New Revelations in 30,000 Strong Pelican Bay Prisoner Hunger Strike

March 7, 2014

Former inmate Gregory Koger and Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Alexis Agathocleous discuss the progress since Pelican Bay hunger strike and the merits of solitary confinement as torture

Former inmate Gregory Koger and Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Alexis Agathocleous discuss the progress since Pelican Bay hunger strike and the merits of solitary confinement as torture


Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

New details are emerging that shed light on the massive hunger strike that took place last year in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. As many as 30,000 prisoners took part during the 59-day strike that resulted in hearings and new regulations on the treatment of prisoners in solitary. The new account has been released by The Daily Mail online, which also cites reporting by MintPress News and New York magazine. Reportedly, four rival gang members spent years coordinating the hunger strike that took place last year and followed another hunger strike in 2011.

Now joining us to discuss the new revelations are our two guests.

We have Gregory Koger, who himself spent several consecutive years in solitary confinement and now works with Stop Mass Incarceration Network.

And also we’re joined by Alexis Agathocleous. He is an attorney with Center for Constitutional Rights and represents prisoners at Pelican Bay in their class action constitutional challenge to prolonged solitary confinement.

Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us.


DESVARIEUX: Alright. So let’s start off with you, Gregory. As we mentioned in your introduction, you spent several years of your youth in prison and in solitary confinement. Can you just describe for us the impact that it had on you? What was your longest time spent in confinement?

KOGER: Well, I spent just over six years straight in solitary confinement in Pontiac Correctional Center here in Illinois and, over the course of roughly 11 years I did in prison, about seven and a half total. And just people can get a sense of what it’s like to be in solitary confinement. Think about locking yourself in your bathroom for a month, a year, ten years, 20 years. There are some brothers in Louisiana who’ve been in solitary confinement for 40 years. So that will give you a little bit of a feeling of what it’s like.

And that is literally about the extent of what you would have in your cell: a bunk, a steel bunk, maybe a concrete bunk; a toilet; a sink; four walls. I could reach my arms out and touch both of the walls in the cell that I was in.

And it’s extremely isolating by design. It’s intentionally designed to be psychologically debilitating. And, in fact, this is considered torture under international law.

But you have no human contact. You might get one shower a week. That’s what they gave here in an Illinois prison that I was in. You might get a couple of hours outside in a cage or a dog run that’s approximately the size of maybe two of your cells. You know. And some places, you can’t even yell out to talk to other people.

And in other forms, in other sections of solitary confinement, where you’re around many other guys in separate cells, it’ll be constant noise of people trying to express something, trying to have some kind of contact.

And, you know, it was under those conditions that I became politically conscious, and in doing the work that I’m doing opposing solitary confinement and other forms of mass incarceration as well.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s turn to Alexis and speak to some of the revelations that were released and came out of this report. Alexis, can you just speak to the significance of the revelations?

ALEXIS AGATHOCLEOUS, SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Well, you know, I think that the important backdrop to this is that the state of California has been warehousing hundreds of prisoners in isolation, in solitary confinement units for decades at a time. So what we know is that at Pelican Bay alone, over 500 prisoners have languished in solitary confinement for over a decade. Many people have been there for 20, 25, 30 years.

And so in 2011, sort of as a result of the severe psychological distress and desperation that these prisoners were experiencing, they organized themselves and engaged in two sustained hunger strikes to draw attention to their plight and to the conditions to which they were being exposed.

Now, that hunger strike ended when the Corrections Department in California promised to engage with the prisoners and to implement meaningful reforms.

Well, you know, two years later, that unfortunately has simply not happened. There are still hundreds of men languishing in solitary confinement in California prisons. California’s still using what are called association-based criteria to retain people in the SHU. What that means is you don’t actually have to have done anything wrong. You don’t have to have acted, for example, on behalf of a gang. But so long as the Corrections Department can show that they think that you are somehow affiliated with a gang–and they could use a piece of artwork to do that–then they can retain you at the SHU for years at a time.

So what happened last year is, after patiently waiting for the Corrections Department to engage with them and seeing those promises ring hollow, the prisoners reorganized themselves and engaged in this other hunger strike. And, as you pointed out, at its peak 30,000 prisoners participated in solidarity, which is just–is remarkable.

DESVARIEUX: I’m going to present to you both sort of the official line. You often hear that solitary confinement is necessary in order to stop violence and keep prisoners safe. I’m going to first ask you, Gregory: what’s your take on that?

KOGER: Well, first of all, look, it is a fact that solitary confinement is considered torture under international law. The UN rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, has categorically stated that holding people in solitary confinement in excess of 15 days is completely illegal under international law. Furthermore, there have been studies that have been done, and there’s–at most have been mixed in regards to whether this has any impact on violence whatsoever. And whether it was effective in stopping violent or not, it is completely illegal and inhumane to treat people in these conditions. It’s torture, period. There’s absolutely no justification for the systematic practice of torture that is happening in California and to over 80,000 prisoners across the United States.

DESVARIEUX: Alexis, you’re the lawyer. First of all, is it illegal? And secondly, what has really come out of this hunger strike? You know, there were promises of reform. What has actually transpired?

AGATHOCLEOUS: Well, I want to echo the points that are just made. First of all, we know–Congress has recently held two hearings on solitary confinement in the United States, and we had corrections officials from both the states of Colorado and Mississippi come and testify that they had voluntarily reduced the number of prisoners in solitary confinement in their states without experiencing any uptick in violence. So the point is there are alternatives, there are other ways to manage security issues in prison.

Second of all, we firmly believe that prolonged solitary confinement not only violates international law, but also violates the Constitution. This is the facts.

The point is is that we now know from a long body of psychological research that placing a person into even short periods of solitary confinement, but particularly prolonged periods of solitary confinement, puts them at grave risk of descending into irreversible mental illness. That is just–that’s a very well wrought fact in the social scientific literature.

We also know that the instances of suicides and attempted suicides are far higher in isolation than elsewhere in prison. The American Journal of Public Health just published a study last week. It’s a peer-reviewed study that shows that incidences of self-harm are much higher in solitary confinement than elsewhere in prison. And recently, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, neuroscientists testified that the kinds of isolation that prisoners experience in solitary confinement can actually change their brain structure, can actually affect permanently the way your brain works.

You know, the fact is is that the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment that is enshrined in our constitution just simply does not permit placing people in such grave danger.

Torture is torture. The UN special rapporteur has indicated that he believes that prolonged solitary confinement constitutes torture, and there is just simply no excuse for it.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. That concludes our interview. Very interesting topic.

Thank you both for joining us.

KOGER: Thank you.


DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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