Prisoner Health Deteriorates as California Clamps Down on Strike

One participating striker at Pelican Bay reportedly had to be taken to an Oregon hospital after suffering a heart attack

By Julianne Hing Oct 13, 2011

Inmate health is deteriorating as prison officials clamp down on a hunger strike throughout California state prisons that’s entering its third week.

Inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison have been calling on prison officials to improve prison conditions and reform discipline policies that they say lead to the unfair and indefinite isolation of inmates into the notorious supermaximum security wing of the Security Housing Unit. 

After staging what they thought was a successful hunger strike over the summer, inmates restarted their strike on September 26 out of frustration with the slow pace of talks between inmates, their advocates and prison officials. This time around though, prison officials have clamped down on the strikers, classifying the strike as a disturbance and removing visitor privileges for those who are participating. Inmate advocates say that prison officials have used new tactics, like blasting the air condition on in the middle of the night for prisoners, to retaliate against them.

"They remove their property, and they’ve taken absolutely everything away from them, and even the ones that just went on the hunger strike just a week have been told they’re not going to get their property back until the whole thing is over," said Dolores Canales, whose son John has been in the SHU for ten years.

"They’ve been punished and the [California Department of Corrections] is treating this like a disturbance as if there were a work strike, but it’s a peaceful protest."

Prison officials confirmed that those who’ve been identified as organizers of the hunger strike have been moved to the so-called Ad-Seg unit, but say that their tough response to hunger strikers is motivated by concern for the safety of other inmates. Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that prison officials were taken aback by the second hunger strike.

"We’re frankly a bit puzzled as to why they started this action," Thornton said. "After the first one, we fixed our inconsistencies. Everything we said we were going to do that we could do, we did, and everything we said we could look at we did."

One of inmates’ top demands has been that the CDCR do away with a policy that allowed prisoners to confidentially label other prisoners as gang members in exchange for removal from the SHU. The policy, inmates said, gave prisoners the wrong motivation to unfairly and often inaccurately inform prison officials. The prison is evaluating this policy, Thornton said, and it’s currently going through an internal review with a wardens’ advisory group that should come up with a draft by next month.

Thornton said that unlike the first hunger strike, prison officials were given no notice that there would be a round two this fall. "This time around we are taking a different approach because we have done everything we said we were going to do," Thornton said. "Engaging in this kind of disruptive activity is a violation of state law now."

"If this wasn’t a crisis before, it’s been exacerbated by the health conditions of inmates and now you have the CDCR not responding positively to mediation and to the demands of prisoners," said Isaac Ontiveros, an organizer of the Prisoner Hunger Strike network, a coalition of inmate advocate groups.

Ontiveros said that this time around, legal advocates for inmates had been locked out and that there had been no conversation between inmate advocates and prison officials. Thornton confirmed that there was no dialogue happening.

At its height, the hunger strike was said to be up to include 12,000 inmates, according to prisoner advocates’ estimates. But both sides say prison officials’ security measures against inmates have pushed some participating inmates to relent. "It’s been an attempt to freeze them out, as it were," Ontiveros said. For some it appears to be working. As of Wednesday, 497 inmates in four prisons were participating in the hunger strike, including 68 in Pelican Bay, Thornton said.

For Ontiveros and Canales, their concern is the deteriorating health of inmates. According to Ontiveros, one participating striker at Pelican Bay had to be taken to an Oregon hospital after suffering a heart attack. Thornton, who would not comment on inmate health care, said the CDCR will continue to treat the hunger strike as a disturbance.

"They’ve endured this already for so many years," Canales said. "We’ve heard from some prisoners throughout the state who have said they are going to go all the way and going to hold out to the end until change comes."