Truthout Stories Wed, 02 Sep 2015 12:53:48 -0400 en-gb With a Record Backing Coups, Secret War and Genocide, Is Kissinger an Elder Statesman or War Criminal?

Four decades after Henry Kissinger left office, his influence on the national security state can still be widely felt as the United States engages in declared and undeclared wars across the globe. Kissinger served as national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations and helped revive a militarized version of American exceptionalism. We speak with Greg Grandin, author of the new book, Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
After Mass Hunger Strikes and Lawsuits, Prisoners Force California to Scale Back Solitary Confinement

Also see: Two Years After Hunger Strike, California Settlement May Release 2,000 Prisoners From Solitary

In a major victory for prisoners' rights, California has agreed to greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement as a part of a legal settlement that may have major implications in prisons nationwide. The decision on Tuesday came following years of litigation by a group of prisoners held in isolation for a decade or more at Pelican Bay State Prison, as well as prisoner hunger strikes. We speak to Dolores Canales, the co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, whose son, John Martinez, has been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for more than 14 years. We also speak with Jules Lobel, the lead attorney representing prisoners at Pelican Bay in the lawsuit.


AMY GOODMAN: In a major victory for prisoners’ rights, California has agreed to greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement as a part of a legal settlement that may have major implications in prisons nationwide. On Tuesday, California reached a landmark legal settlement with a group of prisoners held in isolation for a decade or more at the Pelican Bay State Prison. California currently keeps nearly 3,000 prisoners alone for more than 22 hours a day in windowless cells. Human rights advocates have long maintained that the practice of solitary confinement is both inhumane and counterproductive. The settlement comes after years of prisoner hunger strikes and sustained protests by prisoners’ loved ones.

In 2011, Democracy Now! obtained a recording of one Pelican Bay prisoner on hunger strike, Todd Ashker, who was held in the prison’s secure housing unit, which is referred to as SHU. Listen closely.

TODD ASHKER: The basis for this protest has come about after over 25 years—some of us, 30, some up to 40 years—of being subjected to these conditions the last 21 years in Pelican Bay SHU, where every single day you have staff and administrators who feel it’s their job to punish the worst of the worst, as they’ve put out propaganda for the last 21 years that we are the worst of the worst. And most of us have never been found guilty of ever committing an illegal gang-related act. But we’re in SHU because of a label. And all of our 602 appeals, numerous court challenges, have gotten nowhere. Therefore, our backs are up against the wall.

AMY GOODMAN: That was one of the Pelican Bay prisoners, Todd Ashker, speaking about his participation in the 2011 hunger strike.

Well, for more, we go to Los Angeles, California, where we’re joined by Dolores Canales, the co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. Her son, John Martinez, has been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for more than 14 years. Dolores herself spent nine months in segregation at the California Institute for Women in 1999. And in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we’re joined by Jules Lobel, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, the lead attorney representing prisoners at Pelican Bay in the lawsuit challenging long-term solitary confinement in California prisons.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jules Lobel, let’s start with you. Lay out what this decision, what this settlement means.

JULES LOBEL: Up until now, California has put thousands of prisoners into solitary confinement simply because they have some association with a gang, or they have alleged association with a gang, often simply for artwork or political literature which the officials said were gang-related in some way. Under this settlement, California will no longer do that. In addition, when California put these alleged gang affiliates into solitary confinement, they did it for an indefinite term—really, for life. There was almost no way out. So that’s why people like Todd Ashker have spent over 20 years in solitary confinement. Under this settlement, people will only be put in solitary confinement if they commit some serious offense, after a due process hearing, a serious offense being assault or murder or something like that in prison. And they will only be put in for a definite term, and after that term ends, they will get out. So they’re abolishing essentially indefinite, indeterminate solitary confinement. They’re abolishing solitary confinement simply for gang affiliation.

And throughout the country, there are about 80,000 people in solitary confinement, many of whom are in for minor offenses or for—because they’re mentally ill or for not any good penological reason. And California, through our lawsuit, through the hunger strikes, realizes that this is a wrongheaded policy, even from the perspective of good prison management, apart from the human rights problem. In addition, California has recognized that for people who are in solitary confinement for a very long time, it’s cruel and inhumane. To put somebody in a small little box with no windows, no phone calls, no ability to contact other people—they could get written up and disciplined for even communicating with other prisoners—it’s just an inhumane way to run a prison. And for everybody who’s there after 10—for more than 10 years, they’re going to get them out of solitary confinement. In fact, they’re going to go through all the prisoners who are there simply for gang affiliation, and if they don’t have a serious misconduct in two years, in the last two years, they’re going to put them into general population. California estimates that over 95 percent of all the prisoners they have there now for simply gang affiliation are going to be released into the general population. It’s a major victory.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how many people are we talking about?

JULES LOBEL: We’re talking about probably approximately 2,000 people. There are 2,000 people in California in the SHU now simply for gang affiliation. There are a thousand people in the SHU, out of the 3,000 that you mentioned, who are there because they committed some serious offense. And this isn’t going to really affect them. We still have a long struggle down the road to get rid of solitary confinement totally in this country, but this is an important first step.

AMY GOODMAN: Dolores Canales, what does this mean for your son, John Martinez, who has been in solitary for what? Fourteen years now?

DOLORES CANALES: Yes. Well, for my son, John Martinez, it means that he will be released from the security housing unit, and he will be placed on a yard where hopefully he’ll be given the opportunity to participate in vocational training and programs. So, I’m very excited about this and for the many family members that have been waiting for this moment, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what his life is like in solitary confinement?

DOLORES CANALES: Well, I know that he sleeps on the floor, because the mattresses that they have are very thin, and he’s concerned about his back. So I know that he sleeps on his cement floor. I know that he has an exercise routine. He does a lot of legal work. We’ve provided his education. Out here, we were able to support him in his education, so he’s received certificates in paralegal studies and civil litigation, so that occupies a lot of his time. But there’s been times that he’s written me, you know, saying that he has no doubt in his mind that Pelican Bay security housing unit was designed solely to drive men mad or to suicide, because that is his existence.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been able to visit him?

DOLORES CANALES: Yes, I have. I try to visit at least every six to eight weeks, especially because of his conditions. And I’m going to be up there to see him on Saturday, because I’m just so excited at this moment, although I will say this is very, very bittersweet, because in my advocacy, working with numerous family members as we organize together, there’s been family members that are not here today to share in this moment with us, as they’ve passed away, with the last chance of ever seeing their loved one just simply behind an image behind a glass or holding onto a cold phone, but yet always believing that there would be change. So, I’m happy, and then I hold them in my heart, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, Dolores, the kind of organizing that went on outside the prison, people like you organizing for family members, and inside the prison? Your son, John Martinez, participated in all three hunger strikes that began in 2011?

DOLORES CANALES: Yes, he did. He gave us notice prior to the first hunger strike, July 1st, 2011. He wrote us, and he asked us to send his letter to about over 200 organizations and to the governor and various administration in Sacramento. And, you know, I didn’t even realize the circumstances of solitary confinement, the depth of the isolation. I didn’t really give it too much of a second thought. I guess it’s something you just kind of block out. But then, after that, I could not stop thinking about it.

And so, what the family members began to do—and even right now, as I’m sitting here, I wouldn’t even be here at this moment if it were not for the hundreds of family members that have come out. And every hunger strike that they had was during the summer—July, August and September—you know, these warm months. But yet family members would be outside every other day dressed in orange jumpsuits or dressed in orange, you know, carrying chains or handcuffs or bullhorns, just to get attention, to draw attention of society, conducting numerous panels at universities and churches, and just organizing and mobilizing across the state of California, raising awareness to these conditions that our loved ones were enduring.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, corrections officials and guards have come out increasingly—is this true—against solitary confinement? Were there guards or officials supporting you in your activism?

DOLORES CANALES: Some were, yes. Some would make comments, maybe not out in the open, but some would make comments that it was time for change, you know, while others, of course, there is resistance, and they don’t want change. And I just recently heard yesterday that, you know, the CCPOA is very much against this change because they’re concerned about violence. But one thing that the men did do was they drew up an agreement to end all hostilities. And that is something that the family members and the advocates have been attempting to promote and just spread the word, that it’s time for change and to just come together in unity. And what my concern is, if there is such a big concern that there’s going to be violence, it would seem like CDCR would be very cooperative in helping, you know, to get this word out and to pass this around and to promote this end of all hostilities.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Dolores Canales, you yourself were in a segregated unit in 1999. Explain how that compares to solitary confinement. Is it solitary? How do you end up there? And, I mean, we’re talking now more than 15 years of activism.

DOLORES CANALES: Yes, well, I do believe that I was in solitary confinement when I was—when I was doing a SHU term in CIW. And I had a window in my cell. You know, keep in mind that in Pelican Bay there is no windows. Not only did I have a window, I went outside to yard activity, and I was actually outdoors. I could see the sun, feel the wind when I went out. But yet, when you’re in that cell and you’re surrounded by that brick, you know, and the only thing you experience—you don’t experience human contact other than being handcuffed and escorted places. My visits were non-contact. They were behind the glass. And there would be times that I would wake up at night, because the cells are so small, and I would just feel like if I couldn’t breathe. And I guess that’s why once I really did start thinking about the situation of solitary confinement for decades on end, you know, that’s why I organized with such passion, because I didn’t realize that California left people for 20, 30, 40 years, and then I immediately realized that they had no intentions of letting my son out and that we had to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama addressed the NAACP in July. He spoke out against solitary confinement.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What’s more, I’ve asked my attorney general to start a review of the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons. The social science shows that an environment like that is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, more hostile, potentially more violent. Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometimes for years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama addressing the NAACP in July. So, Jules Lobel, where does solitary confinement stand across the country, outside of California? And how will this settlement affect that?

JULES LOBEL: A couple things. One is, I just want to point out one thing about what happens at Pelican Bay, is that when Dolores visits her son, she cannot hug him, she cannot have any human contact with him. She visits him with a glass in between them. And so, we have clients who for 20 years have not hugged their loved ones. And I think this is an abomination. In addition, for many years at Pelican Bay, they had no phone calls. Until our lawsuit, nobody was allowed to even make a phone call to their loved ones. But what’s happening around the—

AMY GOODMAN: Aside from the morality of that, Jules Lobel, and the humanity or lack of humanity of that, talk about how that actually makes prisoners—makes the situation worse for prisoners, can make them more violent, less able to rehabilitate when they are so cut off from human contact.

JULES LOBEL: Yeah, it obviously makes them very angry, frustrated, hopeless, which all of our guys have experienced. And in addition, it creates what social scientists call a social death. People lose their ability to relate to other people, and have a lot of difficulties relating to people in the normal world. And that—most of these people are going to get out of prison. We are creating a situation where we’re releasing people from solitary confinement who cannot possibly have the ability to relate to the outside world in a normal, human way. I mean, they could function, but their basic human need of social interaction has been taken away from them, their basic human need to touch another person. If your listeners could imagine living in a world where for 15, 20 years you’ve not been able to hug another person, you haven’t been able to touch another person, you’ve had very little contact with other people, and then get thrown out into the street, it’s a very, very difficult situation. And it’s contrary to any notion of prison rehabilitating people. But around the—

AMY GOODMAN: And what this means globally—I mean, nationally?

JULES LOBEL: Yeah. Around the country, as I said, there are 80,000 people in solitary confinement. And as President Obama said, most of them are there without any real necessity. So what this settlement, I think, will mean is it will give impetus to the movement in Colorado, in Mississippi, in other states to dramatically reduce the number of people in solitary confinement. California now is going to dramatically reduce the number of people held in SHU. And California has been the major state using solitary confinement. That, I think, will give impetus to these reform efforts around the country.

But in addition, this settlement has done another thing which I think could have a major impact around the country. There are some prisoners who commit murder in prison or assault in prison, who obviously need to be segregated from the general population, but they don’t have to be treated in a cruel, inhumane way. They don’t have to be put in cells with no windows. They don’t have to be given any contact visits with their family. They don’t have to be cut off from phone calls with their family. And California, as part of this settlement, has agreed to create a special unit for people who they consider dangerous, but who will be given contact visits, who will be in a—given small group recreation. So they won’t recreate in a big yard like what we’ve seen in the movies, in Shawshank Redemption or something like that, but they’ll be able to recreate with other people as opposed to totally alone. They’ll be able to have educational programs. And we’re hoping that this unit could be an alternative model around the country for segregating people, but not isolating them, not treating them inhumanely. Our prisons have to realize that every prisoner is entitled to human dignity, is entitled to basic human needs. And the way our prisons have been running has not been in accordance with that.

And finally, I think there’s another key thing about this settlement which could be a model in other states, which is that in our whole litigation we incorporated the prisoners into—the prisoners came up with the demands. We had a number of group meetings with all the prisoners. We had the prisoners ratifying this agreement. And the prisoners are going to be meeting with prison officials, helping to implement this. So, it’s not like just the lawyers did this. To treat people with some human dignity, you have to allow them to participate in the things that govern their own lives. That’s a basic democratic principle, and it shouldn’t be abolished simply because somebody goes to prison. And I think that’s critical to rehabilitation, and it’s critical to allowing a prison to be run with some kind of a dignity and some kind of a hope for the prisoners. So I do think the way this litigation and this settlement was conducted really could be an alternative model for prisons around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Dolores Canales, co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. Her son, John Martinez, has been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for more than 14 years, participated in all the hunger strikes, and may now well be released from solitary confinement because of the settlement that has been reached this week.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Guatemala City. The president of Guatemala has been stripped of immunity by the Guatemalan Congress. That means he could be arrested at any moment, unless he resigns—he could still be arrested, even then. Stay with us.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Wild Science: Bees and Climate Change

Scientists in Colorado investigate ominous climate risks for pollinators. Bee populations may be in decline. As pollinators this can have severe consequences for our food. Wild Science is a High Country News original video series produced by filmmaker Dakin Henderson. The series explores current wildlife research by taking us into the outdoors and behind the scenes with field biologists. In Wild Science, HCN looks at the scientific processes that inform decisions about how to manage public lands and wildlife - decisions that shape the West today.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Pentagon Persecutes Chelsea Manning

Supporters of Chelsea Manning rallied to her defense after the Army threatened the whistleblower with indefinite solitary confinement for "crimes" that included possessing an issue of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover and "expired" toothpaste.

Public pressure - including more than 100,000 signatures on a petition demanding the charges be dropped - helped push back the threats of a maximum sentence of indefinite solitary for these disciplinary violations. However, a three-person military board ruled on August 18 that she was guilty of four charges and gave her 21 days of recreational restrictions - no gym, library or outdoors.

The board's ruling could have a more far-reaching impact. Manning's lawyers are concerned that now that the convictions are on her permanent record, they could be used in future parole or clemency hearings, and could delay her transition to minimum security custody status. Manning explained via Twitter, "Now these convictions will follow me thru to any parole/clemency hearing forever. Was expecting to be in min custody in Feb, now years added."

During the four-hour, closed-door hearing, Manning's was not allowed to have legal counsel present - another of the many injustices Manning has faced in the US Army's years-long campaign to persecute and silence her.

The transgender Army private was sentenced to 35 years in Fort Leavenworth military prison in 2013 for espionage after she went public with hundreds of thousands of top-secret military documents exposing, among other things, the US responsibility for thousands of previously unreleased civilian casualties.

The 700,000 documents and videos made public by the watchdog website WikiLeaks showed that the Pentagon failed to investigate reports of torture, rape and abuse committed by the part of the US military in Iraq - including the killing of 700 civilians, pregnant women and children among them, at border checkpoints. Video of a US air attack in Baghdad in 2007 showed the killing of two Reuters war correspondents by US Apache helicopters.


From Behind the bars of a military prison, Manning - who was first diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2010 - is an outspoken opponent of the crimes of the US military and advocate for transgender rights. She has a column in Britain's Guardian newspaper in which she takes up the military, civil liberties and trans issues.

The Pentagon has thrown up obstacles to Manning every step of the way, including unrelenting harassment and psychological abuse. After she was arrested, it threatened her with the death penalty and forced her languish in the torture of solitary confinement in Kuwait, and again while she awaited trial at Quantico in Virginia.

Only after months of protest did military officials say that they would allow Manning to undergo hormone therapy, which began in February. The ACLU has also filed a lawsuit demanding that the military respect Manning's requests to grow her hair out. The military continues to force her to shave her head to the Army's grooming standards for males.

In July, Manning was written up for medicine misuse, for having expired toothpaste; disorderly conduct, for brushing food onto the floor; disrespect to an officer; and having prohibited property, such as magazines and books, in her cell. She was sent to solitary confinement for 24 hours, while guards searched her cell and confiscated her property.

The prohibited reading materials, totaling 21 books and magazines, confiscated from her cell included: the issue of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover, Advocate, OUT Magazine, an issue of Cosmopolitan with an interview of Manning, Transgender Studies Quarterly, a novel about trans issues called A Safe Girl to Love, the book I Am Malala about the Afghan school girl who was shot by the Taliban and became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, legal documents including the Senate Torture Report, and a book about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791.

Prior to the hearing, Manning says that she was refused access to the prison's law library. The military itself refused to release any information on Manning's disciplinary hearing, citing the Privacy Act of 1976, according to the Associated Press. The results of her hearing are only known because Manning released the details herself.

The military would prefer that the inhumane treatment of Chelsea Manning go unreported - just like the war crimes revealed by the documents she leaked five years ago. Officials would prefer that she is isolated, stripped of her right to free speech and never heard from again. Unfortunately for the US Army, Chelsea's supporters are watching.

Manning lawyer Chase Strangio told the Associated Press, "When I spoke to Chelsea earlier today she wanted to convey the message to supporters that she is so thankful for the thousands of people from around the world who let the government know that we are watching and scrutinizing what happens to her behind prison walls." Strangio added that it was this support that played the key role in keeping Manning out of solitary confinement.

"Chelsea's ridiculous convictions today will not silence her," Manning's other attorney, Nancy Hollander, tweeted after the hearing. "And we will fight even harder in her appeal to overturn all her convictions."

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Criminalization of the Hunger Strike

Officials portray hunger strikes as crimes rather than as protests of last resort, but Guantánamo detainees, Palestinian political prisoners and Chicagoans challenging the closure of a local school see hunger strikes as the best way to challenge the status quo.

Israeli police break up a demonstration in support of hunger striking prisoners, outside of Ramle Prison in Ramle, Israel, May 3, 2012. Scores of Palestinian prisoners have joined a hunger strike that officials say now counts more than 1,500 participants. (Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times).Israeli police break up a demonstration in support of hunger striking prisoners, outside of Ramle Prison in Ramle, Israel, May 3, 2012. Scores of Palestinian prisoners have joined a hunger strike that officials say now counts more than 1,500 participants. (Photo: Rina Castelnuovo / The New York Times).

Seven years ago, Barack Obama pledged to close down the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, telling the crowds that flocked to his campaign speeches that the United States must "restore habeas corpus" in order to "lead by example." Though the Department of Defense is still weighing options on how to close the facility before Obama leaves office, the process seems to be going nowhere. Some of this blame rests on Congress, which has repeatedly refused to lift restrictions on moving detainees even though nearly half of them are cleared for transfer.

Despite Obama's professed concern for civil liberties, his administration is currently challenging the habeas corpus petition of a Guantánamo detainee on hunger strike. Tariq Ba Odah has spent 13 years at Guantánamo and is now on the verge of starvation. The 36-year-old currently weighs 74 pounds. In 2009, the Obama administration cleared Ba Odah for transfer due to lack of evidence that he posed a threat to national security, yet he remains imprisoned due to his Yemeni citizenship.

From the United States to Israel, hunger strikes like Ba Odah's are often portrayed as crimes rather than as protests of last resort. According to a recent Guardian report, an anonymous US official claims that certain members of the Defense Department believe that hunger strikes are "functionally a method of warfare."

"We are undeterred, even if we are weaker physically. Our mental determination gets stronger with each day."

On the South Side of Chicago, 12 parents are currently on a hunger strike to protest the closure of Dyett High School. One of the hunger strikers has been arrested twice for trying to talk to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who shut down 49 public schools in 2013 alone and whose name has become synonymous with the toxic effects of corporate education reform.

The parents in Chicago, who are midway through the third week of their hunger strike, have received support from Jesse Jackson and the Chicago Teachers Union. Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the teachers union, said that without a solution from Mayor Emanuel in the next month, "someone's going to die." Those who are putting their lives on the line to fight school privatization remain steadfast despite headaches, fatigue and at least one hospitalization. "We are undeterred, even if we are weaker physically," said elementary school teacher and union activist Monique Redeaux-Smith. "Our mental determination gets stronger with each day."

Meanwhile Will Burns, alderman of Chicago's Fourth Ward, released a statement in which he insisted he "will not be bullied into submitting to the special interests and scare tactics of one group." Here we see the same criminalizing logic at play - a mentality that allows government officials to feel "bullied" by ordinary citizens refusing to eat.

Negative portrayals of hunger strikes in the US echo the stance of the Israeli government, which passed a bill in June allowing the force-feeding of hunger strikers regardless of whether it poses a threat to their lives. The "Law to Prevent Harm Caused by Hunger Strikes" has been heavily promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while drawing condemnation from the Israeli Medical Association. In a letter to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Israeli Medical Association chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman wrote that the law "contradicts and is in opposition to the standards of medical ethics accepted in Israel and by the entire world.... Parenteral (intravenous) nutrition administered to a patient capable of judgment against his will isn't ethical and requires humiliating means bordering on torture." Erdan was unswayed, claiming, "Security prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the State of Israel."

According to the Council for European Palestinian Relations, an estimated 6,800 Palestinian prisoners are being held in Israeli jails. Palestinians are routinely taken from their homes in the middle of the night and held indefinitely without being charged; as of 2012, 309 prisoners are being held under administrative detention. Each six-month sentence can be renewed without trial.

The power of the hunger strike lies not in its nonviolence but in its militancy.

The most notable recent example of a Palestinian hunger striker is Khader Adnan, a spokesman for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who has been held under administrative detention (imprisonment without trial) 10 separate times. He has never been charged with attacking Israelis, but is routinely accused of such vague offenses as "activities that threaten regional security." In April 2012, he was released after being on hunger strike for 66 days.

Adnan has been called the West Bank's Bobby Sands, and comparisons with the Irish revolutionary are apt. Sands died on the 65th day of his hunger strike, already a hero of the Irish nationalist movement. Both Sands and Adnan were fighting essentially anti-colonial battles, choosing self-starvation over car bombs not for lack of spite but out of a shared conviction that nonviolence was the most effective means of attack.

The power of the hunger strike lies not in its nonviolence (after all, there are plenty of methods of nonviolent resistance that don't command the same attention) but in its militancy. The underlying aggression is that of liberationist violence turned inward, forcing the state to confront its own inhumanity while short-circuiting any attempts to paint the prisoner as harmful or destructive. The political prisoner who can attract widespread support for his or her struggle is more dangerous to authoritarian regimes than a suicide bomber, who can easily be dismissed as a dangerous ideologue with no real base.

Conservative politicians, by condemning hunger strikes as acts of terrorism, are aligning themselves historically with the cruelty of Winston Churchill. During the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed several million, Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery asked Churchill to release food supplies to stop the wave of deaths. His response - "If food is so scarce, why hasn't Gandhi died yet?" - was typical of what Amery referred to as Churchill's "Hitler-like attitude" toward India.

Hunger strikers don't seek pity; they seek a collective rage strong enough to turn the tide against the Churchills and Netanyahus of the world. The attempt to paint this tactic as an act of violence is transparently absurd. Nonviolence does not necessarily connote a lack of anger; in fact, it is safe to assume that those who undertake hunger strikes harbor a fair degree of anger toward the objects of their protests, Gandhi's "universal love" doctrine notwithstanding. Those who invent flimsy pretexts for condemning this method of resistance are baring their true aim: compliance.

A hunger strike gives the lie to the idea that reactionary leaders are primarily concerned with preserving peaceful coexistence. It demonstrates that their aim is to preserve the existing hierarchy and to deny fair treatment to those who challenge it; arguments over the validity of a particular tactic are merely incidental. The horror over a car bomb or political assassination (often conveyed by those who approve of such actions in other contexts) cannot be easily transferred to a hunger strike, which is more likely to elicit sympathy than righteous condemnation.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Was the Katrina Oil Spill Disaster a Harbinger for the Atlantic Coast?

When Hurricane Katrina hit the US Gulf Coast 10 years ago, it set off a disaster of many parts - and one of those parts was an oil spill catastrophe.

In fact, Katrina turned out to be the worst US oil spill disaster since the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska. The storm resulted in an estimated 8 million gallons of oil spilled onto the ground and into waterways from Louisiana to Alabama. Both of those incidents have since been surpassed by the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf, which affected some of the same areas as the Katrina spill.

The Katrina oil disaster offers important lessons for residents of the Atlantic Coast - another hurricane-vulnerable region that may soon be opened to offshore drilling. Federal regulators are now considering whether to include an area 50 miles off the coast from Virginia to Georgia in the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf drilling lease plan.

Katrina made its initial landfall in southeastern Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish, a center of the oil industry, as a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour. The two single largest spills resulting from the storm occurred in Plaquemines: one involving storage tanks at the Bass Enterprises site in Cox Bay that dumped 3.78 million gallons of oil into the environment, and another from Chevron's Empire terminal in Buras that released 1.4 million gallons.

There were also spills in more populous parts of the state, including an incident involving a ruptured storage tank at the Murphy Oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish just east of New Orleans that spilled about 1 million gallons of oil, affecting as many as 10,000 homes in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In 2006, the US Minerals Management Service (MMS), since reorganized into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, issued a report on damage to oil and gas infrastructure resulting from Katrina as well as Hurricane Rita, which made landfall on Sept. 24, 2005 as a Category 3 storm along the Texas-Louisiana border. MMS found that together the two storms damaged a total of 457 pipelines, 101 of those major lines of 10 inches or more in diameter, and destroyed 113 offshore drilling platforms. A 2007 study for MMS reported that the storms also resulted in about 750,000 gallons of petroleum products spilling from offshore platforms, rigs and pipelines.

President George W. Bush's White House acknowledged the enormity of the Katrina oil disaster in the official administration report on the storm, "The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned":

Much more than any other hurricane, Katrina's wrath went far beyond wind and water damage. In fact, Hurricane Katrina caused at least ten oil spills, releasing the same quantity of oil as some of the worst oil spills in US history.

In the years since Katrina, however, politicians friendly with the oil and gas industry have tried to erase the reality of the storm's impact on the Gulf's energy infrastructure and the resulting pollution. That effort to rewrite history intensified in 2008 after President Bush, a former Texas oilman, reversed decades of presidential policy by proposing to expand offshore drilling to new areas, including the Atlantic Coast.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, now running for the Republican nomination for president, told Fox News in the wake of Bush's drilling announcement, "That's one of the great unwritten success stories, after Katrina and Rita, these awful storms, no major spills." Around the same time, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also currently running for the GOP presidential nomination, said that "not one drop of oil was spilled off of those rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico" when Katrina hit.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory - who's now leading the charge for Atlantic oil and gas drilling as chair of the industry-managed Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, despite strong opposition in coastal communities - also weighed in during his unsuccessful 2008 gubernatorial run, claiming that "we didn't have one oil spill due to Katrina."

Minor Storms, Major Spills

The claims of politicians aside, Hurricane Katrina showed that when major hurricanes hit oil-producing regions they can cause major oil spills. But another lesson storm-prone Gulf Coast communities have learned over the years is that even minor hurricanes can lead to significant spills and pollution.

Consider Hurricane Isaac. On Aug. 28, 2012, the relatively mild Category 1 storm made landfall in southeastern Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River. A year later, the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) - an alliance of environmental advocacy groups launched to collect, share and publish data on pollution in the region - released a report examining Isaac's impacts.

"Despite the relatively unremarkable nature of the storm, GMC documented numerous examples of pollution from infrastructure failures at fossil fuel transport, storage, and refining facilities during and after the storm," the report stated. "These failures included inadequate levees which allowed contaminated water to spill into surrounding wetlands, waterways, and communities; insufficient storage capacity to handle stormwater and/or wastewater during predictable high-rain events; tanks and railroad tanker cars shifted or upset by the storm and floodwaters, and other weaknesses."

Among the spills related to Isaac that GMC documented:

* The Marathon refinery in Garyville, Louisiana dumped 12.6 million gallons of untreated stormwater runoff from its process areas into Lake Maurepas.

* Oil wastewater overflowed the collection system at the Phillips 66 refinery in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, which is located on the Mississippi River.

* Though the Valero refinery in St. Charles Parish shut down before the storm, it still experienced a spill of 47 gallons of slop oil, including 7.8 pounds of cancer-causing benzene.

* Satellite images and flyovers taken after the storm documented an oil slick from a closed Chevron offshore well as well as oil leaks at other offshore sites and from oil production and storage facilities.

"In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, it became crystal clear that companies are not taking the action necessary to safeguard their facilities," Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network, a GMC member, said at the time.

Besides causing acute oil-spill crises, hurricanes can also lead to chronic leaks - a lesson learned from the ongoing Taylor Energy oil leak a few miles off the Louisiana coast.

When Hurricane Ivan moved through the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 3 storm in September 2004, it triggered an undersea landslide that toppled an oil platform formerly operated by Taylor Energy. The New Orleans-based company has attempted to halt the leak, but it continues 11 years later.

SkyTruth, an environmental watchdog group based in West Virginia, has used satellite images and pollution reports to estimate that between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf from the Taylor Energy site, and the leak shows no signs of tapering off. Federal officials have said they think it will continue for another century until the reservoir is empty.

SkyTruth President John Amos, a geologist, has called the Taylor leak "a dirty little secret in plain sight."

Oil and Land Loss

Polluting spills are not the only hazards created when the oil industry and hurricanes mix: The combination also drives coastal land loss, making inland communities more vulnerable to storm damage.

One of the reasons Hurricane Katrina was so destructive, causing damages estimated at $108 billion, was that the flooding and storm surges it brought were made worse by the loss of protective coastal wetlands to open waters. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of coastal lands - an area about the size of Delaware. The state's land continues to disappear into the Gulf of Mexico at a rapid pace, with an area about the size of a football field lost every hour.

Louisiana is losing land so rapidly in large part because of oil and gas industry activity: the tens of thousands of wells drilled and thousands of miles of pipelines laid and canals carved into coastal wetlands (see US Geological Survey photo of the Louisiana coast above). Every cut made in the wetlands allows the Gulf's saltwater to intrude, which in turn kills soil-anchoring plants and trees, allowing more land to slip away.

The oil and gas industry itself has acknowledged causing 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana, with other estimates putting that figure as high as 59 percent. However, the industry is fighting local governments' efforts to make it pay for restoration, which could leave taxpayers to foot the bill.

Also contributing to land loss are levees, which starve coastal lands of fresh sediment, and natural land subsidence. In addition, rising seas are becoming an increasingly important factorin coastal land loss - especially under an energy policy that encourages burning oil and gas. At the same time, the global warming exacerbated by burning fossil fuels is contributing to more intense hurricanes.

The area of the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Georgia where drilling has been proposed is already extremely vulnerable to hurricanes and sea-level rise. North Carolina is among the most hurricane-prone states in the nation, having experienced 46 hurricanes in the period from 1851 to 2004 - the fourth-most after Florida, Texas and Louisiana. In that same period South Carolina was hit by 31 hurricanes, Georgia by 20 and Virginia by 12.

Meanwhile, scientists have identified a "hotspot" of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina's Outer Banks to Massachusetts, where seas are rising three to four times as fast as they are globally. Norfolk, Virginia already experiences street flooding during ordinary high tides. Recent studies have found that North Carolina's Outer Banks face a sea-level rise of nearly 5.5 inches over the next 30 years, while an earlier study found the ocean off the state's coast would rise 39 inches in the next century. And in South Carolina's Lowcountry, up to five feet of sea level rise are expected by 2100, while Charleston is already experiencing more frequent flooding.

Atlantic Coast communities face a perilous future from a warming climate, rising seas and more destructive hurricanes. Adding oil to the mix will heighten the dangers they face, as Hurricane Katrina showed.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How Charles Koch Prevents Clean Energy Businesses From Succeeding

(Photo: Air pollution via Shutterstock)The Kochs use their political influence and funding for efforts to repeal laws designed to support the deployment of more renewable electricity. (Photo: Air pollution via Shutterstock)

Last week, President Obama correctly singled out the Koch brothers - Charles and David - and the Koch-funded network for standing in the way of America's clean energy future. Charles Koch responded saying he was "flabbergasted" after hearing Obama's remark. He continued, "We are not trying to prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding." This statement is, at best, highly misleading.

Charles Koch states that he believes government should be smaller and it should not subsidize businesses, including any form of energy business. But while he acknowledges that the fossil fuel businesses he owns benefit tremendously from government subsidies, he doesn't refuse those benefits or do anything to stop those policy choices.  Meanwhile, the Kochs use their political influence and funding for efforts to repeal laws designed to support the deployment of more renewable electricity. Specifically, their political network's agenda includes weakening renewable energy standards, preventing customers from installing solar panels (by charging fees on people that go solar), and protecting the government monopolized electric utilities.

The facts are indisputable.

Note: For more background, read this full briefing on the Koch's web of influence across American society.

Here are the facts:

  • Arizona Public Service Company (APS), the largest electric utility company in Arizona, admitted that it worked with the 60 Plus Association, a Virginia-based nonprofit seniors advocacy group receiving Koch money, to support the utility company's proposal to add fees on homeowners with solar panels. Here is an advertisement paid for by 60 Plus Association attacking solar energy in Arizona.
  • 60 Plus Association is now working with the utility companies in Florida to preserve the status quo and the state's outdated business model, and prevent customers from purchasing electricity from third party solar companies.
  • Americans For Prosperity has also worked in Kansas and North Carolina to repeal, weaken, or freeze those states renewable energy standards. In 2013, AFP flew Willie Soon to Kansas where he testified in front of state legislators that global warming isn't a problem as part of AFP's attempt to completely repeal the renewable energy standard. James Taylor, from the ExxonMobil and Koch-funded Heartland Institute, attended an AFP event the same year to increase support for repealing the state's standard, and he also testified against the law. Furthermore, Koch Industries' lobbyist Jonathan Small worked behind the scenes in the repeal efforts. Small held private talks with Representative Dennis Hedke (R-Wichita) about legislation to eliminate the law. In 2015, the standard was changed to a voluntary one after legislators threatened to impose an excise tax on wind energy. Mike Morgan, a lobbyist for Koch Industries, joined Rep. Hedke and Jeff Glendenning of AFP at the announcement.
  • Additionally, Koch-controlled foundations approved grants for Art Hall, director of the University of Kansas' Center for Applied Economics, to research the state's renewable energy standard. Lee Fang at The Intercept writes, "The Koch money was part of an ongoing project Hall described as an effort to develop "intellectual products" to be used "as a tool in economic policy debates… Following his grant request, Hall testified before the Kansas legislature in 2014 in favor of repealing the state renewable energy portfolio."

Last month, President Obama called out the Koch brothers for standing in the way of the clean energy future.

"But when you start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests, or conservative think tanks, or the Koch brothers pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding - that's a problem.  That's not the American way.  That's not progress.  That's not innovation.  That's rent seeking and trying to protect old ways of doing business and standing in the way of the future."

Charles Koch responded the next day by working with Mike Allen at Politico. Allen writes,

Charles Koch hit back at criticism of "the Koch brothers" during President Barack Obama's energy speech in Las Vegas earlier this week, saying he was "flabbergasted" by the attack…

 "We are not trying to prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding," Koch continued. "Any business that's economical, that can succeed in the marketplace, any form of energy, we're all for. As a matter of fact, we're investing in quite a number of them, ourselves - whether that's ethanol, renewable fuel oil. … We're investing a tremendous amount in research to make those more efficient and create higher-value products."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest hit back and said,

"I'm not sure whether to describe those comments as remarkably rich or utterly predictable… The fact is that Koch Industries has spent at least tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, lobbying Congress - these are public disclosures — in support of those kinds of policies, to say nothing of the millions of dollars that they have spent punishing those candidates that didn't side with them."

Philip Ellender, Koch Companies Private Sector's president and COO of government and public affairs, then countered via email to Nick Gass at Politico, saying,

"We think it is hypocritical that Mr. Earnest attempted to tout the merits of a free-market system while promoting a new round of taxpayer-funded loan guarantees for the Administration's politically friendly special interests. That said, Mr. Earnest's statement about Koch is inaccurate. We have not lobbied for government subsidies or mandates, and we have lobbied against subsidies that directly benefit Koch."

Republic Report is an investigative news blog dedicated to uncovering the corrupting influence of money in politics.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Routine ]]> Art Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400 An Afghan Girl Buries Her Toy Gun and Says No to "a World of War"

Sakina breaks a toy gun before burying it. Inam and other street kids await their turn. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)Sakina breaks a toy gun before burying it. Inam and other street kids await their turn. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)

Ten-year-old Sakina, an Afghan street kid, had this to say, "I don't like to be in a world of war. I like to be in a world of peace."

On 27th August 2015, Sakina and Inam, with fellow Afghan street kids and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, held a mock funeral for weapons and celebrated the establishment of a green space in Kabul.

Dressed in long black coats, they broke and buried toy guns in a small spot where, over the past two years, they have been planting trees.

Sakina breaks a toy gun before burying it. Inam and other street kids await their turn.

Inam, a bright-eyed ten year old, caught the group's energetic desire to build a world without war. "I kept toy guns till about three years ago," he acknowledged with a smile.

On the same day, Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-President of Costa Rica, was in Mexico for the Arms Trade Treaty's First Conference of States Parties.

In his statement at the Conference, he told the story of an indigenous Guatemalan woman who thanked him for negotiating a peace accord 28 years ago. The mother had said, "Thank you, Mr. President, for my child who is in the mountains fighting, and for the child I carry in my womb."

No mother, Guatemalan or Afghan, wants her children to be killed in war.

Oscar Arias Sanchez wrote: "I never met them, but those children of conflict are never far from my thoughts. They were [the peace treaty's] true authors, its reason for being."

I'm confident that the children of Afghanistan were also in his thoughts, especially since he had a brief personal connection with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in 2014, having been part of a Peace Jam video message of solidarity to the Volunteers, wearing their Borderfree Blue Scarves which symbolize that "all human beings live under the same blue sky".

I thank Mr Oscar Arias Sanchez for his important work on the Arms Trade Treaty, though I sense that an arms trade treaty isn't going to be enough.

Afghan children are dying from the use of weapons.

To survive, they need a ban against weapons. Regulations about buying and selling weapons perpetuate a trade that is killing them.

I saw Inam and other child laborers who work in Kabul's streets decisively swing hammers down on the plastic toy guns, breaking off triggers, scattering nozzles into useless pieces and symbolically breaking our adult addiction to weapons.

Children shouldn't have to pay the price for our usual business, especially business from the U.S., the largest arms seller in the world. U.S. children suffer too, with more U.S. people having died as a result of gun violence since 1968 than have died in all U.S. wars combined. U.S. weapon sellers are killing their own people; by exporting their state-of-the-art weapons, they facilitate the killing of many others around the world.

After burying the toy guns, surrounded by the evergreen and poplar trees which they had planted, the youth shed their black coats and donned sky-blue scarves.

Another world was appearing as Sakina and Inam watched young friends plant one more evergreen sapling.

Inam was watching as another evergreen tree was planted. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)Inam was watching as another evergreen tree was planted. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)


Inam knew that it hasn't been easy to create this green space in heavily fortified Kabul.

The City Municipality said they couldn't water the trees (though it is just 200 metres away from their office). The Greenery Department weren't helpful. Finally, the security guards of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission just across from the garden, offered to help, after the Volunteers had provided them with a 100-metre water hose.

Rohullah, who coordinates the environment team at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre, expressed his frustration. "Once, we had to hire a private water delivery service to water the tree saplings so they wouldn't shrivel up. None of the government departments could assist."

Sighing, he added ironically, "We can't use the Kabul River tributary running just next to the Garden, as the trash-laden trickle of black, bracken water is smelly and filthy."

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, according to figures from the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan U.S. federal budget research group, the ongoing Afghan War is costing American taxpayers US $4 million an hour.

It is the youth and children who are making sense today, like when Nobel Laureate Malalai Yousafzai said recently that if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could provide 12 years of free, quality education for every child on the planet.

"I don't like to work in the streets, but my family needs bread. Usually, I feel sad," Inam said, looking away, "because I feel a sort of helplessness."

Oscar Arias Sanchez said at the Arms Trade Treaty's First Conference, "And we must speak, today - in favour of this crucial treaty, and its swift and effective implementation. If we do, then when today's children of conflict look to us for guidance and leadership, we will no longer look away in shame. We will be able to tell them, at long last, that we are standing watch for them. We are on guard. Someone is finally ready to take action."

That morning, I heard the voices of Sakina, Inam and the Afghan youth ring through the street, "#Enough of war!"

Sakina speaks to a T.V. reporter. Rohullah is on her right, Inam on her left. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)Sakina speaks to a TV reporter. Rohullah is on her right, Inam on her left. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)

It wasn't a protest. It was the hands-on building of a green spot without weapons, and an encouraging call for others to do so everywhere.

Through their dramatic colours and clear action, they were inviting all of us, "Bury your weapons. Build your gardens."

"We will stand watch for you!"

Opinion Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Two Years After Hunger Strike, California Settlement May Release 2,000 Prisoners From Solitary

 Robert Luca, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison who was a gang member, looking out the grates of his cell, near Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 10, 2012.  (Jim Wilson/The New York Times) Robert Luca, a prisoner at Pelican Bay State Prison, looks out the grates of his cell, near Crescent City, California. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)

Under a historic settlement reached this week, California prisoners who have spent 10 or more years in solitary confinement, and many of whom have participated in mass hunger strikes protesting prison conditions, will be able to interact with others in person for the first time in years.

 Robert Luca, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison who was a gang member, looking out the grates of his cell, near Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 10, 2012.  (Jim Wilson/The New York Times) Robert Luca, a prisoner at Pelican Bay State Prison, looks out the grates of his cell, near Crescent City, California. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)

Attorneys and family members announced on September 1 what they called a "landmark settlement" in the class-action lawsuit Ashker v. Governor of California. The settlement, stated lead attorney Jules Lobel, "is an important step in the growing movement to end solitary confinement."

The settlement comes after months of negotiations between advocates and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). It also comes after years of agitation, including a lawsuit and three mass prison hunger strikes, aimed at ending California's practice of placing prisoners in isolation for indeterminate periods of time. Advocates predict that between 1,500 and 2,000 people will be released from isolation in the coming months.

Also see: After Mass Hunger Strikes and Lawsuits, Prisoners Force California to Scale Back Solitary Confinement

At issue is California's security housing units (or SHU) and its practice of placing those accused of gang affiliation within these units for an indeterminate time period. Within the SHU, they are locked into windowless cells for at least 23 hours per day. When taken out of their cells - for a shower, a visit or an hour of recreation alone in an exercise pen - they are handcuffed and ankle chained. Two categories of people are placed in the SHU. Those who break prison rules are temporarily sent to the SHU for up to five years. The other category includes those who have been placed in isolation on accusations of gang involvement. For them, there is no fixed end date. Until recently, accusations that have landed them in the SHU often relied on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence, such as tattoos or associations with others. Until recently, one of the few ways to be released from the SHU was to "debrief" or provide information incriminating others, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. They are the ones who have written manifestoes, filed lawsuits and repeatedly gone on hunger strike to protest their conditions of confinement.

In California's Pelican Bay State Prison, 1,134 of its 1,181 prisoners were held in the SHU as of June 2015. Although CDCR insists that solitary confinement does not exist within its prison system, those within the SHU argue otherwise and, in 2012, went to court to prove it.

Todd Ashker will be able to leave his cell and be around other people for the first time in 25 years.

That year, noted Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead attorney on the lawsuit, more than 500 people had been isolated in the security housing unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay for over 10 years. Seventy-eight people had spent more than 20 years under these conditions. Todd Ashker, the lead plaintiff, is one of those 78 people. He arrived at Pelican Bay in 1990, less than a year after the prison opened.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Ashker will be able to leave his cell and be around other people for the first time in 25 years. Under the settlement, those who have spent 10 or more years in the SHU will be placed in either general population or a new restrictive custody general population facility. This unit is not solitary confinement, Lobel said. Instead, it will be a high-security unit in which prisoners are subject to intense supervision but will have the opportunity to interact with one another in person, participate in group programs and have contact visits with their families and loved ones. Those who have spent the longest time in the SHU will be reviewed first.

The settlement also requires CDCR to review all prisoners placed in the SHU for gang affiliation, prohibits future SHU placement based solely on gang affiliation and prohibits indeterminate SHU placement. It also limits placement in Pelican Bay's SHU to five years. The Step Down program, which has been criticized by advocates and prisoners, has been revised to last only 24 months instead of three to four years. Those who fail to complete the Step Down program will be sent to a restricted custody general population facility, not back to the SHU. Those who complete the Step Down program will be placed in general population. The settlement gives CDCR one year to make these changes. But attorneys expect that people within the SHU will be seeing changes sooner than that. In addition, the settlement also includes at least two years of compliance monitoring by a federal magistrate.

CDCR officials also view the settlement as a step in the right direction. "This proposed settlement is a key milestone for CDCR as we continue to reform our gang management and Security Housing Unit policies," stated CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard. "We started this important work several years ago, successfully reducing the use of segregated housing for gang-validated inmates. That foundation allows us to safely and efficiently make the changes announced today."

"Peaceful Protests Made This Settlement Possible"

Attorneys and advocates are quick to point out that the settlement is the result of organizing by those within the SHU and their family members and supporters outside prison walls.

On July 1, 2011, Ashker and thousands of other prisoners went on hunger strike to protest prison policies, particularly those that kept them in the SHU indefinitely. They issued five core demands:

  1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
  2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
  3. Comply with the recommendations of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
  4. Provide adequate food;
  5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

The strike lasted for three weeks, spread to 13 other state prisons and its height involved at least 6,600 people incarcerated throughout California. In September 2011, prisoners resumed their hunger strike. Again, the strike lasted three weeks, but this time involved nearly 12,000 people, including California prisoners held in out-of-state private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The strike ended after CDCR officials guaranteed a comprehensive review of every person placed in the SHU on charges of gang affiliation.

"I am hoping that this is just the beginning of an end of a practice that has gone on for far, far too long."

The following year, in 2012, CDCR changed its criteria for SHU placement from gang affiliates to those who are identified as part of "security threat groups" (STGs) and have participated in gang-related behavior. Its new policy prohibited SHU placement based solely on allegations of gang affiliation or information from confidential informants. It also released a Step Down program, in which SHU prisoners are reviewed and assigned to one of five steps, with each step allowing more privileges and contact with other people. Terry Thornton, CDCR deputy press secretary, has noted that, under the Step Down program, those in the SHU are no longer required to debrief, or even drop out of their gang. However, debriefing was not eliminated; those who choose to debrief are moved from the SHU to a transitional housing unit.

These changes did not satisfy prisoners in Pelican Bay's SHU. On July 8, 2013, they began another hunger strike. On the first day, over 30,000 people incarcerated throughout California refused meals. Although the numbers decreased over time, the strike lasted 60 days, making headlines and bringing the issue of solitary confinement onto evening news segments. It ended only after California legislators Loni Hancock and Tom Ammiano promised to hold hearings around the issues raised by the hunger strikers.

"These peaceful protests put the spotlight on these practices," stated Carol Strickman, staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and co-counsel on Ashker. "They made this settlement possible."

"I Am Hoping That This Is Just the Beginning"

Dolores Canales' son Johnny has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay for the past 14 years. He participated in the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes, hoping to draw widespread attention to the realities that he and many thousands faced behind prison walls. For Canales, the settlement agreement comes as welcome news. "I am hoping that this is just the beginning of an end of a practice that has gone on for far, far too long," she stated.

Marie Levin's brother Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa has been in the SHU for the past 31 years. He is also a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. In May 2014, he was reviewed under the Step Down program and assigned to step three, which was a SHU in the state prison in Tehachapi in the southern part of California. His visits continued to be behind glass. Levin's voice begins to crack as she relays the impact of the settlement on her and her brother. "It will be a blessing to give him a hug, give him a kiss," she said.

For Canales, the announcement - and its implications for prisoners and their family members - is bittersweet. "I'm reminded of family members that I have befriended along the way," she said, as she reflects on the actions of Johnny and others locked within the SHU and her own activism in their support. "Some of them have died without ever being able to hold their loved ones' hands. They have only been able to see their loved one from behind glass."

For Todd Ashker, currently in his 25th year inside Pelican Bay's SHU, the settlement "should be viewed as a victory we can build on in our protracted ongoing struggle to end long-term solitary confinement."

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400