California’s Prison Hunger Strike is Back On

After refusing meals for nearly a month last summer, inmates say their demands still haven't been met.

By Julianne Hing Sep 27, 2011

Prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit who led a monthlong hunger strike in July say prison officials have not made good on promises to meet their original demands, and that they have no other choice but to go back on strike.

Prisoners in Pelican Bay, which is in the northwestern most part of the state, are being joined by around 100 prisoners in Calipatria State Prison, located in the southeastern side of California, in their hunger strike this time, say members of the coalition Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity. This summer, more than 6,000 California prison inmates eventually joined the hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners in Pelican Bay’s solitary confinement unit SHU to protest inhumane prison policies, including a policy that allowed nearly half of Pelican Bay’s 1,111 prisoners to be held in solitary confinement for more than ten years. According to the California Department of Corrections, 78 prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for more than 20 years.

"Inmates have felt that the California Department of Corrections is not negotiating in good faith," said Isaac Ontiveros, a member of Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity. "The negotiations that led to the suspension of the strike in July were because prisoners felt like, ‘OK, there’s been a semblance of good faith negotiation.’"

Ontiveros said in the interim, prison inmates reported that not only had those negotiations gone nowhere, but prison guards had also begun intimidating and retaliating against those who had organized or participated in the hunger strike this summer. Prisoners have been being issued "115’s," a kind of writeup in the California prison system that is reserved for violent infractions like stabbings committed in prison, Ontiveros said, for as little as talking in the prison library or not walking fast enough for guards. Being issued a 115 can result in more prison time, or a transfer to the SHU.

Treatment and conditions have deteriorated since the hunger strike this summer, Ontiveros said. Inmates report that at Pelican Bay and Corcoran State Prison, guards have started flipping cells, that is, going into inmates’ cells on the pretense of looking for evidence, and turning people’s cells upside down in the meantime.

"What other avenues do prisoners have?" asked Laura Magnani, a representative of the American Friends Service Committee who’s on the prisoners’ mediation team. "As with the first hunger strike, the demands of the strikers are reasonable and long overdue."

Prisoners refused their meals for nearly a month this summer to demand an end to these very abusive practices. Among prisoners’ five main demands is a call to end group punishment and administrative abuse. Prisoners also called on the CDCR to abolish a policy which forces inmates to "debrief" prison officials about their fellow inmates’ potential status as gang members in exchange for better food or release from the SHU. Prisoners also demand an end to the practice of denying prisoners’ adequate food as punishment.

Pelican Bay’s SHU is a high-security complex where inmates are kept in windowless cells and get just one hour of access a day to outdoor air. Inmates and their supporters argue that the prison’s corrections policies violate inmates’ basic rights.

"The CDCR’s gang validation process is a sham. They are using supposed gang membership as an excuse to torture people," said Dolores Canales, the mother of one of the hunger strikers in a press statement. "Holding people in tiny cells for years on end without any real possibility to get out, without natural sunlight or human contact is a clear violation of human rights."

"You do not give up your human rights as a prisoner, everything from the UN on down to the local level confirms this," said Ontiveros.