Inmate Health Dwindles as Prison Hunger Strike Enters Fourth Week

Some striking inmates have lost over 20 pounds, and the situation is fast becoming a matter of life or death.

By Jorge Rivas Jul 20, 2011

More than 400 inmates at four California prisons are entering their fourth week of a hunger strike to protest long stays in isolation cells that they contend are cruel and inhumane.

Prison officials told the LA Times they’re closely monitoring  49 inmates who have lost at least 10 pounds each, including seven at Pelican Bay, the maximum-security prison near the Oregon border where the hunger strike began July 1st.

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), a coalition based in the Bay Area made up of organizations supporting the inmates at Pelican Bay, reports more than 6,600 prisoners throughout the state of California are refusing food in solidarity.

PHSS also reports that dozens of striking prisoners have lost 20-25 pounds are being taken to prison infirmaries because of irregular heartbeats or fainting. 

An inmate at the state prison in Tehachapi in Central California has lost 29 pounds, a spokeswoman for the court-appointed receiver in charge of prison healthcare confirmed to the LA Times.

In an op-ed for the San Francisco Bayview newspaper, Dorsey Nunn, a mediator with strikers and the California Department of Corrections (CDC) reports the Pelican Bay prison hospital is filled with "prisoners who are being hydrated intravenously because some have started to refuse water." According to Nunn, many inmates are also having trouble keeping water down at this point. "It is truly a matter of luck and or untiring spirit that nobody has died so far," he added.

"What’s most troubling is that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not offered anything substantial in response to the prisoner’s demands, which include an end to long term solitary confinement," said Carol Strickman in a PHSS press release Monday.

"Some of these guys have been in the Security Housing Unit for 20 years or more and are suffering the severe affects of being locked in a 6 x 10 concrete cell for 23 ½ hours a day. What they are asking for are basic human rights," added Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity legal team.

The Pelican Bay prisoners’ demands are standard in "Supermax" prisons in other states, organizers say. The demands include:

  1. "End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse"  would end group punishment as a means to address an individual inmates rule violations.
  2. "Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria" The practice of "debriefing," or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Prisoners demand the end to debriefing because it puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as "snitches."
  3. "Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement" Prisoners demand a  more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities. This demand includes access to adequate natural sunlight and health care treatment.
  4. "Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food" Prisoners’ demands include the end to the practice of denying adequate food as a means of punishment, asking for wholesome nutritional meals
  5. "Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates" demands include a weekly phone call, permission to keep wall calendars and  craft items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.

Dunn, one of the mediators between the prisoners on hunger strike and the California Department of Corrections, (CDC) reports prison official have offered nothing. He says prisoners are sticking through with their demands because they don’t have much to to lose:

"They felt disrespected but are staying committed to this course of action until CDC stops the torture. Some of them have been in solitary lockup for multiple decades with no possibly of getting out of the hole. They would rather die or continue to be tortured before they’d surrender their soul."