By CARLOS SAPIR
Two separate hunger strikes are being carried out by prisoners in the United States, one by immigrants in the Mesa Verde (MSV) and Golden State Annex (GSA) detention camps in California, and another in the Champaign County Jail in Illinois. While the hunger strikes were organized independently of each other and occur at different institutions, they both center on the inhumanity of imprisoning innocent people indefinitely and the miserable conditions in the prisons, as well as the defiant dignity and discipline of the hunger strikers risking their lives to ask for a modicum of fairness.
Workers’ Voice has written extensively about organizing efforts by immigrants detained in the MSV and GSA detention camps, which are operated by the private GEO Group, a major private prison company. In July 2022, these immigrants launched a labor strike, protesting their being made to work as cleaners for the filthy facility for a mere $1/day, as well as the general inadequacy of their living conditions and the indefinite terms of their detainment. These efforts have now escalated to a hunger strike, with 84 detainees putting their lives on the line to protest their conditions. As of the beginning of March, at least 45 detainees continue to participate in the strike.
While the Champaign County hunger strike is being carried out in a jail instead of an immigrant detention camp, the conditions and circumstances are nevertheless extremely similar; the seven people starting the strike have been convicted of no crimes and are being held indefinitely pending trial in overcrowded, squalid jails without reliable communication with their families, unable to afford absurdly high bail prices in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Following their announcement of the hunger strike on Feb. 25, 2023, the prisoners have been subjected to even harsher conditions of imprisonment and placed on “23-and-1” lockdown—23 hours in a cramped cell, with 1 hour a day for a shower and a 20 minute phone call (the latter costing $6 per call, leading to families racking up hundreds of dollars in fees each month beyond the already unaffordable bail).
Per their declaration, strikers are refusing food and water “until [their] 8th Amendment rights [protection against excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment] are recognized.” Local journalist Brian Dolinar reports that, following a week of silence from the police department, a sheriff falsely told local news that the strike had ended; in fact, the hunger strike is ongoing and has expanded to now include 17 people, with one of the original strikers now released on bail following community contributions from the Champaign County Bailout Coalition.
From start to finish, the circumstances of the hunger strikers exemplify the cruelty and racism of U.S. capitalism. Immigrants are targeted for their nationality and race, while in Champaign County, a 16% Black county, 60% of prisoners are Black, a ratio similar to much of the country but only the more tragic for it.
This violence and arbitrary denial of rights is a material component of U.S. capitalism, both through the direct profit of private prison owners and the vast network of corporations that do business with them, as well as by being a physical site of life and work for roughly 1.5 million people at any given time. If the prison owners, cops and politicians had it their way, these victims of capitalism would disappear from society, never to be heard from again. It is only the prisoners’ tenacity and the support of communities that have not forgotten their loved ones that keep these struggles alive in the darkest corners of the U.S. prison-system.
Freedom to the detainees! Reparations for forced labor! Open borders and amnesty now!
To contribute funds to aid the GSA/MSV hunger strikers, go to https://www.pangealegal.org/donate
To contribute funds to the Champaign County Bailout Coalition, click here.
Photo: Protesters rally outside the Champaign County jail in Urbana, Ill., on March 6 to support hunger strikers inside. (Owen Henderson / Illinois Public Media)