Today’s panel on the Pelican Bay hunger strike was well attended and prompted some interesting discussion. A few people emailed asking me to post my opening remarks on the blog.
Don’t you know? Talking about a revolution, it starts like a whisper. But this panel is much more than a whisper. It is a strong, loud cry against a dehumanizing, cruel incarceration regime that demeans our society in its entirety. To shed light on these practices, a number of Hastings student organizations have invited former inmates, family members of inmates, and legal professionals, who will discuss this afternoon one of the most exciting and electrifying instances of protest against the evils and inadequacies in our correctional system.
The strike started, and is resuming, at a momentous time in American criminal justice and in California in particular. The State of California is still reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata, affirming a federal three-judge panel decision that population reduction is the only way to combat a prison medical system beneath minimal constitutional standards.
As impressive as the Plata decision is, I suspect several broader developments created the fertile ground upon which it sprouted. For many years, it would be very hard to envision a Supreme Court with this political composition approving such an order. Prisons have been, for decades, invisible cities, out of the public mind and eye, and what happened within them, be it cumbersome ineffective rehabilitation programs or plantation-style farms rife with racial cruelties, interested very few people beyond practitioners and scholars. Supermax institutions and SHU units were particularly immune to critique, because for very long—too long—the public was kept in the dark about the realities within walls, and when these institutions did make headlines, the public was told that the people held there for 22 and a half- hour days in isolation were subhuman, violent beings who deserved such treatment. Ironically, solitary confinement was one of the first incarceration practices used in the early penitentiaries of the 18th and 19th centuries. The solitude was designed to make inmates engage in penitence and reflection. The practice has remained as extreme and harmful as it ever was, but it changed in two important ways. First, the rationale for solitary confinement is no longer penitence and rehabilitation, but mere incapacitation and risk management. And prison sentences today are exponentially longer than they were in the early days of prisons. These two factors – the growing disinterest in reform and change, and the extended periods of time in which people are subjected to solitary confinement – make this practice even more perverse now than it was at its inception. Social scientists researching the effects of such regimes are on agreement regarding the immense harm of placing humans in
In reigniting the fire of protest against the deplorable conditions at SHU units, about which you will soon hear from our panelists who have experienced them as inmates, supporters, and family members, Pelican Bay inmates join an honorable tradition of inmate-initiated struggle and reform. A month ago we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Attica uprising, a defining moment in criminal justice politics. In the 1960s, Fred Cruz and his friends in Texas penitentiaries brought the Texan correctional giant to its knees and dismantled a cruel, dark system through habeas writs written on smuggled toilet paper. And in California, the radical prison movement, beginning with Caryl Chessman’s writings and continuing with Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and George Jackson, has generated attention to the cause of inmates. Most recently, inmates in Georgia engaged in a strike against cruel, inhumane correctional practices; the system they raised their voices against is the same system that, last week, executed a probably innocent man. The execution of Troy Davis made millions of people rise in support and decry an outrageous miscarriage of justice. It is possible to make allies against inhumane regimes that exceed what is psychologically and humanly tolerable. The strength of nonviolent protest coming from people whom the public has been accustomed to read about as subhuman, violent beings engaged in rioting and cruelty, is overwhelming.
Some feel that the time for such activism has passed; that the 1960s and 1970s presented a unique moment in American history, in which civil rights movements and the Warren Court created the perfect storm for radical prison movement. For many decades since, the combination of law-and-order political rhetoric from actors across the entire political spectrum, and managerial warehousing practices infected with rampant profiteering and privatization, created a reform-resistant wall. But, as I mentioned earlier, this is changing before our very eyes. We live in extremely difficult financial times. The public is attentive to the message that our out-of-control correctional monster is financially unsustainable. The practices that Pelican Bay inmates are protesting are the product of a hungry, ever-expanding carceral world that we can no longer afford—morally, organizationally and financially. Public opinion is changing and, have no doubt, decisionmakers are listening and responding. The state is currently engaged in a process of realignment, shifting much of its prison population from state prisons to county jails. The parole system is under revision. And, for the first time in forty years, last year the U.S. prison population decreased. These dramatic changes cannot be underestimated.
This act of protest is, therefore, occurring at a unique historical moment in which taxpayers, practitioners and officials may be more open to the possibility of reform advocated for through nonviolent means. It is, therefore, lamentable that the July hunger strike received so little media coverage in mainstream newspapers. But we are here to change that. Our hosts this afternoon are taking an important step to change this and break the silence.
Audience members may disagree about the dangers of violent crime and the means to fight it. If you are agnostic about the merits of this hunger strike, thank you for coming here this afternoon with an open mind willing to become informed aboutthis side of the debate. Listening to the people who are the most disenfranchised and the least listened to in the American political arena is an important experience. And if you are convinced that this way of doing things must be abolished, that solitary confinement and debriefing should end, thank you for coming here today to do something about it. Finally, the tables are starting to turn.
I wish you all an interesting and informative afternoon.