California Prison hunger strike ends after 20 days; advocates say strike raised awareness about prison conditions

Thadeus Greenson and Kaci Poor/The Times-Standard

California prison officials and prison advocacy groups announced Thursday the end of a three-week hunger strike that saw thousands of inmates at more than a dozen institutions refuse meals.

Dorsey Nunn, a mediator between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the striking prisoners, said he spoke with Pelican Bay State Prison inmates over the phone Thursday who confirmed the news.

”The choices they were confronted with were torture or death,” Nunn said. “Those really aren’t choices. I think they chose to live to fight (for) justice another day.”

The strike began July 1 with 11 inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Units, where suspected gang members are held in near complete isolation, sometimes for years at a time. The group issued a list of five demands — seeking better living conditions and treatment — and was quickly joined by more than 6,500 inmates in 13 institutions throughout the state who began refusing meals.

According to CDCR Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton, the striking inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison resumed eating state-issued food Wednesday night after a CDCR executive visited the prison and provided clarification on proposed plans to review and change policies. Changes implemented to date, according to the release, include “providing cold-weather caps, wall calendars and some educational opportunities for SHU inmates.”

Only one of the proposed allowances — the wall calendars — was included in a list of prisoners’ “core demands.” Even then, wall calendars were just one of a long list of items listed under the larger topic of expanding programming and privileges for SHU inmates.

Regardless of how the strike ended, it was designed to raise awareness and further inmates’ goals of receiving better treatment, said Molly Porzig, a member of the advocacy group Critical Resistance and the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

”What we’re supporting is prisoners winning their demands,” she said. “The goal of this wasn’t having people starve — it was having the CDCR meet these very basic demands.”

The core of those demands were aimed at addressing SHU housing, which essentially amounts to long-term solitary confinement. Prisoner advocates equate it to torture.

In the SHU, inmates are kept in small soundproof, windowless cells for more than 23 hours a day, according to advocacy groups. They are fed through a slot in the cell door, with their only contact with the outside world coming when the are allowed, alone, out into a small enclosed yard.

”I think these basic conditions amount to torture,” said Jessica Whatcott, a volunteer with the Arcata advocacy group Bar None. “It deprives them of all human contact and sunlight.”

Sometimes kept in the SHU for years at a time, inmates are only released back to the general population after going through an intense “debriefing” process, according to Whatcott. “Debriefing,” Whatcott said, essentially requires prisoners to provide information about the gang ties of fellow inmates in exchange for their release from SHU housing.

”In other areas of prisons, if you serve good time or follow all the rules, you can move into areas with more privileges,” Whatcott said. “There is no opportunity for that in the SHU. You only leave through snitching or dying.”

For the duration of the strike, the fasting prisoners have been monitored by the Federal Health Care Prison Receiver’s Office, which — based on the order of a federal judge — oversees medical care in California prisons. Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the office, stressed that the office is entirely independent of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

”The health care is under the supervision of a federal receiver,” she said. “He’s not going to lie, and he can’t violate a federal court order.”

Kincaid said 6,600 prisoners across 13 institutions were fasting — or had officially refused three consecutive meals — at the strike’s height in the beginning of the month. However, Kincaid said the number dropped down to about 1,500 inmates within about five days.

Wednesday afternoon, Kincaid said, her office was aware of about 755 striking inmates but cautioned the numbers were very fluid, with some inmates going on and off the strike and others refusing state-issued meals while eating other food in their cells.

A total of 17 inmates at Pelican Bay were transferred to Corcoran State Prison because they lost more than 8 pounds during the strike and had underlying medical conditions that posed concerns, Kincaid said, adding that Corcoran has a general acute care hospital on its grounds while Pelican Bay does not.

”There were three members of that group who really exhibited more severe symptoms of starvation — one lost 27 pounds,” Kincaid said, adding that some agreed to receive intravenous fluids and nutritional supplements under a physician’s care.

Contrary to some media reports, Kincaid said, no inmates were treated at outside hospitals, suffered renal failure or had any extreme severe reactions during the fast.

Moving forward, Kincaid said, inmates who haven’t taken meals in weeks will have to be slowly reintroduced to solid foods under medical supervision.

”You can’t just sit down to a plate of food after you haven’t eaten in three weeks,” she said. “Doctors are working with inmates now to transfer them back to regular feedings, but some will take about two weeks of monitoring.”

The CDCR issued a press release announcing the end of the strike late Thursday morning that decried hunger strikes as “dangerous and ineffective.” In the wake of the announcement, advocacy groups said they wouldn’t believe the news until hearing it from the involved inmates or the attorneys representing them.

According to Ron Ahnen, president of California Prison Focus, CDCR officials have repeatedly failed to provide accurate information about the hunger strike.

”The CDCR has demonstrated that they do not know how to tell the truth,” Ahnen said, charging that prison officials underreported the number of prisoners participating in the strike’s first days and falsely claimed some were refusing medical treatment.

After speaking with advocacy groups, the Times-Standards contacted officials with the CDCR for an official comment beyond the press released issued earlier in the day.

”You know how you can tell a hunger strike is over?” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton asked. “It’s when they start eating.”

Although Ahnen was able to confirm that the strike had ended, he said the fight isn’t over.

”What they (the CDCR) did is make a bunch of promises about what they are going to look at,” Ahnen said. “Now we just need to hold them to their word.”

Despite the fact that the CDCR has not yet met the list of core demands made by the prisoners, Nunn said the striking inmates feel good about what they accomplished.

”They organized across every racial and geographic group in the area and the nation,” Nunn said. “They carried the strike out for 20 days.”

More importantly, he said, the prisoners were able to capture the attention of the world.

”The difference between this hunger strike and the one in 2002 is that people all around the world have started looking at what is going on in Pelican Bay,” he said.

The most important thing people can do now is to follow up, said Nunn, who was incarcerated from 1971 to 1982 in San Quentin prison and is now the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

”There were a lot of people concerned,” he said, “They need to continue to be concerned, the prisoners are counting on them to be concerned.”

Demands at a glance:

The five core demands of striking Pelican Bay prisoners:
1.End group punishment and administrative abuse
2.Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria
3. Comply with the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement
4.Provide adequate and nutritious food
5.Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.
Source: Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website at /

A prisoner’s explanation:

“The purpose of the Hunger Strike is to combat both the Ad-Seg/SHU psychological and physical torture, as well as the justifications used of support treatment of the type that lends to prisoners being subjected to a civil death. Those subjected to indeterminate SHU programs are neglected and deprived of the basic human necessities while withering away in a very isolated and hostile environment.”  (Written by Mutope Duguma (s/n James Crawford), a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate in the Security Housing Unit, or SHU, and Pelican Bay hunger strike participant.)

Thadeus Greenson can be reached at and Kaci Poor can be reached at .

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