Why California's Prisoners are Starving for Solitary Change

Californian prisoners have repeatedly gone on hunger strike over the solitary confinement in which some spend decades

On 19 December 2011, three prisoners at Corcoran State Prison wrote a letter to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) threatening to go on hunger strike if improvements were not made to their living conditions. Evidently, they received no response from the CDCR: the hunger strike began on 28 December.

This latest hunger strike, the third in less than six months, is small potatoes compared to the previous two, which were state-wide and involved thousands of inmates. According to Terry Thornton, a CDCR spokeswoman, it may already be over. But the fact that Californian prisoners have once again resorted to starving themselves to protest the conditions of their confinement does suggest that something is rotten in the Golden State's penal system.

The first hunger strike began on 1 July 2011, and ended three weeks later when the CDCR agreed, in theory at least, to address the participants' five core demands, which amounted to better living conditions, adequate food and clothing, an end to group punishments and most importantly, an end to the gang validation policy that sentences inmates to endless terms in solitary confinement cells, known as SHUs.

One of my correspondents, Anthony, who has an indeterminate SHU sentence (meaning, there's no end in sight), described to me in a letter what it is about the SHU environment he and his fellow inmates find hard to tolerate.

"We're entitled to receive 10 hours of 'outdoor exercise' a week, but lucky if we get half that. At times, we're cooped up an entire week in our cells before the opportunity of expanding our lungs with fresh air. 'Outdoor exercise' consists of being placed in a dog kennel-like cage, no bigger than our cells. We're prohibited from all recreational and exercise equipment, compelling most to pace idly back and forth.

"Blinding bright lights remain on 24 hours a day within our (windowless 8ft x 10ft) cells as we have been denied control over them. Our lavatories are electronically installed, allotting each cell two flushes every 15 minutes."

The SHU residents are not alone in finding these conditions intolerable. On 18 October 2011, after inspecting such facilities, Juan Mendez, a United Nations expert on torture, called for all countries to ban the use of solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances, and even then, for no longer than 15 days.

Personally, I don't think I'd get through 15 hours locked up in a concrete box, with no window, bright lights glaring 24/7 and a toilet that won't stop flushing, but 15 days would certainly be an improvement on 15 years, which is about the average length of time the men who have been writing to me from California's SHUs have been locked up in these sensory deprivation units.

The CDCR's Thornton confirmed that many inmates have spent several decades in the SHU (the record so far that I know of is 35 years), but made the point that most inmates earned their stay for acts of violence from which prisoners in the general population deserve to be protected. A valid argument, certainly, but how can you tell if an inmate is still a threat to the mainline population after he's been locked in a box by himself for 20 plus years?

The problem for SHU inmates is that once they get sent to the box, it's almost impossible to work their way out of it. Their options are to either "debrief, parole or die", which as it turns out are non-options. Debriefing, or "snitching", on other prisoners can provoke retaliation; parole is rarely granted and dying ... well, suicides are certainly not rare in solitary confinement, but it turns out many SHU inmates still have the will to live.

The first hunger strike, which involved more than 6,000 inmates, brought little meaningful reform. After three weeks of starvation, the prisoners found that what they had gained amounted to little more than the right to purchase sweatpants and coloring pencils. Less than two months later, despite threats of disciplinary action by the CDCR (pdf), the hunger strike resumed with almost double the number of original participants (pdf). It all got a bit ugly for a while: mail and visiting privileges were suspended; attorneys for the hunger strikers were banned from entering the prison; participants received behavior violation write-ups; and according to several testimonies, the alleged leaders of the hunger strike were placed in freezing cold cells without proper clothing and forced to remain there for 15 days.

Eventually, a deal was reached, with promises from the CDCR to address the prisoners' demands and to set about instigating a "step down" program, which would allow alleged gang members to earn their release from the SHU - without having to debrief. Laura Magnani, a member of the mediation team representing the prisoners, says the CDCR appear to be negotiating in good faith and progress is being made.

If this turns out to be the case, it's good news. If not, more hunger strikes seem inevitable as does the possibility that deaths will occur. One would hope it will not take the creation of martyrs to bring about the changes that anyone with a conscience knows are overdue.

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