A hunger strike that spread throughout California’s prison system this past week has briefly united a segment of the state’s notoriously factious inmate population. The New York Times reports that on July 1st, inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit began refusing food to protest conditions that they consider inhumane (including prolonged periods up to 22 hours of isolation in windowless cells). By last weekend, the protest had been taken up by about 6,600 prisoners of various races, gangs, and backgrounds, spread throughout thirteen different California prisons, with one report suggesting that prisoners in Ohio had even taken up the cause as well.
Currently, the number of hunger-strikers has declined. Many are taking liquids and buying canteen food, with an estimated 1,700 at seven prisons still refusing state-provided nutrition. The protesting prisoners are asking for improved food, warmer clothes, increased education and rehabilitation opportunities, more contact with the outside world, and to stop the practice of guards denying them food as a punishment. At the top of the prisoners’ agenda is the cessation of a policy called “debriefing” which pressures prisoners to give up information on prison activities in exchange for release from the security unit, a practice that leads only to less security, say the imprisoned.
One prison system spokesperson maintains that it’s gang members who are running this show (did they expect the glee club to be organizing this act?), but that the prisoners’ demands are still being “reviewed and evaluated” in conjunction with a prisoners’ rights group. Still, there is a group of about two dozen inmates at Pelican Bay that say they will take this fight to the grave if they must.
Inmate Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strike’s organizers, issued a statement that reads: “We believe our only option of ever trying to make some kind of positive change here is through this peaceful hunger strike…And there is a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death if necessary.”