A hunger strike started by prisoners at Pelican Bay to protest appalling conditions has spread across California as inmates at 13 prisons joined in solidarity. The number of inmates refusing food hit a peak of 6,600, and is now estimated at 1,700. They are now in their 13th day of the hunger strike, and relatives are reporting that many are near death but still refusing medical attention.
Pelican Bay is a maximum security facility where inmates are held in windowless isolation cells for more than 22 hours a day, shower once every three days, and can have little or no contact with other prisoners for years and even decades at a time:
A core group of prisoners at Pelican Bay said they were willing to starve to death rather than continue to submit to prison conditions that they call a violation of basic civil and human rights.
“No one wants to die,” James Crawford, a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder and robbery, said in a statement provided by a coalition of prisoners’ rights groups. “Yet under this current system of what amounts to intense torture, what choice do we have?”
The hunger strike comes only weeks after the Supreme Court ordered California to dramatically lower its prisons population, because severe overcrowding was exposing inmates to high levels of violence and disease.
Hunger strike leaders are demanding an end to long-term confinement and collective punishment, access to food and programs, and “an end to the practice of ‘debriefing,’ or requiring prisoners to divulge information about themselves and other prisoners around gang affiliation in order to be released back into general population.”
They are supported by advocates and family members who are begging Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to swiftly improve prison conditions.
The Supreme Court ruled in May that California’s prisons violated minimum constitutional requirements by failing to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, noting that as many as 200 prisoners had lived in a gym and as many as 54 prisoners had shared a single toilet.
Hundreds of hunger strikers are suffering from severe dehydration and official sources inside the prison say they are “progressing rapidly” toward organ damage and renal failure. The state corrections department continues to insist the situation is not a “crisis,” and say they will not meet the strikers’ requests.
“The department is not going to be manipulated or coerced into action,” said spokesman Terry Thornton, who said the hunger strike is not an appropriate way of registering their concern.