Facebook Slider


Optional Member Code
Get News Alerts!
Monday, 18 July 2011 11:24

Hunger Strike: California Prison Inmates Protest Cruel and Unusual Conditions

  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email


"What else can the powerless, the weak and disenfranchised offer up to the world but their own soft bodies? The frailty of that body is contrasted with the might of authority." -- Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History

Life in prison can be a fascinating subject, especially for those viewing it from the outside. Hollywood has contributed mightily to our enthrallment: From the 1930 granddaddy of all prison movies "The Big House," to Paul Muni's star-turn in 1932's "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," to Paul Newman's "Cool Hand Luke" to Robert Redford's "Brubaker," to the magnificent fantasy escape in "The Shawshank Redemption," to the remarkable story of Reuben Carter's quest for justice in "Hurricane," there's a Hollywood prison film to satisfy all movie-going appetites.

Despite having the highest incarceration rate in the world, other than an occasional cineplex experience, chances are that most Americans could go through their daily lives without thinking much - if at all - about prison conditions in the United States. That is not to say that Americans aren't fascinated by crime stories. Open any daily newspaper or watch any local newscast across the country and there will be crime stories galore. Just about everyone has formed an opinion about the death penalty. However, once someone has been convicted of a crime and sent to prison, the media leaves the story behind; how those serving time are treated while incarcerated doesn't weigh heavily.

California Prisoners Stage Hunger Strike

Nearly three weeks ago, hundreds of inmates in prisons throughout California -- with the majority incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California -- went on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions. "The prisoners, who are being held in long-term and often permanent isolation, have sworn to refuse food until conditions are improved in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU)," James Ridgeway and Jean Casella reported in late June.

Despite the fact that many of the striking inmates at Pelican Bay, Corcoran and other prisons are serving time for serious and even heinous crimes, as a society we still have a responsibility to ensure humane conditions.

Hunger strikes have become a "daily, global phenomenon that has been by turns successful, gruesome, tragic and sometimes all of the above," M.J. Stephey wrote in the May 3, 2009 issue of Time magazine. Hunger strikers are often driven by abject desperation and a determined need to publicize what many see as a hopeless cause. In 1981, Bobby Sands, a 27-year old member of the Irish Republican Army led a hunger strike at Her Majesty's Prison Maze in Belfast, which ended in his death. Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay detention camp have gone on a series of hunger strikes.

As Laura Magnani, Interim Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee has written, "Such icons of non-violence as Gandhi and Cesar Chavez regularly employed the hunger strike to dramatize their issues. It is widely believed that Chavez permanently compromised his health as a result, perhaps hastening his early death. Although they differed in their theories about when this was an appropriate method, the decision to take such an action seemed to revolve around its ability to animate the moral sensibilities of an opponent."

"Built in 1989, Pelican Bay is the nation's first purpose-built supermax prison, and remains one of its most notorious," Casella and Ridgeway pointed out. It was originally built "to house 2,280 of California's ‘most serious criminal offenders,'" but these days the prison holds "more than 3,100. Over a third of them live in the X-shaped cluster of buildings known as the SHU, which CDCR [the California Department of Corrections] describes as 'a modern design for inmates who are difficult management cases, prison gang members, and violent maximum security inmates.'"

In another piece dated July 14, Casella and James Ridgeway reported in Solitary Watch (http://solitarywatch.com/) that the prisoner's strike had, "spread to 13 of the state's 33 prisons, where - according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's own figures - some 6,600 have refused at least some meals. But the heart of the protest remains in the SHUs [Security Housing Units] at Corcoran State Prison and at Pelican Bay, where a core group of several dozen men say they are ‘committed to taking this all the way to the death, if necessary,' according to strike organizer Todd Ashker."

According to Casella and Ridgeway, "The hunger strikers' list of five ‘core demands' (http://www.prisons.org/hungerstrike.htm) is far from radical. In large part, it is based on the recommendations of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons, which in 2006 called for substantial reforms to the practice of solitary confinement. Segregation from the general prison population, the commission said, should be ‘a last resort,' and even in segregation units, isolation should be mitigated and terms should be limited. Beyond this, the strikers want an end to group punishments, and to the system of gang ‘validation' and ‘debriefing' by which prisoners are held in the SHU indefinitely, and released only when they ‘snitch' on others. And they want provision of ‘adequate food' and ‘constructive [rehabilitative] programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.'"

According to Ron Ahnen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Politics at Saint Mary's College of California and President of the Oakland-Ca.-based California Prison Focus,, and Terry A. Kupers, M.D., M.S.P., Institute Professor at The Wright Institute in Berkeley and author of Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars, the prisoners, "characterize the rules they protesting as ‘Snitch, Parole, or Die'": "To win release from indefinite solitary confinement prisoners can snitch (the official term is ‘de-brief') about other prisoners' gang or criminal activities, earn release (parole) if their sentence is finished, or die."

As of last week, prison officials appear committed to neither negotiating with the prisoners or a team of mediators, nor meeting any of their demands. Casella and Ridgeway described the official response as, "uniformly hostile and sometimes dismissive." California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations spokesperson Terry Thornton told the New York Times that the agency would not be, "coerced or manipulated," by the hunger strike. Thornton also told a California public radio reporter that she thought prisoners might be clandestinely eating. "Some inmates have been seen eating food items that they've purchased from the canteen," she claimed. "Some have not. Some inmates are refusing to be weighed. That may be an indication that they are eating. It's really hard to say because they're refusing that medical evaluation."

Amongst the key questions raised by the hunger strikers is how far will they go in pursuit of their demands, and how long can they last without food.. Casella and Ridgeway discussed the issue of starvation: "The body begins feeding on itself after just 24 hours without food. It usually begins to show severe symptoms of starvation, including organ failure, at about five weeks. Without fluids, death comes much sooner, typically in less than two weeks. In 1981, it took the ten Irish Republican hunger strikers (who were drinking water) from 46 to 73 days to die in Britain's Maze Prison outside Belfast."

Pelican Bay: A Snapshot

In 2006, National Public Radio's Laura Sullivan became one of the few reporters to be allowed to enter Pelican Bay. She reported (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5584254):

"Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet. You can't move more than eight feet in one direction...The cell is one of eight in a long hallway. From inside, you can't see anyone or any of the other cells. This is where the inmate eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard...

"Although all the inmates are in isolation, there's lots of noise: Keys rattle. Toilets flush. Inmates shout to each other from one cell to the next. Twice a day, officers push plastic food trays through the small portals in the metal doors...

"Those doors are solid metal, with little nickel-sized holes punched throughout. One inmate known as Wino is standing on just behind the door of his cell. It's difficult to make eye contact, because you can only see one eye at a time. "The only contact that you have with individuals is what they call a pinky shake," he says, sticking his pinky through one of the little holes in the door. That's the only personal contact Wino has had in six years.

"The exercise yards at Pelican Bay are about the length of two small cars. The cement walls are 20 feet high. On top is a metal grate - and through the grate is a patch of sky. Associate Warden Williams says they don't allow inmates to have any kind of exercise equipment."

Ten years ago, six hundred Pelican Bay prisoners staged a hunger strike that lasted for 10 days. At the time, the CDCR agreed to review its policies regarding gang validation and debriefing. According to today's inmates, nothing has changed in the past decade.

The End Game?

Sharmon Apt Russell, writing in the Montreal Gazette in April 2009, pointed out that "One historian documented more than 200 strikes in 52 countries between 1972 and 1982, resulting in the deaths of 23 strikers, including the 10 Irish prisoners in 1981 whose story" was documented in the powerful movie "Hunger." "Since then," Russell wrote, "we've stopped counting. Clearly, hunger strikes are here to stay. In their best form, they are a powerful weapon in the still rather pitiful arsenal of the powerless."

"They are protesting conditions that they say are torturous and inhumane," Molly Porzig of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They feel the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will not make any meaningful or long-term change until they start dying, and they're willing to take it there."

David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said: "It's testimony to the suffering caused by solitary confinement that some prisoners are apparently willing to starve themselves to death rather than continue to live under those conditions."

The California hunger strikers have thus far attracted some media attention, and widespread support from a number of prisoner support groups. But, there is no guarantee that they will achieve their desired goals. While the main protagonists are the hunger strikers, it is most often those in power who will determine the outcome.