California prisoners prepare for another hunger strike to protest persistently deplorable conditions
The CDCR has made some concessions and reforms since the 2011 hunger strikes, but critical issues have gone unaddressed. In Pelican Bay's SHU, the men are now allowed beanie caps for when it gets cold. They can now have wall calendars to track time and bring a human touch to their surroundings.
Some prisoners have received exercise equipment, such as a handball or pull-up bar. Each year, they now have permission to have one photograph of themselves taken to send to family members, and prison administrators have signaled that they are looking into extending Pelican Bay's visitation hours.
But more pressing issues have yet to be resolved, so the prisoners who drafted the 45 demands are resorting to starvation once again, despite official statements that it will do little to improve their conditions.
"Negotiation is something the department does not do," says Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for CDCR. But the department has met periodically with a mediation team, consisting of lawyers and prison activists, who have communicated the inmates' concerns and gone over their demands with prison authorities.
In 2002, the state of California was sued, and lost, in an 8th Amendment class-action lawsuit: Plata v. Davis. The federal judge overseeing the case called the medical treatment in California prisons "horrifying," sinking "below gross negligence to outright cruelty," ordering improved treatment and reductions in severe prison overcrowding.
A court-appointed doctor found that out of 193 deaths over the course of one year, 34 were "probably preventable," but medical staff gave "well below even minimal standards of care." Eleven years later, the state is still under federal receivership, until it can show that conditions have actually improved.
Court-appointed consultant Dr. Raymond Patterson wrote his 14th annual assessment report last April, blaming high suicide rates behind bars on a lack of "adequate assessment, treatment or intervention." After it was released, he quit the post in frustration, writing: "It has become apparent that continued repetition of these recommendations would be a further waste of time and effort."
So inmates are taking in upon themselves to accomplish what the courts and consultants have failed to do: reform conditions in the prisons.
As happened in 2011, in spite of what is planned to be a peaceful protest, prisons housing strikers will be, according to Thornton, on "modified program" (or "lockdown," as prisoners call it). Generally, that means inmates aren't allowed to leave their cells, even to shower.
New regulations created after the 2011 strikes call for no visits for striking prisoners, and for their canteen food to be confiscated. In addition, "inmate(s) identified as strike leaders, instrumental in organizing, planning, and perpetuating a hunger strike, shall be isolated from non-participating inmates."
Since March of this year, the Guantanamo Bay prisoner hunger strike has made news around the world for highlighting alleged violations of international law. There, when a striker goes below 85 percent Ideal Body Weight, regulations dictate that he or she be shackled to a chair, fitted with a mask, and have tubes inserted through their nostrils into their stomachs for up to two hours at a time.
That didn't happen in California back during the 2011 strikes, but the Division of Correctional Health Care Services devotes five pages of its policy handbook to outlining specific instructions for dealing with hunger strikers, including transfers to prison medical facilities where they could potentially be force-fed, another practice the UN regards as torture.
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