In picturesque Crescent City, California, a coastal town six hours north of San Francisco, roughly one in five “residents” are prisoners. Several cell blocks of these isolated men began their hunger strike on Friday, July 1. After decades of living in some of the most deplorably inhuman conditions in America, they have organized themselves to say “Enough!” Pelican Bay State Prison is in many ways the prototypical American prison, illustrating the historical gap betweem “haves” vs. “have nots,” and is quixotically surrounded by the peaceful beauty of Klamath National Forest, Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Tolawa Dunes, Lake Earl and Pelican Bay.
A petition of solidarity directed towards Gov. Jerry Brown, the head of the California Department of Corrections and the prison warden has gained nearly 4,000 signatures without a single piece of mainstream media. The petition lists their core demands, including a letter sent by these men to the prison administration.
A website has been set up as a base of community support for the hunger strike. With 2.4 million people in American cages, every prison administration will certainly be on full alert to crush solidarity efforts elsewhere, with the First and Eighth Amendments being of little obstacle in these mini-fiefdoms run by wardens in every jurisdiction. This action comes seven months after Georgia prisoners organized a massive work stoppage. The need for “order” and control will likely override any violations of human rights … for now.
The famous Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky once stated, “If you want to understand the humanity of a society, go to its prisons.” His book, “House of Death,” is not as celebrated as “Crime and Punishment,” but it is his true account of life in the gulags, where he got seven years worth of 19th century Tsarist “humanity.”
Have we progressed in the Western world? Have the Age of Enlightenment and liberal values created a more humane and civil approach to the problems of violence, poverty, mental illness and addiction? It is easy to argue we have not. The American penal system is as barbaric as any in the history of governments who choose to build such warehouses of mass cages.
This hunger strike cannot be taken out of context, as prisons have always been a place for self-advocacy. Throughout the 20th century, names like Attica, San Quentin, Pontiac and Lucasville – where a recent hunger strike won concessions – are known for prisoners fighting back against overcrowding, lack of food, absence of medical treatment, lack of education and guard brutality, among other issues.
This is another chapter in the American encyclopedia of anti-oppression, to be added with Watts, L.A., Stonewall, Cincinnati, and Harper’s Ferry. Nat Turner’s Rebellion may have seemed “savage” to some, who can’t grasp the full nature of slavery; but keep in mind that John Brown’s uprising was just a few months before the Civil War resulted in the deaths of millions.
And so what can we glean by the latest chapter? For that, the uninitiated must learn about the conditions inside prisons.
Related: California Prison Strike Ends | Huffington Post (July 21, 2011)