Hunger Strike by Inmates Is Latest Challenge to California’s Prison System
By IAN LOVETT- NY Times
Published: July 7, 2011
LOS ANGELES — Thousands of inmates at prisons throughout California have been refusing state-issued food in a mass hunger strike to protest conditions at the state’s highest-security prisons, where some inmates are kept in prolonged isolation.
The protest was organized by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit, where prisoners are kept in isolation more than 22 hours a day. They stopped eating on July 1, and prisoners around the state have imitated their campaign. About 1,700 prisoners in all were continuing to refuse at least some state-issued meals on Thursday, down from a peak of 6,600 last weekend, according to the State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Although most prisoners have resumed eating, a group of at least two dozen at Pelican Bay, some of whom have been kept in the security housing unit for decades, said they were prepared to starve to death.
“We believe our only option of ever trying to make some kind of positive change here is through this peaceful hunger strike,” Todd Ashker, one of the Pelican Bay inmates who organized the strike, said in a statement conveyed through a lawyer. “And there is a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death if necessary.”
The hunger strike is only the latest problem for a state prison system that has lurched from one crisis to another in recent years. In May, the United States Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons by more than 30,000 inmates; and in 2005 a court appointed a federal administrator to take control of the faltering prison health care system.
Most of the prisoners who remain on hunger strike are in security housing units like the one at Pelican Bay, where they are kept alone in windowless, soundproof concrete cells. To communicate, they have to yell from one cell to the other, although prisoner-rights activists in contact with the prisoners did not know if this was how they had organized the strike. The lack of human contact often leads to depression and bouts of rage, psychologists say.
Prisoners and activists say that such conditions are cruel and unusual punishment. Most inmates end up in these extreme isolation blocks because of ties to gang activities. To get back into the general prison population, activists say, they are pressured to divulge information about other gang members in prison, a process known as “debriefing,” which can jeopardize their safety.
“We do see this long isolation and debriefing process as torture,” said Carol Strickman, a staff lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an advocacy group in San Francisco. “These are inhumane conditions designed to extract information from someone.”
But a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman, Terry Thornton, said that the restrictive conditions at Pelican Bay had been litigated numerous times.
A federal judge appointed a court monitor in 1995 to oversee changes at the security housing unit, including the removal of mentally ill prisoners from the block and an end to the use of excessive force. But he did not order changes to day-to-day conditions there.
Ms. Thornton said the department had received the prisoners’ list of demands, which was being “reviewed and evaluated very thoroughly,” and administrators met with Prison Focus, a prisoner-rights group, on Thursday. But she added that gang members were leading the hunger strike, which only showed the need to separate them from the general prison population.
“The department is not going to be coerced or manipulated,” she said. “That so many inmates in other prisons throughout the state are involved really demonstrates how these gangs can influence other inmates, which is one of the reasons we have security housing units in the first place.”
The hunger strike has transcended the gang and geographic affiliations that traditionally divide prisoners, with prisoners of many backgrounds participating.
But not all were prepared to take the protest as far as Mr. Ashker. All have continued to drink liquids, and some have refused to eat the state-issued food but have drunk Ensure or bought food from the canteen.
Still, if the strike continues — even if only among a handful of inmates at Pelican Bay — doctors may soon have to decide whether to force-feed protesters.
About 2,000 inmates are being medically monitored, with nurses conducting cell-to-cell rounds. At Pelican Bay, most prisoners have refused to meet with doctors.
Every inmate has the right to decline both food and medical care, and he can issue a directive to a doctor not to force-feed him even if he later becomes delirious from starvation. If he does not issue a directive, however, doctors must make judgment calls.
“Doctors have strict ethical guidelines they have to follow about making sure the patient has given informed consent,” said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the federal health care administrator. “But if they never said, ‘Don’t feed me,’ they have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis.”
A version of this article appeared in print on July 8, 2011, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: California Inmates Fast to Protest Isolation Cells.
For more on the hunger strike go to: http://www.prisons.org/