California’s mass prison hunger strike ended on Day 60 after two state legislators issued statements of public support for reform of conditions that have had hundreds locked in solitary confinement for more than a decade.
Thursday, September 5, marked Day 60 of California’s mass prisoner hunger strike. It also marked the end of the strike.
The strike began on Monday, July 8, with 30,000 people across California’s prison system refusing meals. Some vowed to refuse food until their demands were met or their bodies gave out.
“Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met (despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable),” read a joint statement by Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, and Antonio Guillen, the four designated representatives of the hunger strikers.
As reported earlier in Truthout, hunger strikers issued five core demands:
- Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
- Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
- Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
- Provide adequate food;
- Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
In addition, prisoners in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) issued 40 additional demands, such as expunging all violations issued for participation in the 2011 hunger strikes and prohibiting retaliation for those participating in the upcoming (just ended) hunger strike.
In the SHU, people are locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Prison administrators place them in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term for being accused of gang membership. These accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence.
Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for more than a decade. Until recently, the only way to be released from the SHU was to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. SHU prisoners launched two hunger strikes in 2011. Earlier this year, they issued a call for a combined hunger strike and work stoppage to protest their continued indeterminate SHU placement and conditions.
SHU prisoners had vowed not to eat until their demands were met. Some even began making preparations for their bodies shutting down, including signing “Do Not Resuscitate” orders. Mutope DuGuma, who had participated in the 2011 strikes, began preparing to die. In one letter, he enclosed two photos of himself, the first he had been able to have taken since entering the SHU years earlier. “I sent those pictures so that you could personalize me if I died,” he wrote. Prior to the 2011 hunger strikes, SHU prisoners were not allowed to take photographs of themselves to send to loved ones.
Although he and several other hunger strikers were willing to die for their cause, the CDCR and the medical receiver’s office took steps to keep them alive. On Monday, August 19, the CDCR obtained a court order allowing them to disregard “do not resuscitate” orders and force-feed prisoners.
The CDCR press office told Truthout that, as of September 3, there were 128 people in three prisons on hunger strike. Forty had been on continuous hunger strike since July 8. The office confirmed that, as of September 5, no one was on hunger strike.
Two Weeks Earlier: Strikers Transferred to New Folsom Prison
On Friday, August 23, the CDCR moved at least 50 prisoners from Pelican Bay to various prisons across the state. DuGuma was one of those awakened at 4 AM and sent on an eight-hour bus ride to the New Folsom Prison just outside Sacramento. In a letter to SF Bayview, DuGuma recounted that no medical staff accompanied the two buses despite the fact that every passenger had been on hunger strike for 45 days. During the eight-hour trip, Lorenzo Benton’s blood sugar dropped and his vision became blurry. When fellow hunger strikers asked for water, the accompanying sergeant informed them that he had been instructed to give them nothing but Gatorade.
At New Folsom, DuGuma reported that prison officials denied the newcomers bed linens and continued to hold them in cold cells.”We also are receiving low-quality vitamins, down from the high-quality vitamins that the receivership ordered. The Gatorade is a better quality, but we are suffering because of what we are being denied, although the hunger strike alone should be enough suffering.”
CDCR Responds to Hunger Strikers Demands
On Monday, August 26, the CDCR released a statement responding to the hunger strikers’ five core demands and 40 supplemental demands. The CDCR pointed to its 2012 Stepdown program as having met all but one of the five core demands. According to the CDCR, the demand for adequate food has also been addressed: “SHU inmates eat the same food and receive the same portions as other inmates.” Of the 40 supplemental demands, CDCR stated that they have either already been addressed or are nonnegotiable.
Hunger strikers provided a rebuttal via the mediation team:”These issues have not been resolved! Contrary to CDCR’s self-serving claims, the STG pilot program does not meaningfully address these issues.” Their rebuttal countered each of the CDCR’s points and ended with an amendment to their 40th demand. The original demand that a member of their mediation/litigation team and the press be present during any hunger strike negotiation was amended to request that the CDCR meet with them and the outside mediation team to discuss their demands and unresolved issues.
Legislators Respond to the Hunger Strike
Although Governor Jerry Brown has yet to issue a public statement about the hunger strike, California State Senator Loni Hancock, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, have vowed to hold hearings in response to the hunger strike. On August 30, Day 54 of the strike, they issued a joint statement: “The issues raised by the hunger strike are real – concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons – are real and can no longer be ignored.”
“The Courts have made clear that the hunger strikers have legitimate issues of policy and practice that must be reviewed. The Legislature has a critical role in considering and acting on their concerns,” stated Ammiano. “We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the US Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement and that statistics show has failed to increase public safety.” The first hearing is expected to take place in October and will focus on the conditions in California’s maximum-security prisons and the effects of long-term solitary confinement as a prison management strategy and a human rights issue.
An Unprecedented Meeting
The legislators’ statement and upcoming hearings seemed to push both CDCR and the hunger strikers toward a resolution.
On Tuesday, September 3, Michael Stainer, deputy director of the Division of Adult Institutions, and another CDCR official had a conference call with mediation team members Dolores Canales, whose son Johnny had participated in the hunger strike for 18 days, and Barbara Becnel. During the call, Stainer agreed to meet with hunger strike representatives on September 23 to discuss their demands and unresolved issues.
In addition, CDCR officials agreed to allow the 14 hunger strike representatives at Pelican Bay to hold a meeting in the law library without guards or staff present. “They talked and voted to end the hunger strike,” Weills stated. The men were then allowed to have a direct call with the representatives who had been transferred to New Folsom two weeks earlier. All agreed to end the strike.
Weills credited the legislators’ public support as being the impetus. “Now the men felt that someone had their back. That statement was a tipping point.”
Canales agrees, pointing out that Ammiano and Hancock referred to the 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons as well as a report by UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez condemning solitary confinement as torture. “They realized that people are listening,” she added.
So What Now?
Weills visited Pelican Bay the day before they called off the strike. “The reps were articulate and intelligent although one had lost 40 pounds and another lost 50 pounds,” she reported. Of the men transferred to New Folsom, she said that, as of Wednesday, September 4, the majority were being re-fed intravenously, with only five refusing.
“We are very proud of our family members and loved ones,” Canales stated. She also acknowledged that the end of the hunger strike is not an end to their efforts. “We [family members] are ready to continue and remain in the forefront of the fight to end long-term solitary confinement.”
In the shorter term, Isaac Ontiveros, a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, noted that, although the hunger strike is over, fear of reprisals remain. The hunger strikers’ supplemental demands included the demand that no hunger strike participant be issued a Rules Violation Report (RVR). The CDCR has stated that it will allow RVRs to be written for hunger strike participants.
Ontiveros and mediation team members are also concerned about medical care. “We’ve heard horror stories about medical treatment,” Ontiveros stated. “We need to advocate for them to get the care they deserve as they come off hunger strike.”
“Fifty-eight days without protein or solid foods have caused lasting damage in some of the men,” Becnel added. Both she and Canales question how the CDCR and the medical receiver’s office will address the long-term health damage of being on prolonged hunger strike.
For now, however, the CDCR, advocates and family members are all on the same page – they are glad that the strike is over. “We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill,” CDCR Jeffrey Beard stated.
While advocates and family members are also relieved, they see the day as a victory for different reasons: “It opened up the possibility of momentous changes to CDCR’s practice of solitary confinement,” stated Ontiveros. “They were able to remain united and work together. They outlasted the CDCR’s attacks and reprisals.”
Those who spent nearly 60 days without food feel the same. “From our perspective, we’ve gained a lot of positive ground towards achieving our goals,” the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay stated. “However, there’s still much to be done. Our resistance will continue to build and grow until we have won our human rights.”