United States: Hunger strikers fight on in face of force-feeding threat

August 22, 2013

“We of course recognise that this is it — make or break time for us to make the long overdue change occur now and are thus in it for the long haul,” said Todd Ashker, a representative of hunger strikers in the Californian prison system, who has been on hunger strike for 44 days.

“The sacrifice is minor compared to what we've endured for 30 years.”

Hundreds of prisoners in seven Californian prisons are on hunger strike over the use of long-term solitary confinement and other abuses. The prisoners have raised five basic demands relating to conditions for those in solitary confinement in secure housing units (SHU).

As the hunger strike enters its eighth week, California prison officials have got approval from a federal judge to force feed prisoners. Prison policy is to let prisoners starve to death if they have signed a “do not resuscitate” request.

The judge’s ruling will allow a process called “re-feeding”, which could include forcing feeding tubes through prisoners' noses.

California prison authorities told the judge that the hunger strike was “orchestrated” by gangs who have intimidated men into going on hunger strike and signing “do not resuscitate” requests.

Claude Marks of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition said: “This order violates all international laws and standards and gives the medical director of each prison authority to violate human rights laws instead of reasonably negotiating with prisoners. This approach, much like Guantanamo, sets the US apart from all related international human rights standards.”

Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights who is representing 10 prisoners suing for an end prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, said: “Force-feeding violates international law to the extent that it involves somebody who doesn't give their consent.”

Meanwhile, an appeal has been made to Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, to intervene in the dispute. President of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Peter Schey, has written to Mendez to ask him to visit prisoners in solitary confinement and prison authorities at Pelican Bay State Prison.

In his appeal, Schey points out that this is a critical time as the physical and mental health of hunger strikers is deteriorating rapidly.

He describes the brutal conditions facing the men who, “continue to be locked in small concrete cells on average 23 hours a day, have no telephone privileges, very restricted family visits, no contact visits, unhealthy and inadequate food, no access to a fair process to assess the reasons for being placed in isolated segregation, inadequate mental health and medical services, sleep deprivation, and numerous other dehumanising conditions”.

Since the hunger strike began, prison authorities have retaliated against hunger strikers by removing many from SHUs to Administrative Segregation. where isolation-sensory deprivation is even more pronounced. Hunger strikers have been put into unfinished cells where freezing cold air comes out of the vents, there are no fire sprinklers and no power or cable hook ups for personal appliances.

The hunger strike is at a critical stage. Twenty-five men have been transferred to Sacramento Medical Centre at New Folsom Prison, where they continue their hunger strike.

California prison authorities and medical staff have tried to dictate what kind of hunger strike the prisoners were on by denying them access to fruit or vegetable juices, vitamin and electrolyte supplements after the men declared that they were on a no solid food/no dairy product hunger strike.

Lawyers for the hunger strikers have successfully intervened to force prison authorities to issue hunger strikers vitamins and low sodium low calorie Gatorade until their bodies can tolerate higher sugar content juices.

The prison authorities are collaborating with the FBI to break the hunger strike, which is a major embarrassment for the prison authorities and Californian Governor Jerry Brown.

Arturo Castellanos, who is one of the four principal volunteer representatives at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) in the SHUs, reported that the California prison authorities and the FBI are, “now playing the old propaganda agenda by conspiring together to destroy our outside support by now personally attacking the 20 named volunteer prisoner representatives from the PBSP SHU Short Corridor”.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and FBI are putting out character assassination propaganda to the media about the prison reps in an effort to undermine support for the hunger strikers by distracting the public away from the real issues at stake. It is the same old tired tactics used by the state when it feels threatened by any movement of the dispossessed for justice and a better life.

In any struggle against injustice those in the front lines of the struggle need the support of ordinary people across the world.

Ashker wrote to me in a recent letter: “I want you to know that exposing our decades of soul destroying crushing torturous conditions to the world and having people of conscience responding with positive support means a lot and is partially responsible for our own strength in heart and spirit in our struggle for real positive reform.”

Ordinary people across the world can make a stand in support of the hunger strikers protest against solitary confinement and other tortuous conditions by doing several simple things.

You can find details at PrisonerHungerStrikeSolidarity.wordpress.com to write to the prisoners on hunger strike, as well as a Department of Correction’s “public hotline number” to voice your concerns and support of the hunger strikers.

You can also sign the petition calling for Governor Jerry Brown to enter negotiations with the hunger strikers.

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