This post was guest-written by Nation associate editor Liliana Segura.
Prisoners in California are taking part in an “indefinite” hunger strike that could prove fatal if something isn’t done soon. Many participants “are experiencing irregular heartbeats and palpitations, some are suffering from diagnosed cardiac arrhythmia,” according to the Bay Area group Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), which is in touch with the inmates’ lawyers and family.
The hunger strike was started two weeks ago by inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU) “in order to draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, twenty-five years of torture via [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation]'s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices,” according to their official statement, dated July 1, 2011. Prisoners in the SHU are confined in cement cells with metal doors for more than twenty-two hours a day, with no real access to natural light or human contact. Many spend years locked up in these conditions.
This fact—and the prisoners’ list of “demands”—should concern anyone who believes in basic human rights for prisoners. Aside from an end to indefinite solitary confinement, the list included such meager requests as “adequate food” and a call for staff to stop using “food as a tool to punish.” They want “meaningful access” to “adequate natural sunlight” and “quality health care and treatment.” They also ask for a “weekly phone call” and “one photo a year.”
As James Ridgeway and Jean Casella write today at Solitary Watch, these requests are largely “based on the recommendations of the bipartisan US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons, which in 2006 called for substantial reforms to the practice of solitary confinement. Segregation from the general prison population, the commission said, should be ‘a last resort,’ and even in segregation units, isolation should be mitigated and terms should be limited.” Yet “some of the prisoners have been in the SHU long enough to remember the hunger strike that took place exactly 10 years ago, when 600 Pelican Bay prisoners stopped eating for 10 days…. A decade later, inmates say, virtually nothing has changed.”
Thousands of California prisoners are reportedly striking in solidarity across the state. The CDCR has been stoic in its response, saying it will not negotiate. Meanwhile, the original hunger strikers’ health is deteriorating. “Clearly the prisoners are in dire need of adequate food and hydration,” reports PHSS. “The only way to prevent people from dying right now is for the CDCR to negotiate.” As one activist told the San Francisco Chronicle, the prisoners feel the CDCR “will not make any meaningful or long-term change until they start dying, and they’re willing to take it there.”
Tell the CDCR: enough is enough. Negotiate with these prisoners. And end the inhumane practice of indefinite solitary confinement.