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30,000 California prisoners launch largest hunger strike in state history

Published time: July 09, 2013 17:13
Edited time: July 10, 2013 00:15
AFP Photo / Getty Images / Kevork Djansezian

AFP Photo / Getty Images / Kevork Djansezian

Around 30,000 inmates held in prisons across California have taken the first steps towards engaging in what could become the largest hunger strike in state history.

Prisoners at 11 state facilities began refusing meals early Monday, after months of plotting a demonstration which they hope will bring change to a number of longstanding grievances against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation - particularly the practice of indefinitely housing some detainees in total isolation.

In a letter obtained by the LA Times, protesters reportedly demanded that the state retire its current solitary confinement policies and allow inmates accused of prison gang involvement to spend a maximum of only five years in isolation. Currently there is no limit on how long inmates thought to be connected to internal gangs can spend in Segregated Housing Units (SHUs). According to the LA Times, 4,527 inmates at four state prisons are now living in such units - including 1,180 at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California, where the demonstration was hatched.

The principal prisoner representatives from the PBSP SHU Short Corridor Collective Human Rights Movement do hereby present public notice that our nonviolent peaceful protest of our subjection to decades of indefinite state-sanctioned torture, via long term solitary confinement will resume today...consisting of a hunger strike/work stoppage of indefinite duration until CDCR signs a legally binding agreement meeting our demands, the heart of which mandates an end to long-term solitary confinement (as well as additional major reforms)," reads the letter, which is posted on Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website. 

The media report states that inmates are also seeking education and rehabilitation programs, as well as the right to make monthly phone calls.

Prisoners in California have held similar protests before, including a 2011 hunger strike which originated at Pelican Bay and eventually accumulated the support of 6,000 inmates across the state.

That hunger strike eventually led to a class-action lawsuit being filed against the corrections department, which has recently entered a mediation phase. But two years after the lawsuit against the state originated, prisoners still aren’t satisfied with the response they’ve received.

While the CDCR has claimed to have made reforms to its SHU system — how a prisoner ends up in the solitary units, for how long, and how they can go about getting released into the general population — prisoners’ rights advocates and family members point out that the CDCR has potentially broadened the use of solitary confinement, and that conditions in the SHUs continue to constitute grave human rights violations,” reads their latest letter.

The state does not officially recognize a hunger strike until participants have refused nine consecutive meals. On Monday, corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton told the LA Times that 30,000 prisoners skipped breakfast and lunch, putting them on course to launch an actual strike by the middle of the week.

Despite gearing towards what could become the largest hunger strike in state history, Thornton said that "everything has been running smoothly.”

"It was normal. There were no incidents,” at Monday's protest, Thornton said. But according to the newspaper’s Paige St. John, around 2,300 prisoners aren't just skipping meals - they're also beginning to skip work and class.

Ms. Thornton did not immediately respond about the status of the budding strike when approached by RT early Tuesday.

According to the inmates, the California prison system currently holds over 10,000 prisoners in solitary confinement units, including dozens who have spent more than 20 years each in isolation. Gabriel Reyes, who has spent 16 years in an SHU, wrote a letter published this week by Truth-Out. “I understand I broke the law, and I have lost liberties because of that. But no one, no matter what they've done, should be denied fundamental human rights, especially when that denial comes in the form of such torture," he wrote.

Reyes is currently serving a sentence of 25-years-to-life for burgling an unoccupied swelling. He says that the prison’s determination of a “gang affiliation” has left him spending 22.5 hours a day in isolation.