In a recent column, Dan Morain focused on the "manipulative ways" of Todd Ashker in attempting to delegitimize the California prison hunger strike ("The real story behind the hunger strike," Aug. 11.) Morain writes that Ashker, "from his cell in the isolated tier of California's most faraway prison, orchestrates a hunger strike to force the CDCR to let him and other gangsters out of the security housing unit, called the SHU, and into the general population at Pelican Bay State Prison."
We don't condone the criminal acts of Todd Ashker, but know this hunger strike is about far more than Ashker manipulating for a "get-out-of-jail-free card." There's a bigger question: At what point do justified consequences for crimes committed cross the lines of reason and decency?
The hunger strike began, statewide, on July 8 with approximately 30,000 participating prisoners. Currently, about 200 inmates in six facilities continue to deny food. These are the demands:
1. End group punishment and administrative abuse.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons in 2006 regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate nutritious food
5. Expand and provide constructive programing for indefinite "Security Housing Unit" inmates.
Do these requests seem unreasonable to you?
CDCR states that "SHU inmates are deemed those whose conduct endangers the safety of others or the security of the institution. In most cases, these inmates have committed serious rules violations while housed in a general population setting."
Although SHUs were constructed for serious offenders, men accused of gang affiliations who have no misconduct write-ups are also being sent to SHUs for extended periods of time.
Having worked for two decades with inmates, inside and outside facilities, we have visited prisons and written to inmates throughout California.
We recently received a letter from a man just transferred to Pelican Bay, having been validated as a gang member based on his tattoo and his name listed on two papers, both found on other inmates. This "evidence" earned him six years in the SHU and three years added to his sentence, despite that while incarcerated, he has been well-behaved, earned his high school diploma and completed a paralegal correspondence course.
From his letter: "I can see how people have problems here. It's like a mental ward. My celly and I have literally nothing in our cell. There's no TV, no property and not even books. Word is that it will probably be a month or so before we get our property. I'm trying not to go crazy. Everything is made out of concrete. I can't see outside. It's like being in a box. I feel sick."
Morain jabs at celebrities who support the hunger strike by calling them "out of touch with reality, living in their rarified air." Are these voices pragmatic enough to be heard?
Amnesty International, 2011: "Conditions in Pelican Bay State Prison, in particular, are inhumane. Inmates are kept for 22.5 hours a day in small, stark cells with no direct access to natural light, meagre access to outdoor exercise in inadequate facilities, and no meaningful human contact which constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of international law."
California Catholic Bishops, 2013: "Placing humans in isolation in a SHU has no restorative or rehabilitative purpose. International human rights standards consider more than 15 days in isolation torture."
Most European nations have all but ended the practice of isolation.
As U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin once said, "Most of us in Congress and most Americans do not spend a lot of time thinking about the conditions of the prisons across our nation, but we should. We should because, in the words of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, 'What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It spills over into the rest of society.' And as the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky once reflected, 'The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.' "
Have we diverted from the purpose of incarceration to restore someone back to normal healthy life with the punishment intended to rectify behavior to practices of abuse? We believe that line has been crossed. It is our hope that this hunger strike will be a catalyst for meaningful dialogue and that there will be mandated changes in our current policies.
Nancy Jones is a chaplain and mentor in the juvenile justice system. Cecille Gannon is a program coordinator for Earth Hope, which provides ministry services for adult inmates.