Today is the twenty-fifth day of the California prisoners’ hunger strike. Already one striker, who spent the last five years in solitary confinement, has died. The state said Billy “Guero” Sell’s death was a suicide. Prisoners say he was refusing food since 11 July (3 days after the strike began). Whether a person in solitary confinement allows his body to grow weak by refusing food or takes his life abruptly, either of these acts of resistance point to a horrific existence plagued with tortorous conditions. By hunger strike or by hanging, death in the context of solitary confinement cannot be de-politicized. (Suicides in California prisons disproportionately happen in solitary confinement compared to general population.) It took days for strike supporters on the outside to hear about Guero’s death inside Corcoran State Prison Secure Housing Unit (the SHU). One thing is known: Guero had been requesting medical attention for several days before his death, and did not receive it.
Last Thursday alone, 16 hunger strikers were sent to infermeries. By that same day, 13 strikers had lost 10% of their body weight and three had lost more than 15% of their weight. (These numbers seem incomplete considering how many are on strike. In letters and report backs, prisoners are reporting far higher numbers of hospitalization.) Due to a combination of hunger and heat, wrote one prisoner in a letter postmarked 26 July, many strikers were collapsing. “I don’t know how much more my body can take,” one man wrote. Another prisoner reported around the same time, that he had lost 33 pounds. That was last week, and the strike continues.
It is useless to report the state’s count of how many prisoners are striking: prisoners have reported a variety of ways that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [CDCR] officials have skewed the tallies. For example, prisoners who have decided to consume liquids during their fast are not always counted with those refusing food. More than once, officials accused prisoners of sneaking food into their cells. Not only do these accusations botch the count of how many prisoners are fasting, it also allows officials to withhold obligatory medical attention to those who are not–in all truth– eating. This is because once a prisoner is considered to be breaking his or her fast, that prisoner must refuse food for nine more meals before being counted as a hunger striker again.
Besides denying medical care and pain medications, officials are actively making conditions even more miserable for inmates in order to coerce them into eating. So far inmates report that officials have
– ransacked their cells, for example, during shower time
– stolen personal property
– transfered prisoners without their personal property
– threatened to put hunger strikers in the section where debriefers (those known inside as snitches) are housed–an act which carries the threat of inmate retaliation and a sense of broken prisoner solidarity
– spread propaganda between inmates, telling them the others have called off the strike and that they should start eating again
– removed items like cups and bowls from canteen lists, or barred access to the canteen altogether
– stopped and slowed prisoners’ mail
– barred access to the law library, showers, and yard time
– threatened to write up the hunger strike as gang activity
– attempted to incite violence among prisoners
Despite Guero’s death and the widespread weight loss and fainting among other prisoners, CDCR officials are playing a hard line, pushing the narrative that those in solitary deserve what they get and that officials are being “thoughtful” enough, considering the prisoners’ crimes. Similarly, ABC is emphasizing the “hunger strike leader’s” past with the Aryan Brotherhood.
In the meantime, Contra Costa prisoners have stopped their hunger strike, saying some of their demands have been met. They have promised, however, that if other California prisoners’ demands are not met, they’ll resume their strike. And in Pelican Bay, strikers’ family members have symbolically shared the prisoners’ food with folks struggling to make ends meet.
Until now, the state has shown little interest in negotiating the demands of the prisoners. While we are not surprised, we are inspired and humbled by the hunger strikers’ determination to press on til death.
As we move into Black August with prison rebels all over the world in the forefront of our minds, George Jackson’s words are both comforting and incendiary:
But now with the living conditions deteriorating, and with the sure knowledge that we are slated for destruction, we have been transformed into an implacable army of liberation.
For updates on the CA/ Global Prisoner Hunger Strike click here