Is the California Prisons Chief Ready to Listen to Hunger Strikers’ Demands?

The California prisons hunger strike began on July 8, with around 30,000 prisoners around the state taking part. Weeks later, 561 inmates in nine California prisons continued to refuse food and reports of a first death surfaced. The ongoing strike eventually led to a meeting between the prisons chief and inmate advocates last week.

The protestors are showing their solidarity with inmates at the remote Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City who are being held in solitary confinement in the “SHU,” or Solitary Housing Units, which is essentially a prison within a prison.

Decades In Solitary Confinement

In some cases prisoners have spent 25 years encased in concrete, almost entirely alone, with no view of the outside world except possibly through a television and without rehabilitation programs. California also requires inmates in the security units to be in cuffs or belly chains whenever they’re outside their cell or exercise areas. They can only meet visitors from behind thick glass.

From KQED:

(Silvia) Rogokos said her brother, Frank Reyna, has spent more than two decades in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, or SHU. She worries the prolonged isolation has permanently damaged Reyna, who was convicted of second-degree murder. “They’re kept in these cells for 22 hours. They go out and exercise in what looks like a dog pen. There’s no rehabilitation for them, (so) how can he better himself?”

Corrections officials insist the segregated housing is needed to control gang leaders and dangerous criminals. CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison said, “The reality is that inmates in the security housing unit determine themselves how long they’re there for. They can get out of the housing units through renouncing their connection to a gang, through behavior improvements and through debriefing.” In other words, by snitching on their fellow prisoners.

In any case, 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, drawings or letters.

First Known Death

On July 22, Billy Sell, serving a life term for attempted murder, was found hanged in his cell in the security housing unit at the Corcoran State Prison in central California.

According to prison officials, the local coroner preliminarily ruled the death a suicide by strangulation. They also stated that there was no evidence that Sell’s participation in the hunger strike had been a factor.

However, inmate advocates disagree, saying that fellow prisoners reported Sell had been requesting medical attention for several days before his death, though a spokeswoman for a federal receiver overseeing state prison healthcare denied Sell was refused medical treatment.

Now Amnesty International is demanding that the state of California order a thorough, impartial investigation into the death of prisoner Billy Sell and make the results public.

California Prisons Chief Meets With Prisoners’ Advocates

In what appears to be a step forward, Jeffrey Beard, who is Governor Jerry Brown’s appointed head of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, met with advocates for inmates for the first time on August 2. Advocates included Ron Ahnen, president of California Prison Focus, which publishes a newsletter circulated to thousands of state inmates that hunger strike organizers used to broadcast their protests, along with  representatives from the American Friends Service Committee.

Following  the hour-long meeting with Beard, advocates who support the protesting inmates issued a statement:

We gave [Secretary Beard] ideas that would help bring the prisoners’ hunger strike to a just end in short order. We provided input for revisions to CDCR’s Security Threat Group Policy and Step Down pilot program. Our revisions are intended to create more humane conditions and circumstances. We urged him to follow the lead from other states, such as Illinois, Colorado and Mississippi, to end harsh and long term isolation practices.

A few temporary policy revisions are already in place, allowing some inmates classified as gang members to be moved out of the units based on their behavior.

However, Isaac Ontiveros, spokesman of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, said inmate advocates are seeking further substantive policy changes, which they discussed during Friday’s meeting.

We will wait to see the results of these negotiations, and hopefully they will be good.

Photo Credit: thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Amber Mariscal
Amber Mariscal4 years ago

Marc P. Agree!

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

Lindsey O is completely right. I would add also that not only are inmates put into solitary as punishment but also protection from other inmates. There is actually "honor among thieves" if they find out that someone harmed a child, they will kill that person. My husband worked in the Dept. of Corrections for over 26 years and saw it a lot.

Andy Walker
Past Member 4 years ago

Seems that the US has failed another test of a civilised society..

Lindsey O.
Lindsey O4 years ago

Solitary (and its attendant unpleasantness) is necessary since there has to be some form of heavy-duty punishment for those who seriously misbehave in prison (after all, the criminal is already in prison, so the threat of that punishment is moot). The law doesn't allow some of the older varieties of punishment and there are few ways I can think of to handle serious infractions in prison. And if the criminal isn't willing to modify his behavior in order to get out of solitary, that's his own fault - and shows that he isn't real interested in rehabilitation.

I certainly agree that the punishment should only be used with real cause (obviously), but we have to remember that there are many inmates who are real dangers to both the prison staff and their fellow inmates.

B Jackson
BJ J4 years ago

How much sympathy/attention would be given to senior citizens starving themselves to get a more liveable monthly SSI amount and sensible Medicare coverage? Non-criminal people who lived decent lives, worked to support selves & family. . . . .

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy4 years ago

The prison system if overloaded with people that should be doing community service or working off their sentences outside the prison. next, we need to send all illegals home that are in our prisons. Prisons dont need to feed restaurant style food to prisoners. Frankly, we need to empty as many prisons as we can with non violent low lever offenders and take these people and get them back into mainstream society. As far as the hunger strike...

Marc P.
Marc P4 years ago

What people are completely unaware of is the fact that people are put in prison AS punishment, not FOR punishment. The punishment is loss of freedom! If you put even the kindest of dogs into a closet for long enough it will come out snapping and snarling, turned vicious through its confinement. The worst thing that ever happened to Civil Rights, and prisoners is the Prison Litigation Reform Act. This law makes it impossible for inmates to mount meaningful legal actions against cruel conditions of confinement. Added to that Judges are guilty of purposely ruling against prisoners on all fronts. When a case brought by an inmate goes to court Judges ALWAYS manipulate the law to rule against the prisoner, and in favor of unjust actions and decisions. The whole thing is a sham and an insult to justice.

Lin M
Lin M4 years ago

No, you don't want them to want to return because it was so nice. There are prisons that go
over board in each direction. Some of them didn't treat their victims as well as they are now
being treated. I wouldn't think so many would need to be in solitary as that would make any
one worse. They could enlarge cells some what. Most aren't large enough for one person. A
meal in there is probably horrific, greasy and tasteless. I don't know what they can do with
those gangs, they're in every prison so no one knows. The answer I think is to not get your
self in one to have to think about this. For people who want to be kind and be pen pals, my advice is not to do that. If you don't know some one personally, don't try making a friend here.