Revolution #240, July 24, 2011

Response to Susan Estrich

As the prisoners inside the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) entered the 15th day of a hunger strike, prepared to give their lives if necessary to put an end to conditions of long term isolation and sensory deprivation, growing numbers of people were learning about the conditions inside the SHUs at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and other maximum security prisons.

For a growing number of people outside the prison walls, including people of influence, (and the number needs to continue to grow), the response has been one of outrage. As actress Susan Sarandon succinctly put it, “I support the inmates of Corcoran State prison, pelican bay, and other prisons in their demands to end the inhumane policies of SECURITY HOUSING UNITS. I recognize their humanity and stand with them.”

On the other hand, legal commentator Susan Estrich has chosen to use her influence to insist that these prisoners deserve whatever is being done to them.  Estrich is a USC law professor, long-time prominent Democratic Party operative who was the national campaign manager for Dukakis’ failed 1988 presidential bid, and legal and political analyst for Fox News. She published a vicious attack on these prisoners and their demands to be treated as human beings in an opinion piece with the misleading title “Our Prison System Needs Radical Changes.”

In that piece, Estrich trivializes, misrepresents and literally laughs at the hunger strikers and their demands: “When I heard the news on the radio the other day, driving home from work, I had to struggle not to start laughing.  A hunger strike by prison gang members to get better conditions?  Drinking only water until they get better food?  Could I make this up?” 

Susan Estrich knows that the heart of the prisoners' demands is to put an end to torture.  The SHUs have been designed as long-term torture chambers.  Each prisoner is kept in absolute isolation combined with sensory deprivation, without sunlight, or human touch—indefinitely.  Studies have shown that in a matter of months these conditions begin to cause psychological damage.  And estimates are that 75,000 to 100,000 mainly Black and Latino prisoners in this country are living in these conditions—many for years, and even decades, with no hope of ever getting out. 

Susan Estrich’s response?  “I’m sorry, but does anyone care?” 

Estrich’s assertion that the Security Housing Unit is “for prisoners who are members of prison gangs or have committed serious crimes in prison” is false. SHUs are a form of generalized terror as well as specific punishment often targeted at those who protest outrages, serve as jailhouse lawyers, or are political opponents of the system (see "Hunger Strike at Pelican Bay Prison: The Humanity and Courage of the Prisoners...").

But let’s confront the most basic heart(lessness) and (im)morality of Estrich’s argument: that there are some people who, through whatever set of circumstances have been branded “the worst of the worst,” who do not deserve to be treated as, or thought of, as human beings.  When this kind of amorality comes out of the mouth of Ann Coulter it is viewed as what it is—an outrage. But coming from Susan Estrich—widely known as a liberal and a feminist—it should be a warning to the many progressive people who are being told that it’s alright to abandon your principles when not to do so comes with a price.

By denying the humanity of the vast numbers of overwhelmingly Black and Latino prisoners in these conditions, Estrich urges the public to join her in giving up our own humanity. 

The logic of rounding up and locking away a section of society, who—the populace is told—are not really human, has been the logic behind some of the greatest crimes in history. The smell of burning flesh coming from behind the walls of those “labor camps” in Hitler’s Germany? The stories of horrors coming out from behind those walls? For too many “Good Germans” the response was “I’m sorry, but does anyone care?”

History has rendered a verdict on the profound unacceptability of that stand, and has demonstrated where it leads:  Torture plus Silence = Complicity.

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At this decisive moment it will make a tremendous difference whether or not people from many different sections of society and walks of life confront the truth and take responsibility for coming to the side of these prisoners. What people do now does matter, and everyone who does care about whether or not these prisoners are treated as human beings must speak out with determination, now.


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