For more than a week, the California prison system has been gripped by the largest hunger strike in its history. Today, campaigners say that some 12,000 inmates continue to refuse food in roughly two-thirds of the state's 32 facilities. That's down from the 30,000 who kicked off the strike, but still more than twice the number who participated in a similar action two years earlier.
The strike – which began with a group of men held in isolation in Pelican Bay State Prison before spreading across the state – was principally motivated by California's aggressive use of solitary confinement. In many cases, the strikers' demands are simple: one photo a year, one phone call per week, permission to use wall calendars.
"The prisoners are not on a suicide mission," says Roger White, campaign director of a Bay Area coalition called Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. "If they didn't have hope that things could change and that CDCR [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] could actually implement the demands, they wouldn't be striking."
In 2011, a United Nations torture rapporteur called for an absolute and international ban on indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, arguing that just a few a days locked up alone in a cell has been shown to produce lifelong mental health problems. In California, hundreds of Pelican Bay prisoners have spent a decade or more in solitary confinement – some for as many as 20 or 30 years.
The same year the UN rapporteur called for the abolishment of solitary confinement, prisoners at Pelican Bay launched their first hunger strike. "The point that they're trying to make is that back in 2011, CDCR made a number of promises around the demands that the [prisoners] put forth," White says. "CDCR spent the last two years basically ignoring and playing games with their agreements."
The prison system in California is in utter disarray. Earlier this month, an investigation uncovered evidence of dozens of incidents in which nearly 150 female prisoners were pressured into unauthorized sterilizations. The month before that, a federal court ordered thousands of prisoners in two facilities relocated because they were at risk of contracting a potentially lethal disease called valley fever. The state refused, arguing it would cause race riots. And just last week, a federal judge ruled that the prison system was failing to provide even the most basic medical needs for prisoners, including clean water.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that overcrowding and poor living conditions in California prisons violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But Governor Jerry Brown has aggressively resisted court orders to reduce the state's prison population. Federal judges have accused the state of being "deliberately indifferent." Brown believes "the prison crisis is over in California."
The solitary confinement concerns that led to the hunger strike are directly linked to over-crowding. In 2011, violent prison gangs in California were linked to over 1,700 in-house homicides, attempted homicides and attacks on other prisoners or guards. In states across the country, prison officials have responded to gangs by removing violent members and placing them in isolation. California, however, has taken the extra step of throwing anybody who can be remotely linked to a gang activity into maximum security and isolation facilities. In the process, hundreds of prisoners – some of them non-violent offenders – have found themselves swept up and moved into isolation, often over the tenuous accusations of another prisoner, the possession of artwork or simply reading the wrong book. They now reside in the cramped, windowless rooms of Pelican Bay's infamous Security Housing Unit (SHU).
According to a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of 10 Pelican Bay prisoners, the primary reason prisoners stay in the facility's maximum security and isolation chambers is failure or inability to "debrief" on the gang activity of other prisoners. Critics say this produces a situation in which the only way prisoners can end their isolation is to provide information they may or may not have – which may or may not be true – and potentially pull other inmates into unwarranted isolation or put themselves at risk of retaliation.
The California prisoners who are currently refusing to eat have drawn up five demands that they hope will bring about more humane conditions and put an end to abuse. Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity has posted the prisoners' demands online, "in their own words." They include:
1. End group punishment and administrative abuse.
The inmates argue that Pelican Bay officials punish groups in order to address individual rule violations. "This includes the administration's abusive, pretextual use of 'safety and concern' to justify what are unnecessary punitive acts," the prisoners say. The inmates charge that the policy has been used to justify "indefinite" status in isolation units and restriction of privileges.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify gang status criteria.
According to the prisoners, the debriefing policy "is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Debriefing puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as 'snitches.'"
3. Comply with established recommendations concerning the use of solitary confinement.
The 2006 U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons lays out a number of recommendations for California's department of corrections that the hunger striking prisoners would like to see implemented. This includes insuring that inmates "have regular meaningful contact and freedom from extreme physical deprivations that are known to cause lasting harm" and that they are given "the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities relating to having a sense of being a part of the community."
The prisoners also support the commission's recommendations to release immediately return all prisoners who have been indefinitely held in isolation for 10 to 40 years back into the general population and provide quality health care and treatment.
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.
Inmates say food is used "as a tool to punish SHU inmates." They demand that the prison system "cease the practice of denying adequate food, and provide a wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals, and allow inmates to purchase additional vitamin supplements."
5. Expand or provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
The hunger-striking prisoners have laid out a list of a dozen privileges and programs they would like to see implemented. They ask to be allowed one phone call per week and to receive one photograph each year. They would like to be able to hang wall calendars. They want "art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk." They want to be able to take correspondence courses with proctored exams. For those in units that have television, they would like some more channels.