The number of California prisoners that remain on hunger strike now hovers around 2,500, at 17 prisons, down from 30,000 at the beginning of the action, on July 8. That’s still a lot more than at this point in the two previous strikes, in 2011. Prisoner solidarity activists say the protest is more widespread, this time, largely because authorities transferred lots of inmates around the system, allowing plans for the strike to circulate.
The epicenter of the protest is Pelican Bay prison where more than a thousand inmates are locked in long term solitary confinement from which some will never emerge, unless there is a change in policy. Prison officials made a show of making concessions in response to the 2011 protests, establishing a program that would allow some inmates a chance to get out of solitary. But the state reviewed only 400 cases, and allowed only about half of them back into the general prison population. And, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is suing the state for imposing cruel and unusual punishment, “not a single one” of its 1,000 Pelican Bay clients “has experienced any change in their situation whatsoever.”
The inmates insist that they will not end their action without a signed agreement with the force of law, addressing their core demands. But the State of California is not in the habit of acting in good faith, even with the judicial branch of government, on prison matters, much less negotiating with inmates. Governor Jerry Brown – who some call a liberal Democrat – has twice been threatened with contempt of court for refusing to release 10,000 inmates in order to relieve life-threatening conditions in the prisons. His wardens now claim that gang members in solitary confinement – people who have no means of communicating with anyone but guards – are somehow forcing thousands of other inmates to join the hunger strike. Governor Brown and his wardens continue to claim that conditions are improving in the prisons – even as thousands of inmates testify, with their very lives, that the opposite is true.
“Solitary confinement is the ultimate tool of the man-breaker.”
Prisons – especially prison systems designed by diabolical American minds – are meant to break men’s wills, to make them non-persons, groveling masses of flesh. Solitary confinement is the ultimate tool of the man-breaker, narrowing the scope of human activity to the bare functions of processing food into waste. For a person so restricted, the only mode of resistance available is to refuse to eat. California is one of only three states in which prison doctors are prohibited from force-feeding inmates. However, there is a loophole. The State Supreme Court ruled 20 years ago that forced feeding can be used to protect the “custodial environment,” that is, the discipline and security of the prison. If the authorities believe that allowing holdouts to continue their strike until death would be disruptive of the prison order, they could probably get away with forcing tubes down hunger strikers’ noses, like in Guantanamo Bay.
It is way past time that people stop saying that the United States is “moving towards” becoming a police state. It is, in fact, by far the biggest police and incarceration state ever known to man: an empire of dungeons.