Support prisoners on hunger strike

by Eric Ginsburg

Since mid-July, inmates in at least three prisons in North Carolina have been on hunger strike, demanding basic conditions like access to adequate medical treatment and hygiene items. The prisoners’ descriptions of their conditions are frightening, and they are calling for public support to end the abuse. “Many emergency call buttons are broken and never replaced, and guards often do not show up for over an hour,” it reads. “At least one prisoner has died this way. When on property restriction, we are forced to sleep on the ground or steel bed frames naked, with no bedding. The current windows are covered with feces and grime. Not being able to see out is sensory deprivation, and makes us feel dissociated from everything that exists outside of prison.” There are pervasive societal attitudes that claim prisoners deserve whatever hell awaits them because they are a scourge on society, part of the surplus population that doesn’t fit into schools and jobs or dwindling mental health programs. The price of our security on the outside is the unexplainable suffering of people who break the “social contract” — that’s just the way things are, right? While jails are regularly located in urban centers for convenience, prisons are often built in the middle of nowhere. Intended or not, the seclusion of prisons serves to isolate inmates and keeps prisons out of the public eye. Unless you have a family member or friend in prison, I’m willing to bet you rarely think about the prison system. As a society, we see inmates as parasites, people unworthy or unable of interacting with us good citizens Even if that narrative is laughable and we know it to be untrue if we actually stop and think about it, we often don’t. Maybe we’ll watch Conviction or read Picking Cotton, bemoaning the innocent people who get caught in the gears of the legal systems, or maybe we’re even aware enough to critique cycles of poverty perpetuated by capitalism that marginalizes entire sectors of people into a criminal class. Yet even socially conscious people often struggle with how to relate to actual prisoners. Sure the death penalty is outdated and Troy Davis’ case provided a rallying cry, and yes we incarcerate more people than any nation in the world. Yes, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal and the victims of the Green Scare deserve support and freedom. But what about basic dignity for the social prisoners, who aren’t locked up for political reasons and who may have actually committed the crimes they are serving terms for? When it comes to basic rights, it shouldn’t matter what someone is in for, but unfortunately many prison officials think they can get away with treating inmates as subhuman. They are counting on the fact that the hunger strikers in Raleigh, Laurinburg and Windsor are alone — otherwise they would have capitulated to their demands already. It’s bigger than the prison officials or the guards that are accused of physically abusing prisoners — lawmakers are counting on the public avoiding the topic, allowing them to cut funding for educational programs in prisons or run on law-and-order platforms to lock up more people who are considered disposable. While the prisoners list 16 demands, none of them are unreasonable. Stop using isolation as political intimidation, like in the case of the “Strong 8” prisoners in Raleigh who staged a sit-down strike over work conditions. Provide toilet brushes so prisoners can clean properly. “We are tired of being railroaded by the courts, and having our rights violated by prison staff and officers. A law library is needed to enable us to legally defend ourselves,” the first demand reads. “The canteens that serve lock-up units need to make available vitamins and personal hygiene items.” This is basic stuff. I can’t think of a single reason their demands shouldn’t be met, and their use of a hunger strike shows they are serious. Prisoners in Ohio got results after a hunger strike in May, and with groups like the Chapel Hill Prison Books Collective, prisoners here may meet some success as well. Given how hard it is to communicate with prisoners and how isolated they are, it’s impressive that people at three facilities are participating. There’s no reason to assume conditions are any better at other prisons in the state, and who knows, maybe prisoners are taking action there too. With prison strikes touching off in the last year from California to Georgia, it’s high time we started paying more attention to what’s happening in our prisons. As supporters chanted outside Central Prison last week: “Hunger strikers — not alone!”