Why Are 30,000 Prisoners In California On Hunger Strike?

Owen Poindexter
30,000 inmates in over 20 California prisons are on hunger strike, and have been refusing meals since Monday. Here's why.

30,000 inmates in over 20 California prisons are on hunger strike, and have been refusing meals since Monday.

"There's a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death, if necessary," Todd Ashker, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, says in a video posted by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition of prisoners rights activist groups. "None of us want to do this, but we feel like we have no other option."

Why, then, is one quarter of the largest state’s massive prison population on hunger strike? Solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is what it sounds like: prisoners are kept in cells with no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight, and completely alone. The United Nations considers more than fifteen days in these conditions to be a form of torture. In California, 3,000 people are in solitary confinement for life.

One more time: 3,000 prisoners in California have been in solitary confinement for years, in some cases decades, and will remain that way until they die unless policies change. Another 9,000 are being held in solitary confinement, not necessarily for life. All this costs the state of California over $60 million a year.

"The last time I was able to touch my brother was 1982," says Marie Levin, who says her brother has been in solitary confinement for 29 years.

The prisoners have released five demands that must be met for the hunger strike to end (hat tip to the Atlantic):

1)      End group punishment & administrative abuse.

2)      Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.[California inmates who are connected to a prison gang can be held in isolation indefinitely].

3)      Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement. 

4)      Provide adequate and nutritious food 

5)      Create and expand constructive programming.

This is state-sponsored torture. The United States can’t claim much moral high ground over other countries until they end this practice. You can sign a petition to California Governor Jerry Brown to support the demands of the hunger strike here.

Solitary confinement doesn't get much mention in popular culture, but it was depicted in this scene from the Shawshank Redemption. Be warned that this contains some adult language: