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Historic Hunger Strike in California Prisons Continues

• August 22, 2013 • 2:03 PM

Pelican Bay State Prison. (PHOTO: JELSON25/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

On Day 43, a judge approved a request to force-feed striking inmates.

Thursday marks the 46th day of a widespread hunger strike across California’s prison system. When the strike began on July 8, there were at least 30,000 inmates protesting what they saw as overly harsh group punishments, extended solitary confinement, and the lack of basic rights such as phone access, warm clothes, and educational programs. (The full text of their demands can be downloaded here.)

By early this week, the Associated Press reported that there were about 70 people who had not eaten since the start of the strike; prisoners’ rights advocates say the number is much higher.

A group of 120 medical professionals wrote an open letter last week to Governor Jerry Brown and Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR), expressing their concern for the striking prisoners’ health.

The letter includes quotes from the striking prisoners, who have described in letters to supporters outside how the CDCR is refusing non-water liquids and necessary medication to them while they are on strike. “In one case, a patient with heart failure has had his medications discontinued on the dubious assertion that he doesn’t need them because he’s on a hunger strike,” the letter reads.

Jeffrey Beard, for his part, recently wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Hunger Strike in California Prisons Is a Gang Power Play.” Beard argues that prisoners have been terrorized by violent gangs into participating; the gangs are trying to regain the power and influence that they had in the time before prison policy successfully limited gang participation and communication.

Two quotes from this Al Jazeera story succinctly summarize both sides of the standoff:

‘The department [CDCR] is very concerned about these inmates and their health and well-being,’ CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton told Al Jazeera. ‘There are numerous ways for inmates to have their concerns raised or addressed. This is not a productive way for them to do that,” Thornton said, referring to lawsuits and a complex web of state and federal oversight of prisons as alternatives.’ …

‘The hunger strike is the only tactic available to prisoners,’ Azadeh Zohrabi, a prisoner rights lawyer, said. ‘The 602 process [which gives a legal route for prisoners to bring grievances directly to the prison] is completely ineffective and Kafkaesque. The litigation will take years to bring results and CDCR keeps stalling. Even if we win the lawsuit, CDCR has shown that they don’t follow court orders – not even the [US] Supreme Court.’

On Monday, a federal judge signed an order allowing the prisons blanket authority to force-feed inmates if they saw a medical need. The hunger strikers had all signed do-not-resuscitate requests at the start of their protest, which would legally prohibit the prisons from feeding them against their will. This new order will now give prison doctors the right to force-feed them through the nose or put them on IV fluids without first obtaining court orders on an individual case basis.

The CDCR argues that some of the strikers may have signed the do-not-resuscitate forms against their will, for instance, if coerced by a prison gang to do so. From the AP:

Moreover, do-not-resuscitate directives would not be honored if the medical executive reasonably believes the inmate was coerced into signing the request or if an attorney representing the inmate revokes the request.

Do-not-resuscitate orders signed by a hunger striker at or near the beginning of the strike or during the hunger strike would automatically be deemed invalid.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the CDCR said that there was no imminent need for force-feeding at that time. “However, we do have inmates who have been on hunger strike for 44 days consecutively. So that could change rather quickly,” she told Reuters.

Claude Marks of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition condemned the judge for using supposed gang-coercion as a justification for order. “This order violates all international laws and standards and gives the medical director of each prison authority to violate human rights laws instead of reasonably negotiating with prisoners,” said Marks. “This approach, much like Guantanamo, sets the US apart from all related international human rights standards.”

The hunger strikers continue to send letters out with updates to their supporters and news organizations. The Guardian received several from the Pelican Bay State Prison, the organizational epicenter of the strike. One letter was from Todd Ashker:

Ashker, 50, a convicted killer with neo-Nazi tattoos, has obtained a paralegal degree and initiated multiple lawsuits, helping inmates win the right to order books and earn interest on jail savings accounts.

He said he had been denied human contact with loved ones during 27 years in solitary confinement. ‘Each minute has been torturous to my mind and body.’ He would be released into the general prison population only if he informed against others but he had no information, he said.

The Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition is now calling for the California Public Safety Committee to convene an emergency hearing to address the crisis at CDCR.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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