Hunger strikes rattle North Carolina’s abusive prison system

Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C.

Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C.

Durham, N.C. — Over 100 prisoners started a hunger strike on July 16 at three facilities in North Carolina: Bertie CI in Windsor, Scotland CI in Laurinburg and Central Prison in Raleigh. Prisoners are refusing to eat to underscore their demands for an immediate end to solitary confinement, torture, physical and emotional abuse, and for more nutritional food, medical care and other basic human rights.

This action follows a massive and similar strike across Georgia prisons, a hunger strike in the supermax Red Onion State Prison in Richmond, Va., this May, as well as a sit-down labor action in the kitchens at Central Prison last December.

On July 29, as many inside Central Prison continued the hunger strike, a rally organized mainly by the Chapel Hill Prison Books Collective and the Greensboro Legal Defense Fund attracted nearly 100 supporters outside. As of the rally, eight prisoners were still on hunger strike and being referred to as the “Strong 8.” Chanting “Hunger strikers, not alone, Free the Strong 8, not alone, No more I-con, not alone,” protesters then marched past the main entrance to a walkway alongside the prison. After many rounds of drumbeats and chanting, during a moment of silence, they could hear prisoners in an open-air outside yard shouting back in support.

Many inmates are being kept in tightly controlled custody levels, including  Maximum Control, Protective Custody, Disciplinary Segregation and Intensive Control. Of the approximately 36,000 prisoners held by the North Carolina Department of Corrections, currently over 7,000  are confined in close custody. The maximum security units are described this way by the DOC: “Inmates confined in a maximum security unit typically are in their cell 23 hours a day. During the other hour they may be allowed to shower and exercise in the cellblock or an exterior cage. All inmate movement is strictly controlled with the use of physical restraints and correctional officer escort.”

Striking prisoners, some calling themselves the “Freedom Riders Movement,” have requested that supporters boycott several of the corporations that profit off the prison system’s lack of adequate nutrition and hygiene. The list includes Heinz Co., Sony, New Balance, Coca-Cola, Keefe Supply Co., American Amenities, JM Murray Center and others.

The prisoners have issued the following detailed list of demands, which vividly conveys the hellish conditions inside the prisons:

“1.    Law libraries. We are tired of being railroaded by the courts, and having our rights violated by prison staff and officers. NC Prison Legal Services are inadequate and oftentimes do not help us at all. A law library is needed to enable us to legally defend ourselves.

“2.    An immediate end to the physical and mental abuse inflicted by officers.

“3.    Improve food, in terms of quality and quantity.

“4.    A better way to communicate emergencies from cells; many emergency call buttons are broken and never replaced, and guards often do not show up for over an hour. At least one prisoner has died this way.

“5.    The canteens that serve lock-up units need to make available vitamins and personal hygiene items.

“6.    An immediate stop to officers’ tampering or throwing away prisoners’ mail.

“7.    Education programs for prisoners on lock-up.

“8.    The immediate release of prisoners from solitary who have been held unjustly or for years without infractions; this includes the Strong 8, sent to solitary for the purpose of political intimidation.

“9.    The immediate end to the use of restraints as a form of torture.

“10.    The end of cell restriction. Sometimes prisoners are locked in their cells for weeks or more than a month, unable to come out for showers and recreation.

“11.    The theft of prisoners’ property, including mattresses and clothes. When on property restriction, we are forced to sleep on the ground or steel bed frames naked, with no bedding.

“12.    Medical privacy and confidentiality. Guards should not be able to listen in on our medical problems when on sick call.

“13.    Change our cell windows to ones which we can see through. The current windows are covered with feces and grime. Not being able to see out is sensory deprivation, and makes us feel dissociated from everything that exists outside of prison.

“14.    An immediate repair of cell lights, sinks, toilets and plumbing.

“15.    Toilet brushes should be handed out with cell cleaning items.

“16.    The levels of I-Con, M-Con, and H-Con need to be done away with altogether. When one is placed on Intensive Control Status (I-Con), one is placed in the hole for six months and told to stay out of trouble. But even when we stay out of trouble, we are called back to the FCC and DCC only to be told to do another six months in the hold, infraction free.”

The struggle for justice inside North Carolina prisons has a long history. Prisoners organized the first-ever prisoners’ union, the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, in 1972. In 1975, 150 striking women prisoners forced the Department of Corrections to close down the prison laundry system after a 15-hour stand-off.

Among the prisoners locked in indefinite solitary confinement are Randolph “Paul” Kilfoil and other members of the North Carolina Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, who are preemptively segregated by prison authorities for no other reason than their identity. Many supporters came together last November to demonstrate against the tortures of solitary confinement imposed on ALKQN members at Central Prison.

To support their demands, striking prisoners are asking people to call Director of Prisons Robert C. Lewis at 919-838-4000 and Central Prison Warden Ken Lassiter at 919-733-0800.

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