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.”
In addition, prisoners who are found to have food items in their cells must “start over” and miss nine consecutive meals before being counted as being on hunger strike. “The CDCR wants to portray the hunger strike as winding down. That 30,000 people participated the first day makes quite a statement, but nobody expected all 30,000 people to keep going for three weeks,” stated Ron Ahnen, a member of the mediation team of outside advocates that meet with CDCR officials about the hunger strikers’ demands. He points out that the CDCR’s emphasis on the numbers obscures their continued policy of keeping people in solitary confinement indefinitely.
On Tuesday, July 23, the mediation team met with officials from the CDCR and the medical receiver’s office. “The mediation team was assured that there were no instances they should worry about and that all hunger strikers were getting top care,” said Isaac Ontiveros, media spokesperson for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. “They withheld information about Sell’s death.”
Advocates only learned about Sell’s death after SHU prisoners at Corcoran told them. According to the prisoners around him, Sell’s repeated requests for medical attention were ignored. Hayhoe insisted that Sell, as a hunger striker, was receiving medical attention before his death but, because of the Health Information Protection Act, would not elaborate further.
Although the CDCR originally disputed claims that Sell had been on hunger strike, he was documented as being on hunger strike on July 11 after missing nine consecutive meals. He was taken off the hunger strike list on July 21, the day before his death. The coroner’s report rules Sell’s death a suicide from strangulation. The CDCR continues to insist that his death was unrelated to the hunger strike.
“I find that absurd,” Ahnen countered. “We know that Sell was in solitary confinement for at least five years, which can create a sense of despair. If you’ve been in solitary confinement for half a decade and you go on hunger strike thinking that you can help change things and nothing happens, then you ask for medical help and you don’t receive it, you feel even more despair. These conditions of despair have been created by the CDCR. If the demands of the prisoners had been negotiated before the hunger strike—and, remember, these demands were made public months ago—I firmly believe that Billy Sell would be here with us today.”
Hunger strikers have faced retaliation since week one. On July 11, Pelican Bay prison officials moved fourteen hunger strikers from the SHU to Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg). “Ad Seg is a punitive measure,” stated Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and attorney in a lawsuit challenging prolonged SHU placement. “They’re much more isolated. If a person has a medical condition and there’s an emergency, it would be harder to alert a guard in there.”
Family members of Corcoran prisoners were initially told that hunger strikers would be denied visits—this policy was changed after the mediation team complained to the CDCR—and according to mediation team member Ron Ahnen, for ten days, hunger strikers were denied showers, clean laundry and clean bedding. Again through the mediation team’s intervention, hunger strikers were eventually allowed to shower, although access to clean laundry remains in question.
One mediation team member, Marilyn McMahon, has been told that she is barred by the CDCR from communicating with both hunger strikers and prisoners across the state, pending investigation into allegations that one of her volunteers posed an unspecified "threat” to security. It’s not the first time McMahon has been banned. She and attorney Carol Strickman were barred from California prisons during the September 2011 hunger strike. Both were reinstated after the strike ended.
The hunger strike, and the underlying issue of indefinite solitary confinement, has been covered by independent and mainstream news outlets, including The New York Times and television news shows. Celebrities, including Bonnie Raitt, Gloria Steinem and Jay Leno, have also publicly condemned SHU policies. Ontiveros repeatedly emphasizes the importance of public attention. “The hunger strikers are very aware of the support from the outside and that’s very important.” Family members and advocates continue to raise awareness and publicly pressure California governor Jerry Brown and the CDCR to meet the strikers’ demands.
On Tuesday, July 30, family members and advocates rallied in Sacramento. They brought petitions supporting the hunger strikers’ demands with more than 70,000 signatures. Dolores Canales, mother of a hunger strike participant, personally delivered the signatures to the governor’s staff.
On July 31, supporters held solidarity rallies and fasts throughout California and across the country. Other solidarity protests and rallies, including one outside San Quentin Prison, have been scheduled for August.
“We—both the mediation team and the hunger strikers—don’t want to see anyone die or get seriously ill,” stated Ahnen. “The CDCR needs to change its policies. If they don’t, I won’t be surprised if we see more deaths.”