Why Are 30,000 California Prisoners On Hunger Strike?
That’s the number of inmates in California state prisons who refused meals for the third day on Wednesday, July 10.
In 2011, a hunger strike over several weeks in California prisons saw at its peak about 6,000 prisoners refusing to take food, but this number is much bigger: it amounts to around one fourth of all the people being held in the state’s prisons currently, making it the largest hunger strike in state history.
The protest has spread to two-thirds of the 33 prisons across the state and all 4 private out-of-state facilities where California sends inmates, corrections officials said.
In addition, thousands of prisoners have gone on strike, refusing to attend their work assignments for a third day.
The protestors are showing their solidarity with inmates at the remote Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, near the Oregon border, who are being held in solitary confinement in the “SHU,” or Solitary Housing Units, essentially a prison within a prison.
They are demanding an end to the protracted use of solitary confinement: in some cases prisoners have spent 25 years encased in concrete, with no windows, almost entirely alone, with no view of the outside world except possibly through a television, and no rehabilitation programs.
Each day, inmates in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border get 15 minutes to shower, and a little over an hour to exercise in a concrete yard.
They spend the rest of the day — nearly 23 hours — locked in their cells. No phone calls. No physical contact with visitors. The Department of Corrections says the SHU was designed to punish and control inmates that run prison gangs. Inmates say it’s a form of torture to coerce them to “rat” on other prisoners so they can get out of the SHU.
Protestors are demanding, amongst other things, that five years should be the maximum time for a prisoner to spend in these conditions.
As NPR reports, more than 90% of the inmates are there because they are allegedly linked to violent prison gangs, but in fact these connections are tenuous at best. For over half of the men, the evidence for their connections to these gangs amounts to nothing more than tattoos or drawings or letters.
The protest has been organized by the prisoners themselves, who have been working on this action for months. In spite of their isolation, they’ve been able to use letters and visits, and gather support from families, friends, and several advocacy groups.
In part, they are responding to California Governor Brown’s recent declaration that the prison crisis is over.
From The New York Times:
California is facing the threat of being charged with contempt of court after a Supreme Court order in May 2011 to reduce its prison population by 10,000 inmates this year. The court said crowding and terrible conditions inside the prison system constituted inhumane treatment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
On Wednesday, the state filed for a stay of the court’s order to release prisoners.
Gov. Jerry Brown has repeatedly said that the state has gone as far as it can to release low-level offenders and reduce crowding at the prisons, and that it is providing adequate medical care for inmates.
Back in 2011, the hunger strike ended when the protestors were promised reforms. Two years later, when changes have been minimal, it won’t be so easy.
The 2013 protest involves the same issues and even many of the same inmates, but this time around protestors are unlikely to back down until they get a legally binding agreement for immediate changes.
Isn’t it time California started treating its prisoners with more respect?
Photo Credit: ewar woowar