Written July 3, 2011
Ask anyone who has ever been on a hunger strike, and they will tell you that the process of intentionally starving oneself is a very painful ordeal. Typically speaking, it is a protracted form of suicide; taken too far, the body will shut down and die. And yet, there are places on this planet where the idea of death is preferable to continuing down a path that offers no hope or relief from suffering. I live in such a place; I know.
In January of this year (2011), and after almost 13 years of solitary confinement at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), I and several others went on hunger strike. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
However, after countless appeals to reason had failed, and after coming to the end of all that we could do – law suits, grievances, petitions etc. – we made the decision to risk our very lives in order to bring about the necessary changes that would allow us to live as human beings. In the end, we stood firm, garnered worldwide support and prevailed.
Now prisoners in California, confined in the notorious Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison, have decided to undertake a similar course of action. To them, I say: Bravo!
In a country that incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world – over 2.6 million men and women behind bars – human rights violations are inevitable, and it falls to those of us who must suffer through the experience to stand up and speak truth to power; for, as Frederick Douglass suggested: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
In the days to come, the men at Pelican Bay will need each and every one of us to support them, to stand with them as they seek to bring their situation to a tolerable level. What they are demanding is basic:
Abolish debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria
Comply with U.S. Commission 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement
Provide adequate food
Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates
Let’s come together to assist these men in their time of need and show them that their status as “criminals” does not automatically disqualify them from being human beings. In my time of need, I found this to be the truth and it reaffirmed my faith in humanity. Give these men the opportunity to feel that outpouring of compassion.
And to the men at Pelican Bay – Todd, Danny et al – I simply want to say: Stay the course; pay attention to what you are doing; and when things get rough (and they will), know that you are not alone. By and through the activation of what he called “Satygraha” – or truth force – Mahatma Gandhi awakened the largest democracy in the world. In every evil that threatens us, the truth – once known – has the power to set us free. Hold on to that.
The system as it currently exists must change, and this, what you all are doing right now, may very well be the catalyst to bring about that change. Remember that.
And remember this: The first three days are the hardest; after that, it’s mind over matter. When the body is brought under control, the mind is set free to receive revelations. Be on the lookout for that; and when they come, when the truth of your situation is revealed, stay in that space. Drink as much water as you can, stay hydrated (read: coffee is a diuretic). And when the time comes, be sure to get everything in writing!