07/08/2013 11:56 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

A Civilized Society

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

"A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." - Nelson Mandela

"... even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity" - Justice William J. Brennan

Today, more American men and women struggle to survive in prison than do the citizens of any other country in the world. And here correctional officers, staff, administrators and wardens are virtual royalty, holding unquestioned authority over the lives, circumstances and futures of those entrusted to their care. This is ironic because 'care' is a word ill-used to describe the situations of many who today suffer abuse, discrimination and in some cases torture at the hands of the often ruthless "public officials" who wield power over Secure Housing Units (SHUs) for selected inmates and an Adjustment Center (AC) for the condemned.

He tells me the hardest thing to bear is the lack of human contact. In the SHU, you can't touch people; you lack sunlight, even noise. It is total sensory deprivation. - Wife of a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner.

You lay there in your concrete tomb trying to block out the cold especially in the winter when this place is like a morgue. The wall I lay next to is an exterior wall... it's like sleeping next to a block of ice...sometimes the floor is warmer and there I sleep. - Inmate in the Pelican Bay SHU for 16 years.

For the cynics among us, so what? A prisoner is an animal, a monster; he's getting what he deserves. But the law, like the men quoted above, says otherwise. You and I have a legal and moral responsibility to see that incarcerated men and woman are treated fairly, appropriately and decently. As Justice Brennan held, their innate humanity is not forfeited by whatever act requires they be separated from society (assuming they committed the act in the first place, but that's a different question).

Today, rank indignities abound with seemingly few limits. Authorities fail to provide basic clothing like long underwear for cold weather or sufficient socks to those in the SHU. AC prisoners often have needed medical treatment vetoed by non-medical custodial staff and are routinely strip searched in front of dozens of others.

With no ethical overseer apparently willing to condemn the abuse being meted out to the helpless men in California's most extreme prisons, inmates no longer able to hope a formal report will bring relief have taken to relying on themselves. As with the hooded helpless in Guantanamo, inmates at the infamous Pelican Bay State Prison are saying "enough" by refusing to eat, accepting the risk of death by starvation as worthwhile, their only hope in the face of inhumane incarceration and unyielding authoritarianism.

In 2011, Pelican Bay hunger strikers demanded an end to solitary confinement in the absence of disciplinary infractions and were met with the imposition of punitive solitary confinement for having the audacity to ask for fairness and reason. As a result, another SHU hunger strike will commence today, and this time fifty to sixty AC-confined death row inmates will join in. San Quentin's AC hunger strikers are denouncing the promulgation of a harsh set of rules applying only at San Quentin that blatantly violate standards governing the CDCR while not subject to oversight by any branch of government.

Our Constitution's 8th Amendment, which spawned Justice Brennan's finding, is at the heart of a petition from San Quentin's AC hunger strikers, who ask that contact with their families be comparable to that of other condemned inmates. AC inmates are permitted no phone calls and are restricted to shorter visits behind 2 inches of glass. Unable to touch, much less hug, their loved ones and hundreds of miles from home, these men suffer having their children grow up without seeing or speaking to them, their relationships limited to mail which, due to slow processing, can take months to reach a recipient.

Contrary to the claims of those who control every aspect of their lives, these men ask for nothing that threatens "the safety and security of the institution;" they intend to protest peacefully with the only means available to them: starvation. For them, basic human needs - the ability to maintain bonds with family and access to necessary medical treatment - are nothing more than their due as human beings.

As federal judges press Governor Brown to release inmates from overcrowded, unsafe conditions lacking proper medical care, indications are that many imprisoned in other facilities in our state's bulging system will take similar actions to protest the excessively cruel, inhumane conditions of their incarceration.

As Justice Brennan reminds us, "... it is because we recognize that incarceration strips a man of his dignity that we demand strict adherence to fair procedure and proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before taking such a drastic step.... And our adherence to the constitutional vision of human dignity is so strict that even after convicting a person according to these stringent standards, we demand that his dignity be infringed only to the extent appropriate to the crime and never by means of wanton infliction of pain or deprivation."

Have we forgotten who we are?

Mike Farrell

To contact the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition:
Media inquiries call: 510. 444.0484