Hundreds of Occupy Wall Streeters and prison reform activists joined forces outside the gates of San Quentin, California, this week to protest high incarceration rates and the harsh living conditions of inmates.
Speakers at the rally said the state’s sentencing laws are too strict and called for an end to solitary confinement, the death penalty and children being tried as adults.
“I myself experienced more than 14 months of solitary confinement, and after only two months my mind began to slip” said Sarah Shourd, 33, an American who was imprisoned in Iran after being arrested while hiking near the Iraq border in 2009.
San Quentin is California’s oldest correctional facility, houses all male inmates on death row and the state’s only gas chamber, according to the state’s prison website.
Activist Barbara Becnel said prisoners were drawing inspiration from the Occupy movement.
“We have merged the prison rights movement with the Occupy movement,” Becnel said, quoting a message she said came from San Quentin death row prisoner Kevin Cooper. “The 99 percent has to be concerned about the bottom 1 percent.”
Marin County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Keith Boyd estimated the crowd numbered 600 to 700 people at its height.
Demonstrators held a moment of silence for Christian Alexander Gomez, who died February 2 while on a hunger strike in California’s Corcoran State Prison.
Gomez was among thousands of California prisoners who have gone on hunger strikes since July, starting with the protests of isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The strikes began after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that California prison overcrowding was causing “needless suffering and death” and ordered the state to reduce the number of prisoners to 110,000, still well over the maximum capacity, from 140,000.
“I’m here for the woman who stole a bottle of vitamins, the woman who stole a jar of Vaseline or a pair of underwear,” said former inmate Kelly Turner, referring to those she said were jailed for minor offenses like her own, which landed her in prison for 13 years.
In an interview with Reuters, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton contradicted speakers who said they had been held in isolation while in prison in the state.
“Inmates held in segregated units are not isolated,” she said. “Some inmates are single celled. But they converse with other inmates. They can get visits and they interact with staff.”