'The Crime of Being Human'


Drawing of Pelican Bay Solitary Confinement by Michael D. Russel

EDITOR'S NOTE: California's prison hunger strike, called to protest indefinite solitary confinement, is now entering its second month, but remains below the radar screen of most national media outlets. The Crime Report is pleased to publish this commentary by one of the strikers at the Special Housing Unit (SHU) in Pelican Bay Prison, originally published in The Beat Within. His artwork accompanies this essay.

Here in Pelican State Prison (SHU) the hunger strike continues.

The darkness is never real or complete.

Not when you exist in a world of oppression and sensory deprivation.

Just as the silence is never sufficient, not when the anguish echoes off steel walls and concrete floors.

Privacy is relative where the cameras are in constant motion, and officers maintain a 30-minute patrol.

You struggle for escape if only for a moment; you seek to loosen the dehumanizing chains that shackle the soul. You think odd thoughts when you're on a hunger strike, struggling to live in utter desolation, [and remember] scenes from a simpler freer life.

What is it to be loved? The happiness of sunshine.

Then the weight of reality breaks your heart as the quest for sanity forces you to your knees before Lady Justice, who took me into her care and showed me the true meaning of isolation and degradation.

It does seem society hid this prison of oppression—degrading an ideal and marring a redwood forest.

A sophisticated slaughterhouse operated for the convenience of a conscience grown numb.

Government-sanctioned isolation and slow death is an equal opportunity offender. [It affects] the bright, the dim, the old, and the young.

I am so reminded of Justice, her scales, and the fact that she is blind.

I understand the meaning of that theory as I witness the application. The dichotomy confuses the mind.

It's hard to respect the argument that slow murder is a proven curative for crime and violence. We discuss deterrence, but it's merely an excuse to slake the thirst for old-fashioned vengeance that the California Department of Corrections holds against its prisoners.

The balanced is achieved as two wrongs make it right.

There is that collective sigh of relief. There is an ever-widening circle of tragedy: more pain, more sorrow, more victims, and more grief. A bank of clouds drifts from the south. The lining doesn't appear to be silver. It's a true challenge sustaining faith and supporting hope while your friends and comrades keep dying. It's more involved than philosophical differences, theological abstractions, or opposing views.

We prisoners are being tortured for the crime of wanting to be treated as human beings, and [wanting] to be given our Constitutional rights.

[There have been] false dawns—the peculiar gray light upon which another day will be built. And the hunger strikers continue.

The juries will consider the crime. The judges will impose the sentence, and the Department of Corrections will lay its booted foot upon the necks of its prisoners to break their human spirit and then proclaim its humanity and fairness.There will be the mourners and rejoicers, and a host of those wavering in between. They endorse with their indifference.

Certain life has no value, or so it would seem. I have forgotten what it is to be a normal human being, but I'll continue doing what I can to survive. It's not as easy as you might imagine: this business of staying sane and staying alive when there isn't much to look forward to in an environment that embraces mortality.

Please continue to support our mission to change the plight of [inmates] in solitary confinement units across the United States.

The hunger strikers have five core demands they have held since the first hunger strikes in 2011, although additional demands may emerge in particular prisons:

  • End long-term solitary confinement
  • End the illegal and immoral use of secret informants
  • End the practice of punishing entire racial groups for an individual's actions
  • Improve conditions to meet basic human standards for physical and
    mental health
  • Provide educational programs.

We prisoners on hunger strike ask for your support to end the torture.

Michael D. Russell has been in and out of prison since 1984, and has spent most of his time behind bars in a Special Housing Unit. In 1999, he was sentenced to 25 years and eight months in prison for assault with a firearm. He welcomes comments from readers.

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