30,000 California Prisoners Hunger Strike Against Long-Term Solitary Confinement

An estimated 30,000 California inmates refused all three meals yesterday, in an announced hunger strike to protest prolonged solitary confinement that can last upwards of a decade. The strike focuses on practices at Pelican Bay, an infamous facility that one of the American hikers held hostage in Iran called as bad or worse than the treatment he experienced in Iran.

A lawsuit last year alleged that more than 500 inmates have been held in solitary confinement for 10 to 28 year, and that 78 prisoners have been held in solitary for more than 20 years. Overall, recent estimates suggest some 80,000 inmates have been placed in solitary confinement, for as long as 42 years. Since then, corrections officials have begun reviewing isolation determinations and released nearly half of the 400 prisoners reviewed, according to the LA Times. Confinement typically involves isolation for 23 hours a day in a small, often windowless room with a steel door. When prisoners are let out of the cell for showers at least 3 times a week, they are taken to another small, isolated space where they are sometimes locked for extended periods of time.

In an in-depth exposé for Mother Jones, formerly imprisoned hiker Shane Bauer subjected himself to solitary confinement at Pelican Bay last year, revealing the arbitrary, secret, and virtually irreversible manner in which individuals are placed in solitary confinement by an institutional gang investigator. A common justification is to isolate those thought to be “associates” in prison gangs, and the types of evidence deemed to prove that fact have included possession of black literature, left-wing materials and writing about prisoner rights as evidence. What’s more, a California court ruled in January that Pelican Bay has been improperly using race as a proxy for gang membership, and subjected different races to varying treatments.

Defenders of the system point out that an internal appeal process exists. But when Bauer asked “for an example of an appeal resulting in a reversal of a gang validation, they couldn’t produce a single case. Gang investigator Barneburg, who has worked at Pelican Bay for 15 years, has never seen a validation appeal succeed either—evidence, he says, of his team’s thoroughness.”

If inmates have exhausted the internal appeals process, they can take their case to court, where inmates who represent themselves succeed less than one percent of the time, according to one attorney who has represented inmates in the process. Getting out once in solitary confinement can be even tougher.

Studies have found that the negative psychological effects set in after just ten days. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, has said the practice can amount to torture, or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. And the ACLU, Physicians for Human Rights and The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law all call the practice torture, while Human Rights Watch calls it at the very least a violation of international law.

The practice is common in prisons around the country, and is not reserved for the most dangerous prisoners. Children as young as 13 are confined, some of whom are in prison for charges as minimal as nonviolent burglary or drug possession. Sometimes people are placed in isolation as punishment, but other times it is merely for their own protection from other prisoners or as a purported mental health treatment. Federal courts and the Department of Justice have found the practice is cruel and unusual as applied to the mentally ill, who make up an increasing proportion of bloated U.S. prisons. In February, the federal agency tasked with overseeing U.S. prisons agreed for the first time to undertake a close examination of the practice.

The striking inmates are making the modest demand that solitary confinement be limited to five years — well beyond the time that formerly imprisoned hiker Bauer said constituted a “living death.” They are also seeking rehabilitation programs and the right to make monthly phone calls, according to the LA Times. California inmates held a similar hunger strike in 2011, continuing to protest conditions as they neared death in the weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s overcrowded conditions were cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment. And while the state does not deem it a hunger strike until inmates miss nine meals, the 30,000 inmates now declining food far exceeds the 11,600 who participated in the last hunger strike.

The strike is one of several layers of controversy plaguing the state’s prison system. Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, California officials continue to battle federal judges over implementation of court-mandated population reduction. And just this week, news broke that California allegedly sterilized 150 female inmates without approval.