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?
Photo from smath via flickr.