Starving for Justice
Such victories, narrow but significant, were not uncommon this year. In June, Yemen released seventeen of the twenty-two hunger-striking prisoners. In response to a July fast by dozens of prisoners—including some who had sewed their mouths shut—at Colombia’s Doña Juana Penitentiary, the bureau of prisons agreed to improve medical care and to investigate three deaths caused by a lack of it. In Russia, Maria Alyokhina, one of three Pussy Riot members imprisoned for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” stopped fasting when officials at her prison in the Ural Mountains ended the security crackdown pegged to her parole hearing, which, she said, had turned fellow prisoners against her. Her bandmate, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, also used a hunger strike to pressure the government. From Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia, Tolokonnikova wrote a letter in September detailing the reasons for her fast: seventeen-hour workdays, filth, sadistic prison guards, collective punishment. “I demand that we be treated like human beings, not slaves,” she wrote, reigniting debate in Russia about prison conditions. The government acceded to one of her demands by transferring her, but the move was likely an effort to silence her because her new prison is in Siberia. In August, four months after the Israeli government conceded to Issawi, it agreed to take hunger striker Dirar Abu Sisi out of solitary confinement. These victories follow a wider one in 2012, when a fast by 1,500 Palestinian prisoners secured family visits for 400 and the release of nineteen from solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement drove the hunger strike in California prisons, which some 30,000 people joined at the outset. Their number quickly dwindled, but forty days in, dozens were still fasting. In 2011, after the previous major fast in California’s prisons, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez said solitary confinement longer than fifteen days should be banned. Nearly 200 prisoners have spent more than a decade in solitary in California. In July, hunger striker Michael Russell wrote a piece that poetically conveyed its horror: “I’ve spent a quarter of my life in this prison’s cages, in its mud, learning to deal with the loud rhythm, the madness and isolation, the absence from my family and friends that has turned me into a total stranger, with so much empty uncertainty. I don’t sit here and cry. Nobody does.”
Unlike Israel’s Palestinian prisoners, California’s are not part of a larger political movement, at least not one with the capacity to frighten the government. Even after hunger striker Billy Michael Sell hanged himself, Governor Jerry Brown refused to negotiate. Officials claimed that gangs were behind the fast and, absurdly, that solitary confinement didn’t even exist in California. Prisoners called off the fast in early September after two state legislators vowed to hold a hearing on solitary confinement—hardly a major victory.
Yet solitary confinement has become a more prominent issue, and California’s prisoners deserve much of the credit. While a PR victory is not their goal, it’s a prerequisite for a substantive victory. Solitary confinement—“even more damaging than physical torture,” writes Atul Gawande—will someday be widely seen as barbaric and banned.
Guantánamo’s hunger strikers also won that insufficient prize, attention. What began as “just another” fast at Gitmo became a major story as more than 100 prisoners joined. Unable to project images to the world, fasters like Shaker Aamer relied on words published with the help of their lawyers. Aamer is a Saudi resident of Britain imprisoned for nearly twelve years without charge even though the US government has twice cleared him for release. “I do sometimes worry that I am going to die in here,” he wrote in the Daily Mail. “I hope I don’t, but if the worst comes to the worst, I want my kids to know that I stood up for a principle.”
Guantánamo’s hunger strikers managed to do what civil liberties and human rights groups had been unable to do: force President Obama to take up an issue he had ignored for months. Its subsequent redisappearance from the DC discussion underscores, rather than diminishes, their accomplishment. And their accomplishment wasn’t wholly intangible. The hunger strikers got Obama to release two men to Algeria in August—the first such transfers in nearly a year.
Of course, it wasn’t only the fast that commanded attention; it was also the government’s response to the fast. Because mass death would be even worse PR than mass abuse, the Obama administration has waged a brutal and illegal campaign of force-feeding. I use the present tense because Gitmo prisoners are still being “food-boarded,” as Jon Stewart calls it. More recently, in August, a federal district judge granted California authority to force-feed prisoners. It was preparing to do so when the strike ended. The horror of force-feeding is all the more reason not to root for hunger strikes to happen even as we on the left root for them to succeed.
It’s likely that as this age of protest carries on, so too will hunger strikes. We should spotlight this trend and, more important, the causes of hunger strikes. In the summer, Edward Snowden’s search for asylum prompted American pundits to denounce the human rights records of other countries, which, they claimed, were far inferior to that of the United States. The discussion obscured an important truth: that all governments—democracies and dictatorships and combinations thereof—violate the rights and deny the dignity of the most marginalized people, especially those forced to live in cages. That’s why they starve themselves.
In the past year our coverage has included Tom Hayden on the California prison hunger strikers, Aura Bogado on the hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and Jason Leopold on Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still imprisoned at Guantánamo, who launched a hunger strike in February.