California inmates hunger strike for humane conditions of confinement, 2011


In 2011, the prisoners of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison declared that they had endured enough inhumane conditions of confinement. On 1 July, 6,000 prisoners initiated the largest prison hunger strike in California’s history.

Prisoners at Pelican Bay had been complaining about inhumane and torturous treatment in the security housing units (SHU) since the early 1990s. They even organized an earlier hunger strike campaign from 2001-2002 (See “California inmates hunger strike to end ‘gang member’ label by prison, 2001-02”). By 2011, they had constructed “5 Core Demands”: 1) Eliminate group punishments, 2) Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria, 3) Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement, 4) Provide adequate and nutritious food, and 5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. It is interesting to note, that the expanded statements provide an in-depth look at the campaign as a crying out against institutionalized racism and oppression in prison procedure (See expanded view under “Goals”).

One of the key pieces of the prisoners' demands was their stance against “gang validation.” First, a prisoner would be placed in solitary confinement after being validated as a gang member, under conditions many experts have deemed torturous both psychologically and physically. The only way of escaping these conditions would be to “debrief,” or provide information about gang activity. According to the inmates, debriefing often involved providing false information, endangering innocent inmates, their families, and friends. Many inmates remained in confinement for decades. This gang validation procedure has not been used conservatively. As of May 2011, over 3,000 prisoners have been placed in SHU even though the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons recommended that they make “segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation” (2006).

In April the prisoners announced their plans for the July strike: We will ”begin an indefinite hunger strike in order to draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, 25 years of torture via CDCR’s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices.” On 30 June, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition held a rally and a press conference to give voice to the prisoners, later, opening an online petition for solidarity.

The prisoners began refusing food on 1 July as America was preparing to celebrate its freedom. Soon prisoners from all over California joined the hunger strike growing the participation numbers from the original 6,000 to 12,000. They continued to strike for approximately three weeks. At that point, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced that they would make concessions.

However, the prisoners organized another strike on 26 September stating that the CDCR had failed to honor their concessions. They claimed that they were being treated even worse than before. Allegedly, the staff was trying to force the inmates to react violently in anger in order to reframe the case in their favor. In addition, three inmates committed suicide during this time. Prison advocates say that those three inmates were participants in the strike although the staff denies their participation.

After three weeks, Pelican Bay prisoners called off the strike when the CDCR sent out a memo that announced a comprehensive review of every prisoner in the SHUs. This review would also evaluate the gang validation procedure. The review is predicted to begin as soon as the beginning of 2012. At this time (November 2011), none of the prisoners demands have been instated, however a thorough review is a step towards those goals.