For more than a month, more than 400 prisoners in seven Californian prisons have refused to eat in protest at the use of long-term solitary confinement and other abuses.
This is the longest hunger strike in California’s history and is provoking a predictably savage response from prison authorities. Prisoners are being denied medical attention, those accused of being representatives of the strikers are put in administrative segregation to further isolate them and many are being denied their mail.
The tragic death of hunger striker Billy Sell, who had been asking for medical care for several days before his death, reveals the cruel and inhumane nature of the prison authorities who appear indifferent to the fate of those in their charge.
The prisoners have five demands relating to conditions for those in solitary confinement in the secure housing units (SHU): end group punishment for individual offenses; end the practice of punishments for perceived gang membership; comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; provide adequate and nutritious food; and provide and expand constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU-status inmates.
On August 5, seven solidarity protesters locked themselves to the main entrance of the state building in downtown Oakland for several hours.
“Solitary confinement is widely and internationally recognized as torture,” protesters said. “The hunger strikers and their family members are making a powerful and inspiring stand for dignity in the face of this inhumane treatment.
“We stand with them. Governor Brown and the CDCR, negotiate immediately to meet their five demands.”
Thousands of prisoners have been kept in solitary confinement with no hope of being released into the gen, which are less than eight square metres. These have doors made of heavy gauge perforated metal that significantly blocks light, vision and fresh air.
They are confined for 22-and-a-half hours a day with no work or meaningful rehabilitation programs or group activities of any kind. In Pelican Bay State Prison, where the hunger strike began, prisoners are allowed to exercise alone for one-and-a-half hours in a bare concrete yard. They are allowed no physical contact with visitors.
Once in solitary confinement, prisoners are left to their own devices with no concern for their physical and mental wellbeing.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez has said that solitary confinement longer than 14 days should be avoided as it can cause serious psychological damage to prisoners.
He recommended that countries should avoid the use of solitary confinement. California, however, holds more than 3000 prisoners in solitary.