Influence of Bobby Sands has stretched from Belfast to Pelican
Hundreds of inmates in California are on hunger strike to protest at indefinite solitary confinement
Denis O’Hearn, a sociology professor at Binghamton University in New York, and his class corresponded with Ashker and inmates in nine other prisons as part of a study project.
Four years ago, O’Hearn, who lived in Ireland at various times since the 1970s, reporting on the Troubles for newspapers and lecturing at Queen’s University Belfast, sent Ashker his 2006 biography of Bobby Sands. The book was circulated within the prison, planting the idea of the hunger strike in the minds of the inmates. Ashker told O’Hearn that 50 prisoners read the book.
“When they look at what happened in the H-Blocks, they thought, ‘we are not entirely helpless here – there is something we can do’,” O’Hearn said.
Prison authorities are sceptical about the motives of the strikers, seeing them as dangerous men and their protest as an attempt by gangs to regain control of the prisons. Others think differently.
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, singer Bonnie Raitt and comedian Jay Leno are among the high-profile figures to have signed a letter this week to California governor Jerry Brown calling the security housing units “extensions of the same inhumanity practised at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.”
“We just can’t imagine that here in the United States they have allowed this to happen when they are so critical of the other countries’ human rights issues,” said Virginia Gutierrez whose 60-year-old husband was held in solitary confinement for 26 years, until his transfer out of Pelican Bay in April.
Her husband, who was convicted of a double murder in 1982, was transfixed by a bird at the window of his new cell at Corcoran state prison in central California after years in his concrete cell, she said.
Amnesty International this week described the solitary confinement conditions in California’s prisons an “affront to human rights” and called for an independent investigation into the death of Billy Sell (32), a lifer who was founded hanged in his security housing unit at Corcoran on July 22nd.
Relatives believe that they are fighting an uphill battle to change the prison conditions because they are championing the rights of prisoners convicted of serious crimes.
“People are saying ‘so what?’ Society doesn’t care about the prisoners,” said Dolores Canal- es, whose son (37) has been on solitary confinement in Pelican Bay for 13 years. “Society has cast them away as worthless individuals. People won’t even take up a fight they would take up for the rights of an animal.”