Welcome back to the Perilous Podcast, a news and oral history project featuring original interviews with prisoners and detainees who have participated in or witnessed protests, uprisings and other forms of unrest behind bars. We also gather analysis and insight from researchers and advocates in an effort to build a better understanding of systems of incarceration and collective action and strategy.
This week, we cover the hunger strike that occurred at the Pine Prairie ICE Detention Center in Louisiana. In order to better understand what happened at Pine Prairie and the context in which the protest occurred, Perilous correspondent Ryan Fatica spoke with Sylvie Bello, founder and CEO of the Cameroonian American Council. Syvlie, who is in touch with the strikers and their families, was able to paint a vivid picture of the conditions that have led the detainees at Pine Prairie to put their bodies on the line.
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Before we get started with today’s feature, here are some headlines.
August 4, 2020: Hunger Strike at Barton Jail, Ontario
Prisoners at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre in Hamilton, Ontario launched a hunger strike. Prisoners in units 4B, 4C, and 3B refused meals to demand better conditions for themselves and other prisoners. Their demands were:
Access to books sent in from outside.
2. More items on canteen.
3. Raise the weekly canteen purchase limit.
4. End lock-downs.
5. Allow anyone to visit.
6. End the delays in mail delivery.
7. Daily access to the yard.
8. Keep and improve the new phone system.
Prisoners were joined by protesters demonstrating on the other side of the walls. Wednesday night, detainees reported a noise demonstration was held. Protesters circled the jail and lit fireworks. The next morning approximately 30 people joined in car action, honking and holding signs of support. By Thursday the demand for an improved canteen sheet was met and prisoners in 3B began accepting meals. Several prisoners were brutalized and attacked by guards following the conclusion of the strike later that week.
August 14, 2020: Hunger Strike at Santa Clara County Jail
Prisoners at the Santa Clara County Jail launched a 5-day hunger strike in solidarity with nationwide protest against systemic racism and policing and to bring attention to their own conditions. In a letter to county and city officials, prisoners outlined their primary goal of bringing awareness and attention to:
1.RACISM AND PREJUDICE WITHIN THE SANTA CLARA COUNTY JUSTICE SYSTEM, Specifically, the unjust practice of the Three Strikes Law and Gang Enhancements statute that exists solely to impose extreme sentences predominantly upon Black and Brown people.
2.POLICE BRUTALITY, and disregard for true accountability and transparency through their refusal to release records of police misconduct per SB-1421.
3.THE SHERIFF’S BLATANT DISREGARD FOR OVERSIGHT, accountability, and transparency through the unwillingness to fully cooperate with the Santa Clara County Office of Corrections and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM).
Prisoners later submitted a separate letter with detailed complaints and proposed solutions addressing the following conditions:
a. Lack of out-of cell time due to unnecessary lock-downs.
b. Lack of meaningful program opportunities.
c. Unfair and meaningless grievance system.
d. Unjust restrictions on inmate trust accounts.
e. Inadequate, ineffective access to law library/legal research and resources.
You can find more details of the prisoners demands in our show notes.
August 15, 2020: Uprising at Oahu Community Correctional Center, Hawai’i
Prisoners at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Hawaii destroyed prison property and set fires. Both incidents were connected to COVID 19 mishandling and extended lock-down conditions. On Saturday, fires were started in the disciplinary unit in response to a delay in meal delivery after prisoners who work food service tested positive for COVID19. On Sunday, after 4 prisoners were relocated to a unit reserved for prisoners with disabilities, several prisoners broke light fixtures and a toilet, smashed a computer, and set a fire. 2 prisoners were treated for injuries following the disturbance. Sunday evening the Hawaii Supreme Court issued an order to release certain prisoners to prevent the spread of COVID. Prisoners eligible for release include those serving less than 18 months as a condition of probation for non violent felonies or are awaiting trial on non violent felonies and misdemeanors with the exception of domestic abuse.
August 17, 2020: Hunger Strike at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute, Pendleton, Oregon
Four prisoners in the solitary confinement unit at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute in Pendleton launched a hunger strike. The prisoners have 4 demands:
1. The immediate transfer of prisoner Steven Corbett to a hospital that can provide him with the lifesaving medical care he needs. Steven is being held in solitary confinement and is experiencing life threatening complications from Crohn’s disease and seizures.
2. Allow the purchase of basic hygiene and cleaning supplies upon arrival to solitary confinement. Prisoners are currently only allowed one bar of soap, a tooth brush, and baking soda for their first 30 days in solitary.
3. An immediate release of everyone who is in solitary confinement for a nonviolent rule violation and a permanent end to the use of solitary confinement for all nonviolent rule violations.
4. One call a week for all people in solitary confinement, and an immediate end to the “green card” system that allows correctional officers to arbitrarily deny communication to loved ones on the outside. At this time prisoners in solitary have to “earn” over the course of 30 days, one 10-minute phone call.
This hunger strike is ongoing. Stay tuned to our website at Perilous Chronicle dot com for an in depth look into conditions and resistance at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute.
August 22, 2020: Uprising at New Hampshire State Prison
An uprising took place inside the Close Custody Unit at New Hampshire State Prison, involving approximately 70 detainees. The disturbance started at 12:30PM and lasted several hours. Two groups of prisoners refused to return to their cells. After some detainees engaged in conversation with guards and returned to their cells, others lit fires and flooded the cell block. One guard and one prisoner sustained minor injuries. It isn’t clear yet what sparked the uprising or what actions were taken to quell it.
August 23, 2020: Uprising at Craven Correctional Institution, North Carolina
Around 7am, 82 detainees at the Craven Correctional Institution in Vanceboro, North Carolina caused a disturbance by barricading themselves inside the housing area of their unit. The prisoners were protesting the pandemic protocols they are being subjected to. A spokesman for the NC Department of Public Safety reports that no force was used in taking control of the unit and there were no injuries. The facility will remain on lockdown until further notice.
Black August Hunger Strike at Pine Prairie
On August 10, 48 African detainees in the Bravo Delta dorm of the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana declared their collective refusal to eat, continuing a yearslong saga of collective protest and repression that has characterized their fight for asylum on the continent. The majority of the strikers are English-speakers from Cameroon, where armed conflict is making the country increasingly unlivable, and where the English-speaking minority faces repression by the country’s authoritarian government. After crossing three continents and an ocean seeking safety in the US, their battle for human dignity continues within ICE detention.
After their initial announcement, detainees paused their strike when ICE officials agreed to negotiate, but these talks broke down, and by August 21st the strike was back on. As of August 27th when a Perilous correspondent was able to speak to one of the strikers on the phone, the men had not eaten in nearly a week and ICE officials had not returned to negotiate.
The strikers are demanding an end to indefinite detention by ICE.
One Cameroonian hunger striker who spoke with representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that as they were walking back to the dorms after declaring their strike, guards tackled three detainees, intending to take them to solitary confinement. A scuffle then ensued as the remaining 45 detainees refused to return to their dorms until the three were released. The detainee stated, “I stood up so strongly, they had guns, I tried to remove [the officer]’s leg from them, they were trying to put them in a choke hold, I ran toward them, he was pointing a gun at us, a long gun. I asked them to shoot me and kill me.”
As a result of their courage, the three detainees were released and returned to their unit with the rest of the strikers.
The strike at Pine Prairie is at least the fourth major protest led by Cameroonians in ICE detention this year.
In late February, female Cameroonian detainees at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas engaged in a sit-down strike in protest of indefinite detention, inadequate medical care and other issues. The women released a letter at that start of their strike, explaining the conditions they face.
The following week, male Cameroonian detainees facing indefinite detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Pine Prairie organized a hunger strike that lasted at least ten days in protest of their conditions of confinement and the dysfunctional asylum process they encountered in the US.
Then on Juneteenth, Cameroonian detainees at Pine Prairie again organized a hunger strike, releasing a video and audio statement explaining their motivation for acting:
According to Sylvie Bello, this legacy of resistance to unjust immigration policies stretches back to before these migrants found themselves in ICE detention. On July 9, 2019, African immigrants staged a protest in Tijuana Mexico, blocking Mexican transport vans in protest of what they said was systemic discrimination against African asylum seekers in that country.
On August 19, 2019, another group of African immigrants staged a protest in Tapachula, Mexico, near the country’s southern border with Guatemala.
The asylum seekers were stuck in the city for weeks where they were denied the documentation necessary to continue their journey north. The migrants, mostly women and children, held banners and layed in the road, blocking transport vans at the border through which they’d been denied entry.
A year later, some of the same detainees are again leading the way in protesting the injustices of the US immigration system, this time from within ICE detention. In order to get a full picture of the situation at Pine Prairie, Perilous correspondent Ryan Fatica spoke with Sylvie Bello, founder and CEO of the Cameroonian American Council.
Check out our full coverage of the strike at Pine Prairie.
Interview with Sylvie Bello:
- Facebook: Cameroonian American Council @CamAmerCouncil
- Twitter: CameroonAmericanCo @CamAmerCouncil
- Sylvie Bello on Democracy Now!
- Toolkit – #FreeTheJuneteenthCameroonians
Last night, one of the leaders of the ongoing hunger strike by African detainees at ICE's Pine Prairie detention center collapsed after not eating for two weeks. He sent this message. #FreeCameroonians #FreeThemAll pic.twitter.com/VtrfKKuR8v
— Joe Penney (@joepenney) August 28, 2020