Inmates are housed in three-tier bunks, in what was once a multi-purpose recreation room, at the Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
As the hunger strike against solitary confinement in California prisons enters a critical sixth week, Governor Jerry Brown is preparing to force-feed scores of inmates rather than meet any of their demands for improved conditions. Since the governor declared “the California prison crisis is over” last January, the crisis has only deepened, with the hunger strikers nearing the door of death.
There is no sign that governor will relent. He has ignored a proposal floated last week in the Los Angeles Times to begin meeting elementary demands, from one phone call a week, to better food, to family visits in exchange for the hunger strike ending. His advisers assure him with “100 percent” certainty that medical intervention will prevent any organ failure or death.
“He’s not the Jerry Brown I used to know,” says one leading judicial officer who watches the current drama closely.
So what options do the hunger strikers have now? With the governor taking a fundamentalist line, only a fast-track restoration of checks and balances by the courts and legislature, propelled by public questioning, might yield a breakthrough.
• The first track to a solution is the legal one. A federal judge upheld a class action suit by ten hunger strikers, most of them in solitary confinement for two decades, that they have been subject to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment and denial of a meaningful process to challenge their indefinite confinement. But Governor Brown has adopted a defiant stance towards court monitoring, and the case will not be resolved before it is too late for the fasting inmates.
• The second track is a possible emergency hearing by state legislators worried about a massive state prison system on which they spend billions but which is beyond their control. The hearing could give voice to the inmates demands, send a message to Brown, and draw the crisis into the light of public debate. It might convince the isolated inmates to live to fight in another forum. It would take an immediate signal from the legislature, which has yet to make a decision.
• The third track is the mobilization of public questioning and protest. While the public has no love for prison gangs, there is increased questioning of the costs of the governor’s continual quarrels with the courts. The fact that the conservative US Supreme Court has repeatedly found Brown guilty of cruel and unusual punishment sets many Californians to wondering. Voters already have rejected prison bonds and supported a softening of California’s three-strikes law.
In addition to the courts, Brown is under fire from the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, who condemned California on August 23 for its solitary confinement policies. Severe and prolonged solitary confinement “amounts to torture,” the Rapporteur noted. Mendez also criticized Brown for considering forced-feeding against the will of the hunger strikers.
That’s why the Brown administration has engineered a public relations drive against the hunger strike. Brown’s top prison official, Jeffrey Beard, takes the position that the strike is run by “terrorists” bent on controlling the statewide system and even the communities from which inmates come. Prison bureaucrats have erected a virtual iron curtain making it very difficult for mainstream reporters, civil liberties lawyers or prisoner families to gain access to information. At the moment, for example, they are dispersing dozens of strikers to unknown and segregated locations across the sprawling statewide system. Families have no idea where their sons are being held.