Relatives and supporters of the thousands of reported hunger striking California prisoners warn that some inmates are “getting sicker and weaker, with some nearing severe dehydration”, according to Southern California Public Radio. The inmates began refusing food on July 1 to protest overcrowding and harsh conditions inside the state’s prisons. Prison authorities insist that no prisoners are in immediate medical crisis.
The hunger strike is centered around the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay Prison, but has spread to a number of other prisons in the California corrections system. The Ocean Bay Rag blog reports that participants in the strike have rejected a vaguely worded offer by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that promised to “effect a comprehensive assessment of its existing policy and procedure”, but did not guarantee that any action would be taken to affect changes in the system.
The strikers, some of whom have reportedly lost up to 30 pounds in the two weeks since the strike began, have stuck to their original list of five demands. They have requested a ban on the controversial practice of “group discipline”, whereby entire groups are punished for the actions of one individual. They have asked for abolition of a policy called “debriefing” where former gang members are pressured to inform on other gang members and a re-evaluation of the criteria the state uses to determine whether an inmate is involved with gangs. And finally they have demanded adequate food as well as appropriate rehabilitative programs.
The California prison system is vastly overcrowded, with some facilities housing more than twice the number of prisoners for which they were built. In May, the Supreme Court issued a decision upholding the allegation that conditions are currently so bad that they violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. So far, some prisoners have been shipped to other states and steps have been taken to implement a controversial plan by Governor Brown called “Realignment”, by which some state prisoners are diverted to county jails.
Advocates for California inmates argue that the rights being demanded by the hunger strikers are not excessive, but would merely bring the state’s prisons into line with supermax facilities in other states.