Thursday, April 9, 2015

Starving for Change

 By Armando Macias

Why would anyone in his right mind want to starve himself? No food for an indefinite amount of time–I mean, who doesn’t like to eat–daily? My answer to that is: I want to be treated as a human. I can’t just sit back, shut up, and take it--I hate it when they dehumanize me–us.

History was ready to gobble me up, its mouth was open wide on July 7,  2013, the eve of California’s largest hunger strike ever. Joyous anticipation was how I’d describe my mood. I woke up July 8 with a sense of beginning a new life. It was more than just an adventure; it was a new chapter and I wondered what would be written. I meditated an extra hour after proudly refusing that first breakfast.

Naturally, Human Rights groups such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Human Rights Watch agree and are protesting the fact that the USA keeps 80,000 people in isolation units. Twelve thousand are in California, others in Guantanamo Bay. Forty percent of prison suicides occur in isolation units. 

All forms of justice need to include those you don’t necessarily think of as innocent people. I’m in the Adjustment Center (A/C), also known as the Special Housing Unit, or a S.H.U., the hole. Our movements are severely restricted. We’re strip-searched, hand-cuffed coming and going to our cells, allowed to wear only t-shirt, socks, boxers and shower shoes, except for visits, when we’re allowed to dress in our prison blues.

I could leave here if I were willing to lie about people and drown them while I climb out of this cesspool of injustice, using their lives as stepping-stones. But the proverbial man in the mirror will never be in peace if I do that, despite the cost to myself.

The term “S.H.U. Syndrome” describes the psychopathological effects of prolonged isolation. Human Rights groups, psychiatric and military studies all demonstrate through decade-long studies that long-term isolation can lead to suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, perceptual distortion, violent fantasies, talking to yourself, overall deterioration, mood/emotional swings, emotional flatness, chronic depression, social withdrawal, confused thought process, over sensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, anxiety, nervousness, loss of appetite–all of which constitute torture. Dr. Craig Haney did a great report on this

Preceding the hunger strike, a list of requests  was sent to the wardens, the director of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (C.D.C.R)., even to various media outlets, newsletters, human rights groups–everybody. The hunger strike could’ve been avoided by addressing these issues. They chose to ignore us instead.

Although everyone knew what was happening on July 8, 2013, in order for a hunger strike to be officially recognized by the administration, nine consecutive meals must be denied. It even came out on the news. When I heard 30,000 people didn’t accept their trays I was in shock. Excitement went through my body like a rush of adrenaline. The previous hunger strike in 2011 had 12,000 participants. This time, eight out-of state prisons and two-thirds of California prisons participated. We also knew the vast majority would only go the first three days to show solidarity with us. They know we’re 100% right. Many refused to go to work or attend school throughout the hunger strike. 

Being sentenced to Death Row means we are under the warden’s care until our execution dates. A different set of rules applying only at San Quentin blatantly violates standards governing the C.D.C.R. In my opinion, I.G.I. has an incestuous relationship with C.D.C.R. head office because the appeal complaint forms (602) never produces results. Only 4% of prison gang validation packets are revoked state-wide. Once you’re in the S.H.U. reversals are rare. Here in San Quentin no clear validation process is followed that I’m aware of.

What happens is a committee looks at your past, going back as far your record extends using all prior incidents against you, all the way back to your teenage juvenile records. Good conduct is not a factor in determining your program. I’ve been here since 2011 with no trouble at all. It’s up to the powers that be to decide if they “feel” one is ready to program or not.

Technically, you could kill someone, receive a five-year S.H.U. term, then resume a full program. Yet if you’re suspected to be gang associate/member, you’ll never leave the S.H.U. You could be tagged as a gang member for something as simple as talking to, exercising with, or simply interacting with people of your own race. Even one unsubstantiated claim by someone during debriefing, or by a corrections officer, will keep me here for life, or until my execution. What’s cruelly unfortunate is they target Latinos, since we make up the majority of the population here.

Recently, there was a call to end hostilities between races and regional groups. The call was embraced with gusto. I personally began to talk with all races and other men from different areas without feeling that little caution bell going off in my head. Before, we might get along one day, then be enemies the next day. Those days are over. We’re facing the same oppression, the same enemies: injustice, unfairness, racism and ignorance within each man and within the system.

California Death Row consists of East Block, North Seg, and the Adjustment Center and is made up of two privileged groups: “A” and “B.” Grade A is full privileges, which translates to contact visits, access to collect phone calls, religious services, more books and property and access to self-help programs, educational programs, college courses, hobby materials, more purchasing power of appliances, food, books, clothes, etc….

Grade B is allowed none of that. A box of books is the library. Property is extremely limited. Our visits are half the time others receive and through glass. It’s a disciplinary program. How to become Grade A is a mystery to us Latinos and the few people of other races who refuse to debrief. Years of non-disciplinary conduct result in the same effect as years of bad conduct. We’re don’t leave here, ever. The majority of us are disciplinary report-free. To us, it makes no sense and leaves us feeling hopeless.

In the first weeks of the hunger strike, I heard C.D.C.R. spokesman Terri Thorton recite a song and dance about how there was no problem. It was absurd and insulting in light of how many prisoners were participating in this peaceful protest. 

The first three days were rough. My stomach growled with extreme hunger pains, I had a fever, cold dizziness, and headaches. I’d be okay for a moment, then feel like hell again. Thousands of others were feeling the same, so there was consolation in solidarity.

Two correctional officers came by, asking why we were on a hunger strike and recorded our responses. One wrote us up for disobeying a direct order and participating in a mass hunger strike. They wrote us up on a fabricated charge. I lost ten days yard.

After around five days into the hunger strike two corrections officers strip-searched, handcuffed and escorted me to the nurse’s office downstairs to weigh me. It took ten days for them to weigh every hunger striker. All subsequent recorded weigh-ins were compared to that initial weighing. The weight we lost prior to that wasn’t counted.

Nurses inquired about our health, and asked if we were eating or drinking water. They removed the canteen food from our cells at the beginning of the hunger strikes. On July 14, they gave a few of us chronos (notices) saying we were no longer on the mass hunger strike list because they claimed to find food in our cells. To add insult to injury, the nurses ceased their daily check-ups because, according to them, we were no longer on hunger strike.

In response, we went on a water strike, which is known as the death fast. You die within 5–7 days. After two days my insides were tender-sore. Sort of like doing so much exercise you wake in pain. My mental capacity was greatly affected as well, to the point I was in a fog. I couldn’t fully understand what the doctor asked of me. I’m sure he made sense, just not to me.

I began to pass out and wake up. Apparently I didn’t respond during a routine medical check-up. Eventually I did respond but ended up being slowly walked to the prison hospital. They stabbed a big needle in my arm with a tube connecting to a bag full of mineral water. I immediately felt a coldness invading my arm, spreading through my body. The fog very slowly dissipated, reinvigorating my mind’s clarity. Along with rebooting my good mood, slowly my body began to slowly fill up. It felt similar to eating but not exactly the same. The nurses resumed their rounds, and did medical check-ups. We felt we proved our point.

There was two hunger strike lists. One consisted of “personal” hunger strikes and was not included on the official C.D.C.R. list. Thus, the mass hunger strike number drastically dropped. When someone doesn’t respond, they call, “man down,” then the alarm sounded, then you heard running feet and doors opening. Sometimes two to three times in a day the alarm reverberated through the Adjustment Center, signaling someone was unresponsive and had to be carried out. I was deeply concerned. With each alarm I hoped none would die.

Some days death’s quiet call unmasked the depths of my being, revealing my true values to myself. My mind quieted down as if I was in constant meditation throughout this time. I know why people fast now. When you feel something deep in your body you truly know it. Death’s beaconing served to galvanize my purpose to continue until death if need be: this was for me for everyone in the S.H.U.s and all those being oppressed, an inhumane living condition.

Some days I’d throw up water and feel exhausted, feverish, with my heart racing at an unnatural pace. My stomach hated me and was trying to punish me for not feeding it. Not hunger, just pain. Other days I’d be okay. Even in these awful days my mind remained in equanimity. I practiced various forms of meditation to optimize the lessons I learned from this experience. The vitamins and phosphorous we all received helped me as well.

I drank a lot of hot water, occasionally some tea to settle my stomach and wake me up. No coffee. Coffee was a monster that drove the jitters through my body and mind, throwing me off balance. At first they held firm to their cruel silence but our peaceful message was too loud to ignore, resulting in discussions with the hunger strikers’ representatives statewide. I say representatives and not leaders, since they expressed the wishes of every human in these torture units. 

San Quentin’s warden talked with the representatives here in the A/C. After each discussion, some men ended their hunger strike, thus disproving their claim that we were forced or coerced to hunger strike.

I had lucid dreams ranging from having huge Mexican meals on my bunk to waking up in my cell to discover someone snuck a tray into my cell. Then I’d wake up in that exact same cell with no food, only a deep craving in my being. When I’d hear all the heroic men and women on the radio speaking for us, that void would fill with meaning once again.

All those family members, activists, doctors, lawyers, nurses who fought hard for us inspired me. I will be forever grateful to them. One of the most powerful experiences for me was when Mr. Billy Guero Cell died in the Corcoran State Prison S.H.U.  May he rest in peace.

Brave people had chained themselves to the door of Oakland Headquarters chanting, “People are dying C.D.C. (R.) is lying–meet the five demands.” Chills coursed through my body upon hearing this. Their capacity to demonstrate such compassion through action is awe-inspiring. I felt love, pride, and life in a purposeful way.

On the fortieth day, August 14, 2013, the ombudsmen from Sacramento came to talk to the remaining hunger strikers. She promised the warden would make changes. The difference between now and then is before he didn’t know how bad we had it. Two years prior, a program change had been sent here but it was never implemented. No one knows why. The catch is C.D.C.R. cannot appear to negotiate so we must end our hunger strike and trust he’ll make the changes we seek, or so she said.

California prisoners are sentenced to C.D.C.R. Condemned men are sentenced to San Quentin under the warden’s care. We shall never leave San Quentin alive. Supposedly C.D.C.R. rules were supposed to be tailored to fit us. So our demands are slightly different than the rest. The warden can make the changes! We decided to believe the ombudsmen and warden. So we ended our strike. We considered it a victory.

The first meal I ate tasted like dirt. It took me an hour to eat about a third of it. My stomach was in pain at first. It was not used to digesting. Stomachaches were common at first. I’d become extremely full from very little food. I dedicated each meal to the men in Guantanamo Bay who were being force-fed and to the men in Pelican Bay who continued twenty more days. Now I dedicate each meal to life, humanity, and the struggle for humane treatment. 

To this date nothing happened. Nothing’s changed. Two senators tried to pass bills. Both were unsuccessful.

For details and in depth information on all I have written, please check out:

Armando Macias AI4624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin CA 94974

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