A specter haunts California


At some point California dreamin’ and going back to California turned into Golden Gulag California. One day, the gulag too shall pass. After the gulag, what will emerge, and who shall write that history? Today marks the second day of the California prisoners’ hunger strike. Some 30,000 prisoners have laid down their tools, in this instance their bodies, in what is reported to be the largest hunger strike in state history. Prisoners across the state have put their lives on the line.

The core demands are straightforward and eminently reasonable: end group punishments; abolish the whole gang identification and `debriefing’ apparatus; end long term isolation; provide adequate and nutritious food; expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for those placed in indefinite solitary confinement in what California calls “secure housing units”. A secure housing unit is a warehouse of pain, suffering and slow death.

Indefinite solitary confinement is torture. Being buried alive is torture. But this hunger strike is about more than that. It’s about the future as well as the present. It’s about who will write the history, and what master narrative will rule that roost. It’s about being human

Solitary cells of America are filled with people living with disabilities. Prisoners, like Prisoner #6 in Pennsylvania SCI-Muncy, are depressed, live with mental disabilities, act out, try to commit suicide, and they are thrown into the hole and abandoned there. And then die horrible deaths.

But that’s not good enough for California. California has Secure Housing Units in which “security” means indefinite and long term isolation, and debriefing means coerced reporting on gangs, even if one is not in a gang.

Meanwhile, in the ordinary and everyday world of California prisons, until fairly recently, women prisoners were tricked or coerced into sterilization. 66% of the guards inside women prisons are male; most of the rapes inside women’s prisons are at the hands of male prison staff.

When the Valley State Prison for Women, VSPW, was closed, to turn it into a men’s “facility”, and the women were shipped to the already crowded Central California Women’s Facility, CCWF, what happened? Overcrowding, antagonism, tension, violence … and segregation and isolation. Take the case of Prisoner T: “T. has been incarcerated for 30 years, with a parole date in late 2014, and was among the women transferred from VSPW after 25 years of violation-free programming.” Twenty-five years without a violation. Because of CCWF circumstances beyond T’s control, T is segregated and will probably stay in segregation for the entire year, until she’s paroled. According to T., “It’s disheartening to be in Ad Seg as I am locked up in a cell 24 hours a day. I only receive six hours of exercise a week, which consists of a small fenced in cement yard that has no place to sit except on the cement floor. I just go out for the fresh air.” Fresh air. To get fresh air, T. is stripped naked and spends her hour in that cement yard completely naked and completely alone. When she returns, she is strip-searched. When she goes to shower, she is handcuffed behind the back. She is allowed to shower three times a week. T. is not in segregation for disciplinary reasons, and yet she is treated as if she were.

Meanwhile, in the “free world”, in California developmental centers, the in-house police do less than nothing to protect residents and patient, or to investigate incidents of abuse. According to a report today, “dozens of women were sexually assaulted inside state centers, but police investigators didn’t order `rape kits’ to collect evidence. Police waited so long to investigate one sexual assault that the staff janitor accused of rape fled the country. The police force’s inaction also allowed abusive caregivers to continue molesting patients – even after the department had evidence that could have stopped future assaults.”

The California prison hunger strike is about being-human. Across the state of California, people in prison are regularly abused, humiliated, tortured, and worse. Women are regularly attacked as women. Indefinite solitary confinement, “debriefing”, group punishments, toxic food regimens, denial of basic services and programs, forced sterilization, routine sexual violence, these are all public policies. They are not incidental nor accidental. The struggle taking place right now in California is for the soul of humanity, for that remote possibility that after the Golden Gulag, something human will emerge. A specter haunts California.


(Photo Credit: The Examiner)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.