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January 12, 2012 / sadhbhanu

Why California’s prisoners are starving for solitary change

Californian prisoners have repeatedly gone on hunger strike over the solitary confinement in which some spend decades


On 19 December 2011, three prisoners at Corcoran State Prison wrote a letter to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) threatening to go on hunger strike if improvements were not made to their living conditions. Evidently, they received no response from the CDCR: the hunger strike began on 28 December.

This latest hunger strike, the third in less than six months, is small potatoes compared to the previous two, which were state-wide and involved thousands of inmates. According to Terry Thornton, a CDCR spokeswoman, it may already be over. But the fact that Californian prisoners have once again resorted to starving themselves to protest the conditions of their confinement does suggest that something is rotten in the Golden State’s penal system. 

The first hunger strike began on 1 July 2011, and ended three weeks later when the CDCR agreed, in theory at least, to address the participants’ five core demands, which amounted to better living conditions, adequate food and clothing, an end to group punishments and most importantly, an end to the gang validation policy that sentences inmates to endless terms in solitary confinement cells, known as SHUs.

One of my correspondents, Anthony, who has an indeterminate SHU sentence (meaning, there’s no end in sight), described to me in a letter what it is about the SHU environment he and his fellow inmates find hard to tolerate.

“We’re entitled to receive 10 hours of ‘outdoor exercise’ a week, but lucky if we get half that. At times, we’re cooped up an entire week in our cells before the opportunity of expanding our lungs with fresh air. ‘Outdoor exercise’ consists of being placed in a dog kennel-like cage, no bigger than our cells. We’re prohibited from all recreational and exercise equipment, compelling most to pace idly back and forth.

“Blinding bright lights remain on 24 hours a day within our (windowless 8ft x 10ft) cells as we have been denied control over them. Our lavatories are electronically installed, allotting each cell two flushes every 15 minutes.”


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