Hunger Strikers: Fighting Solitary Confinement in California’s State Prisons

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In September 2013, the incarcerated leaders of a statewide hunger strike of California inmates made the decision to end their two month long strike. The organizers, representing four main ethnic and racial groups in California prisons, made this decision despite the fact that most of their demands had not been met. Prisoners were moved to intensive care units to begin the reintroduction to food. At the strike’s peak in July, 30,000 inmates across two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons had refused meals. By the end, there were 128 prisoners left on strike, 40 of whom had been fasting continuously since July 8: who were prepared to die for their cause.

The strike was organized to protest the state’s use of solitary confinement. California’s use of solitary confinement as a punishment is unusually high. Almost 9% of California’s incarcerated are held in isolation, which means spending 23 hours a day in a cell and having limited contact with others, a rate double that of other states. The United Nations' expert on torture has said the limit for holding a prisoner in isolation should be 15 days, but some California inmates have been held for years or even decades in solitary confinement. A special monitor for the United Nations, as well as Roman Catholic bishops in California, have called on the state to limit the time prisoners spent in solitary confinement.

In May and June of 2014, I will travel to Oakland, California, epicenter of California’s prison reform movement, to analyze the way in which the hunger strike has galvanized the reform movement, or left it more frustrated. My research will focus on analyzing changes in the following five areas as the result of the 2013 hunger strike:

1. Has the hunger strike galvanized the prison reform activist community?

2. How, if at all, has the hunger strike affected life inside the prisons?

3. What has been the response of the prison wardens to the hunger strike? Has it affected their attitude to the practice of extended solitary confinement?

4. How has public discourse been affected by the strike?

5. Is California any nearer to a political and legal reassessment of the use of solitary confinement in its prisons?

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