One day last summer I was called by an old friend, one of a team of lawyers representing the California inmates then preparing to launch the third of their recent hunger strikes in July.
Some of the prisoners had read my articles, knew of my unsuccessful efforts to prevent the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams at San Quentin, and even knew of my past involvement with the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland.
They asked if I might come to Pelican Bay state prison to write an article. I reluctantly said that I was unable to come, for personal reasons, but hoped they would keep me informed in the weeks ahead.
It was difficult to say no, and their ordeal tugged at me as it began to unfold.
A few weeks later I received a message from my same attorney friend, who was meeting weekly with the hunger strike leadership.
The hunger strikers were asking if I could write something about California Gov. Jerry Brown, whose prison officials were proving to be extremely hard-headed towards any constructive solutions to the crisis.
Nevertheless, Brown’s top official, Jeffrey Beard, had written an especially nasty op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, basically describing the hunger strikers as gang terrorists towards whom there could be no concessions whatsoever.
I wrote an op-ed critical of Beard’s obstinacy, and suggested a compromise formula. The governor, I wrote, should begin meeting some of the prisoners’ “supplemental demands” [allowing more phone calls, family visits, better food, exercise, etc.] as an incentive for the prisoners to end their fasts and resume pushing for their larger agenda of ending solitary confinement.
Some had been in those isolated dungeons for more than 20 years.
The governor’s office wouldn’t budge.
From the left, some people thought I was proposing a watered-down compromise. I met with ten family members to hear their worries and questions. The truth is that the compromise proposal was encouraged by contacts I trusted. The idea didn’t gain traction anyway.
As the situation turned seriously critical, another thought occurred: simply go around the icy governor’s office and pursue more promising tracks.
The legislature was on vacation, but I was able to reach Sen. Loni Hancock and Senate Pro Tem Darryl Steinberg. Sen. Hancock thought about it briefly, and said she was ready to propose a hearing—but only after the legislative session ended in September. She would join with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano.
That was something; but was it enough?
I believed there was an additional, very promising track, through the courts. Maybe this two-track approach, driven of course by intense organizing from families and prison reformers, would bring the strikers’ cause from the darkest of dungeons to the light of public policy debate.
The federal courts had been stinging Gov. Brown with findings of cruel and unusual punishment as a result of prison overcrowding. On May 9, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken found that the California officials were violating the Eighth Amendment [banning cruel and unusual punishment] and the Fourteenth Amendment [due process] as well.
In particular, she rejected the state argument that “reform” was underway at Pelican Bay, finding that the Brown administration has commenced a two-year pilot program to address grievances, instead of a permanent remedy. The judge compared reforms in Ohio’s super-max prison favorably in comparison to Brown’s efforts, which seemed timed to prevent her ruling.
The wheels of justice grind slowly, as does the legislative process, and rarely over the resistance of the state.
Would the prisoners accept the promise of a hearing in October, lasting for months, where their grievances would be openly debated and the federal court findings against the governor could be aired for all to hear?
Would the prisoners suspend their hunger strike for promises coming from inside the very chambers which had allowed such a massive gulag to be built in the first place?
Editors Note: For further reading on the strikers' perspectives, please see the Aug 20 essay in The Crime Report, “The Crime of Being Human” by Michael D. Russell.
I was certain they were willing to die for their beliefs, and I knew how difficult it would be for them to trust the mere words of anyone in the outside world. I also knew very well how ten Irish hunger strikers starved and died because of British government intransigence, and how their cause of prison reform was recognized and achieved only after their passing.
I also knew how much they had evolved from their violent criminal pasts, how imprisoned they were by past stereotypes, and how important it is to include those who started this madness for their input on how to bring about its decline.
I believed their little-mentioned 2012 “Agreement to End Hostilities” was a very important document. While the governor's office and traditional law enforcement believe that “a leopard never changes its spots,” I had met many exceptions to that rule: gang members, grown older and more mature, who were able to contribute to conflict resolution when they had respect and resources.
It was up to the hunger strikers.
When the word came that the hunger strike was suspended on September 5, I felt great relief— but also a weight of obligation.
It is now up to community, political and judicial leaders to roll back the heavy stone of cruelty that is solitary confinement amidst mass incarceration.
A further note from the author: The prisoners' own views are stated boldly and clearly in several important documents available on Google: their core five demands, their 40 supplemental demands, and the above-mentioned 2012 “Agreement to End Hostilities” between rival gangs. I would urge everyone concerned with mass incarceration and the crisis in our prison systems to familiarize themselves with these primary documents. I do not speak for the hunger strikers, they speak for themselves.
Tom Hayden, noted author and political activist, has served as a legislator in the California Assembly and California State Senate. His 2007 book, Street Wars, chronicled California's efforts to repress street gangs inside and outside prison. He welcomes comments from readers.