Since July 8th, 2013, thousands of California prison inmates have been on hunger strike.
The strike was initiated to draw attention to and protest inhumane treatment and conditions in California prisons.
Central to the protest is the issue of prolonged use of Security Housing Units, a type of solitary confinement. Conditions in these units include spending 23 hours a day inside a tiny, cramped room without even a window to let in the sun, where the inmate is deprived of all human contact except for being awakened by guards every half hour – even at night – and the receipt of meals. Even exercise is done alone in a small space.
In some cases this confinement has lasted more than ten years, and in still others, more than twenty.
After seeing the inside of U.S. Security Housing Units and interviewing prisoners, Shane Bauer, who was kept in Tehran’s Evin Prison for 26 months after being apprehended while hiking near the border between Iran and Iraq in 2009, described the special housing unit system as in some ways worse than the solitary confinement he experienced in Iran.
Inmates identified by officials as gang members are placed in Security Housing Units. This determination is made in an administrative hearing in which a minimum of 3 pieces of evidence is required, one of which must be considered a “direct link”. Inmates have been deemed gang members based on possessing an item with a disapproved image, reading disapproved (black authored) literature, or having and expressing – even privately, in a journal – unapproved political views.
Use of prolonged solitary confinement has been condemned by the ACLU, and by the U.N. as inhumane. Similar confinement has been ruled “cruel and unusual punishment” by a federal judge hearing an ACLU complaint on behalf of mentally ill prisoners.
This is the third such protest in two years. Previous protests have led to promises, but not to actual reform. This time, prisoners are demanding a legally binding agreement.
Officials have labeled the strike a “mass disturbance,” and are blaming it on gang activity, the same accusation that is used to place prisoners in these atrocious conditions.