As a hunger strike  staged across California prisons enters its second month, inmates and their advocates are mourning the loss of Billy “Guero” Sells, a Corcoran State Prison inmate who committed suicide on July 22 after 14 days of fasting.
Advocates with the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition counts Sells as the first casualty of the mass protest. Donna Willmott, a member of the coalition’s media committee, told the Bay Guardian that "people who knew him believe that [suicide] was very uncharacteristic of him. As a coalition, we’re not saying, ‘no he didn’t commit suicide,’" Willmott added, "but we still think that the CDCR is responsible for what happened to him.”
State Assembly Member Tom Ammiano noted in an Aug. 1 statement that “although the death of a prisoner who had participated in the hunger strike has been ruled a suicide, I can’t be comforted by the knowledge that conditions in taxpayer funded institutions have led to unusual rates of suicide instead of reasonable rates of rehabilitation.”
Ammiano said he “remain[s] concerned about the hundreds of prisoners still participating in a hunger strike to protest conditions. These are not minor prisoner complaints; they are violations of international standards that have drawn worldwide attention. To keep anyone in severe isolation for indefinite amounts
of time does not meet norms of human rights that civilized countries accept.”
On August 8, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released a tally of 349 inmates in seven prisons who had skipped the last nine consecutive state-issued meals, including 193 who hadn’t eaten at all since the strike began on July 8.
Strike leaders at Pelican Bay State Prison have demanded reforms surrounding solitary confinement. They have asked the CDCR to address the unreliable method by which inmates are flagged for segregated housing, conditions in confinement, indeterminate and long sentences, and the lack of clear and fair guidelines on how inmates can work towards being released back into the prison’s general population.
Activists have organized a number of recent events to demonstrate support for the inmates. Demonstrators picketed outside of San Quentin State Prison recently. On Aug. 5, seven protesters were arrested after locking themselves to the front doors of the Elihu M. Harris State Building in Oakland.
The loss of Sells spurred a renewed sense of urgency amongst prisoners’ rights advocates. Danny Murillo, a formerly-incarcerated student at UC Berkeley, told the rallying crowd in Oakland that “as time progresses, we do need to put pressure, because we’ve already seen one of our brothers fall.”
Sanyika Bryant, a Civic Engagement Organizer at Causa Justa, added that “when people are going to go on a hunger strike, that’s really a last stand. The conditions are just so bad that you have to take your life on the line to stand up.” He added, “this is for real life and death.”
District 11 Supervisor John Avalos participated in a day of action on July 31 by forgoing meals. “I’m fasting today in solidarity,” he told the Guardian on that day, and went on to describe long-term solitary confinement as “completely inhumane. You take away so much liberty. You shouldn’t take away their humanity. People should have the ability for self-actualization.”
So far, a team of mediators has made little progress in reaching an agreement with state prison officials that could put an end to the strike. In the meantime, California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) says it’s adhering to a care guide crafted by CDCR, outlining the protocol for dealing with inmates who reach the point of starvation.
Care providers are required to conduct body-mass index (BMI) determinations, and after 14 days of striking, fasting prisoners receive informational notifications from CDCR staff, informing them of their options if they reach a critical medical condition. Some inmates have reported not receiving BMI determinations, and being subjected to increased isolation or excessive heat or air conditioning, to the point of severe discomfort.
Ron Ahnen, Associate Professor of Politics at St. Mary’s College and President of the human rights non-profit California Prison Focus, expressed concern about “the coming tsunami of people collapsing and having serious medical issues. Especially all at the same time."
Inmates have the right to refuse medical treatment, explained Joyce Hayhoe, Director of Legislation and Communications for CCHCS. “We cannot force them to eat or take measures to force them to eat without a court order. We do have inmates that fill out advance directives. If, for some reason, an inmate lost consciousness and there was not an advance directive, doctors would take whatever steps were necessary to preserve their life.” This could include feeding tubes, she said.
Melissa Guillen, who is 22, said her father Antonio Guillen is a strike organizer who has spent a decade in solitary at Pelican Bay. She’d heard from his counselor that “he’s doing okay. That he’s strong. He’s not planning on stopping anytime soon. But, you know, they’re getting weak.” She added, “We know he’s strong. I hope he gets what he wants out of this.”