BY LISA GUENTHER
Associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University
On July 8, more than 30,000 prisoners across California launched the largest hunger strike in state history. Now, three weeks later, more than 600 prisoners continue to refuse meals, in spite of direct acts of retaliation by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Hunger strikers report being locked in their cells 24 hours a day, blasted with extra-cold air conditioning, and denied medication on the grounds that it must be taken with food. At least 14 hunger strikers have been forcibly relocated from the SHU or Security Housing Unit (a prison within the prison) into an even more isolated Administrative Segregation Unit. Others have had sandbags placed by their cell doors to prevent “fishing” or passing notes and other items between cells.
Now, as in the 2011 hunger strikes, participants have been issued disciplinary write-ups that exacerbate the very conditions that they are protesting. Media access to hunger strikers has been denied, and some legal visits have been obstructed.
Almost all of the retaliatory actions reported by prisoners are also confirmed by the CDCR in a July 11 press release. In this document, the department justifies its harsh response to the strike action by claiming that it is “organized by prison gangs.” The CDCR has even refused to publicize the number of hunger strikers at each prison on the grounds that this “could put inmates who are not participating in extreme danger.” As Lt. Anthony Baer, Public Information Officer at Corcoran State Prison, explains what might otherwise seem like a non sequitur: “if word gets out that certain prisons are not participating or the number at a particular prison isn’t high enough – those inmates could be in extreme danger.”
The hunger strikers reject the CDCR’s claim that the hunger strikes are organized by prison gangs, and they are well aware of the degree to which appeals to gang activity functions as an alibi for the brutal repression of individual and collective resistance. The second of the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective’s five core demands is to reform the “gang validation” policies that have put 3,000 California prisoners into extreme isolation in the SHU with no way out but to “parole, snitch or die.”
A prisoner at Corcoran, identified by Solitary Watch as "J.", explains the absurdity of the CDCR’s claim that the current strike action is organized by gangs:
It’s crazy cause they’re trying to say us protesting is gang activity, but every race is participating so how is that possible? Then when we eventually all get 115′s [disciplinary write-ups] for it they’re gonna use it to continue to keep us in the SHU… I don’t know if all this is gonna do us any good in the end, but this fight is worth the effort for sure, if we don’t stand up for ourselves who will? (emphasis added)
Another hunger striker, Kijana Askari, analyzes the convenient ambiguity of the terms “gang” and “Security Threat Group” as a catch-all for whatever and whomever the CDCR wishes to ban or crush:
[T]he revisions [to gang validation policy secured by the 2011 hunger strikes] have only strengthened CDCR officials power and ability to label and validate every prisoner in CDCR as belonging to a Security Threat Group – e.g. “prison gang.” At the crux of the revisions is a lack of a definitive and “behavioral-based” criteria, as to what actually constitute as being gang activity. Meaning, any and everything can and will still be considered as gang activity, in spite of how innocuous the activity may be. (emphasis added)
This point is crucial for understanding the situation in California, both in the prisons and on the streets. As Lisa Cacho has argued in her important book, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (New York University Press, 2012), gang violence functions as an alibi for the criminalization of black and brown people and the reinforcement of white privilege. Ordinances that “enhance” sentences for gang activity are disproportionately applied to people of color, whether or not they actually belong to a gang, and suspended for middle-class white people, even when they are convicted of crimes that clearly fit the criteria for enhancement (see, for example, Chapter 1, “White Entitlement and Other People’s Crimes,” pp. 35-60).
Cacho argues that terms like “gang member,” “illegal alien” and “suspected terrorist,” function as markers of de facto status crimes. A status crime “is not contingent on criminal conduct; it is premised upon bodies perceived to be criminal” (43). Perceived by whom? By those with enough social power to identify their own status with the law, its enforcement, and the punishment of those whose status does not shield them from criminalization.
We see this same dynamic at work within the California prison system, where black and brown prisoners are isolated indefinitely in a prison within a prison on the basis of what they are presumed to be rather than what they have done. As the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective explains in the second of their five core demands: “Perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement” (emphasis added).
At stake here is the very meaning of social life and social death, and the continued legacy of slavery, both in the U.S. prison system and in the structure of US society.
Hunger striker Mutope Duguma (also known as James Crawford, or as Bow Low) argues:
This place is a plantation or a prison colony and we prisoners are the slaves (a status legitimized by the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution). The guards are free to do with us as they please. They have complete control of our medical care, mail, visits, property, supplies, law library access, laundry, yard, isolation, the lights in our cell, family, friends, lock downs, etc…
The actual objective or goal of all this is to force every indefinitely held SHU prisoner to “debrief” (to turn rat, snitch, turncoat, however you want do define it). Some SHU prisoners break and give their captors names just to escape the terrible conditions of confinement.
In other words, the goal of CDCR gang validation policies is to produce speech acts in the prisoner that justify and support his own repression, and the continued repression of others who are positioned, like him, as twenty-first century slaves whose “status” is always already criminalized.
Duguma is also the author of the original call to engage in collective hunger strikes, back in 2011. In “The Call,” he identifies the conditions in the SHU as a form of civil death:
It should be clear to everyone that none of the hunger strike participants want to die, but due to our circumstances, whereas that state of California has sentenced all of us on Indeterminate SHU program to a “civil death” merely on the word of a prison informer (snitch).
The purpose of the Hunger Strike is to combat both the Ad-Seg/SHU psychological and physical torture, as well as the justifications used to support treatment of the type that lends to prisoners being subjected to a civil death. Those subjected to indeterminate SHU programs are neglected and deprived of the basic human necessities while withering away in a very isolated and hostile environment.
Civil death is a legal fiction; it refers to someone who has been legally positioned as dead in law. Their body may be alive and their mind sharp, but they are denied the legal status of a citizen with the right to vote, to bring a legal case to court, and to exercise their civil right to free speech, free association, and the engagement in peaceful protest.
Social death is the effect of a social practice in which a person or group of people is excluded, dominated and/or humiliated, to the point of becoming dead to the rest of society. They may speak, but their voice is not heard and their words do not matter. They may protest, but their action remains unsupported and ultimately ineffective. They may analyze the central dynamics of power and privilege in twenty-first century America, but their analysis gets lost in the news cycle and buried by official rhetoric.
Social death is the condition under which some people can be condemned to civil death, while the rest of us fail to care or even to notice. It is the condition under which entire groups of people may be exposed to disproportionate state violence, neglect, and/or exploitation, without provoking the concern or support of other members of the community. Social death is both a condition of civil death and one of its effects; they amplify one another in a vicious circle that is difficult to interrupt. Together, civil death and social death name the position of those whose status is always already perceived as criminal and labeled as a “security threat.”
Collective action, such as we are currently witnessing in the California prison hunger strikes, is a process by which those who have been condemned to civil and social death – and those who dwell in the half-life of privilege for whose sake the civil and social death of others is demanded – join together to create new forms of ethical and political life.
It is precisely this collective action, and this promise of solidarity, that is criminalized by the CDCR in its deployment of “gang” rhetoric against individual prisoners and against the strike action as a whole. This rhetoric is more than just an unfortunate choice of words; it speaks to a whole network of policies and practices that intensify the social isolation, physical domination, and psychological torture of prisoners rather than supporting their collective transformation and mutual responsibility as members of a community that includes people on the outside.
But it goes even further. By retaliating against the ongoing hunger strikers and failing to follow through on previously-negotiated agreements in a timely fashion, the CDCR not only criminalizes and punishes collective action, it criminalizes and punishes collectivity as such. By labeling the peaceful protest of hunger strikers as “gang” activity, the CDCR converts their peaceful protest into a status crime and punishes the very existence of solidarity and kinship in resistance to civil and social death.
This legislation and enforcement of the civil and social death of already-marginalized people not only affects prisoners in the California system, but also black and brown people across the U.S., poor people of all races, and anyone whose existence may be perceived as a “security threat” to dominant power.
In the end, the demands of the hunger strikers are very modest; they do not ask for the abolition of prisons, nor even the abolition of solitary confinement. They merely call the CDCR to live up to the “R” in its own name: the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The five core demands are: 1) to end group punishment for individual rule violations; 2) to reform gang validation policies; 3) to comply with the recommendations of a federal commission on long-term solitary confinement; 4) to provide adequate and healthy food; and 5) to expand rehabilitation, education, and recreation programs.
But however modest the content of these demands, the collective action through which they are made, and the collective subject that affirms its existence through this action, is nothing less than revolutionary. We cannot allow the CDC(R) to determine the meaning of this solidarity as yet another status crime and yet another alibi for social and civil death.
Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minnesota, August 2013) and The Gift of the Other. She facilitates a weekly discussion group at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee.
"In an unusually vigorous interrogation of philosophy and the social sciences, Lisa Guenther addresses one of humanity’s greatest inhumanities and its perversely long, extensive history in America. Guenther offers a compelling critique of solitary confinement, in the course of which she pushes phenomenology beyond its classical limits, revealing our inherent inter-subjectivity, our need for both interaction and anonymity, and the moral imperative that America end this cruel and barbaric form of punishment. An urgently needed, powerfully argued study of one of the nation’s gravest moral and socio-political failings."
—Orlando Patterson, Harvard University