California’s prison hunger strike is now in its second month with several prisoner strikers hospitalized and one dead. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to assert that the strike is led by prison gang leaders. Hunger strikers vow to strike until their demands are met. A recent court order places them at risk of being force-fed.
On July 8, 2013, more than 30,000 people incarcerated throughout California refused meals, and more than 2,300 people refused to attend work or educational programs. The strike encompassed people in two-thirds of California’s state prisons and four out-of-state private prisons contracted by California.
This is the third mass prison hunger strike to rock California in two years. In 2011, prisoners staged two hunger strikes protesting their indefinite placement within security housing units (SHUs). Thousands are housed in SHUs, where they are locked in their cells for at least 22 hours each day. Prison administrators place prisoners in the SHU for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term for being accused of gang membership or association. 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.
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 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
Provide adequate food.
Provide and expand constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
On July 22, 2013, 15 days into the strike, 32-year-old Billy “Guero” Sell was found dead in his SHU cell at Corcoran State Prison. The CDCR documented Sell as being on hunger strike after missing nine consecutive meals from July 11 until July 21. The coroner’s office ruled his death a suicide, and the CDCR has stated that his death was unrelated to the strike. Advocates, however, disagree. “We think his death could have been avoided if CDCR had negotiated either before or during the hunger strike,” stated Isaac Ontiveros, media spokesperson for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.
As of Monday, August 19, CDCR deputy press secretary Terry Thornton told Truthout that 136 people were on hunger strike, 69 of whom have been on continuous strike since July 8. The CDCR does not count people as being on hunger strike until they have missed nine consecutive meals. At the strike’s start, prisoners were not considered on hunger strike if they drank liquids other than water. However, Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a member of the outside mediation team, told Truthout, “After pressure from inside and out, the medical receiver/CDCR changed its position. Now, hunger striking prisoners are allowed Gatorade powder and vitamins daily without being considered off the hunger strike.” Hunger strikers Lorenzo Benton, Todd Ashker and Mutope DuGuma confirmed this in separate letters to Truthout. However, prisoners who drink juice, coffee or tea are no longer considered on hunger strike.
Solitary Watch noted that the numbers provided by the CDCR show fluctuations in the number of hunger strikers, noting that on Day 35, 270 people in six prisons were on hunger strike. Two days later, the number rose to 284 people in eight prisons. Thornton acknowledged that the numbers fluctuate as prisoners go on and off the strike. On Saturday, August 17, 131 people were recorded on strike. The number dropped to 129 on Sunday and rose again to 136 on Monday.
In addition, advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners has confirmed that, although it has not heard reports of long-term hunger striking, women at the Central California Women’s Facility have been participating in weekly solidarity fasts. The group has received several solidarity statements from women at CCWF, including one stating, “We at CCWF got together and put out flyers for all the people here to stand up and join the people in the SHU and help reach their demands. This issue affects all of us.”
Hunger strikers suffered a serious legal setback on Monday, August 19. In response to a joint request filed by the CDCR, the medical receiver and Prison Law Office, a Berkeley-based organization that represents inmates’ welfare in ongoing lawsuits, a federal judge issued a court order authorizing force-feeding hunger strikers. Under existing prison policy, hunger strikers cannot be force-fed unless they “refuse to clearly and consistently indicate their wishes regarding medical management of their hunger strike” or are deemed unable to give informed consent. The order overrules this, allowing each prison’s chief medical executive to disregard a “do not resuscitate” order if he or she “determines that it was the result of coercion or otherwise not the product of the hunger strikers’ free will when executed.” The order also states that “in view of the risk that inmates may be or have been coerced into participating in the hunger strike,” a do not resuscitate order that was signed at or near the beginning or during the hunger strike will not be deemed valid.
Reports of mistreatment
Even before the court order, hunger strikers reported mistreatment by prison staff. As reported earlier, 14 hunger strike representatives were moved from the SHU to administrative segregation four days into the strike. Others, including DuGuma, were transferred. “They told me if I didn’t eat, I am going to (administrative segregation),” he told Truthout. “They tried to rough up my celly Sitawa while escorting [him] to the conference-call with our reps. He’s fragile from the hunger strike, and the guard tried to rough-house him by pushing and snatching on him very hard. He rejected this outright, stopped the escort and demanded to see a sergeant.” Strickman also stated that her office has received numerous reports of guards handcuffing prisoners too tightly and shoving them. “They’re basically provoking them to react so that it’ll be assault on an officer.”
Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead attorney on the class action suit Ashker v. Brown, said that staff members refuse to allow prisoners to buy juice from the canteen and have confiscated all coffee and tea. “Danny Troxell [a plaintiff in Ashker], in protest that guards confiscated his coffee and tea, is now refusing all liquids,” Lobel stated during an August 19 press conference.
Ann Weills, co-counsel on Ashker, noted that prisoners are now brought to legal visits in leg irons. Prior to the strike, she stated, prisoners were not placed in leg irons for legal visits.
Those who resume eating still face retaliation. The wife of Alfred Sandoval told Truthout that, after being on hunger strike for 20 days, Sandoval’s chronic Crohn’s disease has become acute Crohn’s disease. He resumed eating, but remains in administrative segregation and frequently is not given his medical diet. “He lost 46 pounds,” she said after returning from a visit. “When they give him his food tray, they’ll leave out things he can eat and just give him what he can’t (such as dairy). He’s usually a big guy. When I saw him today, he looked so small. It’s like he was shrunk.”
Even prisoners not participating in the strike have experienced abuse. DuGuma stated that staff members attacked two older African-American prisoners, noting, “But they have nothing to do with the hunger strike, so we don’t know why they’re harassing them.” Todd Ashker and Alfred Sandoval’s wife have told Truthout about prison staff pepper-spraying a 70-year-old African-American prisoner when he objected to the confiscation of his canteen food items. The man had not been involved in the hunger strike.
CDCR points to gangs; hunger strikers refute the claim
The CDCR asserts that the strike is led by prison gang leaders. Days after meeting with the mediation team, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times calling the strike a “gang power play.” The following day, federal indictments labeled Arturo Castellanos, one of the four representatives for the Pelican Bay hunger strikers, as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal probe into drug trafficking by the Mexican Mafia and Florencia 13, a Los Angeles-based street gang of which Castellanos is allegedly leader.
DuGuma, who has remained on hunger strike and lost 55 pounds, refutes Beard’s assertion. “They try to call them gang leaders to try and devalue their courageous service. If they’re so bad, then why can’t they be brought before a judge for their crimes? Because they’re not. [These are] just hollow words. I say if you are going to say that I am influencing or encouraging someone to do something against their will, then prosecute me for it. Don’t put it on confidential information then tell me we got information on you and therefore we are going to put you in solitary confinement for the rest of your life.”
Dolores Canales, whose son is in the SHU on allegations of gang association, agrees. “Through the whole indictment, where they are naming Castellanos, it clearly states that he’s not indicted. Then why do they keep naming him? They want to draw attention away from the true goals of the hunger strike because it’s getting increased support. The CDCR pointing to gangs diverts from the five core demands and the reasonableness of these demands.” She connects the CDCR’s emphasis on gangs with Gov. Jerry Brown’s refusal to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling to reduce the prison population. “Gov. Brown continues to say, ‘We have to let out violent criminals to reduce the prison population.’ They use scare tactics to keep doing what they’ve always done.”
I was named in a 2006-7 federal indictment as an ‘un-indicted co-conspirator’ with my old childhood street gang, alleging, among other things, that I was running the gang from the highest security prison in California. I get no personal phone calls, and no contact visits. The visits I do get are all videotaped and audio recorded and all behind thick glass. All our mail is screened first by IGI (Institutional Gang Investigation Unit) before it’s even mailed out or delivered.
Castellanos stated that his mail restrictions were lifted May 23, 2013, after which “I began to receive letters from total strangers who claimed they were from my childhood area and they were clearly asking me for permission to conduct illegal activities. … I knew that all my mail was still heavily screened by IGI, so I know these letters were intentionally delivered to me in order to get me to respond to them. … I didn’t fall for it and that’s why IGI could not issue any Rule Violations Reports against me or again restrict my correspondence.”
Countering Beard’s assertion that he and other hunger strike representatives are gang leaders seeking to be released into general population, Castellanos stated, “What they stillfail to realize is that the only reason I joined this all-volunteermovement was to change things for all those youngsters still on thestreets right now who might end up in prisons.I know the CDCR is nevergoing to allow me out in General Prison Population. That’s a given. Ijoined to change the course the CDCR has been taking for the past twenty to thirty years, where there are now 33 prisons across California.”
Brown has not issued a statement about the hunger strike. “We aren’t aware that he plans to do so anytime soon,” one of his staffers told Truthout.
Call to end racial hostilities
Castellanos points to the 2012 Call to End Racial Hostilities, which he co-authored: “If we really want to bring about substantive meaningful changes to the CDCR system … now is the time for us to collectively seize the moment in time and put an end to more than twenty to thirty years of hostilities between our racial groups,” SHU prisoners announced in August 2012. “Beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups … in SHU, Ad Seg, General Population, and County Jails, will officially cease.”
Alfred Sandoval is another SHU prisoner who signed the document. “Before [the Call to End Racial Hostilities], you couldn’t talk to someone from another racial group,” his wife explained to Truthout. “IGI tries to create racial divides [among the prisoners] and extends that divide to the visiting room. You feel separate.” She reminded Truthout that California prisoners often are housed according to race. “Prison visiting is based on where you’re housed, and where you’re housed is based on race,” she observed. “Your first experience visiting the prison divides you by race. For family members, it’s empowering to know that we’re not alone out here anymore. It’s empowering to know that we’re united across racial and socio-economic lines. The prison may try to divide us by race, but we’re not going to let them divide us anymore.”
Dolores Canales agrees. Outside family members “have developed bonds in friendship and advocacy,” she told Truthout. “I’ve been in their homes. People from up north have stayed in my home with their kids.”
Moving into week seven
The CDCR has resumed its review process for the Stepdown program in prisons with no hunger strike activity. Of the 425 people reviewed thus far, 268 were transferred or approved for transfer to general population. “Adrian,” who spent more than ten years in Pelican Bay’s SHU as an alleged gang associate, was reviewed this year and transferred directly to general population. “I couldn’t believe it! I was stunned, I didn’t debrief, and I hung in there for over ten years,” he wrote Truthout. “I walked out of Pelican Bay SHU with my head up and got on a bus headed for general population.” Although not participating, he supports the hunger strikers’ five core demands, dismissing the assertion that SHU prisoners are violent gang leaders. “We were all labeled as frothing-at-the- mouth monsters who would commit serious violence if let out of our SHU cages. Well, it turns out we are just prisoners like everyone else, and we have proven the state wrong. … I hope they start letting all prisoners out of SHU who are only there for not debriefing. We back the attorneys and prisoners who are protesting.”