The California prison hunger strike, which began on July 8 in the Pelican Bay State Prison's secure isolation unit, is now entering its 50th consecutive day. One striker has already died, and several more have been hospitalized. The prisoners are protesting poor treatment in the penal system, including overcrowding, disregard for their rights by the prison administration, and brutal extended solitary confinement in dreaded facilities like Pelican Bay's Secure Housing Unit (SHU). Nevertheless, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the office of Governor Jerry Brown (D) refusing to engage with the inmates over their demands, the hunger strike continues.
Now, it seems like the CDCR is resorting to extreme measures to put down the inmates' struggle and resume business as usual. Instead, they should accept that the situation in prisons like Pelican Bay has gone critical and immediately move to negotiate with the inmates and end long-term solitary confinement practices in their facilities.
This week a California state judge ordered that the CDCR can now begin force-feeding hunger-striking inmates, just like the U.S. Army does in Guantanamo Bay. If you aren't familiar with what the practice entails, it involves the insertion of a nasal-gastric tube to pump liquid food into the inmates. Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def) graphically demonstrated the severe physiological and psychological trauma this process causes in a short video released by the Guardian last month:
By resorting to further torture, rather than sitting down for mediation with the inmates (as was ordered by the California Supreme Court last year), the CDCR and Governor Brown are demonstrating their utter disregard for human rights and the rule of law. The prisoners' unmet demands are simple, and they are open to negotiation:
1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate food.
5. Provide and expand constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
International opinion is lined up against the United States and the state of California when it comes to the use of solitary confinement. On Friday, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez urged that the United States stop the practice of extended solitary confinement in American prisons. Specifically citing the conditions in Pelican Bay, Méndez stated that he is "extremely worried about [solitary confinement population] numbers and in particular about the approximately 4,000 prisoners in California who are held in Security Housing Units for indefinite periods or periods of many years, often decades." Méndez went on to describe forced feeding as "physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike," and that the CDCR's actions were "not acceptable."
Putting an end to supermax isolation-only prisons not only makes ethical and moral sense, it makes financial sense as well. This January, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn shut down the infamous Tamms supermax facility, citing the prison's high cost of operation. The state of Illinois was spending just under $65,000 a year per inmate to house isolated inmates in Tamms. According to the CDCR, during FY 2010-2011, it cost between $70,000 and $78,000 a year to keep Pelican Bay inmates in segregated housing. Considering how in 2007, California taxpayers were for the first time in U.S. history spending more on prisons than higher education, the high fiscal cost of solitary confinement should be considered along with its incalculable human cost.
Yet part of the CDCR's strategy to discredit the non-violent hunger strikers is to smear them as violent gang-running criminals. Denis O'Hearn, who has been a teacher and correspondent with many members of the strike's leaders, also known as the Short Corridor Collective, has taken pains to debunk these falsehoods. It is a sad and cowardly thing indeed that the state agencies directly responsible for the torture of these prisoners somehow wish to claim that they are threatened by the hunger strikers. Torturing non-violent protesters locked away in boxes who have no face-to-face contact with the outside world beyond their lawyers solves nothing.
The Short Corridor Collective and their allies deserve solidarity and support, and they will not be silenced by brute force. The State of California has the power to end this humanely, and the ultimate burden to end torture on American soil lies with Governor Brown and the CDCR. It's up to us on the outside to make them do so.