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Pen Pals

Starve Yourself Free

Inmates in California just ended their hunger strike against conditions in solitary confinement after two months, and the fact that they starved themselves for that long as a protest shows you how cruel and unusual prisons' shit has gotten.

A protest in Seattle, Washington, held in solidarity with the prison inmates hunger striking against inhumane conditions. The strike recently ended after two months. Photo by Fickr user Debra Sweet

For the last two months, prison inmates over in California have been on a hunger strike in an attempt to get some fuckin’ reforms happening, especially when it came to solitary confinement. They just gave in without their demands being met, but the fact that so many dudes—there were 30,000 strikers at one point—were willing to starve themselves to protest solitary confinement should show you just how cruel and unusual that shit is. Being cut off from all human contact and spending day after day or year after year in a tiny box makes you crazy—literally, academics say it “can cause severe psychiatric harm”—and the UN considers it to be torture.


People think that the only guys who get put in solitary, a.k.a. Special Housing Units (SHUs), are real dangerous mega-violent assholes, but a lot of heads end up there for drug violations or other minor, nonviolent shit—I’ve seen COs toss inmates in the box just because they disobeyed orders. So it goes without saying that I fully back any movement that aims to get rid of these soul-sucking, life-crushing, money-making tools for torture. The reason SHUs exist is they give prison guards an efficient tool for keeping prisoners in line. I’ve been told by COs that almost ALL inmates snitch on anyone thy can to get reduce timed in the box after they fucked up. I gotta say, people aren’t gettin’ cut up like they used to in New York State prisons, maybe partly thanks to the threat of solitary, but it’s not worth it.

When I was in prison, I saw a couple guys try hunger strikes and it was always kind of half-assed and embarrassing—a few times I even witnessed the “striker” sneak a snack behind closed doors. A staged protest like that might be nothing more than pretentious, overdramatic bullshit done for the sake of the striker’s mental self-image and for the chance to get his name in a fancy newspaper as a freedom fighter. There’s a lotta unjust treatment that happens every day in the stinkin’ clink-clink, but my policy was to roll with the punches, keep to myself, and stir the pot as little as possible. I would never even think of hunger striking.


But say my ass was stuck in solitary confinement for a couple years and I was desperate, had nothing to lose, and the food sucked anyway—then, I bet, I’d be down for a fuckin’ hunger strike like I was the original old-skool Hunger Artist Christian Bale Machinist Ghandi-ass motherfuzzy. That was probably where the guys who started the strike in California’s Pelican Bay SHU were at. By the time the strike ended, the LA Times reported, “nearly ten protesters a day were collapsing or otherwise required medical care.” There were just 100 guys left at that point, but those dudes were pretty fucking hardcore. Prisons are so intrinsically secretive in all sorts of ways, so it’s hard to know what happened during the strike, but according to this Mother Jones article explaining the strike at least one prisoner lost 50 pounds in 35 days, and a couple weeks ago a judge ruled that inmates could be force-fed if they were close to death, which probably means the guys in charge were worried about that happening.

The four leaders of the strike identified by the media definitely fit the criteria of guys with nothing to lose. They’re locked up for life (all for doing some heinous gang-related murder shit) and have suffered in the SHU for at least a decade. The fact that these guys are all so murderous means that it’s hard for anyone to give ‘em sympathy—as in, “Yeah, I bet they have it rough in there, but not as rough as the people they killed,” etc.—but that obscures the fact that most SHU inmates aren’t in there for shanking everyone in sight. And is it really OK to torture anyone, even if he’s the worst of the worst? I dunno, that sounds like a question for a priest or somebody.


In my experience the prison authorities have a funny way of taking inmate grievances and flipping them on us as punishment for us having the gall to politely ask for reform. A good example was the inmate that complained about a CO kicking in the door to the bathroom stall he was masturbating in. The inmate was obviously embarrassed, and he took the proper official course of action and requested there be some locks on the doors, or even just a directive that says the COs can’t knock down whatever door they please anytime they want. But the result was they just took away our bathroom doors completely and we had to do our business in the open. There are a smattering of examples like that where we complained and the powers-that-be were just like, “See? Ya seen what you done forced us to do with your silly ungrateful complaining?”

I commend these strikers in their efforts to seek reform through prisoner solidarity. There are some hearings planned in California to take a look at solitary confinement and maximum-security prisons in general, and at least a couple state legislators are open to reform, so maybe these guys really did accomplish something, even though it probably sounded totally crazy when they started their strike: “Yeah, if me and my buddies organize and starve ourselves, the guards who hate us are gonna give us what we want.”

But on the really real, one of these guys has been in the SHU since 1992 so I really have NO IDEA what he goes through. He is basically an alien life form at this point. No doubt that much box time will make a guy a little delusional. And, shit, maybe they decided that the worst that could happen was that they’d die, and that wouldn’t be so bad given what they’d already been through. It’s sad that inmates have so little power and voice that all they can do is not eat. There’s no way to win when you’re locked up. It’s sad, but true… Maybe it’s time for another Attica?

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.

Previously: Phone Calls from Jail Are Criminally Expensive