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Guantanamo Inmates Inspire Hunger Strike in California Prisons

by Charlotte Dean, published

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Recently news cycles have been filled with two similar yet disparate prison crises; first, a continuing psychological battle waged by 106 hunger-striking Guantanamo inmates. Of these, 42 are being force-fed twice a day in a procedure officials insist is "humane," but testimonials attest is painful and humiliating.

Inspired by Guantanamo's indefinitely isolated prisoners, prisoners in California's maximum security prison at Pelican Bay and inmate supporters statewide began a 30,000 strong hunger strike last Monday. They were protesting the CDCR's policies on group punishment, indefinite solitary confinement, and the "debriefing" policies creating a toxic informant culture.

By Friday, strikers had fallen to 12,421 with 1,300 refusing to work, and after the CDCR threatened striking inmates with punitive measures ranging from suspension of parole to solitary confinement, the number dropped again to 7,600 hunger/work strikers and 1,200 work strikers.

This hunger strike is significant because it's the third for the CDCR in two years, following two 2011 strikes that advocates say only prompted minimal review of punitive policies and their effectiveness. Nearly 400 inmates have been screened, of which half have been released or are being rehabilitated, but statewide estimates place the remaining SHU inmates at 11,000. The official website for the hunger strikers lays out 5 core demands unmet by the 2011 compromise:

  1. Individual Accountability -- stop "group punishment" for races or alleged gang members, used to justify indefinite SHU (Security Housing Unit) status
  2. Abolish debriefing (making inmates choose between informing or isolation) and modify active/inactive gang status criteria -- cease use of "innocuous association" or debriefer allegations to deny inactive status
  3. Comply with 2006 commission recommendation to end or modify long-term solitary confinement: (A) End conditions of extreme stimulus deprivation; (B) make segregation a last resort and create constructive out-roads like work, education, etc; (C) end solitary confinement of 10-40 years; and (D) meaningful access to sunlight and adequate treatment/transfer for inmates with chronic illnesses
  4. Adequate food -- cease withholding of nutrition as punishment, begin independent oversight of meals
  5. Expand constructive programming and privileges (examples from out-of-state Supermax prisons include another visitation day, one photo per year, wall calendars, hobby craft items, pull-up bars, and correspondence courses with exams)

Corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman asserted the strike is organized by "prison gangs," avoiding specifics. Corrections officials stated in a written statement that "mass disturbances" like strikes are illegal and will be revoking parole eligibility, denying visits, seizing food in cells, and isolating strikers.

Corrections secretary Jeffrey Beard also weighed in, claiming that striking prisoners were actually impeding efforts to continue SHU reviews, reduce overcrowding consequences like infectious disease, and tackle a suicide rate 80 percent higher than the national average. The "help us help you" philosophy of the CDCR was dismissed by strike organizers as part of the problem; those in power aren't taking their suggestions seriously.

A majority of the 7,600 striking inmates are already in solitary; unofficial reports place the SHU population of Pelican Bay at 4,100, most of which are accused somewhat arbitrarily of gang associations and forced to inform on inmates, often erroneously, to get out. The strike has spread to a third of California's state prisons and even out-of-state prisons housing overflow, expanding the list of demands based on location and context.

The prisoners believe parallels can be drawn between solitary confinement in California and conditions at Guantanamo, where inmates are prone to psychological breakdowns. However, there is a major difference: Guantanamo inmates have never  had a day in court, whereas the California inmates have been heard, tried, convicted, and sentenced. In other words, the limitation on the freedoms of California's prisoners come only after an exhaustive legal process.

The debate, therefore, is what are the Constitutionally allowable restrictions on a convicted criminal's freedoms? Some worry that the sheer number of prisoners in California's overcrowded prisons creates a system that lacks the necessary judicial oversight to ensure Constitutional protections, whatever level they may be, because individual corrections officials take the place of a judge and jury for alleged crimes committed in prison.

Most significantly, the former state prison chief in 2011 made overtures to override a California ban on force-feeding, but the strike ended before decision time. Whether or not force-feeding will be necessary this time depends on the nature of the strike. Many predict it will be long due to the deteriorating relationship between the CDCR and inmate representatives.

Resorting to force-feeding means a state is weighing one of two news cycles: "Prison Feeds Inmate Against His Will" vs. "Prison Allows Striker to Die," implying the strikers' demands are unfulfillable. Should California actually resort to force-feeding in the midst of a media blitz about long-term force-feeding in Guantanamo during Ramadan, the backlash is likely to be swift.

Recently, Yasiim Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) partnered with a humanitarian organization to produce a graphic demonstration of force-feeding, arguing "humane" refers only to the fact that inmates' lives are tenuously extended another 12 hours.

The video has been viewed nearly 5 million times and has catapulted conditions at Guantanamo back into the national debate. Hunger strikers like Shaker Aamer have granted harrowing interviews with news organizations revealing the physical and mental degradation suffered on a continuous force-feeding regime.

Prisoner advocates hope that improved public awareness of force-feeding and extreme solitary confinement will provoke the CDCR to end the California strike productively, but given the state's difficult position with the Supreme Court, it's not clear whether due attention will be paid.

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