California inmates hunger strike to improve prison conditions, 2013

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Time Period:  
July 8
September 5
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Location Description: 
extended to 2/3 of California's 33 state prisons, and included inmates sent to 4 private, out-of-state facilities
1) Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse

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 long-term solitary confinement

4) Provide adequate and nutritious food

5) Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite Security Housing Unit (SHU) inmates.


In 2011, over 12,000 prisoners of California’s corrections system participated in a hunger strike to protest their inhumane conditions of confinement. The protesters had five core demands: 1) Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse, 2) Abolish the debriefing policy, by which gang members renounce their gang membership and reveal gang-related information to return to the general population, 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 long-term solitary confinement, 4) Provide adequate and nutritious food, and 5) Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite Security Housing Unit (SHU) inmates.

California’s prison system was unprecedented in its use of solitary confinement; no other state was believed to have held inmates for such long periods in indefinite isolation. Inmates subjected to solitary cells (SHU) were housed in a 9 feet by 9 feet space with no windows and no phone calls, completely isolated from any meaningful contact. Many inmates remained in SHU for decades, only allowed to see the outside for 1.5 hours each day.

The hunger strike lasted 20 days and had impressive participation rates, growing from 6,000 to 12,000 protesters. The protest ended when the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation announced a comprehensive review of every prisoner in the SHUs. However, by 2013, of the 4,527 inmates residing in California’s SHUs, only 382 inmates had been reviewed, and prison authorities returned roughly half to the general population. Ultimately, the 2011 hunger strike culminated in little effectual change to prison conditions and terms of confinement.

Two years later in 2013, a small group of inmates at the maximum security Pelican Bay Prison, frustrated with the lack of progress and prison reform, called for another hunger strike. On 5 July 2013, Amnesty International issued a public statement pleading California authorities to respond to the planned hunger strike by enacting reforms. Prisoners planned the strike to begin on 8 July 2013 and they timed the action to coincide with Ramadan. This later became an issue when counting strike participants as it was difficult to discern those who fasted for religious reasons from those who fasted in protest. On the first day of the strike, to kick start the campaign and draw publicity to the issue of California’s inhumane prison conditions, The Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition organized a rally of 75 participants outside of the Ronald Reagan State building in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, 29,000 inmates began their strike and refused meals. This hunger strike was almost five times as large as the hunger strike in 2011 and extended to two-thirds of California’s 33 prisons, even including participation from inmates sent to four private out-of-state facilities.

By 16 July 2013, 2,493 inmates in 15 state prisons were participating in the mass hunger strike while 201 inmates from seven different state prisons also began a labor strike and refused to go to work. The number of strike participants continued to fall as weeks went by. On 22 July 2013, Billy “Guero” Sell, a SHU inmate at Corcoran State Prison, passed away. Guero was the first and only striker to die during the campaign. Fellow prisoners reported that Guero had requested medical attention several days prior to his death. However prison officials had adopted policies to dissuade protesters from continuing their hunger strike. According to inmates’ testimonies, practices included: refusal of medications; failure to properly monitor strikers’ health status; refusal and confiscation of liquid sustenance other than water (particular to the strikers who only refused solid foods); denied access to medical release forms that give family members and people on the outside their medical records; and wrongful reclassification of some prisoners as ‘not on hunger strike’ which forced strikers to re-start and fast for 9 consecutive meals or otherwise they were dropped off the list for medical oversight. These practices generated outcry from the medical community, and over 100 health care providers signed a letter denouncing the CDCR’s failure to provide medical care to the strikers.

Forty-three days into the strike on 19 August 2013, US District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson authorized a force feeding order. This meant that jailers were to force feed inmates near death, regardless of whether the inmates signed a directive that asked they not be resuscitated. By this point, participation numbers fell below 200 and dozens of inmates had been hospitalized.

On 5 September 2013 the remaining 100 or so participating inmates ended their two-month hunger strike. Protest organizers voted to end the strike when two state lawmakers, Senator Loni Hancock and Assembly Member Tom Ammiano pledged to hold public hearings and draft legislation responsive to their demands. Senator Hancock stated, “The inmates participating in the hunger strike succeeded in bringing these issues to the center of public awareness and debate; Legislators recognized the seriousness and urgency of these concerns, and we will move forward to address them.” The hearings began in October and focused on two key issues: prison conditions and the effects of long-term solitary confinement. Protest organizers signed a concluding statement saying, “From our perspective, we’ve gained a lot of positive ground towards achieving our goals. However, there’s still much to be done.”

The public hearings ended in April 2015 and resulted in small gains for the prisoners including the provision of various items such as sweats, thermals, and several foods and access to courses through voluntary education programs. The hearings also resulted in an extension of the 2012 Step Down Program which evaluates prisoners confined indefinitely to SHU for release into the general population. Under this program, validated gang members can have the gang designation removed from their records if they avoid gang activity for six to eleven years, depending on the degree of their gang affiliation. Despite the new regulations, many prisoners still disapprove of this program as it continued to implement the debriefing policy. Although the strike was the largest hunger strike in California’s history and certainly received considerable media attention, similar to the results of 2011’s hunger strike, the prisoners produced little, if any, gains on their goals.

Research Notes

In 2011, California inmates organized a hunger strike for the same goals. Link to this case study:

Anon. 2013. “California Prisoners Challenge Solitary, Jail Conditions with Largest Hunger Strike in State History.” Democracy Now!, July 17. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Medina, Jennifer. 2013. “Hunger Strike by California Inmates, Already Large, Is Expected to Be Long.” The New York Times, July 10. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Anon. 2013. “Why 30,000 California Prisoners Are On Hunger Strike .” Amnesty International. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Lovett, Ian. 2013. “Inmates End Hunger Strike in California.” The New York Times, September 5. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Anon. 2013. “Statement Suspending the Third Hunger Strike.” Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Anon. 2013. “Dozens of California Prisoners Hospitalized after 40 Days of Hunger Strike.” RT, August 17. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (


Anon. 2013. “Advocates Call for Investigation of Corcoran Prison Death, Medical Professionals Demand Gov. Negotiate with Hunger Strikers.” Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Anon. 2016. “Prisoners’ Demands.” Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Anon. 2013. “California Prison Hunger Strike: 30,000 Inmates Refuse Meals.” The Huffington Post, July 10. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Young-Saver, Dashiell. 2013. “Solitary Confinement Is Torture, Say Downtown LA Protesters.”The Huffington Post, September 8. Retrieved April 2, 2017 (

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Juli Pham 02/04/2017