Coastal Voices: Why inmates are fed up

By Gabriel Reyes August 10, 2011 12:29 pm

Regarding the many objectors and angry people against the inmate hunger strike, such individuals are partly why the prison system is dysfunctional and violating human and constitutional rights.

Linda Sutter’s July 2 letter (“No sympathy for well-fed inmates at Pelican Bay”) vented much anger toward inmates. Imagine her then with those feelings working at Pelican Bay State Prison; you can see how CDCR got into its correct predicament and the conditions that inmates are complaining about. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Mike Stern’s July 5 letter (“Has no sympathy for prisoners that take part in hunger strike”) said, “Try to find someone else who has some sympathy for you.” He seems to think everyone in prison (the Secure Housing Unit) has killed someone to get there! Oddly enough, killing someone only amounts to no more than four years in the SHU, while being accused of gang activity with no factual proof will give you at least six years in the SHU.

Clearly, these two and others believe and promote misconceptions of reality. The truth is that there are inmates like myself who rehabilitate themselves, or attempt to, and are discouraged by prison officials. I am a member of the Jane Goodall Institute advocating for the environment and animal rights, a volunteer for the Boys and Girls Club of the Redwoods, a sponsor of Children International and more that PBSP frowns upon and discourages.

Then Mike Cuthbertson’s July 13 letter (“SHU not solitary confinement; it’s for gang members, jerks”) believing that the SHU is not solitary confinement? Well, no matter what you call it — SHU, solitary confinement, isolation or administrative segregation — it’s all 221⁄2 hours a day in a cell alone. I eat alone, exercise alone and go everywhere alone. He also states he heard inmates say that “a stint in SHU is like a vacation!” A stint! How can someone call 15 years or more a “stint/vacation.”

Terry Thornton of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in desperation reaches for the scare tactic: “The fact that there are inmates in other prisons refusing to eat state-issued food to show sympathy for inmates at Pelican Bay shows the influence of prison gangs.” The fact is that CDCR uses solitary confinement or the threat of it so broadly and the poor conditions of all its prisons shows that inmates are fed up!

However, the allegation of gang activity by CDCR shows exactly how easily a prisoner can be accused of being involved in such, and that is at the heart of the hunger strike. (If I pass gas I’m accused of sending coded gang messages.)

If CDCR wants to seriously clear itself of the allegations, then all it has to do is be transparent, allow the inmate mediators and representatives to investigate how CDCR operates and applies it regulation instead of stonewalling, and CDCR needs to follow the rest of the world and states and find an alternative to its current practices and decrease the use of the SHU for inmates who have not committed any crime or rules violations (individual responsibility).

Taxpayers do have the right to have their voices heard, including inmate families who are also taxpayers, citizens, active military and veterans of war (we’re all not in prison). As taxpayers you should know that you pay an extra $20,000 a year to keep an inmate in SHU, and you should know that for me you’ve been paying that extra a year for the past 15 years (you do the math) to keep me in the SHU for not committing any acts of violence, crime or any rules violations, but solely for wishing someone happy birthday, mere possession of artwork and hearsay given in exchange for their release from SHU.

I am not the exception; rather, this is the norm.

In closing let me just say that if your child’s school lunch is worse than what we are fed, as one letter-writer said, then as a parent myself, I would be knocking at the district office door demanding something be done or I’d have my child out of that school by now!

Gabriel Reyes is an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison.