Gregory Koger, a prison paralegal, as well as a prison reform activist and former inmate who spent six years in an Illinois prison, spoke to Columbia College Chicago recently about unjust treatment of prisoners in California penitentiaries.
In his speech, Koger said Hunger strikes at California state prisons could resume next week.
Pelican Bay Prison in northern California was the first to launch the three-week protest in early July, and it soon spread to seven other state prisons, including Salinas Valley and Calipatria.
The hunger strikes were part of a larger movement created by inmates to end torture and inhumane practices, Koger said.
“We have a system based on capitalism and are always focused on how people can profit over someone else,” said Koger. “People who refuse to submit to unjust circumstances is the first step to making a change.”
According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, an estimated 12,000 prisoners joined the hunger strike.
Inmates proposed a list of demands to prison officials. It was after three weeks the prisoners temporarily stopped their hunger strike to give officials time to comply with their demands. However, when it became clear that prison officials were not going to comply, prisoners resumed their hunger strike.
“[The inmates] temporarily stopped because they faced a lot of retaliations and wanted to regain their stamina,” Koger said. “But prior to this hunger strike, it was announced that it was going to be a rolling hunger strike where it would stop and come back as much as the inmates needed to.”
The reforms called for an end to long-term isolation, adequate food, eliminating group punishment and an expansion of constructive programs and privileges. Koger said the U.S. incarceration rates are almost double that of other countries such as Iran, Libya and China.
Many of the protests arise from conditions in solitary confinement, which segregates a prisoner with little to no human contact.
According to Koger, prison officers decide who will enter solitary confinement, and many times inmates are selected for arbitrary reasons. Inmates are most often chosen for solitary confinement if they are suspected of gang affiliation.
In solitary, a prisoner can be locked in a cell for 22.5 hours a day. Prisoners often have very little outside light, a no-touch policy, and days of no showering.
“It is torture. There’s no way around it,” said Koger. “This is a systematic problem, and more money is being spent on prisons than education.”
Koger said he has also witnessed and experienced the harsh conditions.
“After a short time in prison, I soon started to question what brought me and all of the people [there],” Koger said. “I soon began to understand the historical and social forces that all of us in this condition are in the prison system.”
He said that no matter what crimes were committed, there is no reason that inmates should be treated like they are not human. He explained that while he knows many inmates predict the issues might not change now, it would be a disservice to not try for future generations.
“[Prisoners] explicitly say that they know the type of changes they are calling for are not going to happen in the space and time a human being can remain on the hunger strike and live to see the things they are asking for to happen,” Koger said. “People who refuse to submit to unjust circumstances are the first step to making a change.”
Koger said he believes that people have the ability to change, and saw his experience as a prime example.
“No matter what they did to get into prison, people have the ability to transform,” he said. “I may be one small example of that, but people have the ability if they are given the opportunity.”