Skip to content Skip to footer

A Call to Be Treated “Justly and Humanely“

Pelican Bay Prison hunger striker Lorenzo Benton deconstructs and lambastes California Department of Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard’s contentions that the hunger strike (which ended Thursday), is gang-instigated and enforced, that solitary is not solitary and that prisoner privileges are many.

Lorenzo Benton was one of the hunger strike participants awakened at 4 AM on Friday, August 23, and moved to the California State Prison in Represa (near Sacramento), also known as New Folsom State Prison. He wrote the following letter to Truthout correspondent Victoria Law.

August 18, 2013

Hello there Vikki,

As always, I remain of a sound conviction that you are in good spirit and good health. It’s been a little over a couple of weeks now since I last reached out in your direction and I know you and others are probably growing more concerned about mine as well as others’ well-being on this end, but be assured that our struggle is more than worthy of the sacrifices we make today . . . So with that thought in mind, may you take comfort in the fact that, so far, I and others are so far able to respectfully endure the sacrifices we make, with our overall priorities intact (life, liberty and happiness).

Now since I last shared time with you (July 31-August 1, 2013), I have been afforded the opportunity to view some more of your Truthout magazine work. Just yesterday, one of my fellow hunger strike participants within my immediate environment came in possession of some downloaded internet article concerning California prison conditions as well as our hunger strike and shared it with me and others. Boy, was I surprised and inspired to see my July 28, 2013, letter to you in print, sharing our hunger strike conditions and concerns with the whole world to see. Now I was not expecting that when I composed said-letter, but I and others are thankful that you did, because it gave a voice to the voiceless (us), who are normally subjected to the worst of the worst of prison living conditions and treatment with no one hearing our cry except for our family and immediate loved ones. Well, hopefully now though, with this additional exposure, society at large would come to appreciate what we as a class of people are up against and answer our call (cause) to be treated justly and humanely in this environment of ours. So I/we thank you for being pro-active on this because without people like you supporting, we will be like a sinking boat in open water. [Also] your Truthout article of Saturday, July 27, 2013, “California Hunger Strikers Enter Third Week, Face Retaliation,” I/we welcomed it and your advocacy for the imprisoned and oppressed was tremendously felt. Thanks again!

Did you see the August 6, 2013 article by the secretary of the CDCR in the LA Times entitled “Hunger Strike in California Prisons is Gang Power Play”? Well, said-article was a pure smear campaign, full of lies, half-truths and innuendos, in an attempt to divert the public from what’s really going on in here and what this hunger strike is really about (i.e. an unjust and politically authoritarian regime that utilizes the fear of crime to serve its authoritarian agenda as well as to fatten its own pocket and to thwart our reason and support for humane change.)

Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to comment on various points (innuendos) raised in this article, so that you and others might gain an additional sense of what this article failed to do:

First, off, Secretary Jeffrey Beard opens up his article with the heading “Hunger strike in California prisons is a gang power play” in which he goes on to say that “The inmates calling the shots are leaders in four of the most violent and influential prison gangs in California. We’re talking about convicted murderers who are putting lives at risk to advance their own agenda of violence.” Now, one needs to ask oneself, if this was a gang power play to advance their own agenda, why would it necessarily be for the purpose of violence??? Because the CDCR says so??? I think not. People need to realize that we do not look at our hunger strike representatives as leaders of alleged prison gangs, but instead we look to them as representatives of four different groups, who share a common interest in ending the state-sanctioned acts of torture and inhumanity that exist within California’s prison system and to bring an end to the state-sanctioned manipulation of racial tension that exists amongst our people in prison and abroad, as reflected in a bulleting, instituted approximately a year ago, [in which] the hunger strike reps presented an agreement by all racial groups in Pelican Bay State Prison, SHU, Short Corridor prisoners, to end hostilities between all racial groups (especially in prisons). So if anything, our reps should be viewed as facilitators of peace and not advocates of violence as some would have us believe.

Secretary Beard goes on to say “Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs” and, “Many say they want to resume eating, but are afraid of the retaliation they will suffer at the hands of other inmates acting on orders from their gang leaders.” Well, let’s look at the numbers. There are at least 119,000 in California prisons. Out of that number approximately 30,000 started this hunger strike. Within 4 days, I believe, it dropped to about 23,000 [CDCR states that 4 days later, the number was approximately 12,000.], and within a couple of weeks, it fell below 1,000. Now it stands at a few hundred, so if people were under extreme pressure to participate, why did only 30,000 prisoners out of 119,000 participate??? And why did over a period of time, said numbers drop down to its current level? And what were the repercussions for those who did not participate in the hunger strike and those who fell off? Nothing!!! As all prisoners know, this hunger strike was based on voluntary participation and people had the liberty to participate or not and for how long, which they did. . . . So to say this hunger strike was fear-based is ludicrous . . .

Now why did Secretary Beard state that “Between 1970 and 1973, 11 employees of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were slain by inmates, and many others were brutally assaulted,” but fail to mention that since then, only three have been slain allegedly by prisoners. The early ’70s were a different time and place in prison, and even though one death is too many, 11 deaths in 4 years vs. 3 deaths in 39 years (1974-2013); the latter years should have been used when making a comparison about the alleged climate of record high crimes around the state, impacting prisons. Scare tactics is an old tool of prison officials, to demonize prisoners, and that’s what Beard sought to do.

Now Secretary Beard also says, “In all of the facilities, inmates in the SHU have radios and color TVs.” Well, he fails to mention that only if they can afford it and that these were just recently approved by prison officials for SHU prisoners to have more than one appliance (TV or radio). And as for his statement, “They have weekly access to a law library and daily exercise time,” well, us in SHU, if we are lucky, we might make a physical presence to the law library once a month and/or receive material from the law library in our cell for cell study every two or three weeks. And our daily yard, 90 minute exercise time, does not occur unless someone misses yard or several people cut their yard time short, which we normally do, to accommodate one another so everyone can receive some yard time.

Beard goes on further to say, “Many have cellmates; they can earn degrees; they can send and receive letters; and their family and friends can visit them every weekend.” Well, as for cellmates in the Short Corridor, on average, out of 48 cells in each of the four Short Corridor units, only 2 cells in each unit have a cellmate. As for earning a degree, only if you can afford to pay for it, which a lot of us can’t. And as for visits every weekend, yes, we can receive them, but the majority of people in Pelican Bay SHU are from southern California and Pelican Bay is in northern California, approximately 8 miles from the Oregon border and is approximately 900 miles away from southern California. This is a financial burden that many of our loved ones cannot afford, so visits are few and far between for us in Pelican Bay. Beard even had the audacity to say, “This is not ‘solitary confinement,’ in that prisoners can have visitors and, in many cases, interaction with other inmates.” If Beard thinks being able to have visits (non-contact) but not receiving them is not solitary confinement, and being able to see people at a distance by chance when you are under escort out of your cell, but not being able to talk is not solitary confinement, and being locked in your cell 22½ hours a day by yourself with hardly any social interaction with others with no end in sight is not solitary confinement, then what is??? Because, as one who has suffered these agonies, I say, as well as others, that this is in fact “solitary confinement.”

In conclusion, Secretary Beard states, “Brutal killers should not be glorified. This hunger strike is dangerous, disruptive and needs to end.” Well, it might surprise Beard to know that I agree with this statement, minus the disruptive part, because who wants to glorify any kind of killer? Yes, this hunger strike is dangerous for our well-being (health), and yes it needs to end, so why haven’t he or any other prison official or the governor done anything reasonable or meaningful to bring it to an end, especially given that our five core demands are reasonable, serves the interest of all parties involved; so that’s why, after 42 days of being on this hunger strike and going into its seventh week, I and others remain on this hunger strike to end California state-sanctioned torture and inhumanity.

Well, Vikki, that’s about it for now. The body and the mind need a rest after composing this letter. My address has slightly changed. I am now in Pelican Bay Ad Seg as of August 5, 2013. On that day, all of the Pelican Bay Short Corridor hunger strike participants were removed from the Short Corridor to be isolated from other prisoners and to break our collective will to resist the inhumanity we face. But it has only made us stronger in the face of adversity. Note: In Ad Seg, it’s much colder temperature-wise plus no appliances are allowed, so the world, via TV and radio, is denied to us. Well, until next time, keep the faith and keep in touch. We stand as one in this righteous struggle of ours.

Always much respect,

Lorenzo Benton

P.W. we are told we shall all remain in Ad-Seg until the entire hunger strike ends. Also it looks like I will not be getting my TV back if I survive this hunger strike because they are claiming my accord has been altered.

Yes, we really mean it – your gift makes a difference.

Did you know that of the millions of people who read Truthout, fewer than 1 percent make a donation? But even with that small number who give, Truthout is still overwhelmingly donor-funded. Every donation that comes our way makes an outsized impact for every single one of our readers.

If you can find a few dollars here or there to support the independent, always-honest journalism we produce, please consider making a donation. All gifts are tax-deductible and go directly to funding our justice-driven work. Will you give today?