The California Hunger Strike: Repression, Resistance, the US Prison System, and Political Imprisonment in India

An Introduction by Partho Sarathi Ray, Sanhati

The demand for the release of political prisoners is a major demand of democratic movements in India now, and the condition of prisoners in jail a major cause for concern. The case of Binayak Sen had brought the issue of political prisoners into focus, but there are thousands like him languishing in jails, including people like Jiten Marandi who have been sentenced to death.

The situation has parallels to the USA, which has the largest prison population ratio to the total population in the world, and has political prisoners who have been in jail for more than thirty years, from the time when the Black population of the US stood up in struggle for their rights. In the following article, the author Isaac Ontiveros of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Condition writes about the recent historic hunger strike by prisoners in California prisons, which had focused attention on the US prison system and the condition of prisoners therein. This hunger strike, which at one point had 12000 participants throughout the California prison system, exposed the inherent repression, maltreatment and misery of the prisoners in the US prisons and became a symbol of resistance against these.

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In India, over the last one year there have been many hunger strikes in prisons, led mostly by political prisoners in various jails, although they have never received any media attention as the hunger strike by Anna Hazare did. As the aggression by the Indian state against its own people continues, and as resistance builds against it, India has come to have one of the largest political prisoner populations. Draconian central laws such as the UAPA, and various state laws have been used to incarcerate a large number of political activists in various jails [for example, this letter from the incarcerated Chhatradhar Mahato, from Midnapur jail in West Bengal, details the inhuman condition of political prisoners there and the resistance]. Together with these, application of various sections of the Criminal Penal Code (CrPC) has resulted in a large number of cases, in most instances false, against people who have resisted or protested in any form against the aggression by the state or corporations. And just as the US prison population has a disproportionately large number of African-Americans and Hispanic people, who form the most downtrodden and marginalized sections of the American population, the political prisoner population in Indian jails has a disproportionately high number of adivasis and dalits, who have borne the brunt of the repressive state policies.

For example, amongst the 250 odd political prisoners in Midnapore central jail, around 240 are adivasis of all ages and gender. The political prisoners have gone on hunger strike a number of times in jails in West Bengal, demanding better treatment and better facilities for all prisoners, and for the recognition of their status as political prisoners. Even that has been hard to come by, both during the previous Left Front regime and the new Trinamool Congress government which had promised to release the political prisoners before the polls.

Currently, more than 800 under-trial prisoners in Presidency, Alipur and Dum Dum jails in Kolkata are in the fifteenth day of a hunger strike demanding speedier disposal of their cases and better conditions in prisons. This week, the hunger strike spread to Medinipur and Krishnanagar jails, with the political prisoners and other prisoners in these jails joining the hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners in the Kolkata jails. As of now, more than 1500 prisoners are on a prolonged hunger strike in West Bengal.

As the struggle for the release of political prisoners continues to build up in India, this article gives us a glimpse of the resistance by US prisoners and reminds us about the need of international solidarity to bring the issue of political prisoners to the fore.

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November 21, 2011

By Isaac Ontiveros.

The author works on the media committee of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition.

The California Hunger Strike: Repression, Resistance, and the US Prison System

This past summer, at least 6,600—probably many more—prisoners in the US state of California’s prison system went on hunger strike. After more than 20 days, prisoners suspended their strike when prison administration was forced to respond. Then, in late September, because repression had increased, and there was no movement on their demands–and reprisals were targeted against those labeled as strike leaders, the prisoners resumed their strike. The second round of striking, which lasted nearly three weeks, at one point had at least 12,000 participants throughout California. Both waves of the strike were initiated in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison.

SHUs are some the highest security facilities in the United States—often referred to as “prisons within prisons.” Prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day in eight by ten feet cells made of smooth concrete that have no windows. Fluorescent lights can be kept on 24 hours per day. Armed guards control entrances and exits electronically and are strategically located to be able to fire on prisoners at any time. The average amount of time a prisoner spends in the Pelican Bay SHU is 6 ½ years, while some have been held for over 20. Around 4,000 prisoners in California are held in SHUs. Nationally, it is estimated that 80,000 people are held in some form of solitary confinement. Many organizations internationally have condemned SHUs and other solitary confinement facilities as torture. In California and elsewhere, prison administrators claim that prisoners are kept in these special units because they are high level gang shot-callers, yet many have pointed out that, in fact, the SHUs are often used to break up organizing for prisoner’s rights. Continue reading