On July 1, prisoners in Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California began a hunger strike to protest abuse and brutal living conditions. These prisoners describe their treatment in Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU) as torture. In the SHU prisoners are confined for years in windowless cement cells. These prisoners spend 23 hours a day in these cells and have no human contact or access to sunlight. Prisoners are subjected to abuse by prison guards who regularly beat them during cell searches, shoot them with rubber bullets, and hog-tie prisoners for hours at a time.
After prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU began their strike, inmates in 13 other prisons throughout California joined them to express solidarity and put forth their own demands to end abuse in their prisons. In total, more than 6,500 prisoners have participated in the strike. Although California prison officials have tried to say that the strike is over, hundreds continue to strike.
The brutal living conditions and treatment of prisoners at Pelican Bay is not an isolated case of a few prison authorities getting out of control. They simply reflect the everyday reality of California’s prison system. Conditions in California prisons are among the worst in the country. In California, more than 170,000 people are incarcerated within a system that is designed to hold 100,000. As a result, prisoners are often forced to spend years stacked on top of each other in crowded, gymnasium-like dormitories. This overcrowding, combined with short-staffing levels amongst medical personnel, has led to conditions that are so poor that an average of one prisoner dies per-week in California due to preventable illness or injury. Recent state budget cuts have only made this situation worse.
California’s overcrowded and expanding prison system reflects what’s happening throughout the US. Over the last twenty-five years, the US has built more than 1000 state and federal prisons – the largest prison construction boom in human history. And these prisons have been filled at the same time. Today, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in US prisons – more than any other country on Earth. More than half of these prisoners are serving sentences for non-violent offenses, mostly drug related.
The expansion of US prisons has a cost. Prisoners are paying for it with their lives. The rest of us are paying for it in the form of a more degraded society. Many states, including California, are spending more money building and operating prisons while at the same time cutting funding for programs such as education and healthcare. The increasing cost of locking up more people in prisons has led authorities to deny prisoners access to the basic necessities of life, such as healthy food, books, and exercise equipment. And in many prisons, officials have reduced recreation time and visiting hours with loved ones to cut costs. Given these inhumane conditions, and the fact that they aren’t likely to find employment once released, it shouldn’t be a surprise that more prisoners come out violent and bitter toward society and that most of them end up back in prison.
Meanwhile, prison expansion has been good for corporations. In some states, corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, and Victoria’s Secret have taken advantage of the high-cost of running prisons by making deals with government officials to hire prison labor. Government officials then take most or all their wages to pay for the costs of incarceration. And some corporations make money off of building, filling, and operating prisons. The stock of Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the US, is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Since many state governments want to cut prison costs by outsourcing prison operations to private companies, Wall Street analysts expect its stock price to surge over the next five years! What does it say about a society when corporations profit by putting more people in cages?
The US prison system is nothing but a system of mass torture and mass exploitation. And the strike of Pelican Bay prisoners is a protest against it. Their strike shows us that even in the worst conditions, people can find a way to organize and fight back against the injustices that this system produces. We should support them.