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Struggle at Folsom

by W. Wisely

On August 11, 1997, almost 400 prisoners in California's New Folsom prison staged a one-day work strike to protest continuing elimination of privileges and programs. Six members of the Men's Advisory Committee were placed in administrative segregation, suspected of leading the strike.

"The [prisoners] were rather frustrated with things occurring to them in general," said Lt. Jay Schievelbein, a prison spokesperson. Schievelbein said the strike was apparently prompted by a statewide prison regulation prohibiting prisoners from wearing personal blue jeans, gray tee-shirts, and athletic shoes to visits. Prisoners are now forced to wear only state-issued denim pants, chambray shirts, and brown work boots.

Although seemingly inconsequential, this is just one of many restrictions the Department has imposed or plans including a ban on weigh-lifting, family visits, rehabilitation programs, vocational training, packages from home, and canteen.

"The [prisoners] in that facility have been a little bit uneasy with the taking of some of the things back from the prisoners," Schievelbein said. "This was a thing that broke the camel's back." The strike was the first known since a work stoppage by hundreds of prisoners at the maximum security prison in Lancaster, California, two years ago. The one-week strike there was in response to the ban on family visits for most of the state's 155,000 prisoners.

Guards fired tear gas on three occasions on prisoners who refused to lock up on the administrative segregation yard in September of 1997. Schievelbein said the sit-down strikes in segregation were probably related to the earlier work stoppage.

"There was one [prisoner] from the strike, from the [Men's Advisory Committee], who was a very vocal leader from out on the yard," he said. "That might have had something to do with it. They had a list of complaints they wanted addressed. [The complaints] ranged from food condiments they wanted placed in their lunches to additional items for the canteen list."

The MAC at New Folsom's C Facility distributed a list to state lawmakers, reporters, and others, detailing the programs and privileges the Department has banned or planned to ban. The MAC pointed out that all the targeted programs and privileges were begun to reduce violence in prison, and that they believe the Department intends to spark a new wave of violence inside in order to justify getting more tax dollars from the Legislature.

In one sit-down strike, nine prisoners refused to leave the small concrete segregation exercise yard for seven hours before guards fired tear gas at them. In another, a dozen prisoners stood off guards for nearly five hours before being gassed. On the third occasion, seventeen prisoners refused to leave the yard.

While the sit-down strikes were going on, prisoners in 56 segregation cells covered their windows with toilet paper to prevent guards from conducting the count. When special teams of guards wearing bullet-proof vests, helmets with visors, steel-toed boots, and carrying plastic shields attempted to forcibly extract prisoners from their cells, they found every door tied shut with sheets, and the floors slick with water and soap.

Prison authorities said 38 prisoners were transferred from segregation at New Folsom to the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay and Corcoran prisons as a result of the incidents between September 10-13.

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