According to some estimates, 30,000 prisoners in California were on hunger strike last week, and thousands more still are. Contacted by VICE, a spokesman for the California prison system refused to confim the 30,000 number. If true, it would make the current strike the largest in the state's history. "I don't even know where that number came from," he said, insisting that the hunger strike could not be properly considered to have started until late Wednesday, because the state doesn't acknolwedge that what it calls a "hunger-strike disturbance" exists until inmates have refused nine consecutive meals. "Until then,'" the spokesman said, "we don't know if it's a disturbance or if they just don't like tacos."
Officially, more than 2,500 prisoners were still refusing meals as of this week. The numbers dropped over the weekend—down from 30,000 a week prior and from 7,600 on Friday. But even that total was still more than the 6,000 who participated in the last, partially succesful, hunger strike to hit the state, in 2011.
Even if you've heard about the protests—they've been widely covered in California, but briefly mentioned, if at all, nationally—you might be forgiven for not quite understanding what it's all about. Because California's prisons have been all over the news, recently: There are the nearly 10,000 prisoners a three-judge panel has ordered to be released, to alleviate overcrowding in the system. There are the 150 female prisoners who were by some accounts coerced into accepting sterilizations, and the doctor who suggested the cost of the sterilizations would save the state future welfare payments. There are the thousands of prisoners whom a different federal overseer has ordered to be moved out of the Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons, where over the last several years dozens of high-risk prisoners may have been killed by Valley Fever. There is the mental health care that has been found to be illegally deficient in the CDCR system, and the overcrowding in the system that was found, separately, by the Supreme Court no less, to have created a situation in which medical care in California prisons was of such a poor quality that it fell below the Eighth Amendment standard barring cruel and unusual punishment. All of this has been in the news recently, and all of it has contributed to the spread of the strike to dozens of facilities across the system.
The cause of the hunger strikes, though, is the state of life in the system's Secure Housing Units, especially the one at Pelican Bay, in Calfornia's far, far, north. About 2 percent of California's roughly 130,000 inmates are held in these extreme isolation pods, mostly at Pelican Bay or Corcoran State, between Fresno and Bakersfield. There, inmates with exceptionally bad disciplinary records and prisoners who have been "gang-validated,"—an institutional euphemism describing the process by which prison officials decide a criminally-connected inmate is too dangerous to have contact with other prisoners or the outside world—are held in windowless 80-square-foot cells without human contact, behind steel grates that, according to human rights reports, produce a disorienting effect when an inmate tries to peer out. They are allowed one hour of exercise a day, phone calls are restricted in many cases to instances of "family emergency," which in practice seems to mean only in the event of the death of a family member. The only natural light available in the Pelican Bay SHUs comes from skylights in the pod corridors, heavily blocked by the steel mesh closing in each cell—a likely violation of international conventions on humane treatment of prisoners, which insist that daytime natural light be sufficient to work and read by. In the case of inmates who have been deemed institutional risks or have been gang-validated are often held in isolation indefinitely, without having gone through a judicial process sentencing them to the extraordinary punishment of permanent isolation, and without a formal process to appeal the decision.
These conditions first came to national notice when prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU launched their first hunger strike, in July 2011. They won several small concessions, including the right to wear watch caps and sweatpants, as the SHU units are notoriously cold. According to a later Amnesty International investigation, when prisoners concerned "about what they percieved as a lack of progress" in implementing changes launched another hunger strike, in September of that year, strike leaders were taken to Administrative Segregation units and punished: The wife of one gang-validated inmate said that her husband "was taken to an Adseg unit," with 11 other strikers. "He was in Adseg with no warm clothes, bed blankets, or possessions. The air conditioned was turned right up, while he had just a T-shirt and trousers."
This current hunger strike had been in the works for some time, and was coordinated with prisoner rights groups outside. Many of the strikers have become politicized. Last year a grouping called the Short Corridor Collective—communicating using bits of paper tied to string and tossed between cells, or by other means that the CDCR hasn't been able to prevent—tried to organize a truce between gangs and racial groups in the CDCR facilities, stating in a letter that was later published by supporters that "We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!!" and that expressing a hope that peaceful protest could force the "CDCR to open up all General Population main lines, and return to a rehabilitative-type system of meaningful programs/privileges, including lifer conjugal visits."
This didn't happen, but it did raise questions about why inmates calling for peace in the prisons were being held in freezing and isolated SHU cells without any process of appeal or hope for release into the general population. The one way some inmates can make it back into the General Population is by undergoing a process called "debriefing," which seems largely to entail giving detailed information on the gangs inmates are said to have been members of, and which creates a paradoxical situation for the debriefed inmate—debriefing they have a chance of being released from the conditions of the SHU, but they'll be exposed to retribution from people they may be suspected of naming in the debriefing.
The result has been that SHU prisoners have almost no tactics available to them besides self-starvation. They have enjoyed a surprising amount of support from the population of California, where the mood is mostly one of being fed up with the persistent problems in the penal system and with retributive justice in general—in a recent poll 60 percent of Californians supported simply releasing prisoners to the street to comply with Federal orders to reduce the prison population. Even Republicans in the state are hesitant to suggest building new prisons or spending more money to add beds.
They have also enjoyed support across the system—many inmates used the strike as an opportunity to protest other site-specific grievances or the general deterioration of quality of life in California prisons, and the CDCR seems to have been taken off-guard by the size of the protest.
When I called the CDRD official—the one who gave me the quote about the tacos—he also said that he didn't know if force-feeding was on the table, though he said the state had a "right to maintain the health of prisoners at risk," which seems like it means force-feeding is on the table. Other methods may be on the table too: After the strikes in the summer of 2011, the wife of another strike leader told Amnesty International that "for a while he cared for a frog which he had found in the exercise yard. He would collect worms and bugs to feed the frog." She told them that "this interaction was particularly therapeutic for him, having been held in solitary confinement without human contact for 16 years. When the hunger strikes began, as punishment for his participation, the guards took the frog away."