The Emergence of Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement

Verbena Lea and Willow Katz

Prison Focus Issue 46
Summer 2015

Here we are, after three extensive peaceful hunger strike protests by California prisoners, the last of which was the largest hunger strike in world history, involving over 30,000 people and lasting 60 days, strikers and their loved ones have met cold-hearted retaliation from California Department of Corrections. Yet people in solitary and their families and supporters continue to keep putting on the pressure, educating the public, and organizing to stop the brutal prison practice of solitary confinement. California keeps people in cages and concrete cells in extreme isolation for years, with no human contact, no natural light, no phone calls, and access only to horrible food and negligent to abusive ‘medical care.’

A new massive state and now nation-wide mobilization called Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement began on March 23, 2015 and will continue on the 23rd of each month.

Ever since the spring of 2011—when prisoners in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU) Short Corridor sent five human rights demands, in writing, to CDCr officials and sent those demands out to their families, human rights organizations, and anyone else who might listen—solidarity organizing on the outside has attempted to match the intensity, geographical span, and astute human rights work begun by the prisoners. During the three hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, people all over the world were inspired to act, outraged at the exposed realities of solitary confinement. The prisoners' courageous actions prompted worldwide media and United Nations attention, legislative hearings, proposed legislation, some CDCr changes, and national and international solidarity actions. Indeed, most media formerly refused to even acknowledge that California holds people in solitary confinement and has had individuals locked up for decades. Now, major media openly reports “The horror of solitary confinement—which often masquerades under names such as ‘prison segregation’ or “restricted housing”— remains clear today.” (Washington Post editorial, July 1, 2015).

However, the public at large seemed to lose momentum once the massive hunger strikes halted. While hunger strikers, in unconscionable living conditions, try to recover their health and restore their organs, damaged by refusing food for so long to get the world's attention, the public buzz about the horrors of solitary and the talk in classrooms and churches about the moral imperative to abolish solitary quieted down. People seem distracted from thinking about the thousands of people tortured in extreme isolation.

“We don’t want them to have to hunger strike again.”

Recently, in response to a proposal from people incarcerated in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU involved in the momentous 2011 and 2013 California Hunger Strikes, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) initiated Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement.

Statewide Coordinated Actions are re-focusing the spotlight on the torture of solitary confinement, from the grassroots, and revitalizing the general public’s attention to end it.

Since March 2015, community organizations, loved ones of people in solitary, and human rights advocates have been mobilizing monthly actions in cities across California, including Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Culver City, San Diego, Oakland, Arcata, San Francisco, Pasadena, San Jose, Manila, Pt. Reyes, and Santa Barbara, on the 23rd of each month.“Our outside supporters…across the state [are] publicly rallying on the 23rd of each month for the purpose of keeping the subject of our endless torture in public view, and thereby exposed to the world!!! The 23rd of each month is symbolic of our 23-plus hours per day in these tombs-of-the-living-dead-and it is hoped such rallies will spread across the nation!!!” (Todd Ashker, March 30, 2015)

Indeed, Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement are spreading across the nation. Organizations outside of California and outside of the United States are excited to join this effort. There are over 75 endorsers and co-sponsors in California, nationwide, and globally, and organizations and prominent individuals keep adding on. Groups are organizing 23rd actions in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania (soon also in Colorado, Utah, & Washington, D.C.). People mobilizing in numerous locations at once are circulating much needed information and putting the realities of solitary confinement and other prison human rights abuses in the forefront of national concern.

Locations for actions on the 23rd range from busy downtown centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Oakland; the site in San Francisco where tourists wait to tour the torture chambers of now closed Alcatraz prison; university and college campuses; gorgeous seascapes on the Pacific coast of California; Chuco's Justice Center, base for the Youth Justice Coalition and others; the Kinetic Sculpture Race, a bicycle "Triathlon of the Art World," 70 miles south of the Pelican Bay torture chamber; to a major metropolitan commuter transit center in Boston. All this activity is in stark contrast to the sensory deprivation of solitary confinement torture cells.

Actions have included public rallies with speakers, including members of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC) and formerly incarcerated persons; informational booths; performances and discussions of If the SHU Fits - Voices from Solitary Confinement: A Reader’s Theatre Performance; rolling fasts; massive distribution of literature at big festivals and fairs; chalk-ins about solitary confinement; educational encounters with passersby; press conferences; letter-writing to incarcerated persons; a giant puppet performance of the people defeating the prison industrial complex and use of solitary confinement; public screenings of the documentary Breaking Down the Box [ ]; and letter-writing in support of California Senate Bill 124 to define and limit solitary confinement of youth.

Participants have given out thousands of handbills about the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, the prisoner-class led human rights struggle, the CA Hunger Strikes, the Agreement to End Hostilities, how to get subscriptions to publications for people locked inside, invitations to help grow CFASC in Northern California, Human Rights Pen Pal applications, etc. All of those materials are available at the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website, so anyone may have the ability to set up an informative action.

These mobilizations outside the prisons help bring hidden torture into the public eye, show the world that folks who are incarcerated have support, update people on the conditions inside and the needs and work of the Prisoner-class-led Human Rights Movement, and make clear that solitary confinement is unacceptable.

The courage that prisoners continue to demonstrate after the three Hunger Strikes, while upholding their Agreement To End Hostilities across racial/ethnic and geographic lines, should give us all the strength to organize in our own communities. It is up to us to demand that the torture ends. People suffering in solitary confinement don’t have time for silent bystanders or toothless legislation.

A massive public movement is essential to end this torture. We must break through the silence and pressure the courts, legislatures, halls of power, and media to act to end solitary confinement. We do not want the people in prison to have to risk their lives in another hunger strike! Please become part of these important mobilizations on the 23rd of every month.

"We will be with the the courts, in the legislature, and out in the community. We will use every venue available to us, UNTIL THE TORTURE IS ENDED.” [Marie Levin, California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC) and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition]