CRESCENT CITY, California — Since 2011, prisoners across California have participated in three historic prisoner hunger strikes to protest long-term and indefinite solitary confinement.
One year ago, 30,000 prisoners in the Pelican Bay Prison refused their meals, starting what would eventually become a 60-day hunger strike and a national human rights movement. The strike was the largest hunger strike in the history of America, with nearly a quarter of California’s prison population taking part in the protest at first.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the prisoner’s hunger strikes, supporters of the movement across the country participated in rallies as a show of solidarity with the embattled prisoners. Though the rallies were primarily held in California, the movement has garnered positive attention from across the country, and even from the international community.
In a statement from representatives of the movement, they said that, “Today we celebrate our movement. We do not rely on the legislature or the courts alone. Only by a strong growing movement of those of us inside and our supporters outside do we have any hope to make all the changes that we need.”
It all started when four alleged gang leaders were put into solitary cells next to each other. Though they could not see one another, the prisoners could shout to communicate. All told, it took a grueling five years in solitary for the prisoners to cook up the plan. Todd Ashker, the prisoner who came up with the idea, has been surviving in solitary confinement for over 20 years.
The California prison system uses solitary confinement far more than any other state. The prisoner hunger strikes successfully brought attention to the abysmal conditions faced in those cells. Roughy 9 percent of California’s prisoners are currently in solitary, which is nearly double the rate of other states.
While in solitary, prisoners are confined to a small concrete cell for 23 hours a day, with little to no human interaction. They are allowed precious little property and their meals are minimal. Experts agree that such conditions take an immense toll on the prisoner’s mental and physical health.
Many of the California prisoners have been in solitary confinement for decades. A variety of demands were made, but the most common demand was to place a limit on solitary confinement to five years.
The U.N. has determined that solitary confinement for over 15 days is torture and should be banned.
Yet California prison officials have maintained that their policy on solitary confinement will not change. Though the hunger strikes sparked similar movements in prisons around the country, there were few tangible results in California.
The prisoners put their strike on temporary hold after California legislators agreed to hold public hearings. The leaders of the strike were clear that their strike had only been “suspended,” and that this was just the beginning for their movement.
After the hunger strike ended, the protest leaders declared in a statement that, “Our goal remains: Force the powers that be to end their torture policies and practices in which serious physical and psychological harm is inflicted on tens of thousands of prisoners, as well as our loved ones outside.”
– Sam Hillestad