Hunger strike in California prisons is a gang power play

Jeffrey Beard (Los Angeles Times) | August 6, 2013

A few hundred inmates are continuing to take part in a hunger strike in California prisons. Some prisoners claim this strike is about living conditions in the Security Housing Units, commonly called SHUs, which house some of the most dangerous inmates in California. Don’t be fooled. Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.

I am concerned about the toll this hunger strike is taking on my staff, the inmates and their families. I am uneasy about what some inmates are telling my staff. Many say they want to resume eating but are afraid of the retaliation they will suffer at the hands of other inmates acting on orders from their gang leaders. In one prison, an inmate was assaulted because he refused to share his food with striking inmates. He suffered facial fractures and had to be hospitalized for several days.

For decades, California has had the most violent and sophisticated prison gangs in the nation. When gang violence exploded during the 1970s and 1980s, and crime rates around the state rose to record highs, state prisons felt the impact. Between 1970 and 1973, 11 employees of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were slain by inmates, and many others were brutally assaulted.

After this turbulent and violent time, and in response to the growing threat of gangs, the corrections department created SHUs to safely house gang members and their associates while minimizing their influence on other prisoners. Restricting the gangs’ communication has limited their ability to engage in organized criminal activity and has saved lives both inside and outside prison walls.

There are SHUs at four prisons in California. At three of them — in Tehachapi, Corcoran and Folsom — there are outdoor-facing windows in the cells that allow for direct sunlight. At Pelican Bay, all SHU cells have skylights. In all of the facilities, inmates in the SHU have radios and color TVs with access to channels such as ESPN. They have weekly access to a law library and daily exercise time. Many have cellmates; they can earn degrees; they can send and receive letters; and their family and friends can visit them every weekend. SHU inmates receive the same meals and portions as general population inmates. This is not “solitary confinement,” in that prisoners can have visitors and, in many cases, interaction with other inmates.

Read more at: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-beard-prison-hunger-strike-20130806,0,636927.story

Photo credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times

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