California prisoners begin hunger strike to protest solitary confinement conditions

Tens of thousands of California inmates began a hunger strike and work stoppage on Monday to protest the harsh conditions in solitary confinement as well as the state’s practice of imposing long-term or indefinite isolation on suspected prison gang members.

Read more: 5 things you should know about solitary confinement in California state prisons

According to Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, more than 30,000 inmates in over half of California’s prisons – including the super-max prison at Pelican Bay – are participating in the hunger strike.

But the figures released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) showed only 12,421 inmates in 24 state prisons and out-of-state incarceration facilities have refused nine consecutive meals since July 8th. In addition, 1,336 inmates are participating in work stoppages in support of the hunger strikers.

Read more: Special Report on Solitary Confinement in California

Prisoners serving in security housing units [SHU] are confined to a small, windowless cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, are prohibited from making or receiving phone calls, denied contact visits, and are barred from participating in vocation, recreational, and education programs.

Juan Mendez, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, has repeatedly called for a ban on solitary confinement exceeding 15 days because of the “severe mental pain or suffering” prolonged isolation may cause.

Such harsh conditions have led the inmates to issue five “core” demands to state prison officials, asking them to: (1) reform the gang validation process and abolish the “debriefing” requirement for inmates to leave the security housing units [SHU]; (2) stop the practice of group punishment and create a step-down program for inmates to earn their way out of the SHU; (3) provide inmates with adequate food and cease withholding food as a punishment tool; (4) expand educational programming for inmates serving indefinite SHU terms and allow them to buy or receive art supplies, stationary, and toiletry items; and (5) end the practice of long-term solitary confinement.

These were similar demands issued during the 2011 hunger strikes, which were suspended after prison officials agreed to carry out some of the reforms sought. However, inmates have expressed frustration over the past year at CDCR’s failure to fulfill its promise to meet the prisoners’ core demands.

“We are presently out of alternative options for achieving the long overdue reform to this system and, specifically, an end to state-sanctioned torture, and now we have to put our lives on the line via indefinite hunger strike to force CDCR to do what’s right,” according to a written statement by prisoner representatives in the Pelican Bay SHU. “Our decision does not come lightly. For the past [two] years we’ve patiently kept an open dialogue with state officials, attempting to hold them to their promise to implement meaningful reforms, responsive to our demands. For the past seven months we have repeatedly pointed out CDCR’s failure to honor their word – and we have explained in detail the ways in which they’ve acted in bad faith and what they need to do to avoid the resumption of our protest action.”

CDCR insisted that it made a good faith effort to address the prisoners’ grievances, pointing out that it has made changes to the gang validation process, began a pilot step-down program, and conducted case-by-case review of 382 inmates being held indefinitely in the SHU (which has resulted in the transfer approval of 208 inmates to the general population and the placement of 115 inmates in various stages of the step-down program).

The department stated that inmates participating in the hunger strike or the work stoppage are breaking state law and are subject to disciplinary action under California Code of Regulations Title 15 Section 3323(h)(A) and 3323(f)(7). The department also warned that inmates who are “leading or perpetuating” the protest are also subject to disciplinary action and may be sent to solitary confinement.

“CDCR does not condone inmate disturbances. Mass hunger strikes, work stoppages and other disruptions have the potential to impact programs, operations, staffing, safety and security,” according to a written statement released by CDCR.

The Pelican Bay SHU representatives maintained that the hunger strike is simply a “political non-violent protest” against prolonged solitary confinement that amount to torture.

“We are certain that we will prevail…the only question being: How many will die starvation-related deaths before state officials sign the agreements?”

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One Comment on “California prisoners begin hunger strike to protest solitary confinement conditions

  1. Pingback: California prisoners end 60-day hunger strike after lawmakers vow to hold public hearings to discuss solitary confinement reforms | What The Folly?!

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