Prisoner Hunger Strike Enters Crisis Stage

Photo by Solitary Watch

(Originally published at the Daily Censored for Project Censored).

Since July 1, 2011, some 6,600 mostly California state prisoners have participated in a hunger strike. The strike began at Pelican Bay and has spread to 13 other prison across the state. While most of the prisoners striking have resumed eating, there remains a core group of prisoners who have claimed they are willing to starve to death. According to a New York Times article, dated July 7, 2011, the strikes organizer, Todd Ashker has said, through his lawyer, “We believe our only option of ever trying to make some kind of positive change here is through this peaceful hunger strike” Ashker’s lawyer went on to say, “And there is a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death if necessary.”

California prison system has long been riddled with problems. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court placed the California prison system into federal receivership due to its deplorable health care provisions. Following that decision, this May, the Supreme Court issued a stinging decision ruling the conditions of California’s prisons amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” “intolerable with the concept of human dignity”, and caused “needless suffering and death”. The court ordered the state to reduce it prison population by tens of thousands of inmates.  According to reporters in the courthouse, Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke:

“From the bench about suicidal prisoners being held in “telephone booth-sized cages without toilets” and others, sick with cancer or in severe pain, who died before being seen by a doctor. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, and as many as 54 may share a single toilet, he said.

Kennedy, whose opinion was joined by his four liberal colleagues, said the state’s prisons were built to hold 80,000 inmates, but were crowded with as many 156,000 a few years ago.

He cited a former Texas prison director who toured California lockups and described the conditions as “appalling,” “inhumane” and unlike any he had seen “in more than 35 years of prison work.”

Dissenting Justices talked of a “grim roster of victims”. However, Governor Jerry Brown made it clear he has no intentions of letting any criminals out of the streets. Brown’s plan is essentially to move some 30,000 inmates to local and country jails. The Governor’s plan focuses on low level drug offenders and parole violators that could spend 60 to 90 days behind bars.

On July 1, 2011, prison inmates from Pelican Bay began the hunger strike and are making five core demands. According to the non-profit organization California Prison Focus the five core demands are:

“1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.

2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.

3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.

4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.

5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).”

Certainly, these five core demands seem fairly reasonable. Yesterday, the website Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity reported on the lasted news on the strike:

“This afternoon leaders of the Pelican Bay hunger strike unanimously rejected a proposal from the CDCR to end the strike. In response to the prisoners’ five, straightforward demands, the CDCR distributed a vaguely worded document stating that it would “effect a comprehensive assessment of its existing policy and  procedure” about the secure housing units (SHUs). The document gave no indication if any changes would be made at all.

While the CDCR has claimed that there is no medical crisis, mediators report that the principal hunger strikers have lost 25-35 pounds each and have underlying medical conditions of concern. Despite the promises from the federal Receiver overseeing the CDCR, no one has received salt tablets or vitamins.

(Click here for a clip from a legal visit with hunger strikers, explaining why prisoners are doing this hunger strike).”

Strike supporters are calling of people to call Governor Brown’s office and their local state representatives to demand the CDCR negotiate with the prisoners in good faith. Family members and supporters are organizing a demonstration on Monday, July 18, 2011 between 1 to 4 pm at the CDCR Headquarters located at 1515 S. Street in Sacramento. For more daily information on the conditions of the inmates and the negotiations visit the above links and Solitary Watch website.





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