The numbers of inmates in California taking part in a ‘rolling hunger strike’ over abominable and inhumane prison conditions has fallen dramatically. On the 29th of September, advocates for the prisoners said that there were around 12 000 people across US prisons involved in a strike that started in California and that has been declared the biggest in recent US history.
Since then however, inmates’ participation in the protest has plunged significantly so that, by Tuesday last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported that there were only 1, 186 inmates in four prisons receiving medical treatment or monitoring related to the protest. By Thursday, CDCR issued a press release to say that figure had fallen to 811.
This substantial drop in numbers can be largely attributed to the tactics that CDCR have used to punish and dissuade striking prisoners. Indeed, according to Jay Donahue, a spokesman for the group Prisoner Strike Solidarity, the decline is a direct result of the heavy-handed disciplinary crackdown that has accompanied the peaceful protest. The lawyers and families of striking inmates have reported that, because of their involvement in the protest, prisoners have been denied contact with visitors, have had legal mail opened and have been put into solitary confinement.
An inmate from Corcoran Prison explained in a letter last month that inmates on the hunger strike have been refused access to the outside yard cages and have had personal items in their cells like photographs, books and TV cables confiscated and destroyed. These and other abuses, explains the anonymous prisoner, express that there is a ‘very obvious and clear, and deliberate effort being made to try and provoke us to react violently.’
Instead of negotiating with the thousands of prisoners who have complained that they are the victims of state-sanctioned torture in state prisons, CDCR seems to be favouring an aggressive position that is based on punishment and deprivation. Dolores Canales, who has a son at the Pelican Bay SHU said in a press release that ‘A number of family members received notice that they were not going to be allowed to see their loved ones as long as the strike continues. Denying visits only heightens the isolation that the prisoners and family members experience’
The on-going California hunger strike (which has its roots in a similar protest that took place this July) started at the notorious Californian Pelican Bay Penitentiary Secure Housing Unit and spread across the Californian prison system to include 13 out of its 33 prisons. Inmates at these prisons describe their living conditions as ‘cruel, inhumane and tortuous’ and say that they want the strike to lead to an improvement in ‘the treatment of SHU-status prisoners throughout California’.
The prisoners on strike rightly insist that their basic living conditions are unlawful, degrading and promote violence. In June, The John Howard Association visited the maximum-security Menard Prison in Illinois, to do a report on the prison and its provisions for the well-being and security of its inmates. Their findings, published in July, expressed that dangerous overcrowding, lack of security, poor basic facilities and paltry access to mental health services contributed to a toxic atmosphere at the prison, and made inmates there feel desperate, unsafe and alienated. The John Howard Association found that the average prisoner at Menard spends 21 to 22 hours in a prison cell every day, with very little physical and mental activity or social interaction.
In June 2006, a US prison study by the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, reported than on any given day, there are over 2 million people in prison in the US. Most of these prisoners are non-violent offenders who have been jailed for reasons related to drugs offences. The racial disparity that courses through the American penal system has had a hugely damaging impact on black communities. At the end of 2000, more than 46% of US prisoners were black males, even though black males make up only 13% of the overall US population.