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Please Stop “Reforming” Pelican Bay

As the strike pushes forward and the numbers teeter, will the publicity keep up?

“I took my first photograph last November. That’s one picture in 17 years,” Pelican Bay prisoner Jimmy Flores writes to me. He lives in the California prison’s Secure Housing Units (SHUs) – solitary confinement – where he passes 22.5 hours per day locked alone in a windowless concrete cell. Aside from letters, he is denied all contact with the outside world. “Up until last year, nobody knew what I looked like back home.”

Seventeen years.

On the outside, we package our time in smaller parcels. Our calendars split our days into half-hour segments. If I am two minutes late for my conference call, the people already on the line will need to make awkward small talk for approximately 1.5 minutes. On Facebook, you can find out that it was 33 minutes ago that your friend posted a picture of their powder-faced dog eating a donut, “about an hour” since another announced the advent of a “Complicated Relationship.” And if it’s been less than a minute since Truthout’s last tweet about Pelican Bay, Twitter can break the time down for you in seconds.

In the SHUs, the markers are different: The number of years since a family visit, which consists of an hour and a half spent talking on a phone through a plexi-glass wall. The number of months since a letter was received.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen the sun or the moon,” SHU prisoner Abraham Macias* writes to me. He explains that in the SHUs, “yard time” consists of an hour spent alone in a “concrete box.” He writes: “Occasionally I’m blessed to have sunlight angle into the yard, but it’s not often.”

Every 4-6 weeks, Macias gets a letter from his mother. Three or four times per year, one from his daughter arrives. The papers accumulate slowly, tucked into a few manila envelopes stacked in the corner of his cell.

Nine days ago, nearly 30,000 California prisoners began a hunger strike, fasting in solidarity with those in solitary confinement, to protest their treatment – in particular, inadequate food, lack of contact, indefinite stays, and the dubious measures used to determine who “should” be placed in SHUs. Theoretically, the units are supposed to separate gang “associates,” but practically anything may be used as evidence of this association, including possession of African-American history journals or prisoner rights literature, saying “hello” to another prisoner, or using the Spanish words “tio” and “hermano.”

Though the numbers of hunger strikers have dwindled over the past week, and several strikers have been placed in even more punitive isolation since the strike began, many of the folks incarcerated in SHUs have vowed to strike to the point of death: “Myself and others will end up in a hospital on feeding tubes until our demands are officially signed off on,” Paul Redd, an SHU prisoner, told Truthout.

The point? To raise publicity around solitary confinement, putting pressure on prison authorities to make changes.

The first few days of this month’s hunger strike garnered a fair amount of news coverage: The sheer numbers of fasting prisoners, coupled with the SHUs’ shockingly gruesome conditions, made for scintillating media fodder. But as the strike pushes forward and the numbers teeter, will the publicity keep up? Will the “public pressure” continue, as the news cycle tumbles forward, as our minutes and seconds are assigned to new bits of information, fresh “news alerts” and emails and Facebook updates and tweets? Will the prisoners – with no access to any of those media – be forgotten, and will their strike, therefore, “fail”?

The question is a familiar one. In the summer of 2011, a vast majority of the prisoners in Pelican Bay’s SHUs began refusing to eat. They were joined in solidarity by thousands of prisoners across California and Arizona. Over the course of two three-week hunger strikes, they made plain their demands: basic human rights, fairer treatment, enough food, an alternative to “debriefing” and a modicum of programming (such as trainings and classes).

The 2011 hunger strike received a decent amount of publicity. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times took note, some networks picked it up, and eventually, the California Department of Corrections felt compelled to respond. They promised changes. The media buzz dissipated.

A year later, the department implemented a few “reforms”: The minimum number of years served in the SHUs was reduced from six to four, though no maximum was set. Some inmates’ cases were reviewed to determine whether they could be transferred out.

Yet over the past year, the number of prisoners locked up in SHUs across the state has actually risen. Criteria for SHU placement have broadened. Medical care remains meager. There’s still not enough food.

These changes constitute “reforms” in the way that school closings in poor communities have been dubbed “education reform,” or the way in which Reagan’s tax cuts for the super-wealthy were championed as “tax reform.” Early advocates of the prison system—the folks who brought us solitary confinement in the first place—called themselves “reformers,” too.

The “reform” label didn’t fool people like Flores and Macias. For them, the story hadn’t passed. They still measured their time in excruciatingly dilated increments. Sixteen: the number of years since Flores has heard his son’s voice. Eight: the number of years left until Macias can leave his cell for home. (That date is set in concrete as thick as the walls that confine him; SHU prisoners can’t accumulate “good time.”)

And so, the hunger strikers’ demands in 2013 are essentially the same as they were in 2011. And without sustained public pressure – the kind that recognizes that even when the 24-hour news cycle moves on, injustice remains very much alive – they will be the same demands issued the next time around. If there is a next time.

In a poem, Macias refers to his only means of communication, written correspondence, as “the forgotten craze.” He refers to his time as “forgotten days.”

Indeed, solitary confinement is by its nature easy to “forget,” for those of us who aren’t confined. Once the “reforms” are enacted and the media cycle gallops onward and away, no one’s reminding us! And as our minds keep pace with the energetic technologies that feed them, those who are cut off from those technologies exist in an alternate temporal dimension, becoming, as Jimmy Flores phrases it in a letter, “souls of people’s past.”

But forgetting is still a controllable act, and we on the “outside” don’t have to do it.

As we reflect upon our position in political space and time, we must remind ourselves that our fast-paced steps are part of a longer, slower movement toward possibilities of justice that may open the light into the dim, windowless corners of our society.

*Name changed.

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