(photo: Image by Rashid Johnson (Red Onion Prison in Virginia) in support of CA hunger strikers)

Prisoners engaged in a hunger strike at Pelican Bay supermax prison have been on strike for more than fifteen days now.  With a growing group of supporters on the outside, the strike against solitary confinement and other conditions in the prison has spread to at least thirteen other prisons. But, those providing support for the prisoners are concerned about the deteriorating physical conditions of the prisoners and whether the prison will be able to provide the prisoners with proper medical care.

Carol Strickman, staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and staff to the mediation team representing the hunger strikers, reports medical protocol is not being followed. They are supposed to be doing “daily assessments after two days and that includes weighing, physical condition, emotional condition, vital signs (such as blood pressure) and hydration status.

“We know that these things are not happening, either at all or sporadically,” says Strickman.

Scales for weighing prisoners are not synchronized and sometimes the prison staff weighs prisoners with chains and sometimes without chains. So, the accuracy of information is questionable right now. Additionally, the doctors are supposed to be performing physical exams. Strickman reports, instead of providing physical exams, “The medical staff is doing what I have been told are called drive-by exams, where they stand outside the door with no physical contact and just ask if people are okay, which is basically saying, ‘Are you alive?’”

Strickman further reports “medications are being eliminated entirely or reduced.” Multivitamins and salt tablets were to be provided to prisoners. Prisoners were given a sheet of medical advice on what to do during the strike. Yet, none of the prisoners have been provided with any tablets.

There are reports of weight loss as high as twenty-five to thirty-five pounds. There are also reports of untreated blood pressure, a prisoner falling off a bunk and hitting his head and diabetics being put on IV drips.

A number of prisoners have signed an “advanced directive form” indicating when they can no longer communicate they would like to not be resuscitated.

“Many of these prisoners are older and have pre-existing conditions such as advanced lymphoma, congestive heart failure, hypertensive disease, debilitating muscle disease and so on,” Strickman explains. “So for all these reasons every day the situation is becoming more critical.”

News of deterioration of prisoners’ health may lead one to suggest that is what a prisoner gets for engaging in hunger striking or prisoner resistance activity. That may be true, but there is a callousness and inhumanity to such a statement. The prisoners have five core demands and, according to Molly Porzig, Critical Resistance representative in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, they are asking for “incredibly standard” and “basic” adjustments to prison policy.

“The changes in policies and procedures that the prisoners are demanding are standards in other supermax prisons, like Florence, Colorado, and in Ohio,” explains Porzig. “Or, they refer to policy change that have already been recommended, promised or offered but never actually implemented.”

These five core demands, for those unaware, are the following: end group punishment and administrative abuse, abolish the “debriefing” process [the practice of offering up information about fellow prisoners in return for better food or release from the SHU] and modify active/inactive gang status criteria, end long-term solitary confinement and comply with US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations, provide adequate and nutritious food and expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.

On how organizing in support of the prison began, Porzig shares in the spring prisoners contacted prisoner advocacy organization in the Bay Area to form a coalition. They wanted people to do “widespread media and legal visits,” a coalition that would amplify the voices of prisoners during the hunger strike.

Porzig details some of the challenges faced thus far:

Some challenges so far to [organizing support] have obviously been the prison system itself. And, there are many obstacles with the extreme surveillance of information. But, for the most part, we’ve been getting our information from friends and loved ones who have been visiting during weekend visits and also some legal visits. Most of the legal visits have been happening at Pelican Bay.

Porzig says that how this has spread across thirteen prisons has been great but organizers have been incapable of providing support to the twelve other prisoner strikes now going on in solidarity.

Yesterday, a major demonstration took place outside of California Deparment of Corrections and Rehabilitation headquarters in Sacramento. Hundreds of people showed up to confront CDCR, which has engaged in some mediation with representatives of the prisoner strike but not offered anything meaningful that would lead prisoners to abandon the strike.

The prisoners were given a draft of a proposal for a settlement last week. They decided the suggestion of being willing to do a review of prison policy was not substantial enough and that CDCR was not acting in good faith. CDCR has said it does not negotiate prisoners, according to prison solidarity organizers. It has indicated it is intent on breaking the strike and even consulted with an individual from Pennsylvania, Jeffrey Beard, who has a history of cracking down on prison activists in correctional facilities.

Jeff Kaye and this author have pointed out how prisoners in Pelican Bay are subjected to a prison regime that is similar to the regime detainees face at Guantanamo Bay.

Guantanamo Bay prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes before and have been broken by force-feeding prisoners—a brutal tactic for breaking resistance that is tantamount to torture.

Strickman says on the possibility of prison staff employing this brutal tactic to end the strike:

CDCR does not seem to be gearing up for force-feeding. They are saying that this is a question of choice and has distributed two forms seeking people to state their choice. I think CDCR is fine with them dying.

However, Strickman says she fears:

…people who are requesting “medical care” if they become unconscious, which means “force feeding” — (method is liquid fed through nasal tube) but itcannot be done in Pelican Bay SP because the small clinic is not licensed to do it. CDCR has told us they will transport prisoners who need significant medical care to Corcoran, which is many hours away. They say they have lined up buses. But will the unconscious prisoner who wants to be given food in this way get there in time?

CDCR is already doing many things to break the strike: special meal on 7/4, spreading lies that the strike is over, talking to prisoners one by one to persuade them to end their own individual fast, trying to persuade leaders to call an end to the strike, trying to persuade the mediation team to tell the leaders to end the strike, withholding medication because of not eating, preventing information from getting into the prison via mail, radio, threatening to ship leaders out of PB, etc.