A small group of protesters gathered in front of the American consulate in Montreal on Friday to demonstrate their solidarity with a group of striking prison inmates in California.
The protest, organized by the Montreal Hunger Strike Support Committee, is part of a larger movement that aims to improve inmates’ standard of living.
Inmates across California are undertaking a hunger strike to demand better conditions behind bars. The strike, which began on July 1, was organized by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit, where prisoners are kept isolated in windowless, soundproof cells.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 811 inmates are currently involved in the strike, down from a peak of 4,252 in July. An inmate is considered to be on a hunger strike if they have missed more than nine consecutive meals.
Some activists have likened conditions inside Security Housing Units (SHUs) to torture. Ed Mead, a former inmate at Washington State Penitentiary, described the living conditions in SHUs.
“Those prisoners are subjected to total isolation. They have no communication with anyone and they are kept in what is essentially is a dog kennel,” he said.
Mead added that the only way to get out was to “snitch” on other inmates. This practice, known as “debriefing,” is one of the main grievances of the strikers.
Isaac Ontiveros, the communications director of Critical Resistance, an American organization whose goal is the abolishment of the prison-industrial complex, explained the practice.
“What happens is that prisoners are forced to identity themselves or others as high level gang leaders,” said Ontiveros. “This creates all kinds of problems, it makes so that people end up in the security housing unit for many years, it effects their safety if they return to the general prison population, it effects their parole, and it creates a vicious circle in which prisoners are forced to fabricate information on one another.”
According to Ontiveros, Critical Resistance has blamed “debriefing” for causing the prolonged solitary incarceration of inmates, some for as long as 20 years.
“The health effects of this kind of imprisonment are devastating. They’re not just devastating to the prisoners themselves, but to their family members as well. It follows people from inside of prison to their lives outside of prison, if they ever get out,” Ontiveros said.
Ontiveros has also criticized the response from the Pelican Bay administration.
“The administration is creating this culture of intimidation. They identified the leaders of the strike and destroyed their personal items; they also did a variety of disciplinary write-ups against participants,” Ontiveros said.
Others were also threatened with solitary confinement.
For Mead, the hunger strike at Pelican Bay is part of a larger problem. Inmates in security housing units, he said, often have mental health issues.
“Mental health facilities in the United States have been emptied out. Most of [those with mental health issues] find themselves in prisons, and once in prisons, they’re also disruptive, so they end up in the security housing units,” he said.
The reasoning behind the Pelican Bay strike, he said, is obvious.
“Anytime you treat human beings like animals, deprive them of any self worth, you’re going to have those kinds of problems,” Mead said.
With the highest prison population rate in the world and tight budget constraints, correctional facilities in the United States are subject to overcrowding and often lack the means to care for mentally ill inmates.
While the Canadian correctional system has historically differed from the American model, Maria, a spokesperson from the Montreal Hunger Strike Support Committee, claims that this may no longer be the case.
The budget of the Correctional Service of Canada has expanded significantly under the current government. Most of that money, she said, is directed towards the building of new prisons.
“The general gist is to get more people in prison,” she said.