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In California, a prison hunger strike has been going on for six weeks.
At the beginning of the strike, 30,000 inmates across the state began fasting to protest prison conditions, including solitary confinement.
As of yesterday, 129 California inmates remain on strike. Of those, 69 have reportedly been fasting since July 8.
Prison officials believe the strike is part of a strategy by violent gang members to resume interaction with other inmates for criminal activity.
In solitary for 23 years
Among those on hunger strike is Ronnie Dewberry, also known as Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, who has been in prison since 1981 for murder. Dewberry is a plaintiff in the Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit challenging long-term solitary confinement.
His sister, Marie Levin, is part of the coalition Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.
“It’s a concrete, windowless cell that’s 8 by 12 [feet],” Levin told Here & Now. “It only contains a sink, a toilet and a little stub that they sit on. There’s not windows, so they’re circulating air that comes in, but no fresh air. They can’t look out to see the sunlight.”
Official: It’s not solitary confinement
But the Department of Corrections says that it has already met the demands of the prisoners, including the demand to limit the length of solitary confinement.
“The hunger strike needs to be resolved. They need to resume eating,” Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the department told Here & Now, noting that she’s hearing reports that “many of them are suffering some very dire health issues.”
Thornton said the California Department of Corrections does not consider holding prisoners in secure housing units (SHU) and administrative segregation units a form of solitary confinement.
“Certain inmates are housed in SHU because their conduct endangers the safety of others or the safety of the prison,” Thornton said.
A high-risk form of protest
Thornton added that inmates should raise their concerns in “more productive ways” than not eating.
“I don’t want to sound cold-hearted, but this department does not condone inmate disturbances,” Thornton said. “The department can’t negotiate and change policy or make policy or even discuss policy under threats or intimidation.”
Meantime, Levin stands by her brother’s continued participation in the hunger strike — despite the risk.
“I don’t want him to die,” Levin said. “But if him continuing in this fight for some kind of relief for himself and for the other prisoners that are suffering under the same conditions, if that means that he needs to go forth and continue on, then I’m with him.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well now to California, where a prison hunger strike has been going on for six weeks. At the beginning of the strike, 30,000 inmates across the state began fasting to protest prison conditions. As of yesterday, 129 remain on strike, 69 of them since the beginning on July 8. One of those is Ronnie Dewberry. He's been in prison since 1981 for murder, a crime his sister Marie Levin says he did not commit.
Levin is part of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, and she's with us now from Berkeley, California. Marie, why is your brother still striking?
MARIE LEVIN: My brother has been in the security housing unit at Pelican bay for 23 years, and in the - altogether 29 years. So for 29 years, he's been under these conditions, and his thing is for the people that are coming behind him, it's time for him and the other representatives, they made it up in their minds it's time for them to make a decision to end this madness that they've been going through for all these years of inhumane treatment.
HOBSON: Well, explain what that is. Explain what kind of treatment you're talking about in these security housing units, or SHUs.
LEVIN: Well, in the SHU, it's a concrete, windowless cell that's eight by 12. It only contains a sink, a toilet and a little stub that they sit on. There's no windows, so there's circulating air that comes in but no fresh air. They can't look out to see the sunlight. They can't even feel the sunlight from anything, even when they go in the dog run, which they - is supposed to be called their exercise yard.
They don't have any sunlight coming in from there. It's a skylight that's 30 feet high, and it's got stuff on top of it where they really don't get any kind of sunlight. They sleep on a concrete slab with mattresses on top of it, and you don't get a chance to get anything - no kind of comfort.
So my brother, he has chronic lower back pain problems from sleeping on this concrete for all these years, arthritis, you know, a lot of medical problems that have resulted from sleeping and living in these conditions.
HOBSON: And he has been in these security housing units all this time, all these years?
LEVIN: Yes, he's been locked up for 32 years, but 29 of those years it's been in solitary confinement.
HOBSON: Now it's been over a month since the hunger strike began. Do you think that he should continue on it? Do you know how he's faring?
LEVIN: I hear that my brother is faring well, and do I want him to continue? You know, I don't want him to die. But if him continuing in this fight for some kind of relief for himself and the other prisoners that are suffering under the same conditions, if that means that he needs to go forth and continue on, then I'm with him.
It's something that I support him in. I don't want to see my brother die, and I'm hoping that there will be change within the CDCR that he will not die, you know, because he's adamant about continuing on until they make some kind of agreement.
HOBSON: Jeffrey Beard, the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, and he says that the strike is not about living conditions, it's about gangs who want to be able to talk to each other and communicate with each other and that when they're in these units they can't do that. How do you respond to that?
LEVIN: He is totally uninformed. If the leaders - and he's saying that the representatives, there are four main representatives and there's a total of 16 representatives - if he's saying that these people are gang members and that they want to continue this on, they would never have issued out a statement. And they typed this up, sent it out so it could be, you know, circulated, stating to end all hostilities amongst all people who are imprisoned. That's something far more than what the system has done in trying to bring - stop division amongst the races and even the gangs.
HOBSON: Right. Marie, there was a meeting earlier this month between prison advocates and prison officials. Are you satisfied with what came out of that meeting? Do you think there will be another meeting? How hopeful are you that this can be resolved?
LEVIN: They are doing some things, and that's good, the things that they've done, but they're not trying to meet all of their demands. And because they're not trying to meet all of their demands, they're going to continue on with this hunger strike. Am I hopeful that they will? I'm praying that they will. I don't know if they will because Beard has painted a picture that these men are not worth living. You know, he's trying to paint this picture that these prisoners are so bad that they don't deserve to live, you know, and if they should happen to die on a hunger strike then so be it, we lost another prisoner, so what.
HOBSON: Well, he says brutal killers should not be glorified. This hunger strike is dangerous, disruptive and needs to end.
LEVIN: I can only speak about my brother in terms of him saying brutal killers. You know, everybody is not like that. It's true enough there are some people who are in solitary confinement, have done heinous crimes. And no, they don't need to be glorified, but it's not about glorifying them. It is about lives that need to be saved off of this hunger strike.
And why do they need to be saved off of the hunger strike? Because the living conditions in which they are living in and the rules that they make up as they go, whatever they decide as guards to do is unfair. They are not asking to be let out on the main line. That's not what they're asking for. They're asking to end long-term solitary confinement, abolish the debriefing, change the gangster validation criteria, end group punishment, provide educational and vocational self-help programs and to provide adequate, nutritious food. That's it.
Of course there's 40 other demands, but that's in the educational part, where they want to be - their minds to be able to be liberated from where they are. Who wouldn't want somebody that's released from the solitary confinement to be educated, to be amongst people? Because they don't have any physical contact. I haven't touched my brother in a couple of decades. So, you know, for them not to want them to be rehabilitated, I mean seriously rehabilitated, you will continue to perpetuate what you keep saying that is a bad thing. Rehabilitate them.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
Marie Levin, whose brother, Ronnie Dewberry, also known as Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, is on a strike, a hunger strike that started on July 8 in California. He is at the Pelican Bay State Prison. Marie, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your views with us.
LEVIN: Thank you.
HOBSON: And just ahead we will hear from the other side, from a prison official, about the hunger strike. We're back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's continue our conversation now about the prison hunger strike in California. 129 inmates in six prisons across the state remain on a hunger strike, 69 of them since July 8. The inmates say they're protesting prison conditions, but officials believe there are other motives at play. Terry Thornton is a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and she joins us now. Terry, how much longer can this hunger strike go on, do you think?
TERRY THORNTON: That's hard to say. I don't have a crystal ball, and I can't predict that, but I'm hopeful that it will be resolve soon. The people are very, very concerned about the health and the well-being of the inmates who are still participating in this.
HOBSON: What kind of a toll is this taking on both prisoners and the prison staff?
THORNTON: For the prisoners, the toll is obvious. It's affecting their health. I'm hearing reports that many of them are suffering some very dire health issues, and fortunately our medical staff are there to tend to their needs. The toll it takes, though, on custody staff is that it really diverts some of our resources away, actually for medical and custody staff, away from the normal operations of a prison, away from the inmates, which - the vast majority of inmates who are not participating in this thing.
And it just takes away staffing resources for other things. For instance the department has had to temporarily restrict media access to the prisons where the hunger strike is occurring because we just don't have the staffing resources to accommodate media visits. And so that's not something we're pleased with because we pride ourselves on being as open to media as we possibly can.
HOBSON: You've had to not allow media just because you don't have the staff to do it? Because some may look at that and say they don't want them to see what's going on.
THORNTON: It's because of the staffing resources. I mean, staffing resources are always very limited. We've been going through, you know, fiscal challenges over the last few years, just like many people and other governments have, as well. And so we just don't have the resources that we need to accommodate media visits. And as soon as things are resolved, we hope to open it right back up to reporters.
HOBSON: One prisoner named Billy Sell has died. He committed suicide at the Corcoran State Prison on July 22 after 14 days of fasting. He reportedly had been in security house units, or these SHUs, also known as, to some, as solitary confinement, for more than five years. Inmate advocates say he was heard screaming for medical attention before his death. Do you believe that his suicide was related to the hunger strike?
THORNTON: There is no evidence that his suicide was related to the hunger strike. The suicide was a very tragic occurrence, and these reports that he was screaming for medical help, that is simply not true. I need to also point out that inmate Sell had been housed in the security housing unit on a determinate term because he killed his cellmate, and he was facing a death penalty trial for that murder that he had committed.
That is one reason why some inmates are in security house units, because they've committed a specified offense while in prison, like murder, attempted murder, arson, rioting, drug trafficking, those kinds of serious crimes. And inmate Sell was in a security housing unit at Corcoran State Prison because of the murder of his cellmate.
HOBSON: But how can you avoid further deaths? Is there anything that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can do at this point to avoid not just prisoners committing suicide, but also with the weakening condition of this going on for more than a month now, you're going to have some health problems on your hands that could get quite serious quickly.
THORNTON: There are already health problems on our hands, and medical care is in federal receivership. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is closely working with the receiver and the doctors on his staff to address those concerns.
HOBSON: Now the prisoners have five core demands. They want to put a limit on the length an inmate can be put in this long-term confinement, the security housing units. They want to end group punishment. They want to make sure that adequate and nutritious food are provided. Are these demands, do you think, unreasonable?
THORNTON: The demands have already been met.
HOBSON: Well, there is still long-term confinement.
THORNTON: There is still long-term confinement, and I need to stress at this point in the conversation that we do not consider housing in a security housing unit or an Administrative Segregation Unit or any other kind of unit in California prisons solitary confinement.
Certain inmates are housed in security house units because their conduct endangers the safety of others or the security of the prison. Inmates who are housed indeterminately in these units are there because they are validated as gang members and associates.
But despite all of that, the CDCR implemented reforms beginning last October, and these reforms include case-by-case reviews of every single validated inmate in the entire prison system, and because of that hundreds of inmates have already been let out of security housing units. Our new strategy for SHU confinement and for managing gang members and their associates provides for individual accountability.
HOBSON: Well, you say that their demands have been met. They obviously disagree with you.
THORNTON: They do disagree.
HOBSON: Well, so how does that get resolved? It doesn't seem like there's any way out of this unless somebody gives on one side or the other.
THORNTON: And the department has already fulfilled everything it committed to do in 2011. We've done all the giving. We fulfilled all of our promises.
HOBSON: So if somebody is going to give from this point, you're saying it's going to have to be the inmates and their demands, they're going to have to give up the hunger strike at this point, you've given them what you're going to give them.
THORNTON: Well, the hunger strike needs to be resolved. They need to resume eating. There are more productive ways for them to have whatever concerns they still have addressed. You know, I don't want to sound, you know, cold-hearted, but this department does not condone inmate disturbances.
And a mass hunger strike, you know, inmates compelling other inmates to not eat, compelling them to not show up for work, these are disruptions to normal prison operations. They take away resources from inmates who are not engaging in this behavior.
And you have to realize that all of these actions were ordered by leaders of prison gangs. You have to look at who these people are and their motivations for leading this action.
HOBSON: Terry, is the Department of Corrections going to meet again with the prison rights advocates?
THORNTON: We've been meeting with them consistently even before the hunger strike started on July 8. We have met regularly with the inmates, including the inmate strike leaders, regularly for the past two years. And they have filed a lawsuit. that's a perfectly acceptable way to address your grievances.
And so we're not saying that inmates can't share their concerns. We have numerous ways for them to do that. What we are saying is that the department can't negotiate and change policy or make policy or even discuss policy under threats and intimidation.
HOBSON: Terry Thornton is a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Terry, thank you so much for joining us.
THORNTON: You're welcome, thank you for letting me participate today.
HOBSON: So Meghna, two very different views on this. We would love to hear your thoughts at hereandnow.org.
CHAKRABARTI: And a quick note on another story we're following. NPR's CEO Gary Knell has announced he'll be leaving the network to become president at National Geographic. NPR's David Folkenflik tweets that Knell's replacement will be the seventh permanent or acting CEO of NPR in the past seven years. The latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.