The following letter by Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit inmate Lorenzo Benton was addressed to Truthout contributor Victoria Law.
July 28, 2013
My cordial greetings, Vikki!
As always, with the sharing of respect, concerns, and appreciation, it does one good to share this time with you. Received your letter from July 16th on the 26th of July, and as it was my 18th day within this current hunger strike, it discovered me not in the best of wear – mentally my mind appears to be a lot clearer, but physically my body and energy are undergoing a transformation (reduction) in performance … so even though all is not as it should be, I remain within a positive state of being (all things considered) and with that being the case, I trust that you and yours are well as one moves forward within life and contribute[s] to its well-being.
Now with this hunger strike about to enter its fourth week of endurance, I have been maintaining a practice of approximately 20 cups of water a day, no physical exercises, and a lot of reading and a little writing per day to sustain my physical and mental health as best as I can (so far so good). On July 25, 2013, prison officials started to offer those of us on hunger strike status packages of vitamins (multivitamins and vitamin B and C: a 30-day allotment) and 2 packets of Gatorade powder to minimize potential damage to our bodies. The latter action was as a result of our main reps making known to prison officials and our outside reps that we are in fact on a solid food hunger strike and not a liquid one, so should not be precluded from drinking other liquids besides water. So as of July 25th, vitamins and other liquids (electrolyte) were provided us, so as it stand[s] now, it appears that as one journeys further into this hunger strike, one’s body will be able to last a little longer with the addition of these supplements as we seek to bring these actions to a just conclusion, as we put our bodies/lives on the line. And that’s where I stand.
So far, prison officials have taken the following actions against those of us on hunger strike and those who are not:
- On July 11th (the fourth day of the hunger strike), prison officials removed from our environment all of the main reps and just about all of the secondary reps and placed them in Ad-Seg [administrative segregation] with none of their personal property. Later, though, it was reported they were provided with all of their legal work, but no appliances, a few days later.
- On July 12th, prison officials removed all canteen food items (including drinks and vitamins) from all hunger strike participants in my environment.
- On/from July 8 to 17, 2013, all hunger strike participants were denied access to the recreation yard, but [that] was restored July 18th.
- On July 20, 2013, prison officials started issuing out CDC-115 rule violation reports to all hunger strike participants within my environment, charging us with allegedly willfully delaying a peace officer (participation in a mass hunger strike).
- On July 24, 2013, prison officials started moving/separating all hunger strike participants from non-participants in the Short Corridor, placing all participants in a pod together. This was completed on July 25, 2013.
- Also on July 24, 2013, I was taken before a disciplinary senior hearing officer for the Rules Violation Report I received on July 20, 2013, for allegedly willfully delaying a peace officer. I was found guilty and assessed 90 days loss of good-time credits and 30 days loss of TV privileges. Now it should be noted said hearing was neither fair nor impartial. Said hearing officer opened up said hearing with first asking me my name and number, then proceeded to read off to me the charges. Upon doing so, he informed me he was finding me guilty and assessed me 90 days good-time loss and [asked] if I had anything to say. I proceeded to inform him that I was not guilty and that I had previously requested an investigation employee and several witnesses, to which he took it upon himself to deny me even though I should have been entitled to them. So I proceeded to inform him that I was not guilty of willfully delaying a peace officer because at no time during the course of this ongoing hunger strike did I ask for or receive any type of assistance, precluding staff from carrying out their duties, which prison records would substantiate. I also brought forth a few more challenges to the charges, which he ignored and found me guilty anyway (which was expected from a blatantly biased representative of the state). You know this hearing officer rendering me guilty prior to me presenting a defense was in violation of their own prison rules and regulations governing rules violation hearing, which in part states, “Staff who have a predetermined belief of the inmate’s guilt or innocence shall not hear the charges,” which he clearly violated. Now, as previously stated, he initially took 90 days, but as a result of me challenging said charges, he added 30 days loss of TV privileges as well. (Note: Those who pled either guilty under duress or no contest only lost the 90 days of good time.)
- On July 21, 2013, prison officials disapproved (stopped) the delivery of the publications California Prison Focus, Rock newsletter, and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity newsletter, claiming that the first two violated prison rules concerning contraband (plans to disrupt the order or breach the security of any facility) and disturbing or offensive correspondence (same as contraband) and the latter publication, they claimed it did not meet the definition of a periodical as described in their rules. This act was actually an infringement on our First Amendment rights of free speech because they were attempting to bar us from receiving any information involving a hunger strike.
- On July 26, 2013, all of the above-mentioned publications were delivered to us without an explanation, along with some previously disallowed publications. I guess some pressure was applied somewhere to make them relinquish said periodicals, which never should have been disallowed in the first place.
- Also on July 26, 2013, there was a settlement hearing in San Francisco (???) between our legal representatives and CDCR officials in regards to our class-action suit challenging indeterminate SHUs [secure housing units] and SHU conditions, but at this time we do not know the outcome of it. But most likely no agreement was made.
- On July 28, 2013, one prisoner in Corcoran died while on hunger strike, but prison officials denied it, saying it was a suicide.
And that’s an update for now.
Now in regards to your inquiry about the diminishing numbers (30,000 initially and now reportedly under 1,000), that’s a reasonable question for the uninformed. Well, people need to know that the initial approximately 30,000 strong California prisoner supporters was reflective of those prisoners who were willing to go on record as supportive of our demands and just cause (that’s 22% of California prisoners), but in reality the numbers are much higher. It’s just that for many prisoners they were not willing to go on record as being supportive of us, due to the possible repercussions from prison officials (such as loss of good time/work time credits on their release date, placement in Ad-Seg or SHU, validation, health, etc). Also, a lot of people need to know everyone is not in it (the hunger strike) for the long haul, but were willing to be on it for a set period of time or for as long as they can endure. Only so many are willing to make the supreme sacrifice for the demands that are needed and for those who are willing to go all the way, the 30,000 and higher respect/acknowledge the need for what needs to be done. So whether it’s one or many in this fight of ours, it does not discount the essence of what is being done because all people deserve to be treated fairly. May this brief spiel enable you and others to comprehend that it’s not a lack of resolve or unity on our part. When there’s a reduction in numbers over a period of time in any struggle, “many are called but few are chosen,” and that’s the nature of struggle.
Say, Vikki, you spoke of sending me a letter on July 8, 2013, with your Truthout article. Well, as of yet, it has not been received by me nor have I received a notification of its disapproval, so maybe someone just did not want me to receive your progressive thoughts as it might inspire me(???)
There were a few other questions you put forward. Let me briefly respond:
- The five-book limit has been rescinded and returned to ten. It was determined that said staff did not have the authority to do so.
- The half-hour wellness checks have ended and they have returned more or less to their normal routine.
- They have not removed any of my books or property except for my canteen items on July 12th.
- Showers are for approximately 10-15 minutes three times a week and yard every day except for 90 minutes since the restoration of yard time. I’m sure, though, for those in Ad-Seg, it’s not the same.
- I am allowed to have a TV and radio, but I only have a TV and I lost the use of it for 30 days.
- As for what it’s like not to eat, up until now, I have only experienced lightheadedness and slight headaches from time to time as well as cramping in the stomach and aches in my joints (knees and thighs), but other than that, it remains bearable. I am not experiencing any hunger pains (as of yet). Also my mind and thoughts appear to be clearer even though giving verbal expression to them is somewhat strained. My program during this hunger strike is one in which I drink approximately 20 cups of water a day, like I previously stated, which enables me to endure all that comes my way.
Let me state, during this hunger strike, we have been fed all types of misinformation from prison officials to discourage us from maintaining our resistance, such as we will all be moved to Ad Seg or other SHU units, and loss of property but to this day, it has not materialized. Whether they did or didn’t, it wouldn’t matter because it’s all prison and one knows how to deal with it.