A 27-year-old prisoner, Christian Alexander Gomez, died on February 2 while on a hunger strike to protest access to health and legal services, sanitary food and other amenities in a segregation unit in California’s Corcoran State Prison. Gomez was a convicted murderer and died six days after he and 31 other inmates began refusing food. He was found unresponsive in his cell and sent to an outside hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Gomez was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and attempted murder. He and thousands of other California prisoners have been staging hunger strikes since July, with the first protests occurring against isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison and continuing throughout California’s state corrections systems. Prison officials estimated that about 4,000 prisoners were participating in October at the height of the outbreak but advocates for prisoners estimate that as many as 12,000 went on hunger strike.
Back in May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California prisons was causing “needless suffering and death. The state has been ordered to reduce the number of prisoners from 140,000 to 110,000, which would still be far over the maximum capacity for state facilities. Since 2006, the state’s prison system, which is in receivership, has been supervised by the U.S. District Court for Northern California.
Activists have questioned why the news of Gomez’s death has only been made public slowly. Corcoran did not publicly announce Gomez’s death when it occurred. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that Corcoran was “only obligated to report an inmate’s death to his next of kin.”
Gomez and the other inmates were on hunger strike to protest Corcoran State Prison’s administrative segregation unit. Prisoners are held there while awaiting hearings on infractions they have been accused of committing while in prison. According to a spokeswoman for Corcoran, Theresa Cisneros, prisoners in the unit have limited access to legal services and an exercise yard but none to radio or television programs and are not allowed to initiate new education or rehabilitation programs; they have access to nurses and doctors 24 hours a day. As there are often no beds at the new units to which they are to be transferred, prisoners can remain in the administrative segregation unit for as long as six months.
Thornton said that the hunger strike at Corcoran ended on February 13. But prison activist Isaac Ontiveros of Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity told Reuters that “there are still prisoners who are striking there.” Activists are calling for a National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners across the US on Monday to call attention to prisons conditions in the US and also California’s high incarceration rate.
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