The largest prison hunger strike in California history officially began on July 8, and though some California legislators have voiced support for state prison inmates, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) won’t cede an inch. Prisoners are in for a long battle.
Estimates indicate that over 29,000 inmates have joined ranks to refuse meals in 24 of the state’s 33 prisons and all four of the private, out-of-state facilities where California sends offenders. Additionally, thousands of inmates have declined to attend work and educational assignments since the strike commenced a week ago.
The CDCR released its own tally July 11, stating that there were only 12,421 participants. Asked about the discrepancy between numbers, CDCR Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton said, “we have inmates who skip a meal here and skip a meal there,” and clarifying that the estimate included only inmates who had met the CDCR’s official metric of nine consecutive missed meals up to that point.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who authored a 2012 senate bill aimed at increasing media access in prisons which was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, issued a statement last week “join[ing] the protesters in urging prison officials to make more progress in establishing fair and humane policies in the prisons paid for by California taxpayers. We should not be the focus of international human rights concerns.”
This hunger strike, and an earlier pair that took place in 2011, was orchestrated by the Short Corridor Collective, a group of four inmates confined to security housing units (SHUs) at Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermax facility 15 minutes south of the Oregon border.
A network of legal advisers and prisoners’ rights advocates facilitated communication between participating inmates, and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition  is serving as the main conduit for information traveling from prisons to the public. The Coalition has summarized the goals of the strike in this video  and mobilized support across the state. This past Saturday, July 13, several hundred activists participated in a rally  at Corcoran, a California State Prison in the Central Valley.
In the Guardian last week, Toshio Meronek reported  on the motivations behind the strike. The Short Corridor Collective’s five core demands  include ending group punishment and long-term solitary confinement, abolishing a “debriefing policy” that encourages prisoners to exchange information about other inmates in return for favorable treatment, providing more nutritious food, and allowing for weekly phone calls and annual photographs. Inmate groups outside of Pelican Bay have documented separate sets of grievances , also published on the Solidarity Coalition’s website.
The 2011 strikes ended when the CDCR promised to create a formal “step down” process, through which SHU inmates could be vetted and prepared for reintroduction into general prison populations.
That program got underway last fall and, by all accounts, progressed slowly with limited success. In a press release issued Thursday, the CDCR disclosed that “since last October, [it] has conducted 382 case-by-case reviews of [gang] validated inmates housed indefinitely in SHUs. As of June 28, 208 inmates housed in SHUs have either been transferred or are approved for transfer to a general population facility and 115 inmates were placed in various phases of the Step-Down Program.”
At this rate, it would take nearly 20 years to conduct reviews of the over 10,000 inmates presently held in solitary confinement in California. Completion of the step down process, meanwhile, could take an additional four years for inmates enrolled in the first phase.
In a statement circulated shortly after the CDCR’s on Thursday, State Senator Mark Leno wrote, “I have concerns that this review process is moving too slowly and I would like to see it accelerated.”
Leno stated “grave concerns about the Department’s over-reliance on the use of solitary confinement and in particular on a policy in which suspicion of gang affiliation is sufficient grounds for keeping an inmate in solitary confinement indefinitely.”
In a KALW radio interview Thursday morning, Thornton asserted that the CDCR doesn’t “negotiate with people who are trying to hold the prison system hostage. We don’t condone these types of disturbances. We will keep the lines of communication open. And we will manage the prisons as safely as possible with as little interruption to normal programming as possible.”
Also on Thursday, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard’s confirmation was pushed through after being in limbo since Governor Brown appointed him in December 2012. Almost immediately, Beard declared all step-down reviews suspended, in what may well be the first official retaliatory action by the state against the hunger strikers.
Beard inherits not only the hunger strike, but a prison system long plagued by severe overcrowding, high recidivism rates, gross mismanagement of inmate health services, and a Supreme Court order to release close to 46,000 low-risk offenders.
“The prisoners are complaining about indeterminate solitary sentences not based on findings of misbehavior, but on alleged gang associations,” explained Rachel Meeropol, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which filed a class action lawsuit against the state and CDCR last May alleging inhumane treatment of Pelican Bay prisoners through the use of security housing units. “California is an outlier in the number of prisoners that it holds in indeterminate solitary confinement.” In the CDCR system, inmates can spend decades in SHUs, sometimes without ever understanding what landed them there in the first place.
The hunger strikers seek a binding, written agreement from the CDCR that commits to a maximum sentence of five years in solitary confinement. Given the UN Human Rights Council’s recent judgment  that “any imposition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and “should be subject to an absolute prohibition,” the Short Corridor representatives think their demand is reasonable.
In his statement last week, Ammiano indicated that he “continue[s] to be concerned about the policies being used to segregate prisoners who are deemed – often on weak public grounds – to be gang leaders.”
Donna Willmott, a member of the media committee for the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, said the vast majority of inmates in SHUs are there because they have received validation of gang affiliation from the CDCR. She described a “fundamentally flawed and corrupt” process, in which validating evidence is often scant.
“People have been sent to the SHU for indefinite terms for having Aztec art on their walls or a George Jackson book in their cells. And there’s no appeal process,” Willmott explained. “The way you get out of the SHU is parole, snitch, or die.”