Today marks the 40th day of California’s historic Prisoner hunger strike. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are claiming more than 220 prisoners remain on strike in at least 7 California prisons, though advocates claim actual numbers are much higher with recent reports stating more than 100 are on strike at Corcoran State Prison alone. Strike supporters are worried that the CDCR’s continued inaction puts prisoners at risk of permanent damage to their health and possible death.
The strike is reaching an extremely dangerous period. Dozens have sought medical care as they suffer the ravaging effects of such a prolonged fast. While several prisoners have been hospitalized, legal advocates continue to receive reports of ill treatment and indifference by both guards and prison medical staff. Some family members have reported that their loved ones who have chosen to resume eating have not been given proper treatment as they come off their fast, a situation that poses serious medical risks.
“Loved ones and supporters of the strikers are outraged by the callousness of the Governor and the CDCR who remain intransigent in their refusal to negotiate with prisoners who are risking so much to win such reasonable demands.” Said Donna Willmott of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.
Former California Senator Tom Hayden recently wrote: “It is time for California officials to practice the subtle arts of conflict resolution instead of acting with arrogant impunity by imposing unbearable conditions on inmates, most of whom already are being punished for life. “
Among the voices raised in protest of official inaction are over 120 medical professionals who have signed an open letter in support of the demands of the hunger strikers:
For the third time in three years, thousands of people incarcerated in California are on hunger strike, protesting the widespread use of punitive long-term solitary confinement—”long-term” meaning up to thirty continuous years or more—in the so-called Security Housing Units (SHUs).
The current strike began on July 8. As of this date (August 14), a minimum of 200 strikers have fasted for the duration and risk permanent bodily damage or death. Over 30,000 have abstained from eating for shorter periods.
Two years ago, when the 2011 California prison hunger strikes mobilized over 12,000 people at their peak, the state agreed to make significant improvements in prison conditions. However, the state has not carried through on most promised changes, particularly regarding use of long term and indefinite isolation.
As healthcare providers, we are issuing this statement to register our concern with reports that the hunger strikers are being denied appropriate medical care. While there has been a concerted attempt by the authorities to censor the strikers, and to keep the strike out of the news, dozens of letters from affected strikers at prisons across the state have reached supporters on the outside. These letters repeat similar details of medical neglect and abuse:
Medications are being withheld in an attempt to coerce those on strike into abandoning their protest.
In one case, a patient with heart failure has had his medications discontinued on the dubious assertion that he doesn’t need them because he’s on a hunger strike.
Prison medical staff are required to monitor the health and weigh those on strike. Yet, we hear that many institutions are violating this protocol.
There are also reports that nurses who are required to conduct daily checks are simply advising strikers to drink a lot of water. In other cases, physicians have been dismissive of patient complaints, and patients in need have been refused care and have been ignored—in some cases, even mocked by the very healthcare practitioners they are supposed to be able to depend upon for care.
Some strikers have told the prison authorities that they are refusing solid foods only. Nonetheless, the CDCR refuses to provide them with liquid sustenance other than water, and guards have even confiscated any such liquids that they had in their cells.
Many strikers have indicated that they are not being provided with medical release forms, which they need to send to their loved ones and family members, or to outside supporters, so that these people on can access their medical records.
Several strikers have been reclassified as “not on hunger strike” because they have been accused of having food in their cells. This means that they “have to start over” and go nine consecutive meals before being considered on hunger strike again—regardless of whether or not they have in fact broken their strike. Determining who is on hunger strike in such an arbitrary manner means that prisoners who may not have eaten for weeks will be dropped off the list for medical oversight.
Similar denial of appropriate medical monitoring and medications occurred during the 2011 prisoners’ hunger strikes, and led concerned medical professionals to issue a statement condemning such coercive neglect/abuse as both unethical and illegal under California Penal Code Section 673.
Furthermore, such acts of deliberate indifference to a patient’s serious medical needs constitute a violation under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Today, we, the undersigned, tragically find ourselves having to echo the statement of two years ago. We register our grave concern about the above allegations, and strongly urge Receiver J. Clark Kelso, and the California Medical Board, to immediately investigate these claims. We also urge the CDCR to ensure that:
(1) no hunger striker be threatened with, or punished through, the denial of medical care;
(2) no hunger striker be denied liquids, vitamins or any other form of sustenance they are willing to take; and,
(3) all hunger strikers receive appropriate medical care.
We further demand that all medical professionals uphold their code of ethics and maintain the highest standards of care for all their patients—be they incarcerated or not.
Finally, we call upon Governor Jerry Brown and Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of the CDCR, to immediately enter into good-faith negotiations with the prisoner representatives, and to respond to their demands, in order to end this crisis before lives are lost.
(1) The prisoners’ original five core demands are:
1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse;
2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria;
3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement;
4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food;
5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates.
These are elaborated in more detail on the Prisoner Hungerstrike Coalition website at Prisoners’ Demands.
(2) California Penal Code Section 673: “It shall be unlawful to use in the reformatories, institutions, jails, state hospitals or any other state, county, or city institution any cruel, corporal or unusual punishment or to inflict any treatment or allow any lack of care whatever which would injure or impair the health of the prisoner, inmate, or person confined; and punishment by the use of the strait jacket, gag, thumbscrew, shower bath or the tricing up of a prisoner, inmate or person confined is hereby prohibited. Any person who violates the provisions of this section or who aids, abets, or attempts in any way to contribute to the violation of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”