Marc Lamont Hill: Why we must stand in solidarity with the Pelican Bay prisoners

Hunger strike continues here at Pelican Bay (Calif.) State Prison.
Hunger strike continues here at Pelican Bay (Calif.) State Prison. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 20, 2011

FOR NEARLY three weeks, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, in California, have been on a hunger strike. They plan to continue until officials agree to improve the conditions and prison policies.

Contrary to what prison officials have suggested, the prisoners' demands are far from numerous or extravagant.

To the contrary, the inmates have made five reasonable requests: individual accountability, so that entire groups (or races) aren't punished for the acts of one person; abolishing the policy that forces prisoners to snitch (thereby risking their lives) in order to avoid punishment; ending long-term solitary confinement, a practice that has been deemed torture by the United Nations; no longer withholding food as punishment; and providing reasonable programming and privileges, such as being allowed to have one photo per year.

I stand in solidarity with them. And so should you.

In Pelican Bay, and nearly every other prison in the country, inmates are beaten, raped, tortured and denied their constitutional rights. As prisons continue to expand at a rapid pace - Pennsylvania's prison spending grew by another 10 percent this year - these problems are becoming more prevalent and extreme.

At this point, many of you are rolling your eyes in disgust. You may even be asking, "Why should I care about how murderers and rapists are treated?"

First of all, the majority of prisoners are not there for violent crimes, nor are they even threats to society. Most are incarcerated due to crimes related to the failed War on Drugs, such as simple drug possession, petty theft and parole violations. More often than not, these are people who would not be incarcerated if they could have afforded to live in a better neighborhood or hire a better lawyer.

These are people who belong in rehab or mental-health facilities rather than buried in cages. The suffering they incur in prison only exacerbates their problems, making them more likely to commit crimes again.

Regardless of a person's crimes, however, no one deserves to be raped, tortured, starved or otherwise mistreated in prison. But, sadly, this is exactly what happens every day. Unfortunately, the abuse of prisoners goes largely unaddressed because of our refusal to see prisoners as people.

Consider, for example, all the jokes that are made in movies, TV and everyday life about prison rape. These jokes are rooted in truth, as nearly 2 percent of all U.S. inmates are raped while incarcerated. Such humor can be considered "funny" only if the people being hurt are not understood as full human beings.

Given this general lack of regard for prisoners, there is little political motivation to protect their rights. In fact, most politicians earn their stripes by imposing draconian and inhumane public policies, like the Crime Bill of 1994 or the various state-level three-strikes laws.

Even well-intentioned "progressive" politicians are reluctant to advocate for inmate rights because they fear that their opponents will label them "soft on crime."

Also, despite the fact that most inmate demands are both basic and reasonable, the popular media has made them appear frivolous and counterproductive. For example, in the 1990s, many news shows spread ridiculous lies about inmate lawsuits, such as the urban legend that an inmate sued a prison because he received chunky instead of creamy peanut butter.

The popularity of such tall tales greased the pathway for the creation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act - signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton - which has essentially closed the courthouse doors to inmates looking to redress various forms of abuse.

This is why it is important for us to strongly and publicly support the courageous hunger strike at Pelican Bay.

If our nation is truly committed to the idea that prisons are spaces for rehabilitation rather than mere punishment, we must create environments that are more humane, safe and productive. We must advocate for the rights of all inmates, regardless of what we think about their crimes. We must stand in solidarity with the brothers of Pelican Bay, and encourage other inmates to do the same.

Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University. Contact him at MLH@marclamonthill.com.

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