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Prisoners Near Death in California Hunger Strike

Prisoners Near Death in California Hunger Strike

Prisoners at Pelican Bay, a maximum-security prison in northern California, began a hunger strike 12 days ago to protest their conditions in the solitary unit.  The strike quickly spread to other prisons, and eight days later, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation admitted that at least 6,600 prisoners in at least 13 of the state’s prisons were refusing food.  Now, the number has dropped to 795 prisoners at 6 prisons, but the ones who are still refusing food are becoming sicker and weaker. According to advocates for the prisoners, at Pelican Bay, 200 inmates are “progressing rapidly toward the organ damaging consequences of dehydration.”

At the beginning of the strike, a core of prisoners said that they’d rather starve to death than live under conditions which they said violated their basic human and civil rights.  Life is particularly harsh in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), where inmates are held in windowless isolation cells for more than 22 hours a day, and can go years or even decades without any contact with other prisoners.  Pelican Bay was constructed to hold 2.280 inmates, but like most of California’s prisons, it is overcrowded, and currently houses more than 3,100.

Back in April, the strikers announced their intention to refuse food starting on July 1, and drew up a list of requests, which included the provision of “adequate food,” and “constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.”  These privileges included art supplies, exercise equipment, and one phone call a week – hardly unreasonable demands.  They also called for guards to stop tampering with or withholding food as a form of punishment, and asked for an end to programs which require prisoners to “snitch” on others in exchange for improved conditions.  These procedures, they say, often lead to people being improperly labeled as gang members.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s overcrowded prisons constitute cruel and unusual punishment. “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority decision. It’s unclear, though if the hunger strike will have an impact on the CDCR’s policies, especially in facilities like the Pelican Bay SHU.

“We feel the CDCR will not make meaningful changes in policy unless this strike gets so severe that prisoners start dying. But we are in this until our demands are met,” said one hunger striker.

As the prisoners’ health worsens, it’s up to the CDCR to make a decision – either to save the lives of the hunger strikers, who are protesting what sound like torturous conditions – or to uphold their policies and risk the strikers’ deaths.  Prison officials say that no inmates have yet reached “crisis” stage, but what will happen when they do?


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Photo from smath via flickr.

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6:25PM PDT on Sep 1, 2011

Everyone that thinks that prisoners deserve this are idiots. I can't believe you guys are on Care2 and hating on human beings. They're being mistreated. It doesn't matter if they did a crime. Have some compassion. And, most comments were talking about money. Is money really more important than human lives? I can't believe this.

2:54AM PDT on Aug 11, 2011

Oh please! They're prisoners! They need to be tortured so bad that they would never commit another crime in their lives ever bad that the crime rate significantly reduces. And people are considering fulfilling their requests! The world has become such a dangerous place that you're not even safe in your house compound anymore. Go ahead give them a good life in prison and soon more people will be commiting crimes to get into prison n have a life better than the poverty striken. Unbelievable..seriously.

1:19PM PDT on Aug 3, 2011

Some of the comments are very disturbing. Have some compassion!

10:06AM PDT on Jul 25, 2011

@ Elizabeth K.

Its o.k. if you don't want to give my discipline (fiction or non) much credit Elizabeth, clearly our world doesn't need more compassion, right?!

Perhaps you should leave your tiny town and recognize some of the complex history of different people.

3:13AM PDT on Jul 25, 2011

My My My. Send some representatives to spend some days in India, Pakistan, Turkey and they will beg to go back to the comforts of California. Sometimes this human rights thing SUCK. What happened to human rights when they were breaking the laws????

7:52AM PDT on Jul 18, 2011

I don't have any sympathy for prisoners - if they starve to death that would be alot of taxpayers money saved!

5:02PM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

I don't think the prison officials should wait until the prisoners are in a state of seriously killing themselves...It's just small things they are requesting for. It's not worth witholding to prove a point or to get people killed. Just give it to them! Even people in prison deserve to be treated as the human beings they are (regardless of the crime they committed).

8:03AM PDT on Jul 17, 2011


Nice post with a lot of really good big words.

But I personally would not put too much credence on your opinions, not because you may have a typo or poor sentence construction, but because you have based your life on a work of fiction. So I could not be confident of your grasp of reality.

8:01AM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

@ John K

My conclusion got cut off.

Why don't you address what Jesus did and sacrificed?

But don't worry, I probably made some errors in this writing so you won't have to. ;-)

7:57AM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

@ John K.

More insults and quotes. You probably love Lynne Truss's book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I'll give you that it is important to master a variety of communication disciplines, and that my flexibility with writing will come across less "cogent" (nice word!) to you.

But I personally draw the line when being a language buff justifies indignation. People who believe they do not have to listen to others when they do not speak or write perfect English, only miss the opportunity to communicate with the vast majority of the world.

And like the snobs of Old English or Latin or most every language, will watch their version slowly die. You must be having a fit at the world wide success of Rap, Twitter and texting.

Believe it or not I read Luke 13, 1-5, comparing sinners. I don't think there is a psychologist, or 12 step program that would disagree with Jesus, "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish." And I certainly agree with this as well.

But again, the point is not what he said, its what he did while saying it. To use the 12 step analogy: How many people went through a program, repenting to everyone they wronged, only because their friends and family confronted them? These people were not "repenting" before the intervention. Jesus made as many interventions as possible. This is what Jesus understood, and what many in the Church try to hide because of greed and laziness.

Why don't you address what Jesus did and sacrificed?

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