by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway
July 14th 2011
It’s been two weeks since a group of inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit stopped eating. Their hunger strike was launched to protest conditions in solitary confinement in California’s oldest and largest supermax, where they spend at least 22 1/2 hours a day locked down in their cells, and the remaining time alone in concrete exercise yards. Many have been in the SHU for years or even decades, with little hope of ever leaving it alive–an extreme situation that, to their minds, called for extreme measures.
Since the strike began, it has spread to 13 of the state’s 33 prisons, where–according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s own figures–some 6,600 have refused at least some meals. But the heart of the protest remains in the SHUs at Corcoran State Prison and at Pelican Bay, where a core group of several dozen men say they are “committed to taking this all the way to the death, if necessary,” according to strike organizer Todd Ashker.
Information from this prison-within-a-prison is by nature difficult to come by and impossible to verify, but news of the strikers trickles out through family members and supporters. Today, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition reports that it received an “urgent update from medical staff” at Pelican Bay. According to the coalition, a ”source with access to the current medical conditions who prefers to be unnamed” said: “The prisoners are progressing rapidly to the organ damaging consequences of dehydration. They are not drinking water and have decompensated rapidly. A few have tried to sip water but are so sick that they are vomiting it back up. Some are in renal failure and have been unable to make urine for 3 days. Some are having measured blood sugars in the 30 range, which can be fatal if not treated.” Family members who visited SHU prisoners over the weekend have reported that they are visibly thinner, sicker, and weaker.
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