Yet another hunger strike in California’s prison system

Today is the first day of yet another hunger strike for inmates in California’s Pelican Bay supermax correctional facility.

The inmates have stipulated that the hunger strike will continue indefinitely, until five modest demands are met.

Jonathan Simon writes:

Supermax-style prisons are an American abomination that are rejected by most other societies and considered a human rights violation in many. Total isolation of prisoners without meaningful activities, visitors, or meaningful human contact has historically been reserved for disciplinary punishments limited to weeks or months. In California’s SHU scores of prisoners have served more than twenty years of such conditions, and hundreds for more than ten.

To get a sense of the prospects for success of this hunger strike, it’s worth bearing in mind the recent political and legal context. In 2011, the Supreme Court determined that the CDCR was in violation of its inmates’ constitutional rights in its persistent denial of their basic mental health and medical care (read the court’s opinion in Brown v. Plata here). That case resulted in an injunction to reduce massive overcrowding throughout the system, and upheld the decision to place the healthcare system into Receivership. Brown v. Plata wasn’t directly intended to alleviate to the situation faced specifically by inmates in the SHU. But Jerry Brown’s response to the court injunction is directly relevant to this hunger strike.

The Governor’s office has repeatedly requested that the court vacate its Receivership. Each time, it cites its claim that the CDCR has resolved the problems that precipitated the mid-‘90s cases that culminated in Brown v. Plata. On each occasion, these requests have been rebuked; the most recent time (in mid-April), the court’s rejection of the Governor’s request was especially humiliating. It reminded the Governor of the Supreme Court’s admonition:

A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. [Emphasis added]

Things aren’t improving, the Governor’s office thinks they are, and inmates at Pelican Bay are willing to starve themselves to death to prove their point.

If you would like to contact Governor Brown, here’s the link.

6 thoughts on “Yet another hunger strike in California’s prison system”

    1. I love the governor, but I agree he seems to have a weird blind spot on the prison system. It would be nice if some Jebbies would lobby him.

  1. All groovy, but Wikipedia lists many other countries as having Supermax prisons. Is it correct? Or are there material differences?

    Regardless, extended solitary is torture IMHO, and should be illegal.

    1. What is unequivocally true about the United States is that the scale (estimates of 50 – 80,000 people) and the duration of confinement (frequently for 5-10 years and as many as 42 years) in isolation in supermax prisons is unprecedented. Most European countries do not sentence people to general population prisons for more than 25 years, let alone to solitary confinement. And the number of people in solitary confinement in the United States is ten to twenty times the number of people under any form of correctional supervision in Scandinavian countries.

      Whether other countries have “supermax” prisons, though, is a definitional question. If a “supermax” is a free-standing building keeping large numbers of prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, as at Pelican Bay in California, which has 1,056 isolation beds and holds prisoners for an average of 3 years prior to release, and for as long as 20, then the United States (and California!) is in a league of its own. If a supermax is an extremely high-security facility, keeping a small number of people in some form of isolation, then there are certainly other such facilities around the world.

      As it turns out, “supermax” is an ambiguous term without a commonly agreed-upon definition; many places get labeled supermaxes (even in the United States) without much discussion. There are certainly prisons elsewhere in the world that maintain prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. Carlton Bree has written a thoughtful book (Imprisoning Resistance) about Australia’s supermax. In fact, many English-speaking countries seem to have extremely high-security prisons in which prisoners are detained in isolation for extended periods. A recent book, The Globalization of Supermax Prisons, edited by Jeffrey Ross suggests that there are supermax prisons around the world, though the book fails to grapple with the question of the precise definition of a supermax prison.

  2. Warren beat me to it. I second the recommendation for Bauer’s article.

    “I Thought Solitary Confinement in Iran Was Bad — Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.” Shane Bauer was one of the three American hikers imprisoned in Iran after being apprehended on the Iraqi border in 2009. He spent 26 months in Tehran’s Evin Prison, 4 of them in solitary.

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