Treat Us Like Human Beings, say Pelican Bay Prisoners

Treat Us Like Human Beings, say Pelican Bay Prisoners

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Shirin Sadeghi: Can you just sort of give us an overview of what is happening with this hunger strike—when did it start? How many people were involved? How many people are involved right now?

Manuel La Fontaine: Well, on July 1, prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit, better known as ‘The SHU,’ began an indefinite hunger strike to peacefully protest the cruel, inhumane and torturous conditions of their incarceration. The strike eventually spread to other prisons, and it’s hard to tell how many people initially participated since the CDC withheld the information.

SS: How are you getting information about this at all?

MLF: Well, some of the people from our coalition, The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, are routinely visiting, like twice a week, to talk to people in The SHU, and also family members are reaching out to us. Right now on Facebook people are contacting me. They are also texting me. One of the latest updates was from a nurse inside The SHU, who wanted to have her name (withheld). She said the prisoners have not been drinking water and therefore there are rapid and severe consequences happening because of this. ‘Nurses are crying,’ she said, ‘and all of the medical staff have been ordered to work overtime to follow and treat the hunger strikers.”

SS: This is a very serious thing that these prisoners are doing: they are not eating and they are not drinking. Why are they doing this? Why is the strike going on? What are their demands?

MLF: They are not demanding release, they are demanding to be treated as human beings. Their first demand is to end administrative punishment or abuse, which means that when someone makes a mistake the whole group or the whole race gets punished. Second is to abolish what they call the debriefing policy, which is a sanitary term for the snitch or die policy. They want people to basically tell on others and if they don’t tell then they’re held in solitary confinement. Their third demand is to comply with the 2006 recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in U.S. prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement. Their fourth demand is to provide adequate food, as well as cease the use of the lack of providing food as a tool to get people to debrief. Their fifth demand is to expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for people who have indefinite SHU status.

SS: It’s important to point out when you keep referring to The SHU you are referring to the Security Housing Unit. There are people in that unit who have been in solitary confinement for decades.

MLF: Right, there are people who have been down 35-40 years in the Security Housing Unit. Here’s a truth the CDC will never admit: it segregates people who think critically or who organize others to think critically under the pretense that they are a threat to the security of the institution, of staff and other inmates. I mean the minute one becomes politically engaged, meaning, you begin to challenge the conditions of confinement, the moment you organize others to look beyond themselves and at the social conditions that lead to their incarceration, is the minute you are deemed as a candidate for The SHU.

SS: So this is, in your opinion, an effort by the CDC, The California Department of Corrections, to sort of break down the prison inmates who are unique thinkers, who are willing to challenge the system, who are willing to ask for their rights, to just break them down so that they won’t ask for anything?

MLF: Very true. What is the purpose of the Security Housing Unit known as The SHU? For many of us who have been there, who have heard from people who have been there, the way they describe it is to break people down. Imagine being caged up in a 23-hour lockdown, with no access to sunlight, with no windows, in a concrete dungeon, and the only human contact in the last 10, 15, 20 years, 30 years is that of guards putting shackles on you, or a vague recollection of someone who told you she was from the medical field. Imagine if you are having a heart attack or need medical help and need to call out for help but nobody can hear you because the walls and floors are soundproof. I mean these brothers, people inside, I call them brothers because I feel so connected. I mean, I myself went nine days without consuming any food.

SS: These are extraordinary conditions you have described. Most people cannot get through a day without talking to another human being let alone not seeing the sunlight. Can you tell me why, after decades of this treatment, people are striking only now?

MLF: Well a hunger strike is like a last recourse, a last tool to use. It is not human nature to go against your own body, to self-destruct. So when you’ve tried legal avenues, when you’ve tried the court system, and the court system does not look into your complaint, when you’ve tried the administrative system by complaining with 602s, which are applications to provide grievances to the system, when you’ve tried the media, when you’ve tried all channels at your disposal, and no one hears your cries of torture, no one hears your conditions of confinement, then you figure, either I live this way for the rest of my life which is subhuman, or do something to try to effect change so that my children or younger generations don’t have to go through what I’m going through.

SS: I want to talk about the timing of the hunger strike. As far as you are aware, do these prisoners on hunger strike know about the current situation where the California Prison System is under so much scrutiny and the recent Supreme Court decision that the health care of prisoners is not being provided for adequately and that some prisons need to release their prisoners because of severe overcrowding and health issues related to that. Do the prisoners know about this?

MLF: I think that, obviously they do know about it, but I think it goes beyond the recent court decision by the Supreme Court that the system of the CDC has to alleviate itself due to overpopulation, I think this is more in tune to what has been happening recently across the nation, I mean it happened in the state of Ohio, in Lucasville, where five people went on hunger strike and they were basically demanding their human rights as well, they were being treated differently than other people who were also facing death penalty, who were sentenced to die. After twelve days their demands were met. What we are afraid of here is that if the demands are not met, people have already begun to collapse, people who began the hunger strike who were advised not to do so by other prisoners, they had medical conditions, have already collapsed meaning, they have been taken out. Some have gone into diabetes shock. The CDC is not being honest about what is going on. The CDC says, has been saying over and over through its media machine, that they are in negotiations with people, they’re trying to see how to resolve this issue. The reality is that I know the people who make up this de facto mediation team, I know them personally, I am constantly speaking with them and they are making clear to me that nothing has been talked about in terms of meeting their demands.

SS: Prison systems tend to respond to these kinds of strikes and protests by clamping down harder on inmates. What are your thoughts on the chances that the California Department of Corrections is actually going to make any of the concessions to the demands of these strikers?

MLF: Personally, I believe that if the media turn away, if there is no public pressure, I’m afraid, as a former prisoner, I’m terrified beyond words, that once the media moves away from this, the people who have gone on strike and the people who are helping to spread it to other prisons will be targets of retaliation by CDC.

SS: What can the general public do to help the prison strikers?

MLF: What the public can do is become first more informed and I would advise everybody to visit our website which is There’re many ways people can take action. I would personally call the Governor or call Secretary of State Matthew Cate. There are numbers listed there for government officials. If you are from a different part of the state or a different country, pressure your local state legislatures to at least look into the strike. Colleagues of mine have said that legislators and elected officials visiting them inside made a difference in how they were treated after the visit.

SS: Has this prison strike brought different ethnicities together, because usually what we hear about prison protests or conflicts is that different ethnicities are pitted against each other—are they coming together for the same cause?

MLF: The answer to that question is this: another truth that the CDC hasn’t admitted to is that this hunger strike has gone across racial and geographical lines, which is to be highly respected because it’s hard after you have decades, generations of prison manufactured racism, segregation and violence. When you have two ethnic groups, who have been at each others’ throats for decades all of a sudden join arms, come together and stand in unity, it speaks to a bigger issue.

SS: How did these inmates manage to organize themselves at all from behind prison walls?

MLF: I think that it was multi-pronged. I think a lot of it was from family members visiting and also from the media, the social networks out here, the Internet, Facebook, and just people who are constantly advocating for prisoners’ rights. Those inside have a voice. It’s a matter of amplifying it. What I’m asking is to find some compassion. If you don’t believe people should be tortured please stand up. Because the mass media are not covering this, it, the CDC has taken advantage of this. Let me say this: the CDC will do everything in its power to protect its image. Its public relations (machinery) covers up the sheer punishment, sheer torture going on inside.