CRESCENT CITY, California—Hundreds of California inmates ended a three week long hunger strike on 13 October 2011, with the expectation they will be treated humanely.
Though, some things will remain the same at prisons.
Lawyers representing the inmates joined the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in agreement that the CDCR will review its policies for placing inmates in secure housing units (SHU) and make necessary reforms to treatment.
Currently, inmates can be placed in the SHU, if they have committed crimes while in prison, or are labeled as prison gang members, as well as gang member affiliates.
Inmates had originally initiated the strike on 1 July 2011, reporting that inmates staying in the SHU were subject to torture and solitary confinement. The strike ended on 21 July 2011, as thousands of inmates grew too weak to continue one of the largest prison strikes in California.
The CDCR had agreed to meet the inmates’ core demands of addressing prisoners’ rights. However, those demands were not met, causing the inmates to resume their hunger strike.
Nearly 12,000 California prisoners joined within the first few days of the second round of strikes beginning on 26 September 2011, drawing international attention and support from inmates and civilians.
Though, numbers declined with increased repression from guards and officials at CDCR prisons, as well as poor medical treatment, lack of access to lawyers, and denial of family visits.
At some prisons, like Calipatria, guards denied hunger striking inmates water and vitamins.
The CDCR’s vow to review its SHU placement policies and reform its SHU treatment symbolizes a victory for recently hunger striking inmates. However, victory in one battle does not mean the war is over.
What is being done about the battle regarding prison labor?
Private prison labor
Inmates at prisons nationwide work for private companies, offsetting prison costs paid by taxpayers while contributing to the expansion of private prisons.
While inmates are supposed to be paid minimum wage, states charge inmates room and board fees, drastically diminishing inmates’ pay. In some states, inmates are not paid for their work, but receive time off their sentences instead.
Although taxpayer costs have been offset by prison labor, taxpayers in states like California that have many prisons pay more than taxpayers in states with less prisons. Plus, inmate labor has been reported to contribute to unemployment and lowered wages for workers, all aiding corporate profit.
There have even been corporate and state proposals created that would replace public workers with inmates, as was done during and after the collective bargaining strikes in Wisconsin earlier this year.
“This has been ongoing for decades, with prison privatization contributing to the escalation of incarceration rates in the US,” associate editor at Prison Labor News, Mr. Alex Friedman was quoted in The Nation on 1 August 2011.
In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIE), which encouraged states to give inmates employment opportunities with private companies, though few states joined the program.
However by 1995, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had initiated the Prison Industries Act, which modified PIE.
This summer, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) exposed ALEC, which is a corporate funded council consisting of corporate leaders and politicians who meet behind closed doors and vote on bills to rewrite state laws.
ALEC member corporate leaders are considered equals with ALEC member politicians, voting on bills that affect state education, taxes, health care, worker rights and more.
The brief process for drafting bills through ALEC includes debate among all members, with voting done separately between private corporate members and public politicians.
Before the ALEC model bills are introduced to the state legislature, the corporations’ names have been removed. Corporation endorsements or authoring of bills is then secret.
Under the Prison Industries Act, inmates’ room and board fees would be used to build more prisons and recruit corporations to use prison labor.
Ironically then, inmates are working to expand their population, thus adding to the private workforce.
About 30 states participate in PIE, including California, using inmates to make items for private companies that distribute calendars for the military to desks and lunches for U.S. school children.
They even make U.S. flags, which symbolize American ideals, including freedom.