State prison officials are not happy to see hunger strikes resume in Pelican Bay State Prison and gaining support among inmates in other correctional institutions. After toothless negotiations fizzled between inmates and authorities this summer, the prisoners reignited their movement of passive resistance on Monday to protest a number of conditions they deem inhumane, chief among them a practice of doling out lengthy solitary sentences in windowless cells of ten years and more. Today the Huffington Post reports that corrections officials are now retaliating against organizers of the strike, using a dicey punishment that could end up either crushing or expediting the fast.
A memo distributed to prisoners warns of steep disciplinary action for Security Housing inmates “identified as leading the disturbance”, including placement in Administrative Segregation Units, some of the same facilities these strikers are complaining about in the first place and which even the Office of the Inspector General of California has found guilty of serious violations and mismanagement when it comes to prisoners’ due process in a number of California corrections facilities, a situation said to be both unjust to inmates and costly to the system.
Also, officials are considering a threat to take away canteen and food items from the cells of the accused, which at first sounds more than a bit ineffectual, taking food away from people who are refusing to eat. But therein lies the crux of the state’s risky strategy. While some inmates among the estimated 5,000 or more hunger striking prisoners are refusing any and all food, many more are said to only be refusing state-served food, while still eating items purchased at the commissary. Taking away all extra food could certainly coerce some of the less committed to abandon the cause completly, while simultaneously running a risk of speeding up the starvation of more diehard protestors.
Meanwhile, the issue is roping in a whole motley cast of officials, experts, and advocates, with urgings for the Office of the Inspector General to take action, medical staff preparing to monitor the strikers’ health, and California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg calling for a review of the response by Corrections Officials when the strike temporarily ended on July 20th.
Elsewhere, outside advocates for the inmates warn of a potential explosion here, in contrast to prison officials, who argue that improvements are being made when it comes to the treatment of Security Housing Unit inmates, issuing a second letter of bureaucratic psychobabble to the prisoners outlining these supposed changes.
Donald Spector, director of the Berkley-headquartered Prison Law Office offers the most dire assessment, worrying, “There doesn’t seem to be any endgame…The prisoners distrust the Department of Corrections. And the Department of Corrections has no intention of doing more than they’ve previously announced…I’m very concerned that prisoners may die or be seriously injured.”