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Massive California Prison Strike Ends After 60 Days

Leaders say the strike is “suspended” after the promise of public hearings.


Two months after approximately 30,000 California prison inmates started refusing food in a historic mass hunger strike, their leaders called off the strike last Thursday. The protesters had been fighting for reforms to what they saw as the prisons’ overly harsh policies on group punishments and extensive use of solitary confinement, among other things, like warmer clothing and the right to receive photographs of their families in the mail.

“By this week, nearly 10 protesters a day were collapsing or otherwise required medical care.”

The number of strikers dwindled over the following weeks, but by Day 60 there were still about 40 people who had not accepted food for the entire time. Dozens more participated in the strike for periodic and extended stretches. At Day 43, a federal judge approved a request from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR) to force-feed inmates if they became unresponsive—even if those inmates had previously signed do-not-resuscitate forms at the start of their protest.

“By this week, nearly 10 protesters a day were collapsing or otherwise required medical care,” according to The Los Angeles Times. “On Thursday, prison medical workers sought to move four of the most frail to medical wards, but those inmates refused to go, an official said.” Al Jazeera Americareported, “In July, one inmate who had been participating in the hunger strike died, but corrections officials said that was being investigated as a suicide.”

The decision to “suspend” the strike was made by the protest leaders at the Pelican Bay State Prison on Wednesday night, after learning that Assembly Member Tom Ammiano and State Senator Loni Hancock had called for public hearings about prison conditions in California. It is unclear what changes in prison policy will result. Says The Los Angeles Times:

Prison officials have insisted that their solitary confinement policies, revised after a series of smaller hunger strikes in 2011, are non-negotiable. But advocates for the inmates said the state had nevertheless agreed to discuss changes in how inmates are housed in those conditions — whether they should be allowed to have drinking cups or typewriters, for example.

"It may seem small, but ... it does have a little impact in the quality of their lives," said attorney Anne Weills, who is representing Pelican Bay prisoners in a federal lawsuit alleging that prolonged solitary confinement is torture.

Corrections officials declined to talk about the details of such discussions.

The Prison Complex blog reported from the public announcement of the strike suspension in Oakland on Thursday, where the inmates’ family members and supporters expressed (extremely qualified) optimism.

Melissa Guillen, the daughter of one of the main representatives of the hunger strikers, said the prisoners’ protest had exposed “dirty little secrets” about California’s prison system. Guillen told the crowd that just because the hunger-strike had ended “does not mean the fight to end solitary confinement and the fight for the five core demands to be met is over.”

Those original five core demands, and more information about the strike, can be found on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity blog.