Occupy 4 Prisoners hits San Quentin

The crowd marches at Occupy San Quentin

About 800 protesters marched to San Quentin’s East Gate in a day to protest what they called inhumane conditions in prison Feb. 20

Protesters called for an end to the practice of trying children as adults, three strikes laws, life sentences, life without the possibility of parole, and the death penalty.They did not call for the dismantling of the prison system or an end to the practice of incarceration, as Chip Johnson implies here.

In San Quentin-- and in prisons across the country—inmates are subjected to solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. Kids as young as 13 are tried as adults and sometimes sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. In three-strikes states, people are sentenced to decades in prison for non-violent crimes that sometimes amount to less than a couple hundred dollars in damages. And in death penalty states, state-sponsored execution means that lives, sometimes innocent, are thrown away.

Twenty-four US states do not have three strikes laws, many countries cap prison sentences at 15 years regardless of the severity of the crime, and only one European country- Belarus- continues to impose the death penalty. The United States incarcerates its citizens at a rate that far surpasses any other country in the world; second on the list in Rwanda.

Conditions and laws like these have spurred decades of prison reform and prison abolition activism, both from inmates and supporters on the outside. Feb. 20, this movement joined with Occupy Oakland to protest outside San Quentin prison and demand that these issues be addressed.

As protesters arrived, organizers blasted music, hoping to reach the ears of prisoners. Dozens of prison guards and representatives from the Marin County sheriff’s department were stationed in front of the prison gate, and well as on hills looking down on the protest group.

The loud music continued with a performance from the Brass Liberation Orchestra, and subsequently a drumming ritual.

“As First Nations people, we’re no strangers to occupation. We’re also no strangers to prison. The first prisons were the reservation and the slave plantation,” said George Galvis, Executive Director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice.

“We have post-colonial stress disorder in our communities,” added Galvis.

Author, film producer (Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story) and 2006 California gubernatorial candidate Barbara Becnel helped facilitate the event.

In her opening statements, Becnel praised the crowd, packed with Occupy activists, family members of incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people, and others.

“We should really be proud of ourselves today. Because today, we are history makers. We have merged the prison rights movement with the Occupy movement,” said Becnel to an eruption of applause.

Throughout the program, speakers read solidarity statements addressed to Occupy Oakland from prisoners across the country, including Mumia Abu Jamal, Leanard Peltier, Kevin Cooper, and group statements from Pelican Bay human rights organizers, and those involved in state-wide prison strikes in Georgia.

A movement has coalesced around the claim that Cooper, a death row inmate at San Quentin since 1985, is innocent. Cooper was denied an appeal in 2009 in a ninth-circuit court case in which five judges dissented, declaring that, “the state of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” Their 103-page dissent statement includes descriptions of evidence tampering leading to Cooper’s conviction.

Cooper helped call for the Occupy 4 Prisoners day of action.

Speakers at the rally called for Cooper’s freedom, and for the end of death row entirely.

Becnel related a story about some prisoners, charged with life without the possibility of parole, that she had met while campaigning against the death sentence for Stan "Tookie" Williams.

The men, Becnel said, told her: "We only leave here in a casket also. We are also dead men walking."

Speakers also decried the use of solitary confinement as a punishment in prisons.

Sarah Shourd, known for her imprisonment in Iran after accidentally crossing the border during a hike, spoke along with fellow imprisoned hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.

Shourd, who was held in solitary confinement for 14 months, related her experiences.

“After just two months my mind began to slip. I would spend large portions of my day crouched down by a small slot in my door, listening for any sounds from the outside that might distract me from the sheer terror of my isolation.”

A statement from a Texas prisoner, read by an Occupy Wall Street organizer, also addressed solitary confinement.

“We tend to think of man as a collection of individuals, each complete in himself, who just happen to come together to satisfy certain needs. Actually, however, there is nothing distinctly human that can be exhibited by an individual in isolation,” said the philosophical letter.

The Pelican Bay Hunger Strike last year highlighted solitary confinement, and prisoners demanded an end to the practice, in which inmates are held in isolated rooms with no sunlight for 23 hours a day, often for years on end. Some inmates at Pelican Bay have been held in these conditions for over 30 years.

Organizers of the hunger strike called it off when the California Department of Corrections promised to investigate the issue, but started to strike again several months later when no changes had been made to any of the conditions that they were protesting.

Kelly Turner, 42, who was sentenced to 25 years to life for writing a bad check for $146.16 in 1997, was also placed in solitary confinement for one year. However, she focused her speech at the rally on California’s three strikes law, the legislation that turned what would have been a three-year sentence for forgery into a possible life sentence for Turner. Turner said she was lucky that good pro bono lawyers defended her, and would likely still be in prison had they not; she now owns her own business.

Turner, who advocates for Families to Amend California Three Strikes (FACTS), urged the crowd to vote for an initiative to amend the law that is slated to appear on the California ballot this November. 

In her speech, Turner described meeting women in the Central California Women’s Facility is Chowchilla that were also serving decades-long sentences after having been charged with a third strike.

“I am here today for the woman that was on my dorm that had 27 years to life for drinking a 99 cent lemon line soda out of a store. Or the woman who stole a jar of Vaseline, a bottle of vitamins, two pairs of boxers,” said Turner.

Tatiana, a young prisoners rights advocate who spent time in juvenile hall, read a statement from incarcerated youth Veronica Hernandez.

Hernandez, 20, has been imprisoned since age 16.

She was tried as an adult, an outcome that she attributes to a public defender who did not do his best to fight for her.

"There are no law libraries or legal services at juvenile hall, so a juvenile, for better or for worse, is entirely dependent on his or her court-appointed attorney, and must trust that he or she will lead them in the right direction. Unfortunately for me, that direction was to adult court. I now face a life sentence should I be convicted," said Hernandez in her statement.

No speaker argued for the dismantling of the prison system, instead focusing on what they saw as unjust sentencing and inhumane treatment in prisons.

In a statement calling for Occupy 4 Prisoners, Kevin Cooper connected a call to end the death penalty with struggle for correct racial and economic justice and an end police brutality:

“America has a deep-seeded philosophy in which it only allows for the execution of its poorest people. These seeds have taken root and have grown in such a way that no person who this system sees as a ‘have-not’ is safe from the death machine. Whether they are within (San Quentin) or on a BART platform.”

Bauer also expressed the importance of tying prison rights to the Occupy movement, saying, “This Occupy movement needs to permeate the prisons. God forbid one day some people here will be on the other side of this fence. But when movements get strong, people start getting locked up. We should know this. This happens in every country. Prisons are places where movements are killed. But at the same time, when movements successfully permeate prisons, a space built to break people down, the movement is at its strongest. This is true all over the world.”

Occupy Oakland organizers have already been hit with bizarre and seemingly invalid charges, such as “lyching,” “bike,” “boat,” and umbrella. In one of the most extreme cases, Khali, an Occupy Oakland protester, may face life in prison after being arrested for a allegedly taking a blanket out of a garbage can. Advocates for Khali say that he was denied prescription medications in jail for ten days before allegedly assaulting a police officer; his third strike.

Well-known prison rights advocate and former Black Panther Elaine Brown ended the program. After remarking that “there aren’t enough songs in this movement,” she sang Oh, Freedom as the crowd peacefully exited the site, as several volunteers picked up any trash that was left behind.

“Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my comrades and be free,” sang Brown.

Related articles

  • Bay Area activists join in anger over Anaheim police shootings

  • After the tear gas clears

    What are the lessons from the conflicts of the latest Occupy Oakland action?

  • Editor's notes

    Hey Oakland, maybe you should just hand over the Convention Center

  • Also from this author

  • Privatization of public housing

    Many residents feel they're moving from the frying pan of Housing Authority control into the fire of developer and nonprofit management

  • Homeless for the holidays

    Changing demographics in the Bayview complicate city efforts to open a shelter there

  • Betting on Graton

    Newest casino targeting Bay Area residents promises to share the wealth with workers and people of color