Some 30,000 California inmates are refusing meals as they launch a hunger strike that could turn out to be the largest prison protest in the state's history.
The Los Angeles Timesreports California prison officials said inmates in two-thirds of the state's 33 prisons, as well as California prisoners at all four out-of-state private lockups, refused breakfast and lunch on Monday. An additional 2,300 inmates did not show up for work or classes, according to corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials, who won't recognize the burgeoning hunger strike as such until inmates miss nine consecutive meals, claim correctional facilities are operating as usual despite the meal refusals and work stoppages.
"Everything has been running smoothly," Thornton insisted. "It was normal. There were no incidents."
But to the prisoners participating in the hunger strike, there is nothing 'smooth' about their lives behind bars. The protest, which has been organized by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City near the Oregon border, aims to address the practice of keeping inmates locked away in indefinite solitary confinement, a widely recognized form of torture, for alleged (and often dubious) ties to gangs.
According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the Security Housing Units (SHUs) where prisoners are held in solitary confinement at four California prisons (including Pelican Bay) are a particularly cruel and inhuman form of punishment:
More than 500 of Pelican Bay's SHU prisoners have been held in solitary confinement in the SHU for over 10 years. Over 78 prisoners have languished in solitary for more than 20 years. Prisoners are detained inside windowless cells, are not allowed to call home and are served substandard or rotten food.
Todd Ashker, a Pelican Bay inmate and a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging solitary confinement in SHUs, writes:
Prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison's SHU are isolated for at least 22.5 hours a day in cramped, concrete windowless cells. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, any kind of programming, adequate food, and often medical care... This treatment has inflicted profound psychological suffering and caused or exacerbated debilitating physical ailments.
Often, inmates without serious disciplinary records are condemned to indefinite solitary confinement due to alleged gang affiliation. But simply waving hello to a suspected gang member or possession of certain artwork or tattoos is often enough to land an inmate a gang validation. Prisoners of Mexican heritage who celebrate their culture with Aztec-themed drawings, or in one alleged case, for having an Aztec calendar and a drawing of the famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, can find themselves in soul-crushing indefinite SHU isolation.
In 2011, Dolores Canales told Final Call how her son has been locked away in a Pelican Bay SHU for more than 11 years.
"He has no skin color whatsoever," Canales said, adding that the last time she saw her son he was so pale that she barely recognized him. "He's being held in a soundproof cell, windowless, no exposure to sun whatsoever... You know that the main goal here is to turn his brain into mush."
Contact with other people is a basic human need. Without it, the mind literally breaks down. During wartime, solitary confinement is a violation of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. A 1992 study of 57 Yugoslavian prisoners of war found that the most severe brain abnormalities occurred in the men who had experienced physical trauma such as severe blows to the head, or in those who had been subjected to solitary confinement.
Federal law even prohibits chimpanzees from being held in solitary confinement, which is seen as detrimental to their mental and physical health.
"It's an awful thing, solitary," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who spent two of his five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam in isolation, once said. "It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment." McCain was no stranger to "other forms of mistreatment," having been brutally tortured by his communist captors.
The US military studied many former Vietnam War POWs and found that solitary confinement was as excruciating as any physical torture the troops had endured. Among detainees at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, extended periods of isolation sometimes led to serious mental illness, even insanity.
"I feel dead," California prisoner Luis Esquivel, who has spent 13 years in solitary confinement, told CCR. "It's been 13 years since I've shaken someone's hand and I fear I'll forget the feel of human contact."
Anthony Graves, who spent most of his 18 years behind bars for murders he did not commit in solitary confinement, testified before the US Senate last year about the horrors of solitary confinement.
"No one can begin to imagine the effect isolation has on a human being," Graves, who was exonerated and freed in 2010, testified. Graves recounted how he mutilated himself and attempted suicide in a bid to put an end to his agony. Solitary "breaks a man's will to live," Graves said.
That could be the unstated goal of locking California prisoners away in SHU isolation.
"What I've noticed is that many of these men (in solitary) were either helping others, jail house lawyers, got along with the other races, are extremely intelligent...," activist Kendra Castaneda, whose husband is a state prison inmate, told Final Call. "This isn't how it should be."
Solitary confinement is but one of the issues the hunger striking California prisoners hope to address. According to Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, inmates have listed five "core demands" — originally made during a smaller 2011 hunger strike — which need to be met. These are:
1- End group punishment and administrative abuse.
2- Abolish the debriefing policy (by which inmates are released from SHU confinement after 'snitching' on other prisoners) and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3- End long-term solitary confinement and alleviate conditions in segregation, including instituting regular and meaningful social contact, access to adequate healthcare and access to sunlight.
4- Provide adequate and nutritious food.
5- Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges (ex: allowing weekly phone calls, visits, correspondence courses, pull-up bars, hobby/craft items, calendars, two annual package deliveries, annual photo, etc.) for indefinite SHU inmates.
"The changes the prisoners are demanding are standards in other supermax prisons," asserts Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.
While CDCR officials agreed to reform SHUs as a result of the 2011 hunger strike, prisoners claim those reforms were not implemented as promised. Instead, the strikers claim, officials expanded their definition of 'rules violations,' increasing the number of group affiliations which could lead to SHU detention to more than 1,500.
"We are presently out of alternative options for achieving the long-overdue reform to this system and, specifically, an end to state-sanctioned torture," the group said in a statement. "Now we have to put our lives on the line via indefinite hunger strike to force CDCR to do what's right."
"We are certain that we will prevail... the only question being, how many will die starvation-related deaths before state officials sign the agreement? The world is watching!"
According to Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, more than 10,000 California inmates are being held in solitary confinement.
Thornton, the CDCR spokeswoman, told KIEM that prisoners had "numerous constructive positive ways to bring their concerns forth... but engaging in a mass hunger strike-- coercing other inmates maybe to do that, too-- you know, the disruption it can cause from a work stoppage, the department does not condone that."