Will hunger strikes lead to changes in prison conditions?

Recent hunger strikes in several California prisons appear to be winding down, but more strikes loom if the conditions that inspired them continue to cause controversy and protest.

Hunger strikes broke out first at the maximum-security lockup in remote Pelican Bay on July 1. The strikes began within the Security Housing Unit (SHU),  a sort of prison within a prison, which houses violence- and escape-prone inmates. Between 50 to 100 inmates launched the strike, but it soon grew to at least 676 prisoners, many in Pelican Bay’s general population, refusing meals. At least 17 inmates were moved from Pelican Bay to Corcoran, to treat symptoms of early starvation.

Solidarity strikes occurred in numerous other prisons, with some accounts pointing to a total of 6,000 prisoners across 13 state prisons joining the hunger strike.

Officials for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that the Pelican Bay hunger strike had ended on July 21, but additional hunger strikes then occurred at the California State Prison in Corcoran, the California Correctional Institute at Tehachapi, and the Calipatria State Prison.

About 110 Pelican Bay inmates participated in the hunger strike, followed by 400 participants in Corcoran, 100 at Tehachapi and 29 at Calipatria.  The CDCR released a statement saying that each of 49 inmates in the various prisons had lost at least 10 pounds and that they were being monitored closely.  Doctors announced that they were not force-feeding prisoners, but were using intravenous drips to supply needed nutrients. The CDCR stated that organized criminal groups within the prisons were directing the strikes.

After four weeks, the Pelican Bay hunger strike temporarily ended after prison authorities promised cold-weather caps, wall calendars and more educational opportunities for prisoners, as a good will gesture from the CDCR. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the CDCR explained that other changes will soon occur. “We’re already undertaking a comprehensive, thorough review of all policies and procedures related to gang management, housing in the Security Housing Units, and conditions of confinement.”

But on Aug. 3, strikers at Pelican Bay released a statement saying that they were giving the CDCR time to listen to their greater demands, but were still willing to continue the strike.
Thornton did mention that there was a possibility that the strikes could resume. “We’re hearing rumblings that they could resume. It’s hard to say whether they will or not at this point in time.”

A previous hunger strike occurred in Pelican Bay in 2002, with similar demands.

An informational public hearing chaired by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and the Public Safety Committee on Aug. 23 included protestors from inmates’ family members and prisoner-rights groups, who sought attention for problems within Pelican Bay and other state prisons. Speakers included Delores Canales, the mother of one of the hunger strikers. “When they called off the strikes, it’s with the idea that we (family members and prisoner right advocates) are gonna carry this on, that we’re gonna keep coming before CDCR, until there are changes within the system,” Canales explained. “It’s already documented that long-term solitary confinement does cause psychological trauma and it is a form of torture. It’s deemed that Pelican Bay and SHUs are not being used for the worst of the worst, that they (the CDCR) have taken that to a whole new level, to use it for their own convenience. We are here with numerous family members, to be their voice.”

One of the protestors was Sophia Garcia. Her brother is in the Corcoran SHU and lost fifteen pounds in the hunger strike. “He isn’t even sure of the results,” she explained. Another protestor named Christina, with a father in the Pelican Bay SHU, agreed with Garcia when asked if the strikes could resume, “if no action is taken.”   

The overall cause of the hunger strikes was anger at the conditions of the Security Housing Units, which are used to house potential gang members. Inmates at all the prisons demand an end to the program that requires them to ‘debrief’ or inform on gang members in order to be released from SHUs.

At Pelican Bay, inmates had a list of five core demands, including ending group punishment, abolish debriefing policies, comply with the findings of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse Prisons to stop long-term solitary confinement, provide adequate and nutritious food and to expand education and recreation programs for prisoners in SHUs.

Some 1,100 inmates in Pelican Bay are kept in SHUs, colloquially known as ‘the Hole.’ They are kept in the same 6-foot by 8-foot cell for 22-and-half hours a day, with a single one-hour break outside. Prisoners are placed in SHUs for suspected gang association, rather than committing an actual crime, a practice that has drawn criticism as almost every inmate has some connection to a prison gang.

“There are men in there, thousands of men, that have no history of disciplinary documentation against them. They are there (in the SHUs) with confidential informant statements against them,” Canales explained. Garcia echoed these sentiments. “The way they (the SHU prisoners) are validated as members of the Mexican Mafia (a powerful prison gang) is BS.” While they are in the SHU, inmates are unable to get time off for good behavior, which could lower their overall sentence. There are also mentions of an unwritten rule that SHU inmates can’t obtain parole. One way to obtain release from the SHUs is to avoid gang involvement for a total of six years. The other is to debrief, which leaves the inmate to put their lives at risk as a ‘rat’ and necessitates Protective Custody. Federal Judge Thelton E. Henderson in the 1993 Madrid V. Gomez case declared that conditions in California’s SHUs were problematic and needed reform.

Another speaker at the protest, Dorsey Nunn, the executive director of legal services for Prisoners with Children and a member of All of Us Or None, discussed the conditions of the SHU. “The question that brings me here today is ‘how worse do you have to be to merit torture in a California state prison?’ Torture in Pelican Bay is no different than it is in Guantanamo Bay. Torture may not be one day in the Hole, or two days or three – but how do we explain multiple years, decades and in some cases four decades in the Hole?” Canales added that “It’s deemed that Pelican Bay and SHUs are not being used for the worst of the worst, that they’ve taken that to a whole new level, to use it for their own convenience.”

An estimated 5 percent of California inmates are kept in solitary confinement and 69 percent of prison suicides occurred in units where prisoners suffered isolation.

The SHU program was created in response to growing gang power in California prisons, including incidents where gangs were able to call in hits while they were imprisoned.

Thornton was clear about the necessity of the SHU program. “We need to separate them (members of prison gangs) from general population inmates. There’s evidence that this works. We need to protect the safety of the public, the staff and the other inmates. We need to run the prisons safely and securely.” She explained that “the SHU is one of the strategies used to disrupt communications between gang leadership and other inmates who are involved in prison gangs, other people on the streets who are involved in gang and organized criminal activities, and to remove the influence of gang leadership on other inmates in other prisons. Thornton explained that the CDCR is co
mmitted to ending the power of prison gangs. “The gangs do not run these prisons. Our staff runs them.”

Additionally, Thornton mentioned that the CDCR has worked with courts to ensure that the SHUs are constitutional. “The courts have asked for changes and the department has made those changes, but they have upheld a lot of the conditions of confinement and the need for SHUs. Our policies as they are now, have been tested through the fires of litigation. We are very confident that they are sound, constitutional, correctional policies.”  

Nunn stated that protestors are looking at a different definition of torture. “We didn’t say ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ – we say torture. We’re defining it as that to make a statement about what they’re doing to individuals in Pelican Bay going against the international standards of what torture is. Some of us know that they’re being tortured based on international standards. The courts may not look at it, but we know that their rights are being violated in Pelican Bay.”

The hunger strikes follow a May Supreme Court decision where the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that California had to reduce its prison population by 30,000 inmates. The Supreme Court stated that the overcrowded prisons produced ‘needless suffering and death.’ California has a prison population of 145,000 in 33 prisons.

Thornton stated that there already were major plans to change CDCR policies, including those related to the SHUs. “The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is going to be changing significantly over the next couple of years. Our major priority is to reduce overcrowding in compliance with the Supreme Court’s population reduction order,” she explained. “That implementation begins October 1st. We have benchmarks to meet in terms of population reduction. There’s going to be staff reductions. There are several priorities this department has moving forward. One of those priorities is to review all of our policies and procedures related to housing in the Security Housing Units, conditions of confinement, and gang management strategies. We’re undertaking that already.”

The plans for these changes were in place before the hunger strikes began, Thornton said. “These priorities were listed on our website back in January. This was something already intended to do.” Thornton explained that the Supreme Court’s order to reduce population will also help deal with SHU policies. “I heard our undersecretary say that reducing overcrowding and grappling with that issue will afford us more options in the long run in looking at inmates who need to be housed in the SHU. This is just a really good time to be looking at this particular aspect of CDCR operations.”

Corrections officials criticized the hunger strike as being directed by the gangs themselves, with reluctant inmates being coerced into participating against their wills. “Organized criminal groups started the hunger strikes as a means to call attention to the conditions of their confinement,” Thornton explained. It is estimated that there are 900 criminal groups operating inside California prisons, and gang conflicts account for 75 percent of prison violence.

Pelican Bay has been the scene of several controversies since its founding in 1989, including a case where mentally ill prisoner Vaughn Dortch was injured after being forced into a bath of scalding water by prison guards in 1992.

Sophia Garcia and Christina, as well as the other prisoners believe that the CDCR will heed their demands. “They might not want to, but if we keep pushing for it, they will.”

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: