CDCR: 30,000 Inmates Refuse Meals

It is Day Two of the hunger strike, and the Los Angeles times reports:

California officials Monday said 30,000 inmates refused meals at the start of what could be the largest prison protest in state history.

Inmates in two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons, and at all four out-of-state private prisons, refused both breakfast and lunch on Monday, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. In addition, 2,300 prisoners failed to go to work or attend their prison classes, either refusing or in some cases saying they were sick.

The corrections department will not acknowledge a hunger strike until inmates have missed nine consecutive meals. Even so, Thornton said, Monday’s numbers are far larger than those California saw two years earlier during a series of hunger strikes that drew international attention.

Read the full article for some background on the strike.

The Inmate Photo Ban and Reasoned Restrictions

Self-portrait drawn by Marcus Harrison at
the request of his mother Anita. Courtesy
the California Report.

There’s an interesting and thought-provoking story in this morning’s California Report about a prison regulation that prohibited photography.

For a quarter-century, California outlawed personal photographs for inmates held in isolation in special security housing units. Over the years, the restrictions affected thousands of inmates in four prisons: California State Prison, Corcoran; California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi; California State Prison, Sacramento; and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. While prison officials photographed the inmates for administrative purposes, those images were not passed on to families, making the men all but invisible to relatives living hundreds and even thousands of miles away. For years, prison staff defended the ban, contending that personal photographs were circulated by prison gang leaders as calling cards, both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders. 

But after taking a closer look at the ban during a 2011 inmate hunger strike, top Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials determined it was not justified. Scott Kernan, who retired as undersecretary of corrections in 2011, said the stories of calling cards were isolated examples and the photo ban and other restrictions targeted inmates who were not breaking any rules. 

“I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?” 

Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations. 

Now, with hundreds of families receiving photos from relatives locked at Pelican Bay, some for the first time in decades, there is growing pressure on the corrections department to lift other restrictions and limit the amount of time inmates are locked in the controversial security units. 

I find this story fascinating for several reasons. First, this is probably not the only instance of a prison restriction lasting decades before being examined and questioned. Scott Kernan is to be commended for his willingness to reexamine the restriction. Second, and related, note the incident that prompted reexamining the regulation: The 2011 hunger strike. While CDCR was very intent in arguing that the changes it made to its SHU policies were unrelated to the strike, it is clear that organized, nonviolent action that received media attention (arguably too little) has actually had an impact on institutional policies.

Lifting the photo ban was not one of the strikers’ five core demands. But it was a dated, unnecessary restriction that needed to be reexamined, and the hunger strike created the opportunity for prison authorities to reflect on its necessity.

The photo ban also illuminates the many aspects of segregation seldom addressed in the literature. The distance of Pelican Bay and Corcoran from many urban centers in California means that families seldom, or never, get to see their loved ones–to the point that children, siblings, parents and lovers may forget what their loved ones look like.

The success of the hunger strike that begins today remains to be seen. But this story highlights the possible gains from nonviolent action and is yet one more reminder why the strikers need our support.

Tubal Ligations to Female Inmates in CA Prisons With Questionable Consent

Yes, you read it right. The Sac Bee reports:

At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison.

As you’ll see in the piece, the issue of consent is contested.

Moving Away from the CCA! For Financial Reasons

The state of Kentucky is opting out of private incarceration. For the first time in 30 years, no Kentucky inmates will do time in private facilities. The reason? Savings. The Courier-Journal reports:

J. Michael Brown, the state Justice and Public Safety secretary, said in a news release Tuesday that the move will save the state about $2 million a year. And he credited a 2011 law and other steps taken by the General Assembly and the Beshear administration that reformed sentencing and increased drug treatment opportunities.

“This has created, for the first time in a generation, an opportunity to manage our inmate population with existing DOC (Department of Corrections) facilities, county jails and local halfway houses,” Brown said in a news release.

The state inmate population is dipping — from 22,102 inmates last November to 20,591 today, according to Jennifer Brislin, spokeswoman for the cabinet.

It is, apparently, possible to opt out of private incarceration, and it is sometimes more cost-effective.

Thoughts on Standing, Or: Why Should I Care About PRISM/mass incarceration/the Hunger Strike?

Recently, many Californians rejoiced at the news that the Supreme Court, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, would not hear conservative arguments to preserve the discriminatory Prop 8 because of lack of standing. The happiness was because of the combined effect of the decision with another decision handed that day, U.S. v. Windsor, which found the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The bottom line is that same-sex marriage, in the states that recognized it (now thirteen and the District of Columbia, with the addition of CA), is fully federally recognized. Nothing has changed in states that have not recognized same-sex marriage, and there are still many battles to be fought on those fronts; but some happy outcomes in the area of immigration are already happening.

But what did the Court really say about Prop 8? Rather than reaching the decision on its merits and expressing a clear opinion about the proposition’s constitutionality, the Court found that, when a state government is unwilling to defend one of its laws, private citizens cannot do so in its stead–not even when said citizens were pointed to by the government as possible ideological and financial stewards of this law. The dissenters, I’m sure, would come to different conclusions on the merits, but the opinion of the court is based on what Chief Justice Roberts and others consider principles of sound government. This is particularly interesting in the context of a neopopulist, direct democracy system like the one in California, in which legislative impasse requires that ideologically controversial laws be taken up by the voters.

The five Justices were very cautious not to attach value judgments to their no-standing decision, but we are free to think whether such meanings exist. Usually, the test for standing has to do with whether the party in question has a stake in the matter before the court. And it could be argued (albeit with little help from the text in Hollingsworth) that a no-standing argument is a broader statement against the notion that same-sex marriage somehow affects–in injury or otherwise–people who are not same-sex couples. The little graphic below, which made the rounds on the social networks in the last few months, is an expression of this interpretation of lack of standing: That gay people can now marry has no injurious effect on the institution of marriage itself, so no one but the government can argue against it.

But on further thought, this interpretation of standing is not the deepest or most interesting stance on the matter. After all, that same-sex marriages may proceed in California, now with full federal backing and support, does have an effect on everyone in the state, in the sense that we all live in a more just and egalitarian society, that has taken an important step in furthering civil rights. This is why organizations such as the ACLU of Northern California have a stake in the decision, if not as official parties then at least as amici. This is not, however, a matter of technical legal standing, but rather one of moral standing; when some of us don’t get our civil rights, it affects all of us in a variety of ways.

What does all of this have to do with the hunger strike? I have recently had a chance to interact with various progressive audiences, only to find out that they were unaware of the hunger strike that begins tomorrow in Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and possibly other prisons. Those who knew, vaguely, about the strike, were not well informed about the inmates’ five core demands and of CDCR’s new protocols’ failure to address them. Very few people know that Christian Gomez, an inmate at Corcoran, died during the previous hunger strike. Very few people know that the strike galvanized agreements across races and gang affiliations. My grave concern is that, like its predecessors, this strike will receive little publicity, and the illness and possible death that might result will remain unknown and unexamined. And this is because I think we all have standing on this matter. Not in the strictly legal sense, but in the sense that treating our fellow human beings, Americans, Californians, in inhumane ways does have a detrimental effect on how we all treat each other.

What keeps us unaware of prison conditions, why do many of us feel that we lack “moral standing” on incarceration conditions? Some of this has to do with misinformation. Mainstream media does not cover incarceration frequently, though the financial crisis has begun to change that insofar as expenditures on corrections affect our wallets. Still, since incarceration does not affect everyone equally, many of us are likely to familiarize ourselves with its evils through the increasing number of new TV shows about prison (such as the new Orange is the New Black,) which will likely not tell us anything of social or political value. Even shows that purported to offer some critique of the system left its basic tenets unexamined. Moreover, prisons themselves are distant from the consciousness of those not directly affected. The disparate effect of incarceration is exaggerated by institutions like Pelican Bay and Corcoran, which are far away from major urban centers and very difficult to get to, and by the worrisome prospect of even larger, more isolated institutions.

But one should be informed, and one should care, because incarceration and segregation regimes do affect all of us  First of all, one in a hundred Americans is behind bars, and one in 36 is under some form of correctional supervision. That person could be you. While I think articles like this one are somewhat facetious–the people targeted by technology laws are unlikely to be the critical mass of inmates in California prisons, for a variety of reasons involving race, class, and enforcement priorities–those are still vast numbers of lives touched by the experience of imprisonment. But at least one must acknowledge that the vast numbers of incarcerated people mean that the experience of incarceration touches many, many lives, such as those of 2.5 million children with parents behind bars. If that child is not you, he or she is your future neighbor, coworker, and fellow citizen. Most people behind bars will, one day, be released, and it is to the benefit of all of us that they have some chance of reintegration because we all have to interact with each other, even when someone we don’t know crosses our path in our gated community.

Second, even if your life has not been touched by incarceration, the dehumanization of your fellow citizens may eventually spill over to the way your government sees you. This is why the recent discoveries about phone surveillance cannot be brushed away with the supposition that, if one is not a terrorist, one is not affected by PRISM. Approaches toward human rights, surveillance and social control tend to be imported and exported across systems and institutions, and not caring about other human beings’ conditions of confinement may infect conditions in schools and other places.

Third, there is the persistent question of how much all of this costs us. Even if this system could be stomached from the humanitarian perspective, is it financially viable?

And finally, there is a serious moral argument. Do you want to be part of a society that locks up people for many years, sometimes decades, for 22.5 hours a day, waking them up frequently so they get little to no sleep, with no human company whatsoever, abysmal medical care, and very poor food? Do you feel comfortable subjecting others to this regime based on partial and faulty information, particularly reports of some people on others to receive a reprieve from this same system? Do you believe tattoos and rumors to be a fair indication of gang affiliation, enough to place a person in this system for years? And do you feel comfortable with the possibility that we might have made a mistake and subjected an innocent person to years of horrific torture?

If not, stand with the hunger strikers tomorrow. Because you have moral standing.