California Prisoners Hunger Strike Suspended—Struggle to End Torture Continues

September 23, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


On September 5, after 60 days, prisoners in California collectively decided to suspend their hunger strike to stop solitary confinement torture in prisons in California and throughout the U.S.

Their statement reads in part: “To be clear, our Peaceful Protest of Resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system’s solitary confinement units is far from over. Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met (despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable). The core group of prisoners has been, and remains 100% committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice. With that said, we clarify this point by stating prisoner deaths are not the objective, we recognize such sacrifice is at times the only means to an end of fascist oppression....” (see full statement, Revolution #316)

Carl Dix, in a recent interview (see Revolution No. 317, September 22, 2013), called this strike “the most significant outbreak of resistance from among prisoners since the Attica rebellion.”* Indeed, this was an extraordinary undertaking. At least 30,000 people in 24 of California’s 34 prisons participated at the outset of the hunger strike and 40 people in California prisons went without solid food for 8-1/2 weeks. Thousands more prisoners supported or took part on and off during the entire two-month period. This hunger strike, following the earlier hunger strikes in 2011, was unprecedented in California history in terms of the number of prisoners who participated and how long the strike went on.

Inhuman Conditions

Protest in support of the hunger strikers on the steps of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Sacramento, July 2013. Photo: Special to Revolution

This hunger strike was a heroic act of resistance taken under extremely difficult circumstances. These prisoners have suffered under conditions—for years, and for some, decades—of state-sponsored isolation, sensory deprivation and psychological torture. Prisoners in the Security Housing Units (SHUs) live in 8 x 10-foot concrete boxes, with no opportunity to breathe fresh air, or to feel the sun or see the moon or stars. They stood up against injustice and asserted their humanity in the process.

Leading into restarting of the hunger strike, in October 2012, the PBSP-SHU (California Pelican Bay State Prison—Security Housing Unit) Short Corridor Collective and Representative Body issued a statement calling for an end to all violence and hostility between different groups of prisoners. This was a historical Agreement to End Hostilities on behalf of all racial groups throughout the state of California from maximum security prisons to county jails that asks prisoners of all nationalities to unite and not to use racial differences to oppose each other.

The hunger strike won support among important sections of society. By its 60th day it had begun to pose before millions, at least in a beginning way, what do these torture units really represent and who are these prisoners fighting for basic human rights? This was a real challenge in a society where those in power have indoctrinated people to believe and accept that prisoners should have no rights, that they are the “worst of the worst” and deserve whatever is being done to them, including solitary confinement—which is a form of torture. (See “What is Actually Revealed In The California Prison Hunger Strike? Responding to Jeffrey Beard's Los Angeles Times Op-edRevolution #312)

Important mass protests took place in support of the hunger strike. At Corcoran State Prison, more than 400 people from throughout the Southwest U.S. assembled at a protest action during the first week of the hunger strike. There were mobilizations of hundreds of families throughout Southern California week after week (often initiated by the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement). A powerful SHU replica installation was set up at the Sacramento State Capitol Building in mid-August with the participation of a broad range of forces. Tens of thousands of people have signed online petitions. Organizations and people active in the fight to close Guantánamo, where prisoners have been on a hunger strike since February 13, built “mutual solidarity” and supported the five demands of the Pelican Bay and California prisoners.** San Francisco’s Glide Memorial, one of the most well-known churches in the Bay Area, held “Sermon From A Cell—Preaching Against America’s Prisons” in front of 2,000 people and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) stepped up their efforts to stop isolation in America’s prisons. An “Open Letter to Governor Jerry Brown” was signed by celebrities including Jay Leno, Bonnie Raitt and many other prominent people.

Recent developments also include the publication in the Los Angeles Times and the Del Norte Triplicate of the “Emergency Call! Join Us In Stopping Torture in U.S. Prisons,” which was initiated by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network ( and co-signed by a range of organizations and by hundreds of people, including actor Viggo Mortensen, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, musician Tom Morello, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and Daniel Ellsberg. In the course of the hunger strike there were statements by UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, who explicitly stated solitary confinement should be abolished in the U.S. and elsewhere, and singled out Pelican Bay; by Amnesty International, which wrote on the retaliation targeting prisoners that “No one should be punished for exercising the right to peaceful protest... California prison authorities must stop toying with people’s lives...” The California Catholic Bishops called for an independent investigation into solitary confinement in California.

Hunger strike supporters in San Francisco set up a replica of a Segregated Housing Unit cell to show the public how prisoners are tortured. Photo: Special to Revolution

All of these things began to force the issue of indefinite solitary confinement, to some degree, into the national consciousness and it has confronted the State of California with serious issues of legality, morality and legitimacy. When a federal judge approved the force-feeding of hunger-striking California prisoners at the beginning of week seven, it was national news. Millions of people who read the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, or who read online journals and news, or who listen to alternative radio heard about this hunger strike and the existence of indefinite solitary confinement and the struggle to stop it.

At the outset of the seventh week of the hunger strike, California prison officials obtained a court order to allow force-feeding of hunger striking prisoners, including those who had stated they did not want such intervention. Medical ethicists in The New England Journal of Medicine recently wrote: “Force-feeding a competent person is not the practice of medicine; it is aggravated assault. Using a physician to assault prisoners no more changes the nature of the act than using physicians to ‘monitor’ torture makes torture a medical procedure.”

These heroic prisoners have suspended the hunger strike now, but the struggle to end torture in prison continues AND the support from all kinds of people in society for this struggle must continue and grow. More people need to know the truth about the conditions that prisoners are being forced to live under. More and intensified mass resistance is required, as the Emergency Call for this hunger strike put it: “End to the Torture and Inhumanity of Prison House America—Immediately Disband All Torture Chambers. Meet the Demands of (the prisoners)!”

California legislative hearings are scheduled for later this year. These hearings would never have been scheduled if not for the courageous struggle of the prisoners, and the impact their struggle had on society, and that struggle is the only basis on which the just demands of the prisoners will be met. Also, on September 26, there will be an important hearing on the federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement. This lawsuit challenges the State of California's prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners as being cruel and unusual punishment and violates the prisoners' right to due process when being placed in solitary confinement.

An Illegitimate System Upholds Torture

Jeffrey Beard, Director of California prisons, and media representatives for the CDCR systematically spread disinformation about the hunger strike being a “gang power-play”—that this hunger strike was not about protesting living conditions that constitute torture, but instead was the result of prison gangs and their “shot callers” attempting to “restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.” Such lies and deceit are to cover up the torture that is being committed on a widespread scale against thousands of prisoners.

As these prisoners were raising their heads and showing their humanity, the State of California met their hunger strike with more brutal repression. Many of the hunger strikers were placed in Administrative Segregation (“the hole”) with ice cold air blasting on them 24/7; their cells were ransacked, some had their property seized, and prison authorities confiscated any type of canteen items, like Kool-Aid packets, that could help the hunger strikers with sustenance (Kool-Aid packs contain glucose); medicine was withheld from prisoners who have chronic illnesses. At one point, prison authorities confiscated confidential legal materials from the hunger strikers and banned an important legal representative from Pelican Bay in an effort to further isolate the prisoners. In addition to Pelican Bay, in prisons like Corcoran, hunger strike participants had sandbags and mattresses placed at their cell doors to re-enforce, psychologically, the feeling of being isolated, and SHU hunger strike participants were given “disciplinary write ups” for being involved in “gang activity” and some were assessed 60-90 day extensions on their SHU terms. At Corcoran State Prison, Billy Sell allegedly hanged himself and died after being on the hunger strike for 13 days.

The statement, What is Actually Revealed in the California Prisoners Hunger Strike? Responding to Jeffrey Beard’s Los Angeles Times Op-ed, from the Revolutionary Communist Party, LA Branch, Revolution newspaper (August 7, 2013), online at, spoke to the utter cruelty and illegitimacy of a system that practices and relies on widespread torture and racially targeted mass incarceration for its functioning.

That statement said: “Think about what this means: for decades people have fought to maintain their sanity in conditions that regularly make people insane. In the scramble to survive, people have held onto meaningless divisions among people, finding refuge in ‘your kind alone,’ finding a foothold in the desire to be top dog in a dog-eat-dog situation. The whole setup in prison serves to foster and enforce the ways and thinking bound up with people being played against each other.

“In the face of all this, first tens of thousands of people inside and now hundreds have said NO. NO! They will stand together against this criminal torture, they will foster unity and not divisions among people, they will risk their lives for this. In the words of a prisoner the day after the hunger strike began, “We just started tha hunger strike, was surprised so many people was on board. Asians, Blacks, whites, Hispanic. It’s a beautiful thing.”

“How has this system responded? More repression and criminalization.”


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* To read about the Attica rebellion, see Revolution #245, September 11, 2011, “40th Anniversary of Attica Prison Rebellion.” [back]

** The prisoners articulated five core demands in the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes. They are: 1) eliminate group punishments; 2) abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria; 3) comply with the recommendation of the U.S. 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 programs and privileges for indefinite Security Housing Unit [SHU] inmates. [back]

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