Hungry for reform

California prisoners prepare for another hunger strike to protest persistently deplorable conditions

Sitawa Jamaa is a prisoner at Pelican Bay who helped organize the hunger strikes.

Sitawa Jamaa is among the thousands of California inmates who, two years ago this summer, took part in the largest prison hunger strike in US history to protest harsh conditions and their invisibility to those outside prison walls.

Now, Jamaa and other prisoners are about to launch another hunger strike to highlight the system's unfulfilled promises and the persistence of inhumane conditions.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) counted 6,000 prisoners throughout the state who refused food over several weeks in July 2011. During a follow-up strike that September, the number of prisoners missing meals swelled to 12,000, according to the federal receiver who was appointed by the courts to oversee reforms in the system. At least one inmate starved to death.

As one of four inmates who call themselves the Short Corridor Collective, Jamaa was a key organizer of the hunger strike. The group of inmates drafted a list of core demands calling for the strike when they weren't met.

That was no easy task for Jamaa, who has spent most of the last 28 years alone in a windowless, 8-by-10 foot concrete cell in Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermax facility not far from the Oregon border, where some 1,200 men are held in similar conditions.

Inmates held in solitary confinement (in government lingo: "Segregated Housing Units", or "SHU" for short) aren't supposed to communicate with each other, verbally or through the mail. But they were able to organize with the help of their lawyers, who they are allowed to communicate with, and prison reform advocates outside.

Jamaa and other inmates are planning to launch a second hunger strike on July 8. The Short Corridor Collective has drafted a list of 45 demands, reflecting concerns ranging from inadequate health care to extreme solitary confinement—conditions that prison advocates characterize as cruel and unusual punishment.

The list is an extension of the five initial demands that Pelican Bay inmates presented in 2011 before initiating a hunger strike. Most of those demands were never met, or they were met only with lip service, leading prisoners back to where they started.




High on the list are concerns about conditions in the SHU, the amount of time prisoners can be made to spend in isolation, and the public's inability to monitor the situation.

"I feel dead. It's been 13 years since I have shaken someone's hand and I fear I'll forget the feel of human contact," Pelican Bay prisoner Luis Esquivel told attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights in an interview.

Along with Jamaa and others, Esquivel is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state of California that would effectively cap the time someone can spend in solitary confinement to 10 years.

"The hunger strike is an extreme act," says Terry Kupers, a Piedmont-based psychology professor and clinical psychiatrist who has testified before the California State Assembly on long-term solitary confinement. "It's very dangerous, and you can die. So when a group of prisoners go on hunger strike, it means they've exhausted all ways of expressing themselves and having their demands considered. And that's very much the case here—some of these guys have been in SHU for 30 or 40 years."

Kupers believes solitary confinement in California prisons violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, a view echoed by activists who've launched a statewide effort called the Stop the Torture Campaign.

United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez, an expert on torture, has called for a ban on solitary confinement where inmates are kept in isolation for 22 hours a day or more, saying the practice should only be used in very exceptional circumstances and for short time periods.

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