A petition protesting against indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons sits in the State Capitol in Sacramento, California July 30, 2013. (Reuters/Max Whittaker)
On July 22, 32-year-old Billy “Guero” Sell was found dead in his cell at Corcoran State Prison, in California, the first apparent casualty of a widespread hunger strike organized by state prisoners. Sell’s fellow prisoners reported to outside advocates that he had been asking for medical attention since July 15 or 16. He died four days later.
Officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) originally disputed Sell’s involvement in the hunger strike, investigating his death as an apparent suicide. Corcoran staff found Sell unresponsive in his cell during their half-hour welfare checks of SHU prisoners. Sell was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The strike was in its third week when Sell was found. It began on July 8, when more than 30,000 prisoners throughout California refused meals and more than 2,300 refused to attend work or educational programs. The combined strike and work stoppage spread across a full two-thirds of California’s state prisons.
The strike was first called by prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison, which has achieved some notoriety for its Security Housing Unit (SHU), otherwise known as solitary confinement. Over 1,100 prisoners are in the SHU, where they spend at least 22 hours locked in their cells each day. Prisoners are placed there either for a fixed term—for violating a prison rule—or for an indeterminate term for being accused of gang membership. Such accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence, which means that prisoners can be harshly punished on the most dubious grounds. Hundreds at have been confined within the SHU for more than a decade. Until recently, virtually the only way to be released from the SHU was to “debrief,” or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. This is the third mass hunger strike demanding changes to SHU conditions since 2011.
Strikers have issued five core demands:
• Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations.
• Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
• Comply with the 2006 recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
• Provide adequate food.
• Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
The CDCR has reported a dramatic decrease in the number of hunger strikers since the protest began, from 12,421 participants on Thursday, July 11, to 561 participants on Monday, July 29. The CDCR does not recognize a prisoner as being on hunger strike until they have missed nine consecutive meals.
Prison advocates charge that the CDCR is undercounting participants. For example, prisoners who drink liquids other than water, such as Kool-Aid, have been told they are no longer be considered on a hunger strike. According to Joyce Hayhoe of California Correctional Health Care Services, “Inmates are provided with the opportunity to take foods off their trays at each meal. According to CDCR policy and protocol, if they take liquids off their tray, they are no longer considered on hunger strike.”