In early July, 30,000 California inmates began refusing meals in protest of the widespread indefinite solitary confinement of inmates that can go on for decades, with little opportunity to challenge isolation. The strikes yielded renewed attention to conditions of confinement, but not any concessions from the state. Seven weeks later, 130 inmates are still on hunger strike, and officials have imminent concerns about the welfare of at least 70.
On Monday, a federal judge approved a request from the state to force-feed inmates. The order expands the authority of prison officials to force-feed even those inmates who signed do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders, which typically exempt them from force-feeding or other extreme life-saving measures. One prisoner already died on strike, and many others have been hospitalized.
The American Medical Association opposes inmate force-feeding, maintaining that every patient has the right to refuse medical intervention. And a bipartisan report by the Constitution Project recently condemned the use of the practice on detainees at Guantanamo Bay as a violation of international ethical standards.
One Guantanamo Bay detainee described the experience in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Gitmo Is Killing Me.” “I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose,” wrote Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a Yemeni national who has been detained for 11 years and never charged with any crime. “I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”
But other federal judges have upheld force-feeding at Guantanamo Bay, maintaining that it is the government’s duty to prevent suicide.
Confinement typically involves isolation in a single, sometimes windowless cell with a steel door for as much as 23 hours a day. In California, inmates are reportedly denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming. Inmates are frequently confined through an arbitrary, secret, and virtually irreversible process in which one institutional gang investigator decides in a secret, 20-minute hearing who belongs in solitary. 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. After the last round of hunger strikes in 2011, the state said it had improved the process for solitary placement, and reports that more than half of the 400 individuals reviewed have been taken out of solitary. But some 10,000 more remain in solitary without review of their status. The practice has been deemed torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, and a “living death.”
California, meanwhile, is mired in litigation over other ways it mistreats its prisoners, after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 deemed California’s prison treatment unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.