Calif. prison hunger strike nears two-month mark

OAKLAND, Calif. – As a hunger strike by California prison inmates nears the two-month mark, advocates say about 40 prisoners have refused meals continuously since the strike started, and another 120 participants have struck for shorter periods.

Some 30,000 inmates at over two dozen prisons participated when the strike was launched July 8.

Speaking on radio station KPFA Sept. 4, Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee, who is among inmate advocates seeking to negotiate with prison authorities, said the 60th day of the strike was especially significant because strikers have reached the threshold of permanent health damage.

“They’re very weak,” Magnani said. “People are vomiting blood, having trouble sleeping, [finding it] hard to concentrate, hard to put words together – that sort of thing.”

At the same time, she said, “I’m amazed at how strong they still seem to be. People report back from legal visits that their spirits are good. But I think all of us are feeling the burden of this now, that we need to make something happen.”

The strikers’ core demands include ending long-term solitary confinement and group punishment, changing the criteria for determining whether inmates are gang members – a key reason for isolating them in SHUs (security housing units) – providing enough nutritious food, and offering SHU inmates more constructive programs and activities.

Dozens of inmates have been held in SHUs for more than two decades, a practice United Nations Rapporteur for Torture Juan Mendez has said could amount to torture.

On Aug. 26, over two dozen exonerated death row survivors, many of whom experienced solitary confinement while on death row, expressed their solidarity with the strikers. Their statement called on California prison authorities to “listen to the voices of the striking prisoners,” and negotiate “a just and humane solution to the current untenable status quo.”

Though Governor Jerry Brown has so far been completely silent on the strike, state lawmakers are responding.

Just before the Labor Day holiday, state Senator Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, heads of the Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committees, said in a joint statement that the legislature will hold hearings this fall on solitary confinement in the state’s prisons.

The two legislators cited Mendez’ UN report, and said the issues raised by the strikers are “real and can no longer be ignored.”

Hancock said California “continues to be an outlier in its use of solitary confinement,” which has been recognized as an extreme form of punishment leading to mental illness after prolonged use.

Ammiano also referred to the ongoing issue of severe overcrowding in the state’s prisons, saying, “We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement and that statistics show has failed to increase public safety.”

In 2009 a panel of federal judges ruled the state must cut its prison population by some 10,000 inmates, because extreme crowding was compromising inmates’ health and safety. After the U.S. Supreme Court last month refused to review the decision, California now faces a Dec. 31 deadline to do so.

The governor last week called for expanding prison capacity by moving some 12,000 inmates into private prisons and county jails.

The proposal was backed by Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, but Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has offered a very different proposal.

Steinberg’s plan would cut back on long sentences for low-level drug offenders and provide more money for substance-abuse, mental health and re-entry programs to lower prison admissions. A three-year extension to reach the required population level would be sought from the federal court.

Photo: Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Facebook page




Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.