California prisoner advocate groups have raised alarm about a string of suicides in California state prisons committed by inmates who participated in hunger strikes this year to demand an end to inhumane conditions.
In recent months Alex Machado and Johnny Owens Vick, who were both housed in Pelican Bay’s notorious solitary confinement Security Housing Unit, and Hozel Alanzo Blanchard, who was incarcerated at Calipatria State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit, all committed suicide. Prisoner advocates say all three participated in a statewide hunger strike this summer to protest, among other things, prison discipline policies intended to identify prison gang members which punish innocent, unaffiliated inmates with decades of confinement to segregated units.
"It is a testament to the dire conditions under which prisoners live in solitary confinement that three people would commit suicide in the last month," Laura Magnani, the regional director of the American Friends Service Committee said in a statement. "It also points to the severe toll that the hunger strike has taken on these men, despite some apparent victories."
Details about inmates’ deaths are hard to come by, and what little is known is in dispute because prison officials refuse to be forthcoming about the circumstances of the suicides, prisoner advocates say.
"As far as we understand, these three people were involved in the hunger strike, and as far as we understand, these three people are dead now," said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesperson for the Prison Solidarity Hunger Strike Coalition, a network of organizations that advocates for prisoners’ rights.
"The how and the why is a hard thing to say more about, and it’s become more and more devastating when there is such a lack of clear information from the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation]."
The fight for basic updates and information from the California Department of Corrections is nothing new for prisoner advocates and their loved ones. During the latest round of prisoner hunger strikes, prison officials disciplined those who participated in the strike by limiting inmates’ access to family members and advocates. Even in the wake of a series of suicides, distraught family members are being given very little information about what exactly happened with their loved ones.
Family members were informed of their loved ones’ deaths via automated recordings left on their voicemails, Ontiveros said, and those who have tried to reach out to the CDCR for more information have been rebuffed.
The CDCR did not respond to repeated requests for comment, though their spokesperson Terry Thornton disputed the prisoner advocates’ story in an interview with SF Weekly. According to Thornton none of the three inmates participated in the hunger strikes, and one of the three men died before the second round of the hunger strike began in September.
"It is troubling that this group, which professes to care about inmates, would fabricate information, label it ‘news,’ and discredit the men and women who work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation," Thornton told the SF Weekly. "Their claim that CDCR is withholding information is outlandish and irresponsible."
Last Thursday, however, the CDCR boldly announced a fourth suicide. Brandon Wilson, sentenced to death for brutally stabbing a child in 1999, hanged himself in his San Quentin State Prison cell last Thursday.