By Andrea Jones
As prisoners in California entered the tenth day of statewide hunger strikes staged in opposition to the long-term solitary confinement policies of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), news broke that administrators were countering activism with reprisal.
Confined for up to twenty-three hours per day in cramped, windowless cells called Security Housing Units (SHUs) at Pelican Bay State Prison, the inmates who initiated the protests—which spread to include 30,000 prisoners across two-thirds of state facilities—did so as a plea to abolish indefinite isolation. Although the enduring psychological harm of solitary confinement is well established—the U.N. has called for the prohibition of the practice in excess of fifteen days—many of California’s prisoners have been stuck in solitary for decades.
Rather than consider the demands presented, CDCR cut off access to broadcast news and confiscated some of the legal papers of fourteen Pelican Bay participants, forcing them into administrative segregation—an even more punitive form of isolation, according to a statement from the prisoners.
“Despite this diabolical act on the part of CDCR intended to break our resolve and hasten our deaths,” the statement read, “we remain strong and united! We are 100% committed to our cause and will end our peaceful action when CDCR signs a legally binding agreement meeting our demands.”
Eminently reasonable, these demands include: adequate food for SHU inmates; educational and rehabilitative programming; one phone call per week; and the elimination of “debriefing,” a policy that poses severe safety risks by making release from solitary contingent upon informing on other inmates. “Hunger strikes are the last option for prisoners,” explains Shane Bauer, the journalist whose traumatic confinement in Iran in 2009 compelled him to investigate conditions at Pelican Bay last year. With administrative and legal attempts proving futile, prisoners are risking their health as a final resort.