Budget Cuts and the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

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Budget Cuts and the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

Prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU) began an indefinite hunger strike two weeks ago, and the reports coming in are harrowing.

The Prison Reform Movement posted a testimonial earlier in the week from a SHU nurse, who stated the prisoners have not been drinking water and there have been “rapid and severe” consequences, adding that nurses are crying, and some of the prisoners have been unable to make urine for three days.

The prisoners began the strike “in order to draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, twenty-five years of torture via [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation]'s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices,” according to their official statement, dated July 1, 2011. 

Those torturous conditions (years of confinement in steel, windowless cages for more than twenty-two hours a day, no real access to natural light or human contact) are likely to only get worse during these times of economic austerity.

Much attention was paid to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans to “realign” the prison system in order to reduce overcrowding and save the state money, but these orders followed months of harsh cuts that left prisons unable to adequately care for and supervise the hundreds of thousands of prisoners left in California’s incarceration system.

In May, Brown eliminated more than 400 positions at CDCR, in addition to 5,550 positions statewide. The move terminated 33 executive-level jobs at Corrections, and more than 100 management and supervisory positions.

Many rightly criticized the whopping annual state prison payroll of $2 billion. However, California’s huge prison budget doesn’t stem from prisoners dining on caviar and lobster. The budget exploded because of “three strike” laws that rapidly expanded the jailed population.

But even without such unfair laws, California’s prison system would still be in trouble, according to the LA Times. Growing numbers of inmates arrive with communicable diseases (nearly a fourth of them have the tuberculosis virus), one in five has mental problems or brain damage, staffing numbers are already among the lowest in the country, and although a third of its employees are women, the department has a history of sexual discrimination. Furthermore, the department has an especially difficult time locating new employees to fill open positions in desolated locales where new prisons are opening.

While some of the Pelican Bay prisoners’ demands don’t hinge on their prison being sufficiently funded (things like eliminating collective punishment, for example, can be done for free,) other items such as providing better, more nutritious food and expanding constructive programs will cost the state money, and during a time of budget cuts, the governor isn’t likely to lend a sympathetic ear to society’s pariahs.

Brown will likely be able to neglect the prison system without a majority of his constituents retaliating against him in the voting booths. Unlike when he slashed school spending by $1 billion, Brown is this time neglecting a population that many people feel deserve whatever comes to them, even though, let’s remember, prisons are supposed to rehabilitate individuals, and are not simply caves into which we throw and abandon human beings, leaving them to die.

Additionally, movements like the Innocence Project have proven that innocent men and women are incarcerated all the time, and this should always be remembered when political leaders adopt cavalier “to hell with ‘em all” attitudes.

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny is the co-host of the progressive political podcast Citizen Radio (wearecitizenradio.com) and independent journalist who blogs at allisonkilkenny.com. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, the L.A. Times, In These Times, Common Dreams, Truthout and the award-winning grassroots NYC newspaper The Indypendent.

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