By Maggie Caldwell and Josh Harkinson
Monday marked the 50th day of a massive hunger strike in California prisons. The strike initially involved some 30,000 fasting inmates; some 42 of them are still refusing to eat, putting themselves at extremely high risk of death, according to state medical officials. A judge last week ruled that the state can force-feed prisoners who are near death, even if they’ve signed “do not resuscitate” directives. Yet those interventions still might not be enough to keep all of the hunger strikers alive, or prevent them from suffering long-term medical problems.
Why are prisoners striking?
More than anything, the hunger strikers want to put an end to the increasingly common practice of long-term solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. Most of them are inmates in the Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), where as many as 1,500 people are being held in 11-foot-by-7-foot windowless cells; about 400 have been in solitary confinement there for more than a decade.
The SHU is meant to segregate prisoners who pose a high security risk, such as gang leaders, former escapees, or inmates who are prone to violence. Yet prisoners can be thrown into the SHU indefinitely without any due process, meaning that they never get a chance to review or contest the evidence that they’ve done something wrong. Prisoners have been confined to the SHU based on evidence as tenuous as having appeared in a photo with a known gang member or possessing a copy of of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Ryan Jacobs lists seven innocuous items that have landed prisoners in the hole.