On July 8, 30,000 California prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest the treatment of those who are kept in extended solitary confinement. Even the slightest evidence of gang affiliation—such as possessing a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince—can land prisoners in the short corridor isolation unit (a.k.a. the SHU, or "the hole"), where they are confined to tiny windowless cells for 23 hours a day, denied many provisions and visitors, and often kept apart from other inmates. Hundreds of prisoners have been in the hole for a decade or more. (Read our hunger strike explainer for more.)
What follows are excerpts of letters from the hole by a leader of the prison strike who was eventually hospitalized after nearly starving to death. The group Legal Services For Inmates With Children provided the letters to Mother Jones on the condition that the prisoner’s name be withheld. He is a self-identified member of the New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalist Collective Think Tank, and an alleged member of the Black Guerilla Family, a prison gang. He resides in the SHU of the California State Prison, Corcoran. These excerpts are lightly edited for clarity and brevity, and are organized according to the date of the events being described.
July 11 — They came to me and [my cellmate's] cell and told us they were moving all "strike leaders" (us and 7 others) out of the 4B1L C-Sections short corridor isolation unit to an undisclosed location on 4A yard. After an initial discussion, we all refused. Warden Gipson's immediate reaction was to order a mass cell extraction of all of us—an attempt to provoke a violent confrontation with peaceful protestors, which would have occurred with serious injuries or casualties to people on both sides. Enough prisoners came to the consensus that maintaining the peaceful posture of this protest was our primary concern, so we agreed to move.
"And he responded, 'Well, apparently you're not isolated enough.'"
They opened our tray slot and told us to "cuff up." Captain Smith of the I.G.I. [Institutional Gang Investigators] came through the yard gate and stated to us: "The warden ordered that all of you 'strike leaders' be put on 4A yard to isolate you." I responded: "We're housed in the short corridor isolation unit already—isn't that it's purpose?" And he responded, "Well, apparently you're not isolated enough."
We're all now housed in 4A3R—a debriefer's block. They've isolated us in a block full of snitches, rats, state agents, informants and unprincipled elements of every description.
With all of the cells they could have moved [my cellmate] and I into, they've moved us into a cell with "FUCK YOU NIGGERS" written in big black ink print over the cell door and window, so that's the first thing we see every morning we wake up. No one can tell me that that was not intentional.
July 21 — Today is the 14th day we haven't eaten and my thinking's kind of fuzzy. I was 223 lbs in June and [my cellmate] was 178. We've both lost over 10 pounds thus far.
"They really did fuck over our property—most of the other guys still haven't been given more of their stuff."
I'm tired, and I'm sluggish—but other than a little light-headedness I'm holding up well, as is [my cellmate]. They have me [and 10 other hunger strikers] all stuck in C-Section around all these rats. I.G.I. said they would move us back when the protest is over. They really did fuck over our property—most of the other guys still haven't been given more of their stuff and they lost almost $100 of my books, which I'm appealing now. I'll be alright—such is the nature of sacrifice.
It is only through the exercise of the First Amendment to protest government when its laws are unjust, immoral, and inhumane have such crimes against humanity been abolished.
July 30 — This is the 23rd day I've not eaten. I was 235 on 7/7 and 204 on 7/26, a loss of 31 lbs.
They started giving [my cellmate] and me B-complex, thiamine, and a multivitamin yesterday to delay organ damage or failure (at this point). I do feel a little better, less dizziness, though I'm still light-headed and weak. This pain in my right side has intensified considerably—but my pain threshold is extraordinarily high—I can handle it.
I'm sure that you heard about how they've written us up for hunger striking. In classic authoritarian fashion, they seek to mask this crime of maintaining a domestic torture program by charging us with the "crime" of protesting this inhumane practice and couching it in the terms "gang activity." This is no different than what slave owners sought to do to abolitionists and runaway slaves in that epoch.
We're unwilling to start eating again—no matter what Pelican Bay and Sacramento decide—unless they rescind these 115s [disciplinary write-ups] and return these soldiers property (after they return us to 4B1L; we're still trapped in this rat block full of debriefers and informants).
If I had the ability, I'd hound, embarrass, and shame mainstream news agencies relentlessly for their utter failure to honestly report on this program of torture CDCR is running or our protest to it.
August 6 — Today I had severe vertigo, even when sitting down, so the nurse pulled me out and took my blood pressure and it was too low so they rushed me to the emergency room. After taking my blood/urine they discovered my sodium levels were so low and I was so dehydrated that I was at risk of heart failure, so they gave me 1000 ml of saline and some vitamins, but this did not work. My blood pressure remained far too low for my height (I'm 6' 2½"), so they gave me another 1000 ml of saline and this did bring my blood pressure back to normal. They then returned me back to my cell.
August 7 — On Friday, [my cellmate] was rushed to the outside hospital in apparent kidney failure. When he got there they discovered he had a hunger-strike-related kidney infection and acute pancreatis. He was treated, given massive quantities of fluids and returned four days later. Now, as a result of this organ damage and the showing of good faith to reopen negotiations with this administration (and hopefully Pelican Bay as well), we all discussed it and [my cellmate] agreed to re-feeding treatment.
"Today they gave him a tray and he ate one spoon of eggs, clutched his stomach in pain, and tossed the rest of the tray out."
According to the policy on refeeding, [my cellmate] is a "high risk" refeeding patient due to having lost well over 18% of his body weight, refusing food for 28 days, and having numerous pre-existing medical conditions (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hypertension etc.)—not to mention just almost dying. Today they gave him a tray and he ate one spoon of eggs, clutched his stomach in pain, and tossed the rest of the tray out.
He went over the ACH [Acute Care Hospital]. The doctor did not know what the refeeding policy was (or is). He gave Zah two separate refeeding prescriptions, both of which are for "moderate risk" refeeding patients. So [my cellmate] has just stopped eating. His position is that if they are not going to give him proper care, he's not going to eat anything at all, even the nutridrink, no matter what….And I support him. If he had followed the directions he would have suffered serious injury or even death from refeeding syndrome.
August 8 — Today my heart rate began to race out of control and I initially could not stop it from racing through meditation. I alerted the nurse, she pulled me out, took my vitals then called ACH. She turned around and told me I had to fill out a sick call slip first. Now I'm clearly in distress and I can't believe this woman is getting at me like this, but I swallow it and return to my cell, fill it out, put it in my door, and get back into my bunk and start Zazen.
About 40 minutes passed and my cellie called "man down." The same nurse pulled me out again, called again, then told me the ACH bus would come pick me up in an hour or so, and put me back in my cell. I again got back in my bunk and resumed meditating. Two hours later they finally came and by that time I'd managed to slow it down when I focused, but it would again increase when I did not.
ACH took my blood/urine and immediately gave me a small I.V. bag of vitamins, then put in in the holding cage where I sat for 7 hours. It's a 2'x2' stand-up cage that smells of human waste and sweat. I can't begin to explain how filthy, dysfunctional, and just sick that "hospital" is.
The doctor asked me how long I'd gone without eating and I told him 31 days. Then I began explaining about my racing heart rate and difficulty breathing and he said, "You're still hunger striking? I thought you were here for refeeding. Because you've not eaten for over 30 days you're high risk, but if you don't eat, there's nothing I can do for you. Just sign a 'do not resuscitate' order so you can die." Then he walked out of the exam room in a huff.
August 9 — When the medical escorts came to get my cellie, one of them, a female c/o [corrections officer] assaulted him by snatching on the handcuff chains, violently making them cut into his right wrist. She initially did it at the right side of our door, totally unprovoked. [My cellmate] asked the other officer to take over this escort because the female c/o had injured his hand, but he refused. She kept this shit up all the way up to the clinic. When she shoved him into the clinic, he had an exchange of words with her. When she put him in the holding cage, she released his left hand then snatched down on the cuff on his right hand while it was still outside the tray slot, injuring it even further.
He had it documented by the doctor, and an x-ray confirmed there were no broken bones, however when he returned to the cell the hand and wrist were swollen up as big as a giant sandbag. He waited until they walked away before showing it to me and telling me what happened because he knew in my current physical and emotional state I would not be able to control my rage.
August 12 — If you note me drifting or grammatical errors, I do want to apologize in advanced [sic], I've not eaten in 35 days and counting and it's affecting me in ways I'm not immediately aware of.
A few minutes ago, I returned from weigh-in / vitals (actually, the first time that's happened since the 29th of July) and I'm down to 188 lbs. From 235 lbs on 7/7.
I am by nature an extremely analytical and emotionally detached person, but in the past 2½ weeks I've had to acknowledge this situation has adversely affected my emotive control. I find myself fending off these monolithic emotional swings and reactions to normally mundane stimuli (a story on BBC about child labor in India, the sight of my granddaughter's photo, attacks on my brother and comrade [my cellmate]).
"These emotional lapses, and the attending psychological states they've produced, are truly unexpected in their intensity."
The pains, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, + weakness I can weather with little effort. It is a simple exercise in will and mental toughness, something I was trained to do. But these emotional lapses, and the attending psychological states they've produced, are truly unexpected in their intensity. I should be able to control this also—easily. . .yet I'm finding it actual work to do so. It's disturbing for me. I hope you don't think I'm a big wuss for complaining of such weakness to you, but if I can't talk to my sister, who can I talk to? [The letter is addressing a black woman who is not the prisoner’s biological sister.]
I just spoke to Sgt. Vogel off the 4B yard, and he just gave me an memo dated 8/9/13 in which, for the first time I've ever seen, they use the terms "STG 1 Members" [a Security Threat Group consists of alleged prison gang members who are locked up in the SHU] and "General [prison] Population" in the same sentence. They will now include STG 1 members in monthly case by case reviews for getting out of the SHU. It also states that unsubstantiated confidential info from a single source won't be used as a basis to confirm gang activity. It's 5 pages long and signed by Mike Stainer [the prison's deputy director of adult facility operations]. I'll concede this is a significant concession, but is this sufficient for the comrades in Pelican Bay to declare the strike a success and end the protest? I have prepared myself for death, but if I can survive this to go on and make more contributions to the cause of progressive social change, I'd like the opportunity. I will not stop until they say it's over or my body fails—whichever comes first.
August 21 — Please forgive the delay in my responding to your comm dated 8/7 (received by my cellie on 8/14), but I was hospitalized at the time and was just released 4 days ago. My body's been damaged significantly but my mind and will remain strong.
On Monday, prisoner-rights workers visited the writer of these letters. They report that he was physically weak but mentally competent—and was continuing his hunger strike.