Attorney David Chesley's Criminal Defense Blog

Largest Prison Hunger Strike in California History

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Supporters of the inmates protesting outside twin towers correction facility

Monday morning nearly 30,000 inmates stopped eating in order to protest prison conditions and rules. The protest has spread over two-thirds of California prisons, and many inmates are also refusing to attend their work assignments.

The strike is centered on the state’s solitary confinement practices, but many prisoners are protesting with their own demands, including the quality of prison food.

SHU (Security Housing Units) cells are small, and prisoners are sometimes kept in there more than 22 hours in a day. The prisoners in SHU cells are not allowed to work, receive calls, play cards, attend rehabilitation programs, and are not even allowed to have a clock. The inmates in these cells may be kept in them indefinitely, some have been kept in solitary confinement for decades.

Both the Physicians for Human Rights association and the ACLU consider SHU confinement torture. However the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has kept defending the practice, stating that because prisoners interact with the guards and have televisions, SHU is not technically solitary confinement.

The protest continued on Wednesday with nearly 29,000 inmates still refusing to eat. On Thursday that number fell sharply, officials reported that 12,421 inmates across 24 state prisons had missed nine consecutive meals, a benchmark that must be met in order for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to officially recognize this as a strike.

The Official Number of inmates who are officially participating in the strike nearly doubles the number who participated in the 2011 meal protests regarding the same issues.

The 2011 strikes involved 6,500 inmates at its peak and gained the inmates very little. Jules Lobel, the lead lawyer in a federal lawsuit concerning solitary confinement and the current president of the Center for Constitutional Rights expects this strike to go on much longer than the previous strike, stating “This could become a very serious situation over time, because it seems we have a substantial group of people who are prepared to see it to the end if they don’t get real change.”

After the protests that took place two years ago, officials from the corrections department made promises that new criteria would be used for placing inmates into solitary confinement, and that a process would be put in place for current solitary confinements inmates to be able to get out.

Lobel added “Last time, they took promises of reforms, but they are not going to do that again, because two years later the reforms have not materialized in any real way.”

In May 2011 a Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population by 10,000 inmates this year. The Supreme Court said that the crowding and other terrible conditions inside the California state prison system constituted inhumane treatment in violation of the 8th Amendment. California is currently facing the threat of being charged in contempt of court on this order.

California is now facing its largest hunger strike. Prison Official are threatening to impose disciplinary action on anyone involved in the strike, or as the prison system calls it, an illegal “mass disruption.”

Officials have not specified what privileges may be taken away from inmates, but on Friday they said they would not allow any visitors into state prisons this weekend.

On Friday, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed the number of inmates participating in the strike has dropped to 7,667 across 24 prisons. While the strike still remains larger than the 2011 meal protest, it has dropped significantly.

Currently the prison system is refusing to negotiate with inmates, Terry Thorton, a spokeswoman for the corrections department had this to say on the matter “we’re not going to be put into a situation where we’re going to be held hostage by convicted felons.” She continued to say that the corrections department “has been maintaining open dialogue with inmates and their representatives.”

Many Californians have gathered to protest the inhumane condition that these prisoners are facing. This strike is much more organized than the previous one two year ago, and has a much larger amount of support.

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