30,000 California prisoners banned together to tackle the torturous practice of long-term solitary confinement, who were they, and where are they today?
The first of three prisoner hunger strikes started on July 1, 2011, at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit. A total of 6,500 prisoners on the third day gradually decreased until the end of the strike on July 20, 2011. It was a long 19 days focused on a review and change of policies around solitary confinement and management of prison gangs.
Two additional hunger strikes later in the year continued the cause for prison reform. Overall, more than 30,000 prisoners participated in one or more of the hunger strikes. It was the largest prisoner hunger strike in US history. These were organized hunger strikes initiated by prisoners passionate about the injustice of solitary confinement and other practices in prison.
There were five core demands of the prisoners, who included all races and various gangs. These demands were: eliminate group punishments; abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria; Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement; provide adequate and nutritious food; and expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
While there is still much work to be done with justice and equity in prison, these hunger strikes led to some lasting changes, particularly with transformative art programs. Here is a look at two hunger strike leaders and the role art has in their lives today.
A Path into and Past Prison
Growing up in the 70s, Min King X aka Pyeface served hard time after falling into the drug and crack scene in Oakland, California. He served 24 years in prison and remembers all three hunger strikes clearly. The first hunger strike was while he was in the hole at Corcoran. Pyeface stated, “I was released from the hole and started organizing GP prisoners at Corcoran to prepare for a Second Hunger Strike. It wasn’t an easy sell to general population prisoners who were by no means directly impacted by long-term solitary confinement. Next thing I know, I was on a bus to Pelican Bay’s SHU for my organizing work at Corcoran.”
Upon his release in 2019, Pyeface had spent most of his time in California’s most violent prisons. He became a registered rapper in the 90s with Highside Records. During Pyeface’s time in Pelican Bay State Prison, he created and grew what is now the United KAGE Brothers and Sisters International Union. The group promotes arts and culture along with peace as a way of life. Outside prison he continues to be a peacemaker under the Agreement to End Hostilities for prisoners and civilians.
Listening to his hip hop, Pyeface uses pop culture to bring substance to his music and brings the reality of prison to youth. Through the Alternatives to Violence program, as Min King, he is a certified meditation facilitator.
Remembering the Strikes and Moving Forward
Another of the organizers for the last two strikes was Donald “C-Note” Hooker. As a prisoner serving life under the three strikes law in California, at the time he was a general population prisoner at Corcoran and Lancaster. C-Note remembers the time very well, particularly when it came to convincing fellow prisoners to participate, “It wasn’t easy to get general population buy-in because long-term solitary confinement was a Pelican Bay issue in the SHU [Security Housing Unit]…,” C-Note continued, “…not ours on the mainline. And the guards knew how to create a hostile environment for those participating.”
Named America’s and the world’s most prolific prisoner artist by Google in 2017, C-Note has produced over 400 visual and literary works. As a multi-genre artist, C-Note’s talents range from poetry to playwright, performing artist, and award-winning visual artist. In part, his ability to voice his artistic side is from the California Arts in Corrections program, which started in 2013. This program provides classes and professionally led classes.
Art is transformative, for the artist and those who see or experience the art. After the hunger strikes at prisons in 2011, the opportunity for prisoners to express themselves through art became a reality around 2013. Two amazing artists, one released from prison, the other a lifer, are well-known in their fields today. Pyeface and C-Note are artists that we may have missed otherwise, had it not been for their courage to stand up for justice through hunger. It’s something worth thinking about.