A man being held in solitary confinement has died at one of the California state prisons where thousands of inmates are refusing food to protest the practice of indefinite solitary confinement. Prison officials are insisting Billy “Guero” Sell was not part of the hunger strike when he died. Advocates and inmates, however, say that he was not only participating but had requested medical treatment for several days before his death.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation maintain that Sell’s death is being investigated as a suicide, unrelated to the hunger strike. Inmates rejected this explanation, saying a suicide would be “completely out of character for him.” According to a letter from hunger strikers, several men said, “No one believes he killed himself.”
The hunger strike began with 30,000 individuals on July 8 and has dwindled to about 1,000 participants in 11 prisons. Prison infirmaries have been swamped with fasting inmates in critical condition.
Prison officials have undercounted hunger strikers by not including inmates who are still drinking electrolytes like Kool-Aid or tea. Additionally, leaders of the movement have been rounded up and put in more severe solitary confinement. Lawyers and relatives of the strikers say they have received multiple letters from different inmates reporting that prisons are blasting their cells with cold air in an attempt to weaken their resolve.
At Pelican Bay, California’s maximum security prison, many inmates are kept in solitary confinement for 10 to 28 years — even though the psychological trauma of being locked in a windowless room for 23 hours a day begins to kick in after just ten days.. Officials often justify this “living death,” by using race or political reading materials as evidence the confined inmate may have a “gang affiliation.” Mentally ill prisoners also make up a substantial proportion of solitary cells in several states. In their third hunger strike since 2011, inmates are calling for an end to solitary confinement, a more humane review process for inmate punishment, as well as access to health care and education.
Prison officials say Sell seems to have hanged himself.