrating. Not since Christopher Columbus mis-navigated his ship and mis-labelled people, causing a lot of confusion about Indians, West Indians, Red Indians and so on. It’s been downhill since then for a lot of people in that country.  It’s a beautiful country and the people are really nice, I agree. It’s the political leadership that sucks. And of course the system, which includes foreign policy ‘prerogatives’ that sanction numerous crimes against humanity and domestic mechanisms that are as pernicious, especially since they are out-of-public-view for the most part.

Something popped out though. It began in Pelican Bay. It will be tough thrusting it all back again. I think Barack Obama knows this.